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2016 class of inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame Shaquille O'Neal shakes hands with Yao Ming, right, of China, during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Remembering Yao Ming and the “What if?” 2002 NBA Draft

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming will be inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame along with generational talents Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson on Friday night. It will be a celebration of a nine-year career that included eight All-Star selections and five All-NBA nods. Reasonable people can question whether Ming was Hall of Fame worthy, but there’s no debating Yao’s draft class was one of the greatest examples of lost potential.

The 2002 NBA Draft certainly didn’t lack for star power. In addition to Ming, the freshman pool included six members of NCAA championship rosters (Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer from Duke, Juan Dixon, Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter from Maryland), two high school phenoms (Amar’e Stoudemire and Dajuan Wagner) and a couple of highly-touted foreign prospects (Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Nene Hilario).

Led by Ming, the 2002 draft also represented an influx of international players. NBA scouts spanned the globe in search of the next Dirk Nowitzki or Peja Stojakovic. As a result, a then-record 17 players from outside the U.S. were drafted, including six in the first round. Teams rolled the dice on European prospects like Jiri Welsch and Bostjan Nachbar ahead of seasoned college veterans such as Boozer and Tayshaun Prince.

However, even with all of that talent, the 2002 draft failed to live up to the hype due to various circumstances. The class produced just four All-Stars: Ming, Boozer, Stoudemire and Caron Butler. From 1996 to 2012, only six classes have had fewer than five All-Stars: 1997 (3), 2000 (3), 2002 (4), 2007 (4), 2010 (4), 2012 (4).

The ’97 draft gave the world Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and not much else. 2000 is regarded as one of the worst drafts ever. 2007 could have a fifth All-Star if Mike Conley makes one. The same for 2010, who has Hassan Whiteside, Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley and Gordon Hayward waiting in the wings. 2012 can be salvaged if Bradley Beal and/or Khris Middleton attract the attention of the voters.

While Ming’s trip to Springfield is 2002’s saving grace, his career — and the tenures of some of his other classmates — is one of the greatest “What if?” tales in recent memory.

Yao Ming

The 7-foot-6 monster from China came to the NBA with a huge amount of weight on his giant shoulders. Not only was Ming facing the pressure of being a No. 1 overall pick and representing his country in the pros, he was following in the huge footsteps of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon as the Houston Rockets’ franchise center.

Fortunately, Ming’s transition into the NBA was seamless. He averaged 19 points, 9.2 boards and 1.9 blocks during his nine-year career. He also made headlines by holding his own against O’Neal, blocking “The Diesel’s” shot three times in their first encounter:


Still, Ming’s time in the NBA left much to be desired. Despite playing with a prime Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady in separate stints, Ming never led the Rockets past the second round of the playoffs. He didn’t provide many memorable moments on the national stage like O’Neal or Duncan did. He also had to retire at the age of 30 because chronic foot problems held him to just five games in the last two years of his career. Ming had a productive career, but in a social media age that seems to only care about rings, his lack of postseason success and lengthy injury history put a damper on what could’ve been a monumental career.

What if….Yao’s feet didn’t betray him?

It’s hard to say whether a healthy Yao/T-Mac tandem could’ve overthrown Duncan’s Spurs dynasty, but both careers would have benefited from a lengthy postseason run. If nothing else, Ming being able to hang around for a few years longer would’ve delayed the transition from traditional back-to-the-basket big men to the small-ball centers teams utilize today.

Jay Williams

Jay Williams seemed destined for NBA success heading into the 2002 draft. Williams was a two-time All-American and former College Player of the Year who led Duke to a national title in 2001. A skilled athlete with the unique blend of court vision, scoring acumen and high basketball IQ, Williams would’ve been the No. 1 overall pick if Houston didn’t already have a star point guard in Steve Francis.

Williams struggled running Bill Cartwright’s triangle offense and splitting time with veteran Jamal Crawford, but showed flashes of the talent that made him a high pick. He played in 75 games, averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists in 26.1 minutes per game as a rookie.

It would be his only season in the NBA.

In the summer of 2003, Williams suffered a fractured pelvis, multiple torn knee ligaments and nerve damage in his left leg as a result of a tragic motorcycle accident. Williams worked feverishly at making a comeback, but couldn’t get his body back to what it was. The Bulls inevitably waived him and selected Kansas point guard Kirk Hinrich a year later to replace the former Duke standout. Williams now works as a commentator for ESPN.

What if….Williams never wrecks his bike?

It’s hard to fathom what Williams’ career would’ve been like if he just stayed home on June 9, 2003 because there was such a small sample to work with. Would he continue to flounder in Chicago? Would his career have taken a turn under another coach and another offense better suited towards his strengths? Who knows?

However, even if Williams just managed to stay on the roster, the Bulls’ future would’ve been different. With Williams entrenched at the point, there’s no need to draft Hinrich in 2003. Instead, maybe Chicago solidifies the frontcourt with Nick Collison or pairs Williams in the backcourt with French super-athlete Mickael Pietrus.

Furthermore, if Williams is still in the Windy City in 2008, the Derrick Rose era in Chicago probably never happens. That means your 2011 NBA MVP might have been Howard (who finished second) or LeBron James (who finished third and probably should’ve won anyway). Imagine how different Dwight’s career becomes with a MVP under his belt or how epic it would’ve been if LeBron won the award five straight years.

Regardless, Williams’ bike wreck abbreviated the careers of one of the best prospects in recent memory and created a chain of events that changed the Bulls forever.

Mike Dunleavy

Mike Dunleavy was the victim of some unrealistic expectations. NBADraft.net compared the sweet-shooting forward to Larry Bird leading up to the 2002 draft. ESPN claimed he “should be a Dirk Nowitzki-type talent for years to come in the NBA.”

Spoiler alert: Dunleavy never became the next Bird or Nowitzki.

However, he did manage to churn out a productive career, albeit one not befitting of his draft slot (No. 3 overall). He’s bounced around the league over the last 14 years, from Golden State to Indiana to Milwaukee to Chicago to Cleveland. He’s 40th all-time in three-pointers and established a reputation as a quality 3-and-D guy when healthy. His best effort came in 2007-08 with the Pacers when he averaged 19.1 points and converted 42.4 percent from behind the arc. He’s one of a handful of fellow 2002 classmates still hanging around the league.

What if….Dunleavy is drafted in 2012 instead of 2002?

It took awhile, but Dunleavy eventually carved his niche as a small-ball combo forward who could use size and shooting stroke to space the floor. In 2002, that kind of logic wasn’t as prevalent as it is today.

In 2012, Golden State used the No. 7 overall pick on Harrison Barnes, a gifted role player miscast as a star. Barnes made his mark as a….wait for it….small-ball combo forward who used his size and shooting stroke to space the floor. If Dunleavy came along a decade later than he did, wouldn’t he have thrived playing alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on a Warriors team obsessed with the three-ball instead of trying to wrestle touches away from Gilbert Arenas in 2002?

Was Dunleavy a bust or just ahead of his time?

Dajuan Wagner

Dajuan Wagner rose to prominence as a high school senior in Camden, New Jersey. He averaged 42.5 points and made national headlines by scoring 100 points in a single game. He finished his high school career as New Jersey’s all-time leading scorer:


Rather than jump right to the pros, he opted to sign with the University of Memphis and then-coach John Calipari. After Calipari forced Wagner’s hand by revoking his scholarship following his freshman season, Wagner went pro and started a trend of “one-and-done” players under Calipari.

As an undersized combo guard with a dynamic ability to score, Wagner drew comparisons to the likes of Iverson and Stephon Marbury. The Cleveland Cavaliers snatched him up at No. 6 overall in 2002.  He averaged 13.4 points as a rookie, and a year later, the team would pair him with 2003 No. 1 overall pick LeBron James. However, Wagner’s bout with ulcerative colitis caused his health to deteriorate. After Cleveland let him walk in 2005, he tried to make a comeback with Golden State two years later. He played one game for the Warriors and was out of the league by the time he was 24.

What if….the Wagner and James tandem worked out?

Wagner’s downward spiral started another trend….of failed LeBron sidekicks during his first stint in Cleveland. There was Larry Hughes, Wally Szczerbiak, Donyell Marshall, Shaq, Damon Jones, Luke Jackson, “Boobie” Gibson, Antawn Jamison and slew of other acquisitions that never panned out.

Inevitably, James’ quest for a title led him to South Beach, where he paired with Dwyane Wade. However, Wagner was Wade before “Flash” ever stepped foot on an NBA court. Like Wade, Wagner was a gifted scorer who made up for his lack of an outside jumper with an elite ability to get to the basket whenever he wanted. Wagner was a few inches shorter than Wade, but the game’s transition to positionless basketball would’ve helped the Jersey legend going forward.

It’s unlikely Wagner’s presence would’ve resulted in a Cavs title or kept James from leaving in 2010, but watching the two grow together would’ve been exciting. Two ex-high school phenoms who entered the league with huge expectations playing on the same team and learning the business together.

Instead, Wagner became a cautionary tale and James found his ideal running mate seven years later.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Nene

In 2002, the Denver Nuggets were desperately trying to emerge from the NBA basement. The team hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 1994-95 season and routinely came up short on draft night. Lottery picks such as Raef Lafrentz, Tony Battie and Mamadou N’Diaye didn’t pan out, so the team went back to the drawing board.

They used the No. 5 overall pick on Georgian forward Nikoloz Tskitishvili. At 7-0 tall and 225 pounds, the 19-year-old was seen as the next Dirk Nowitzki, but size was the only thing he had in common with the German superstar. The Nuggets doubled up on the international flavor by trading All-Star Antonio McDyess to the New York Knicks for No. 7 overall pick Nene Hilario (now just Nene) and Marcus Camby.

Despite being only 20 years old, Nene had an NBA-ready body and his bruising style made him a quality big man from the get-go.

The good news is, after years of disappointment, the Nuggets finally got a young superstar to build around. The bad news is it happened a year later with Carmelo Anthony.

What if…..Nene never gets traded to Denver?

There’s no scenario you can come up with that salvages Tskitishvili’s career. His slim frame, lack of experience and the emergence of Melo led to him being buried in Denver. By 2006, his NBA career was over. The only reason he isn’t viewed as a bigger draft bust is A) that 2002 draft was pretty awful and B) Darko Milicic would come along a year later and steal all of his bad press.

Things worked out better for Nene. He averaged a modest 12.4 points and seven boards during his decade in Denver before moving on to Washington and now Houston. He was a key part of the George Karl-coached Nuggets teams that were a sneaky contender for a few years.

However, the Antonio McDyess trade was an unmitigated disaster for New York and one of the 10-worst moves in Knicks history. McDyess’ tenure in the Big Apple lasted all of 18 games before he was shipped to Phoenix in 2004. If that deal never happens, Nene gets groomed under Camby and maybe the Knicks have their first franchise center since Patrick Ewing.

The Knicks were two years removed from a 48-win season with Camby, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston as their core. That success might have continued with Nene carrying the torch instead of the franchise waiting to fill the void nine years later with Camby’s doppleganger, Tyson Chandler.

Amar’e Stoudemire

Amar’e Stoudemire hit the ground running as the unlikely star of the 2002 draft. He snatched Rookie of the Year honors away from Yao in 2003, and quickly established himself as a dominant force in Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense. During his eight years in Phoenix, he put up 21.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He was also a five-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection as a member of the Suns.

As a marquee member of an elite free-agency class in 2010, Stoudemire signed a five-year, $100 million deal with the Knicks. He was an All-Star during his first year in New York and made the next two All-NBA teams. Then, his balky knees got the best of him and he was never the same again.

STAT still managed to put together a solid career. In fact, his numbers are similar to Ming’s, which raises the question of whether Stoudemire should eventually join Yao in Springfield:


What if….Amar’e never left the desert?

It’s not like STAT’s knees went bad the minute he came to New York. He underwent microfracture surgery in 2005 while still with the Suns and had chronic knee pain throughout his Suns tenure. However, he was able to continue being a superstar thanks to Phoenix’s elite training staff. They are the same miracle workers who revived Shaq’s career in 2007 and allowed Steve Nash to stave off a bad back long enough to win two MVPs.

When Stoudemire arrived in the Big Apple, he felt the pressure of his large contract and the scrutiny of an intense New York media. The team wasn’t able to get the same mileage out of Stoudemire’s balding tires that Phoenix did, and as a result, he never made the impact the franchise paid for.

Even though D’Antoni was gone by time Stoudemire left in 2010, the Suns could’ve remained contenders with a somewhat healthy Stoudemire and Nash leading the way. Instead, he spent the second half of his career trying to resurrect the Knicks while his body was looking to throw in the towel.

Remembering Yao Ming and the “What if?” 2002 NBA Draft

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