With the 2014 NBA Entry Draft less than 24 hours away, I thought I would look back at memories I have of Nuggets drafts from the past. And like any other sport, the NBA draft is more of a crapshoot than a constant. So the Nuggets have had their ups and downs in past drafts and I thought I would recap some of the ones that were more memorable to me. I have lived in Denver since 1981 so I won’t analyze anything before that draft and I will give you all some background and results of a few of the more interesting and memorable drafts. They may not be memorable because the Nuggets made horrible draft picks. They may not even be memorable because the Nuggets made what turned out to be great draft picks. They may be memorable because of the events surrounding the draft or the state of the Nuggets franchise at the time. So get ready for a walk down the Memory Lane of Denver Nuggets Drafts.
I guess I can start off with the ’81 draft because that was the first one that I experienced as a proud Colorado resident. The thing that stands out about that draft is that the Nuggets made 7 picks (The draft was 10 rounds back then!) and the players they selected played a COMBINED 9 games for the franchise. This was a harbinger of things to come in the next few years because between 1981 and 1984 the Nuggets made 34 draft picks and only 5 actually ever played for the Nuggets. The most significant thing I remember about those drafts is that the Nuggets selected Point Guard Rob Williams out of the University of Houston in the first round in 1982 and before the first game of the season Doug Moe had dubbed Williams “That fat little hog”! Not a great nickname for a first round draft pick! Williams would go on to play only 153 games for the Nuggets which is less than 2 full seasons and was out of the league by 1984. A sad note about Williams is that he passed away at the age of 52 earlier this year of congestive heart failure.
In 1985, the Nuggets selected a smooth shooting center out of the University of Oregon named Blair Rasmussen and this was actually the first decent pick the team had made since they chose Guard Mike Evans out of Kansas State in the first round of the 1978 Entry Draft. This pick was widely panned by Nuggets fans at the time because future hall of famer Joe Dumars out of McNeese State was available and was widely reagrded as the best shooting guard in that draft. But Rasmussen played 8 NBA seasons and 532 NBA Games with the Nuggets and the Atlanta Hawks before retiring in 1993. His high water mark was the 1990-1991 season with the Nuggets when he averaged 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks which garnered him a substantial free agent contract with the Hawks that offseason.
The 1988 draft is another one the Nuggets would like to forget. They drafted backboard breaking forward Jerome Lane out of the University of Pittsburgh with the 23rd pick in the first round but made another huge mistake when they selected Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell in the second round and immediately traded him to the San Antonio Spurs. Maxwell would go on to a successful 13 year career in the NBA and help the Houston Rockets to the NBA title in 1994 and 1995 with his clutch 3 point shooting and defense. Lane would not have as good a career as “Mad Max”. Lane was most known for shattering a backboard in a Big East Conference game when he was a Sophomore at Pitt but never became the player the Nuggets thought he would be in the NBA.
The Nuggets went into the tank after Doug Moe was fired after the 1989 season and ended up with the 3rd pick in the 1990 Entry Draft. This is when the franchise’s draft fortunes would start to turn around for a while. They went ahead and selected the NCAA scoring leader from the 1990 season out of LSU, Chris Jackson. He would play 7 seasons with the Nuggets and be a big part of the mid-90’s resurection of the franchise with his smooth outside shooting and ridiculous ability to score in a number of ways.
After the Nuggets selected Jackson in 1990 they hit the NBA Draft Lottery jackpot in 1991 when they selected Georgetown Center Dikembe Mutombo with the 4th pick in the draft. Mutombo was a true 7′ 1″ Center and had studied under the tuteledge of coach John Thompson and Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing at Georgetown. He was a shot blocking machine and was known for his patented “Finger Wag” after throwing an opponent’s shot into the 5th row. Mutombo and Jackson would become part of the the core of the Nuggets team that upset the Seattle SuperSonics as an 8 seed in the 1994 playoffs. He would play 5 seasons with the Nuggets and the team made the eternal mistake of not re-signing Mutombo when he became a free agent after the 1996 season. This set the franchise back 7 years and is still a tough thing for me to swallow. That ’94 team may have had enough talent to challenge the Lakers and Jazz for Western Conference supremecy if they kept that roster together.
One of my most memorable Nuggets drafts was the draft of 1992. The Nuggets had the 5th and 13th picks of that draft and it was a loaded draft for future NBA stars. The Nuggets held a “Draft Night Party” at McNichols Arena and 7-10 thousand people showed up for free hot dogs, $1.00 beers and to find out who the Nuggets would rebuild the franchise with that night. They chose one of my all time favorite and effective Nuggets out of Notre Dame with the 5th pick, LaPhonso Ellis, and then took a very good shooting guard out of Virginia, Bryant Stith, with the 13th pick. The Nuggets were using the draft to build the team that took out the 62 win Sonics in 1994. In 3 years the Nuggets had taken the entire starting 5 of the team that put the Nuggets back into the playoffs in 1994 and then made the incredible run to the conference semi-finals and almost beat the Jazz in the second round with legends John Stockton and Karl Malone!
The Nuggets maintained their effectiveness in the draft in 1993 selecting Jalen Rose and Rodney Rodgers in that draft and both would contribute to the Nuggets fortunes for a few years. They traded Rose before he became an NBA All Star with the Indiana Pacers but Rodgers was a very good player for the Nuggets for several seasons before being traded to the Clippers in 1998.
This is when the wheels came off of the Nuggets prowess in the draft. Over the next 7 seasons the Nuggets selected such legendary NBA players as Efthimi Rentzias, Tony Battie, who was dubbed “El Busto” by Nuggets coach Dan Issel in 1998, Raef LaFrentz, Chris Herron, Mamadou N’Diaye (“Noone blocks shots like my Mamadou”…Dan Issel), Ousmane Cisse (WHO???), and Nicholas Tskitishvilli. This has to be one of the worst runs of drafting in the history of the league. The only real bright spot during this time was the Nuggets first round pick in 1999, James Posey, who had a very good NBA career and even won a title with the Heat and Dwayne Wade in 2006.
But that all changed in 2003. The Nuggets were crappy enough in 2002-2003 to tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the league. And in typical Nuggets fashion they did not get the first pick but garnered the 3rd pick in what is now considered one of the 2 or 3 best draft of the Lottery era. The only problem was, there was a definitive #1 pick in LeBron James but the Nuggets were expected to take Center Darco Milicic out of some European League with the second pick if they got it. Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandewege had coveted the 7 footer for some time and the worry was that the Nuggets would take him instead of recent NCAA Champion and obvious future NBA star Carmelo Anthoney. But, alas, the ineptitude of the Detroit Pistons front office saved the Nuggets bacon as the Pistons chose the completely overmatched Milicic with the second pick and Anthoney fell into Vandewege’s lap and the Nuggets selected him with the 3rd pick in the draft. As much as many Nuggets fans are ticked off at Anthoney for the way his time in Denver ended, you cannot deny that this guy saved the franchise! I was at the Denver International Airport picking up my Step-Daughter who was returning from a school trip to Europe during the draft and I was waiting in a bar in the main concourse for her plane when the draft was taking place. You should have heard the cheers in that bar when the Pistons selected the ultimate “El Busto” in Milicic and left Anthoney for the Nuggets to select. It was one of my best memories as a Nuggets fan.
Since the Anthoney selection the Nuggtes made the playoffs in 10 straight seasons and the draft became an after-thought for Nuggets fans because the team always had late first round or no first round draft picks. The one exception for me is when the Nuggets were able to draft Morehead Sate rebounding machine, Kenneth Faried with the 22nd pick in the 2011 draft. I saw this dude play at Pepsi Center during the NCAA Tournament in the first 2 rounds in 2011 and me and all of my Nugget friends said “We have to get this guy in a Nuggtes uniform”. And it happened. That was pretty cool!
This year that has changed as the Nuggets pick 11th in the draft tomorrow night. I am looking forward to some fireworks from the Nuggets in this draft and I hope you have enjoyed my trip down the Nuggets Draft Day memeory lane! Follow the draft tomorrow night @Nugg_Love along with all of the rest of our terrific NuggLove writers doing the behind the scenes work trying to determine the Nuggets pick or maybe the Nuggets trade during the draft tomorrow night.