Looking Back At The 2002 NBA Draft

Former Duke forward Carlos Boozer turned out to be the steal

June 9, 2007

By Steve Aschburner

Special to CSTV.com from The Sports Xchange


The factors that made Carlos Boozer such a tremendous find in the 2002 NBA Draft are largely responsible for fans in Cleveland likely clicking the Xbox in the upper-right corner before they even finish reading this.




Actually, assuming you're still with us, it was Boozer's emergence from six picks deep in the second round, over his first two pro seasons, that put him in the position to leave the Cavaliers for the Utah Jazz as an unexpectedly emancipated free agent in the summer of 2004.




Boozer -- a find long before that, actually, given his roots in Juneau, Alaska -- left Duke after his junior season and joined a needy, pre-LeBron Cavs team. In 81 games as a rookie, Boozer averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds, then increased that to 15.5 points and 11.4 boards upon James' arrival for 2003-04.


Clearly, Cleveland was excited, with two key pieces in place for the next decade or so, dreams of championships on the way.


One minor detail: Boozer, as a second-round pick, wasn't bound by the terms of the more familiar "rookie" contracts held by first-rounders. Those deals, at that time, would have kept him moving up a pay scale for four years, with a fifth year available. Boozer instead faced an option year worth $695,000, after which he could leave outright.


Boozer and his agent, Rob Pelinka, had put out signals -- at least, that's what Cavaliers management said later -- that the player was eager to lock in long term with the club, allegedly for a multi-year deal built out to $39 million from the league's mid-level salary cap exception. The Cavs smelled a bargain and agreed to release Boozer from his option year, assuming he would turn around and re-up.


Uh, not exactly. Utah offered Boozer a six-year package worth $68 million, and Cleveland would have had to tear up its roster to match for the restricted free agent. Boozer was gone, and so, in the view of Cavs fans, was his reputation. When, after a couple of injury-hampered seasons, he finally returned as a visitor to play on Cleveland's floor, the 6-foot-8 power forward was booed lustily.


But then, an extra $29 million can buy an awful lot of ear plugs, can't it? Boozer earned Western Conference All-Star status this season, averaging 20.9 points on 56.1 percent shooting with 11.7 rebounds. He and point guard Deron Williams gave fans in Salt Lake City a new-millennium Karl Malone and John Stockton to root for, and the tandem led the Jazz all the way to the Western Conference finals.


James and the Cavaliers made it to the East finals, maybe taking a little of the sting out of Boozer's departure. Not that he'll ever stop hearing the boos when he goes back to Cleveland.


Here are some 2002 draft's "hits," besides Boozer, as well as some "misses."



Yao Ming, C, Houston Rockets (No. 1, Houston)

This wasn't much of a gamble for the Rockets, looking back at most of the other players in this draft class. It was an exotic pick on its face -- a 7-foot-5 guy from the Shanghai Shark? -- but it turned out that, given Yao's work ethic, humility and desire to improve, Houston hardly could have gone more traditional.


Amare Stoudemire, F/C, Phoenix Suns (No. 9, Phoenix)

It was Stoudemire's murky past -- the constant school switching, questions about his mother's criminality -- that kept him from going higher. He wound up as the steal of the draft, making an impact as a rookie that had teammate Stephon Marbury touting him over Kevin Garnett at the same point.


Caron Butler, F, Miami Heat (No. 10, Miami)

Considering the mistakes already made by the time the Heat grabbed Butler at No. 10, the tough 6-foot-7 forward from UConn probably should have gone in the top five or six. Butler, frankly, has made a career out of being underrated and written off, from Miami shipping him out in its zeal to land Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers sending him on to Washington for (wait for it) ... Kwame Brown?


Tayshaun Prince, F, Detroit Pistons (No. 23, Detroit)

Prince, the only Pistons starter who didn't make it to the All-Star Game in 2006, now rivals Chauncey Billups as that perennial contender's best player. His three-point range and long, lean defensive pressure make him valuable at both ends, and landing him so deep in the first round in this draft almost makes up for Joe Dumars' gamble on Darko Milicic at No. 2 one year later.


Nenad Krstic, F, New Jersey Nets (No. 24, New Jersey)

For all of the attention paid to the Net's Big Three of perimeter stars -- Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson -- Krstic is the one over whom rival GMs routinely drooled the most. The 7-footer's season was cut short by knee surgery, but his offensive touch and, at 23, his expected development keep him among the league's most coveted big men.



Jay Williams, G, out of league (No. 2, Chicago)

The former Duke point guard had a promising start, averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists as a rookie, but his career came to a screeching halt on June 19, 2003, when he crashed his motorcycle into a light pole. Williams fractured his pelvis, tore knee ligaments and suffered nerve damage in the accident, the Bulls bought out his contract for $3 million and the player's attempts to come back at an NBA level -- most recently last fall with the Nets -- have failed.


Dajuan Wagner, G, out of league (No. 6, Cleveland)

Wagner was another hard-luck story, his career cut short off the court rather than on. After averaging 13.4 points in his first season, Wagner was stymied by injuries and a case of ulcerative colitis that, in time, required surgery to remove his colon. By October 2006, Wagner had recovered enough to mount a comeback with Golden State, but he was released by the Warriors a month later.


Mike Dunleavy, F/G, Indiana Pacers (No. 3, Golden State)

After spending so many years having to live up to his name -- his dad, Mike, is a head coach and former NBA player -- the younger Dunleavy really got sideways trying to live up to a $44 million contract extension given to him by the Warriors. Skilled as he was at Duke, Dunleavy wasn't a franchise-caliber player, and getting overpaid painted a target on his back for fans until his trade to Indiana in January.


Nikoloz Tskitishvili, F, out of league (No. 5, Denver)

Tskitishvili wasn't even the best prospect from his Benetton Treviso (Italy) team the year Denver picked; it was Bostjan Nachbar, who went at No. 15 to Houston. But "Skita's" alleged potential tantalized the Nuggets' brass, up until they saw how poorly his practice performances translated to game competition. Minnesota, Phoenix, Golden State and New York all had their "Skita" disappointments, too, his promise earning him far more money and way more chances than much more helpful players.


Marcus Haislip, F, out of league (No. 13, Milwaukee)

By appearances, Haislip should have been an All-Star; he had the build and he carried himself like a cinch NBA success. But after a spurt late in his rookie season, his game never grew and the disappointed Bucks relegated him to the bench before waiving him in November 2004. He spent time on Indiana's needy roster in the wake of the Malice-at-the-Palace suspensions and eventually wound up playing in Turkey.


Steve Aschburner is a senior NBA reporter and columnist, covering the Minnesota Timberwolves for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 13 seasons and serving as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association from 2005-07.