June 2009
Rundown: Thomas Lake serves fresh intelligence on current issues

What major American sports team has wasted the most first-round draft picks in the past twenty-five years?

That would be the Atlanta Hawks. It hurts me to say so, because the Hawks have been my favorite basketball team since I was nine, when I smuggled a radio to bed so I could hear Steve Holman call their games on WGST. But the record is clear. Since 1984, when they picked a seven-foot center named Kevin Willis, the Hawks have not drafted one player who became an All-Star for them. They have ignored several future superstars. And they have chosen some of the NBA’s most spectacular failures. To prepare for this year’s draft on June 25, let’s look back on the wreckage, one decade at a time.

In 1985, with the fifth pick, the Hawks could have had Chris Mullin, who would be chosen for the original Olympic Dream Team; Joe Dumars, a future Hall of Famer; or Karl Malone, later named one of the fifty greatest players in NBA history. They took Jon Koncak, who would average 4.5 points per game in his career. After unremarkable picks in 1986 (Billy Thompson at nineteen, who would average only 8.6 points a game) and 1987 (Dallas Comegys at twenty-one, who never played for them), the Hawks spent the twenty-third pick in 1989 on Roy Marble, a six-foot-five guard out of Iowa, who was busted for cocaine in his rookie season and scored only fifty-five career points.

With the tenth pick in 1990, the Hawks took Rumeal Robinson, the Michigan guard best known for sinking two free throws with three seconds left to win the NCAA championship. But with the Hawks, he scored little and made barely 60 percent of his free throws, a woeful rate for a guard. The Hawks’ fortunes improved slightly in 1991 with the selection of Stacey Augmon, a solid forward from UNLV, but the next year they passed up Latrell Sprewell and Robert Horry for Adam Keefe, who would start just seven games in his first five seasons.

In 1993 they could have had Sam Cassell, a future All-Star, but they chose his Florida State teammate, Doug Edwards, who in three NBA seasons neither started a game nor made a three-pointer. In 1995 they took the unspectacular Alan Henderson instead of Michael Finley, who would twice be an All-Star. In 1996 they picked Priest Lauderdale, a seven-foot-four center who would never start an NBA game. Next it was Ed Gray, out of the league in two years; and Roshown McLeod, gone in four. In 1999 they had four first-round picks: at ten, Jason Terry, traded to Dallas after five good seasons; at seventeen, Cal Bowdler, never to start an NBA game; at twenty, Dion Glover, another benchwarmer; and at twenty-seven, Jumaine Jones, traded before he played a minute.

True, 2000 was an awful draft year, but Hedo Turkoglu and Desmond Mason were available. Instead the Hawks squandered the sixth pick on DerMarr Johnson. They got Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol at third in 2001 but immediately traded him. They got Dan Dickau in 2002; he never started a game for them. They got Boris Diaw in 2003; he never averaged more than five points a game for them. They got Josh Childress at sixth in 2004; he fled for Europe after four mediocre seasons. They could have had Chris Paul, the NBA’s next great point guard, in 2005; instead they spent the second pick on Marvin Williams. They could have had Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy in 2006; inexplicably, they chose Shelden Williams.

And yet there’s hope. Josh Smith (seventeenth in ’04) and Al Horford (third in ’07) are not All-Stars yet, but they could be. The Hawks had more wins this season than they’d had in a decade, thanks partly to two smart trades. They got veteran point guard Mike Bibby from the Kings, and Joe Johnson, their superstar, from the Suns. (The ownership dispute ignited by the Johnson trade was still simmering in the courts at press time.) What did they give up for Bibby and Johnson? Not much. A few nondescript players and some draft picks. In other words, they may have handed over the rights to the next Jon Koncak.