As my recent draft review conclusions indicated, most NBA Drafts follow certain patterns. One of the main conclusions was that great players, the type who appear in many All-Star games, are virtually always picked within the top ten selections.
In particular, superstars – like Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose – are almost always taken within the first five selections. Usually great players who drop out of the top five - like Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire - were unable to prove their value in college. With the establishment of the “Over 19” rule and the larger emphasis put on international scouting, superstars today seem even more unlikely to drop outside of the top five.
Particularly in recent draft history, pick #10 has been a cutoff point for greatness. Gilbert Arenas, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo are the only players drafted since 1997 who have appeared in at least three All-Star games while being picked after #10. All three played point guard.
This is what makes the 1996 NBA Draft so fascinating. It is not only one of the best drafts ever, but also probably the strangest. Some of its aberrations are understandable within historical context - and some are not. You could never predict an outcome of a draft as unusual as 1996. It truly was a black swan draft. It's important to acknowledge this, and to understand that occasionally everything does get thrown out of whack, and that no draft pattern is definitive.
11 players from the class of '96 made All-Star games - a huge number for one draft. 5 out of the first 6 picks became All-Stars: Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen and Antoine Walker. The one player taken in the top six never to be an All-Star was Marcus Camby. So obviously the top of this draft was loaded. But that is not what 1996 is remembered for.
The main reason the '96 Draft is so highly regarded, and strange, is all the fantastic players picked in the middle of the first round: Kobe Bryant (#13), Peja Stojakovic (#14), Steve Nash (#15), Jermaine O'Neal (#17) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (#20) were all selected there. Obviously it's Bryant and Nash that really stand out - the fact they were both selected in the mid-teens makes this draft exceptionally unusual, and then the draft's uniqueness is further bolstered by the combined 11 All-Star appearances that Stojakovic, O'Neal and Ilgauskas have made.
While no one could ever have expected such an amazing middle of a first round in a single NBA Draft, it does make more sense when put in historical context.
1996 was only the second year high schoolers were allowed to skip college and directly enter the draft. Bryant became the second high schooler to be selected in the lottery, following Kevin Garnett the year before. While Garnett had a successful rookie season, the idea of drafting a 17 year old shooting guard was understandably met with some apprehension in NBA circles. Despite Bryant's natural talents, teams were reticent to use a high pick on him. Nonetheless, the fact he lasted to 13th seems surprising, because supposedly Bryant had very good workouts with a couple of teams.
The same reluctance towards drafting high school players early also explains O'Neal dropping to 17th. It wasn't until the 1999 NBA Draft a high schooler would be selected in the top 5.
Similarly, foreign prospects were still regarded somewhat ambivalently by many NBA teams in 1996. So it is hardly surprising Stojakovic and Ilgauskas were not considered top-tier prospects. Their careers vastly exceeded expectations, but given context, their draft positions are not unexpected.
Nash falling to 15th is also not that hard to explain. He was a small college star, and questions concerning his athleticism made sense. These concerns were not unfounded, as Nash often struggled his first few years in the NBA. Plus, if any position lends itself to exceptional players dropping in the draft, it is point guard.
Despite all the rational explanations, the fact that all these stars dropped out of the top ten in one draft is pretty much unprecedented in NBA history. What makes the draft even more amazing is that Ben Wallace went undrafted out of Virginia Union University the same year. Wallace is arguably the best undrafted player ever, and a four time NBA Defensive Player of the Year winner.
So the 1996 NBA Draft was crazy, and it significantly defied many of the normal rules and patterns we associate with a draft. Also of note is that many future dominant players from the draft - like Nash, O'Neal and Wallace - struggled badly early on in their careers. Overall, 1996 vividly shows that you can never predict how a draft class will turn out. How we view a draft when it takes place, or even three years later, is often very different than how we will judge it with more historical distance.