A Perfect 10
The Celtics were delighted when Paul Pierce's draft stock slipped
Because teams like to posture, misdirect and outright lie when fielding queries about their plans for the draft, the final 48 hours before the selection process begins are usually cluttered with disinformation. This year was no different. As the June 24 draft approached, general managers insisted that Kansas forward Raef LaFrentz was too slow, North Carolina power forward Antawn Jamison was too short and St. Louis shooting guard Larry Hughes was too young (19) and too skinny (185 pounds). Amid all that poor-mouthing, nobody identified Kansas small forward Paul Pierce as a player who was slipping. In fact, in four teams' mock drafts that were made available to SI, Pierce was projected to go second in two of them and third in the others.
But Pierce had to wait until the Celtics took him with the 10th pick to escape the dreaded green room, the angst-ridden holding tank for potential top picks at the draft site, in this case General Motors Place in Vancouver. As the names of Michael Olowokandi (taken first), Mike Bibby (second), LaFrentz (third), Jamison (fourth) and even Hughes (eighth) were called, the 6'7" Pierce sat stone-faced, struggling to fathom the turn of events. Boston coach Rick Pitino had been so sure he would have no shot at selecting Pierce that he had neither worked him out nor called Kansas coach Roy Williams to inquire about him. "I'm in a state of shock right now," Pitino said minutes after making the pick.
Almost immediately after Pierce began dropping, rumors spread around the league that he had poor training habits and that his postseason workouts had been lackluster. (Nuggets general manager Dan Issel had called him a terrific scorer who "might be a little soft" shortly before the draft.) Yet Pierce fell mainly because 1) he had told the Raptors, choosing No. 4, and the Kings, picking No. 7, that he didn't want to play for them, and 2) he didn't fit the needs of the other teams with choices high in the order.
The Sixers, selecting eighth, already had Tim Thomas at small forward and needed backcourt help. The Bucks, at No. 9, had a deal with the Mavericks to take 20-year-old German star Dirk Nowitzki, and then trade him and Notre Dame forward Pat Garrity, the 19th pick, for Michigan power forward Robert Traylor, whom Dallas had chosen at No. 6. The Warriors nearly selected Pierce fifth, but ended up drafting North Carolina swingman Vince Carter so they could swap him to the Raptors for Toronto's pick—Jamison—and cash.
"That talk about Pierce is baloney," says Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean. "He had a great workout with us. He might have more ability to score than any other rookie because he can drift and shoot, can come off the screen, can break you down off the dribble and can go down to the box and score."
Then why didn't the Warriors take him? "In the end," St. Jean says, "we thought Jamison was a special guy."
So Pierce wound up as a tantalizing consolation prize for Pitino, who had coveted Nowitzki. The 6'11" forward handles the ball like a shooting guard and had impressed Pitino during a secret workout the coach set up in Rome in early June. Few doubt Nowitzki will inject life into the Mavericks—if he suits up for them next season. His German club coach, Holger Geschwindner, says that Nowitzki plans to sign with Italy's Kinder Bologna. "He will not be available to any NBA team until 2000," Geschwindner says. "I explained that to all the teams."
Nevertheless, Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr. and general manager-coach Don Nelson flew to Germany the day after the draft, and brought Nowitzki back to Dallas in hopes of hammering out an agreement. For the Mavs, his presence next season is key in more ways than one: After acquiring Garrity, they dealt him, forward Martin Muursepp, guard Bubba Wells and their first-round pick next June to the Suns for Steve Nash, one of the most sought-after young point guards in the league. Without Nowitzki in the lineup, that 1998 pick could be a high lottery selection.
No Resolution In Sight