The 1996 NBA draft sure wasn't Senior Night. A record 17 underclassmen, including the top seven selections, were among the 29 players taken in the first round of the June 26 event at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. Forward John Wallace, who played four years for Syracuse and led his team to this year's NCAA championship game, sat in disbelief as two high school kids (guard Kobe Bryant, taken No. 13 by the Hornets, and forward Jermaine O'Neal, No. 17, Trail Blazers), two foreigners (Ukrainian forward- center Vitaly Potapenko, No. 12, Cavaliers, and Yugoslavian-born forward Predrag Stojakovic, now a Greek citizen, No. 14, Kings) and a guy with a stress fracture in his right foot ( Memphis's sophomore center Lorenzen Wright, No. 7, Clippers) were taken ahead of him.
"When you evaluate this draft in three years, you'll see my name at the top of the list," Wallace vowed after the Knicks ended his nationally televised misery by grabbing him at No. 18.
The Timberwolves didn't need to wait three years to declare themselves on top of the world. Vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale had long lusted after Georgia Tech freshman Stephon Marbury for two reasons: McHale had a glaring need for a point guard, and Marbury was the only prospective top pick who actually wanted to play in Minnesota, where he could hook up with his close friend Kevin Garnett, the Wolves' 20-year-old forward.
Minnesota got its man indirectly. The Bucks drafted Marbury at No. 4 and then swapped him to the Wolves for UConn guard Ray Allen (whom Minnesota had picked at No. 5) and future considerations (which will be center Andrew Lang). By doing so, the Timberwolves snagged an exciting floor leader who will draw fans and took a giant step toward persuading Garnett to stick around when his contract is up in two seasons. The latter is a major concern of the Wolves' front office.
The Grizzlies also had been coveting Marbury, who declared he wouldn't play for Vancouver. Then Cal freshman Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who kept everyone guessing whether he would be in or out of the draft, fell into their laps at the No. 3 spot. Thus the Grizzlies bagged a 6'10" blue-chipper who may have been in no position to be picky about where he ended up; the speculation was that Abdur-Rahim's decision to bolt college was tied to an expected NCAA investigation of Cal's basketball program that could result in sanctions. Abdur-Rahim denies that his decision was linked to any worries about a probe. "He is so young," says Vancouver president and general manager Stu Jackson of the 19-year-old Abdur-Rahim, "and he has such an upside as a player. He'll grow up with this franchise."
Aside from the Wolves, the Knicks may have come out best on draft night. New York tried in vain to peddle its three first-round slots, then crowed as it landed three Final Four frontcourt heroes: Wallace, Kentucky's Walter McCarty at No. 19 and Mississippi State's Dontae' Jones at No. 21.
The Knicks, who know all about disruptions, are unfazed by Wallace's bad-boy reputation, which grew in the weeks before the draft. Wallace, who had seemed an almost certain lottery pick, allegedly blew off some predraft interviews with teams that thought they might be interested in him, and he exhibited surliness and arrogance in the interviews he did attend. Yet his agent, Eric Fleisher, says Wallace failed to meet with only two teams: the Celtics, because he missed his flight, and the Pacers, because their request came at the last minute.
Wallace did work out for six clubs: the Bucks, the Grizzlies, the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Nets and the Timberwolves. Sources from those teams gave him low marks for attitude and congeniality. "Some of his workouts might have come off the wrong way, for whatever reason," says Fleisher, "but too many teams didn't take the time to get to know John Wallace, and tried to turn him into Derrick Coleman. That's unfair." The invidious comparisons were almost inevitable: Both the 76ers' Coleman and Wallace wore jersey number 44 while playing for Syracuse.
Jones also dropped from a likely lottery pick to a late first-rounder but for medical reasons. A physical at the Chicago predraft camp revealed that a surgical screw implanted to repair his left foot, first injured in September, had come loose. A new screw was put in last Friday. If the foot heals properly, as expected, the Knicks will be big winners.
The draft's biggest losers could be the Kings, who took the 18-year-old Stojakovic, a 6'9" long-range shooter for the Greek club PAOK. Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie says he was informed that Stojakovic had two contracts with PAOK: a basketball-related pact that had expired, and a personal-services contract that had two years remaining but was shaky because it had been signed for Stojakovic by his father. "We knew there was some risk, but we felt there was a very good chance we could get him here," says Petrie.