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Class of '96 Feels Like Bragging

March 12, 2006|From the Associated Press

As far as Jermaine O'Neal was concerned, the proof was right there on the page.

The Indiana Pacer All-Star was looking through a magazine when he spotted a list of the NBA's best players and realized he had something in common with a number of them.

"I was saying, 'You look at the All-NBA teams and a lot of those guys are from '96,' " O'Neal said. "When you look at that draft, it was unbelievable."

As they approach the 10-year anniversary of the night their pro careers began, O'Neal and his classmates feel they are entitled to some bragging.

"That was a great class," said Kobe Bryant, like O'Neal drafted out of high school before that was widely accepted. "A lot of great players came out of that draft. I don't think people are fully aware of the talent that came out of that draft."

The 1996 draft produced five players who were All-Stars this year. Four of them (Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Bryant) were All-NBA last season. Iverson and Nash have won MVP awards, and Nash and Bryant are among the leading candidates this season.

Need scoring? Try Bryant or Iverson. Nobody's more skilled at running an offense than Nash. For 3-point shooting, you can't do much better than Allen or Peja Stojakovic.

The NBA's two leading scorers are '96ers, and Nash tops the league in assists. Marcus Camby, taken behind Iverson with the second pick, was leading the league in rebounding early in the season before getting slowed by injuries.

No wonder O'Neal has no problem saying what others probably think.

"I'd say that was probably the best draft ever," he said. "I would say that if I had to evaluate just on what's going on in the NBA now, with all the stars we have in the game now."

That would depend on a person's definition of a good draft. It's hard to top Oscar Robertson and Jerry West going 1-2 in 1960; the 1984 draft yielded three future MVPs in the top five picks: Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley -- plus John Stockton later in the first round.

But few drafts boast as many talented players deep into the first round. An All-Star team could be fielded just on players taken after the first dozen picks:

Bryant (No. 13), Stojakovic (14), Nash (15), O'Neal (17) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (20).

"It's got to be up there," Nash said during All-Star weekend. "There's a bunch of other guys who aren't here that are having terrific careers, played in All-Star games, gotten max contracts. It's a very deep and talented class."

How Bryant ended up going so low out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania remains a bit of a mystery. Asked recently how 12 teams could have passed on him, Bryant joked that West must have been responsible. The former Laker executive acquired Bryant's rights by sending Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets.

"I think Jerry West might have had something to do with that," Bryant said. "He was kind of putting out, 'Oh no, don't draft that kid. I saw him work out. He's not that good.' "

Still, Bryant would have been gone long before that if John Nash had his way.

Nash was New Jersey's general manger and said the Nets planned to take Bryant with the eighth pick.

In fact, he says he and then-Nets coach John Calipari told Bryant and his family of their plans at dinner the night before the draft.

But Nash says Bryant called the next afternoon to tell the Nets he wasn't interested in playing for them, probably because he knew where he could end up instead.

"As I recall, we got this phone call somewhere in the vicinity at 2 in the afternoon," Nash said. "By 6, it was apparent to us as to what had happened."

Not willing to take a chance of Calipari's first draft turning into a mess, the Nets instead took Villanova guard Kerry Kittles, the other player they had been interested in. But Nash, who would scout both players on trips to Philadelphia, said he wanted to go with Bryant anyway.

"I was a Kobe guy and I told John not to change his decision," Nash said.

Bryant has helped the Lakers win three titles and he leads the league in scoring this season. Kittles battled injuries throughout much of his seven seasons in New Jersey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves might sometimes wish they could have a do-over on the other big trade from that draft.

The Timberwolves took Allen fifth and traded his rights to Milwaukee, which had selected Stephon Marbury with the previous pick. Marbury wanted out after helping the Timberwolves to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, and it's since been a constant struggle for the Wolves to find someone with enough skill and character to pair with Kevin Garnett.

Allen has both. A second-team All-NBA selection last year regarded as one of the league's best shooters, he also is well respected within the league. So he could have been talking about his own situation when he said: "That's why sometimes you can't draft on pure talent. You have to draft on personalities, too."

Like any draft, the '96 one had its share of misses. Samaki Walker, Todd Fuller and Vitaly Potapenko were among the players picked in between Kittles and Bryant.

But with a core group currently dominating the league, and players such as Marbury and No. 6 pick Antoine Walker among those who previously have been All-Stars, the class of '96 has reached a level that Bryant isn't sure will be seen again soon.

"I don't know. Maybe not for a while," Bryant said. "Our draft has bred a lot of successful NBA players, a lot of star players. And I'm proud to be a part of that, as we all are. It's not a friendly rivalry, but it's something to be proud of."

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