Trends at No. 6: Drafting an upperclassman
Sane gamblers play the safer odds, which in the case of the NBA Draft means drafting upperclassmen.
While not as glitzy as the star freshman or mysterious international, selecting a junior or senior in the draft makes sense, especially for general managers under the microscope. An upperclassman is viewed as more of a sure thing, with a larger sample size and more exposure to quality college coaching. The upside may not seem as high, but the added confidence that a prospect can contribute sooner rather than later will help many GMs and fans sleep in the offseason.
Since the inauguration of the lottery in 1985, 19 of 30 selections at the No. 6 pick have been upperclassmen, including the first 11 drafts in a row. Naturally, the Sacramento Kings picked sixth in ’85 and took Joe Kleine, which was a forgettable moment in franchise history. The Kings drafted Kenny Smith at No. 6 two years later, which slightly redeemed themselves.
Below is the list of upperclassmen drafted at No. 6 in lottery history.
1985, Joe Kleine – Arkansas – Senior
Career averages (15 seasons): 4.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.8 turnovers, 15.2 minutes in 965 games (204 starts).
Notes: Kleine had trouble catching the ball, which made his size and strength at center less effective. The reserve journeyman won a ring with the Bulls in 1998, but disappointed Kings fans.
1986, William Bedford– Memphis – Junior
Career averages (6 seasons): 4.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 0.7 turnovers, 10.6 minutes in 238 games (30 starts).
Notes: The Suns traded Bedford to the Pistons a year after drafting him. The center sat out the 1988-89 season as he was suspended and treated for cocaine addiction. Rehab couldn’t save his NBA career which ended a few years later.
1987, Kenny Smith – North Carolina – Senior
Career averages (10 seasons): 12.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.2 turnovers, 30.1 minutes in 737 games (650 starts).
Notes: The Jet started off hot, producing 15.6 points and 7.2 assists in 188 appearances with the Kings. The team traded Smith away to the Hawks in 1990 to watch him continue his success and win two championships with the Rockets.
1988, Hersey Hawkins – Bradley – Senior
Career averages (13 seasons): 14.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.9 turnovers, 32.6 minutes in 983 games (896 starts).
Notes: Hawkins’ lone All-Star bid came in his third year with the 76ers, but the shooting guard went on to enjoy a productive career with the Hornets and Sonics. He returned to Charlotte following a stint with the Bulls for his final season.
1989, Stacey King – Oklahoma – Senior
Career averages (8 seasons): 6.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 turnovers, 16.9 minutes in 438 games (63 starts).
Notes: King didn’t provide Michael Jordan and the Bulls much help in the frontcourt. Instead he piggybacked his way to three NBA championships. King was traded to the Timberwolves and he fizzled out shortly after with three more clubs.
1990, Felton Spencer – Louisville – Senior
Career averages (12 seasons): 5.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.0 turnovers, 19.2 minutes in 640 games (404 starts).
Notes: A bust for the Timberwolves, Spencer made the most of his limitations and eventually found his niche as a space-eating backup center.
1991, Doug Smith – Missouri – Senior
Career averages (5 seasons): 8.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 turnovers, 19.7 minutes in 296 games (118 starts).
Notes: The big man showed promise in Dallas, averaging 10.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in his second season. Injuries took a hacksaw to his career, and he failed to play a game with the Raptors after they drafted him in the expansion draft in 1995. Smith logged 17 contests with the Celtics and that was that.
1992, Tom Gugliotta – North Carolina State – Senior
Career averages (13 seasons): 13.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.3 turnovers, 30.9 minutes in 763 games (608 starts).
Notes: A gun for hire following his departure from the Bullets a few years in, Gugliotta was a high-octane scorer who later extended his NBA shelf life by accepting reserve roles. The forward made an All-Star team in 1997 with the Timberwolves.
1993, Calbert Cheaney – Indiana – Senior
Career averages (13 seasons): 9.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.2 turnovers, 26.7 minutes in 825 games (498 starts).
Notes: Cheaney was drafted by the Bullets as well and made a living as a strict midrange shooter, an extinct art form. He finished his career as a backup with the early 2000’s Warriors.
1994, Sharone Wright – Clemson – Senior
Career averages (4 seasons): 9.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 1.0 blocks, 1.7 turnovers, 22.3 minutes in 203 games (115 starts).
Notes: A serious car crash ended Wright’s NBA dreams. Prior to the summer 1997 accident, the pivot played well for the 76ers and Raptors, who acquired him midway through the 1996-97 season.
1995, Bryant Reeves – Oklahoma State senior
Career averages (6 seasons): 12.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.9 turnovers, 30.6 minutes in 395 games (341 starts).
Notes: “Big Country” Reeves was on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s best centers for the Grizzlies before injuries piled on. A back problem forced him to retire after just six seasons in the league.
1998, Robert Traylor – Michigan junior
Career averages (7 seasons): 4.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 blocks, 0.9 turnovers, 14.3 minutes in 438 games (73 starts).
Notes: The late Traylor was swapped by the Mavericks to the Bucks on draft night for Dirk Nowitzki, and the rest was history. Weight and conditioning issues didn’t help the big man’s disappointing pro career. He passed away from a heart attack at the age of 34 in 2011 in Puerto Rico where he was still playing professionally.
1999, Wally Szczerbiak – Miami (Ohio) senior
Career averages (10 seasons): 14.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 turnovers, 30.8 minutes in 651 games (393 starts).
Notes: The sweet-shooting Szczerbiak will most likely be remembered as Kevin Garnett’s only true sidekick in Minnesota. Lousy defensive play made the forward unreliable in his waning years. Szczerbiak made the 2001-02 All-Star team, but he faded quickly and was out of the league at 31.
2001, Shane Battier – Duke senior
Career averages (13 seasons): 8.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 turnovers in 30.7 minutes in 977 games (705 starts).
Notes: About as safe a draft pick as there was, Battier transitioned effortlessly from college to the Grizzlies as a stopper and high I.Q. teammate. The scrappy wing won two championships recently with the Heat.
2003, Chris Kaman – Central Michigan junior
Career averages (12 seasons): 11.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 blocks, 2.1 turnovers, 27.2 minutes in 719 games (536 starts).
Notes: Not to be confused with Darko Milicic, who was drafted four spots ahead. The quirky Kaman anchored the Clippers’ pivot for several seasons and even earned an All-Star bid in 2010. He had a bit of a career resurgence for the Trail Blazers this year after coming off the bench full time.
2004, Josh Childress – Stanford junior
Career averages (8 seasons): 9.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 turnovers, 26.7 minutes in 391 games (70 starts).
Notes: Childress joined the Hawks the same year as Josh Smith but took a back seat to the 17th pick. The lanky wing-of-all-trades left the NBA in his prime to play in Greece and failed to make an impact in his return with the Suns.
2006, Brandon Roy – Washington senior
Career averages (6 seasons): 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.8 turnovers in 35.5 minutes in 326 games (300 starts).
Notes: Roy was drafted sixth by the Timberwolves but traded to the Trail Blazers for Randy Foye, the seventh pick. The All-Star combo guard led Portland to three straight playoff berths, but his career was cut short by a degenerative knee condition.
2010, Ekpe Udoh – Baylor junior
Career averages (5 seasons): 4.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, 0.7 turnovers, 16.9 minutes in 270 games (52 starts).
Notes: The Warriors selected him for his defensive promise, yet the shot blocker struggled to beat out a lost Andris Biedrins for backup minutes. Additionally Udoh’s face-up style of play on offense couldn’t translate to the pro level. Udoh is still in the league, but he’s hanging on by a thread after just five seasons.
2012, Damian Lillard – Weber State senior
Career averages (3 seasons): 20.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 36.7 minutes in 246 games (246 starts).
Notes: Lillard landed with the Trail Blazers after the Kings infamously passed on him for Thomas Robinson. The point guard has set defenses on fire ever since. In three seasons, Lillard has a Rookie of the Year trophy and two All-Star appearances.
Drafting upperclassmen with the sixth pick is a dice roll like any place in the lottery, but there’s clearly a record of success.
Juniors and seniors who don’t develop into stars still often serve as role players, while major busts were primarily hindered by injuries and not their attitudes.
The success of Lillard alone shows the value of the sixth selection. How the Kings make the most of that value is debatable, but drafting an upperclassman like Willie Cauley-Stein or Frank Kaminsky is a viable option.