Ailene Voisin

Don’t screw this up: Pick an Isaiah Thomas, not a Jimmer Fredette

Since the region’s first professional sports franchise arrived from Kansas City in 1985, the Kings personnel executives have swung and missed, and swung and scored, and pretty much experienced the highs and lows of the annual talent grab known as the NBA draft.

Bobby Hurley. Jason Williams. Pervis Ellison. Peja Stojakovic. Thomas Robinson. Isaiah Thomas. DeMarcus Cousins. Jimmer Fredette. Joe Kleine.

Ellison to the Kings at No. 1 is not a vicious rumor, nor is the fact that 1989 was a terrible draft. It happens. Clunkers have been clogging lanes since the NBA assumed its present form in 1950, and there is no clear path to perfection. The plan for every franchise nonetheless remains the same: Don’t screw this up.

“It’s way, way tougher on front offices to get it right these days,” Kings analyst and former executive Jerry Reynolds said last week. “Today you have amazing video and you can break down every play. ‘How does he play pick and rolls? Which side of the floor does he favor?’ But as far as watching a guy in person, where you get your information directly, get to know him a little bit, it’s very different.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago you could watch players compete against other quality players because they stayed in college at least three years. Then you saw them play in pre-draft camps at Chicago, Portsmouth, Orlando and Hawaii. But the agents have gotten rid of that. A lot of the players don’t even show up for the interviews and the weights and measurement tests at the Chicago combine anymore.”

The Kings, who are semi-regulars at the draft lottery festivities, continue to get their opportunities. With two top-10 picks (No. 5 and No. 10) in the June 22 draft, GM Vlade Divac is intent on drafting a point guard and a small forward. As of today, he’s targeting Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox at No. 5. But what if the speedy, charismatic point guard is unavailable? What happens if LaVar Ball talks his son out of Los Angeles with his outlandish comments and Lonzo is still on the board?

Divac was extremely active during both of his previous drafts, and only a year ago, orchestrated the swaps of picks with Phoenix for No. 13 (Georgios Papagiannis), No. 28 (Skal Labissiere), and the draft rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Serbian guard who is playing in Turkey but expected to sign with the Kings during the offseason.

“I watched Bogdanovic a lot in the Olympics,” Reynolds said, “and he’s definitely an NBA player. Whether he can play 30-35 minutes remains to be seen. And you always worry about the defensive side with the Euros. But I’d be surprised if he didn’t step in right away and contribute.”

Reynolds offers a unique perspective mainly because he has been with the organization since Kansas City. As a front office executive in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s, he witnessed the team’s first monumental draft day mistake – Bill Russell’s selection of Louisville’s Ellison at No. 1 in 1989. Two years later, and now in the GM hot seat himself, Reynolds outwitted the Golden State Warriors by trading Billy Owens’ draft rights for future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond. “Everyone makes mistakes,” he notes, with a chuckle.

Here is a closer look at a few of the Kings’ most, um, interesting draft adventures since their arrival in 1985:

With regrets

1985: Original Sacramento Kings general manager Joe Axelson was convinced he needed a center to compete against the likes of Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Brad Daugherty, Bill Cartwright and the era’s other quality big men, so after Atlanta grabbed Jon Koncak at No. 5, he took lumbering Kleine at No. 6. So how did that work out? Chris Mullin and Karl Malone enjoyed Hall of Fame careers and Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley and Terry Porter were all still available.

1989: Ellison, who was known as “Never Nervous Pervis” at Louisville, was re-nicknamed “Out of Service Pervis” by teammate Danny Ainge during their one season in Sacramento. Though he was a skilled, versatile 6-foot-9 forward/center who could shoot, pass and defend, Ellison never played more than 76 games in a season and never displayed a love for the game. The Kings traded him to Washington after a one-year, 34-game experiment.

2006: Quincy Douby went 19th in an altogether unremarkable draft. Does anyone outside Canada remember that Toronto selected Italian star Andrea Bargnani with the first overall pick? The Kings missed on two pretty nice point guards, though, in Rajon Rondo and Kyle Lowry.

2011: In a multi-team deal that included the reacquisition of veteran forward John Salmons, the Kings dropped back from No. 7 and selected Fredette at No. 10. Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard followed at 11 and 15, respectively. Team president Geoff Petrie then pulled a rabbit – a tiny rabbit – out of his hat an hour later at No. 60. And, yes, Isaiah dominated Jimmer from the opening minutes of the first scrimmage.

2012: The Kings were shocked when Kansas forward Thomas Robinson dropped to No. 5, though within a matter of weeks, it all made sense. Robinson is a major reason for front office executives to grab a sleeping bag and spend nights on campuses, trolling for information, anywhere and everywhere.

The home runs

1996: A young, strapping Serb named Peja Stojakovic was supposed to be the afterthought in his private workout with Zydrunas Ilgauskas during an off day at the NBA Finals in Chicago. Wrong. With Mike Dunleavy, Sr., directing him to various spots, Stojakovic put on a shooting display so spectacular that 30 general managers left the gym pondering ways to acquire his draft rights. When Peja’s father announced that his 18-year-old son would play two more years in Europe, the three-time All-Star fell to No. 14, where Petrie drafted him, absorbing the lusty boos from an Arco Arena crowd that wanted Syracuse forward John Wallace. Two years later, the Greek League MVP came to Sacramento and became an integral part of one of the most talented and entertaining teams of his generation.

2000: In another underwhelming draft, Petrie selected Hedo Turkoglu, a versatile 6-foot-10 forward from Turkey who filled in admirably for an ailing Stojakovic during the epic 2002 playoffs and was a productive player until repeated injuries hampered his career.

2001, 2004: Gerald Wallace was a steal at 25 and Kevin Martin at 26, respectively.

2011: Isaiah Thomas. Petrie projected the 5-foot-9 combo guard as a Damian Lillard type and suspected that, because of his size limitations, he would be available with the last pick in the draft (No. 60).

The what ifs...

▪ What if former Kings GM Pete D’Alessandro ignored Cousins and Rudy Gay’s complaint about a certain ball-dominant young point guard and offered Isaiah a more lucrative extension? The Suns acquired Thomas and then blew that one, too.

▪ What if a young Jason Williams had matured more swiftly? Wouldn’t that make it easier to explain the decision to draft the flashy point guard (No. 7) ahead of future Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce? JWill was a lot of fun, but he didn’t grow up until his talents went to South Beach. Kings shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Philadelphia went with Larry Hughes at No. 8, leaving Nowitzki for Dallas and Pierce for the Celtics.

▪ What if Hurley didn’t suffer knee and shoulder injuries in the auto accident near the arena that almost cost him his life? The slight, quick former Duke point guard was one of three players (Grant Hill, Chris Webber) who most impressed members of the original Dream Team in a pre-Olympic scrimmage in La Jolla in 1992. Injured weeks into his rookie season, Hurley was never the same.

“Bobby had a great left hand,” said Reynolds, “and because he tore up muscles in his shoulder, he never had that left hand again. We really messed up, too. After that season, he came and played summer league, and we never should have let him do that. He wasn’t ready. But he was so competitive. I still feel really badly for him, but I do think he could have been a special player.”

▪ And what if we could stop tragedy? Ricky Berry’s suicide following his 1988-89 All-Rookie season continues to haunt the franchise. The former San Jose State standout, who was the son of Kings coach Bill Berry, was long, gifted and determined, and projected by many within the league as a future All-Star.

“I always say Ricky would have been better than Peja,” Reynolds continued. “He was like Dale Ellis, but with more of a handle. He could shoot so easily. The first game he started he scored 37 points. That was such a shame, just devastating to all of us.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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