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The Best That Never Was: The Greatest Draft Ever and What Could Have Been

When I was writing the Generations article players that didn’t play in the NBA in their prime, or at all, came up. It was a different period when the money between the NBA and other leagues around the world wasn’t as disparate. That exercise inspired me to talk about the best player to never play in the NBA and speculate on just how good he possibly could have been. Also, any time this player has been talked about, something that never has been as far as I can tell, being how good the team that drafted him was set up to potentially be. We will dig into some of the stats we do have to try to draw some conclusions as well as talk about how history may have been changed.

1984 Draft Class

1984 is widely regarded as the best Draft Class ever, and rightfully so. It featured Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. One could make the case that 4 of the all time top 20 are in one class alone. Stockton perhaps is the weakest of the bunch, and he’s just the all time leader in assists and steals in the NBA and 6th all time in Win Shares. Barkley and Stockton would have championships as will if there was no Jordan so I don’t believe that is a good differentiator.

That’s 4 are all timers certainly but other All Stars in the class include, Alvin Robertson who is 1st all time in the NBA in steals per game and a 4 time All Star himself. When you think of steals he’s the guy I think of. Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis round out the All Stars in this class. Willis played until he was 44 years old which is a feat unto itself. He’s 25th all time in rebounds in NBA history even playing in an era where steals weren’t as available as they were with pace and low percentage like they were in the 50s-70s where almost half of the rest of the top 25 played.

Other longtime staples from this class include Sam Perkins, Michael Gage, and Jerome Kersey who all played over 15 to 17 years in the NBA. Even the often derided Sam Bowie would be a success story in most drafts if Michael Jordan didn’t get drafted directly behind him. He played 10 years in the league and multiple seasons as a quality starter.

In total, there were 17 players from the 1984 class that logged at least 10 years in the league. 4 more logging 8 as well. It was not only heavy at the top, but supplied a lot of depth. For instance, a name almost no one would recall in Tony Campbell averaged 23.2ppg, 5.5rpg one season and he might be the 20th best player in the class. Future Hall of Fame Coach Rick Carlisle parleyed being drafted as the 70th pick in 1984 into a 6-season career with a championship. There are many guys that shaped the NBA from 1984.

Oscar Schmidt

Drafted way down at #131 in the 6th Round of the 1984 Draft future Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt will be the focus of the rest of this article.

Just as a quick overview of Schmidt and the basics, he was 26 years old at the time, 6-9 225lb from Brazil playing in Europe in the Italian league. A young Kobe Bryant who’s father was playing in Italy at the time would be an early admirer of Schmidt he would later say even before he knew of the NBA. That was his first guy idol.

I’m not sure if his draft status or lack thereof was a result of teams being skeptical he would actually come to the NBA, the advanced age for a draft pick, or skepticism of his athletic ability and talent. It was likely a combination of all those factors. Bruce Jenner was drafted 139th a few years prior, to give you an idea of the reaches in old-school 10 round drafts. Olympian Carl Lewis was drafted in 1984 although in the 10th round well after Schmidt. A Beach Volley Ball player was drafted before Schmidt. It’s ridiculous he went 131st when by all accounts he was already regarded as the best foreign player in the world at the time, not playing in the US.

Schmidt has said he was extremely offended by the lack of respect and had decided to not join the NBA. He did come to training camp motivated just to show them what they were missing. Reports at the time were he had a good training camp as well and scored with ease, Schmidt said he gave them 25 points in 25 minutes a game. They offered him a good contract, but it was less than he was making in Italy according to Schmidt, which we talked about in the Generation’s write-up.

That makes sense, as he was the face of that league, and it was a time before the really big money in the NBA could trump all. Schmidt also would have to give up the ability to play for the Brazil national team which was the rule if you joined the NBA at that time that obviously played a part.

Olympic play

Schmidt was already a veteran of 1 Olympics at the time of the 1984 draft and would play in his 2nd that Summer. His first Olympics were 1980, this was the year the USA boycotted the Olympics and Schmidt would average 24.1ppg 7.9rpg leading Brazil to 4th.

A few weeks after the 1984 Draft Schmidt would lead Brazil into the Olympics again, this time finishing 9th with him also averaging 24.1ppg which was 3rd highest scoring average in those Olympics. He wouldn’t get to face Team USA in these Olympics with a young Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Chris Mullin leading them to gold. Keep in mind these were players that were in college or just had been drafted and hadn’t played in the NBA at the time per the rules. He would however face Jordan in a Nike exhibition in Italy in the mid 80s, although we do not have the results for that one.

Schmidt would go on back to Europe to play pro ball and by 1987 when the Pan Am Games came around he was fully in his prime. Powered by his 46 points, Brazil would take down Team USA to win the Gold Medal on US Soil in the Pan Am games. These were college players, but not your typical college players like today. David Robinson was a seasoned 22 years old. Danny Manning was 21 and other NBA players such as Pervis Ellison, Dan Majerie, Rex Chapman were also on the team.

In the 1988 Olympics, Schmidt entered at 30 years old and still at the height of his powers. He would average 42.3ppg 7.8rpg in 36 minutes a game in 8 Olympic contests. Against Team USA that season, he would have 31 points 7 rebounds on 16 shots from the floor, going 15-15 from the line. The team was still a college team (remember an older college team) but it consisted of nearly all future NBA players with Robinson, Manning, Marjerie, Mitch Richmond leading the way. Brazil would finish 4th place again, just missing a medal.

The 1992 Olympics were the first year NBA players could play and featured the Dream Team. Schmidt by this point was 34 years old. He would average 24.8ppg in those 8 Olympic Games and would lead Brazil to 5th place. His game vs the US that season was one of his more disappointing, going 8-25 with 24 points. I think it’s pretty obvious that team USA was making a point to not let him score by this point considering what he had done to them in the past and they had the horses to do it now. He was also on the downside of his career. Overall, it was still a respectable Olympics appearance, he led all scorers with 24.8ppg over those 8 games.

Schmidt would come back in 1996 in Atlanta and have another vintage Olympic performance and redemption at the age of 38 years old. He would yet again lead the Olympics in scoring at 27.4ppg. He’d fare better this time vs Dream Team II scoring 26 points and 5 rebounds on 8-20 from the floor. This with 72-win Bulls Scottie Pippen guarding him again.

GamesMinutesFG%3pt Made3pt %FT%RebsAssistStealsBlocksTurnoversPoints
1980Brazil77.90.41.6024.1
1984Brazil75.70.91.10.12.324.1
1988Brazil8360.5694.40.5560.9187.81.60.60.41.842.3
1992Brazil831.80.3473.50.3780.8893.50.62.10224.8
1996Brazil832.90.41650.3810.9533.110.503.627.4

Schmidt would finish as the all-time leader in Olympic scoring.

Spain

For a player that played professional basketball from age 16 to 45 and had a career that spanned 29 years from 1974-2003 scoring the most points (nearly 50k) of any player ever there is little actual league data to draw on available. The best we have outside the Olympics is two seasons he played late in his career in Spain. I think these two seasons are two very informative though for how to view him. The only unfortunate aspect is by this point Schmidt was well past his prime but still managed to lead the league in scoring at the age of 36 averaging 33.2ppg. The following season at the age of 37 he would still average 24ppg.

This was a legitimate league from my research with many former NBA players among their league leaders of those years, in fact most of this league’s leaders were Americans and former guys that logged a few seasons in the NBA. Guys like Rod Sellers, Warren Kidd, Dan Godfread, Ken Bannister, Dennis Hopson, and Michael Anderson types. The best-known players in this league I could find were Arvydas Sabonis and Darrell Armstrong.

Sabonis I think this gives us the best indication of the type of translation to the NBA Schmidt may have been able to make considering Sabonis would leave for the NBA shortly afterward and still be quite effective even as he was older and greatly diminished by injuries by the point he got to the NBA. He was logically a better version of himself closer to his prime the 2 years they shared in the Spain. Going to the NBA in his 30’s after playing in the Spainish league in his prime is a good indication of how it could translate IMO.

Let’s look how Sabonis and Schmidt both performed in the same league at the same time they were there. in 1993-1995. This was season 1

AgePPGRPGAPGFG%3pt3pt%FTMinutesGames
Oscar Schmidt3633.351.70.4644.70.420.85836.628
Arvydas Sabonis3017.711.220.6240.60.4170.80231.727

Sabonis was the league MVP both seasons but Schmidt actually lead the league in scoring and did it very efficiently. I think you could argue he had a better individual season the first year they were in the same league, although team success didn’t follow. I wouldn’t blame that entirely on a guy scoring 33.3ppg and going it as efficiently as he was, though.

AgePPGRPGAPGFG%3pt3pt%FTMinutesGames
Oscar Schmidt37243.31.10.4844.20.4850.85833.338
Arvydas Sabonis3122.913.22.40.5780.70.3380.78134.934

Sabonis’s numbers were better his second year and overall are very similar to his per 36’s early in his NBA tenure. He would join the NBA the following season averaging

AgePPGRPGAPGFG%3pt3pt%FTMinutesPER
Arvydas Sabonis3214.58.11.80.5450.50.3750.75723.824.7

Note the 23.8 minutes per game. That is pretty incredible per possession stats even a year older at the age of 32. This was his best per possession season as one would expect still being closer to his prime but he would go on to play 7 seasons in the NBA from age 32 to 39 averaging 16ppg, 10rpg, 3apg at age 34 with a 20.4 PER when he was given actual starter minutes.

The Translation

Sabonis obviously was a stud in the NBA and effective even as an older injury diminished player. It’s certainly possible had he came over earlier, he could have been one of the great NBA players ever. I think his per 36’s that first season at the end of what would have been his prime would indicate that he would have been a 20ppg 12 rebound type mainstay in his 20’s.

What is interesting to me is that in the same league Sabonis averaged 17ppg 11rpg and won the MVP at 30 year old Schmidt averaged 33ppg and 5rpg at 36 years old, obviously well past his prime. Amazingly, Sabonis was really no more productive per minute in the Spanish league than he was in his best per possession season in the NBA which was his first season, as one would expect.

Per 36 Minutes
PER 36 MinutesAgePPGRPGAPGFG%FTPER
Arvydas SabonisNBA322212.22.70.5450.75724.7
Arvydas SabonisSpain3020.112.72.30.6240.802
Arvydas SabonisSpain3123.613.62.50.5780.781—-

I think this is a great indication that the Spanish league was a quality league, and that it’s MVP was just as productive per minute as the NBA, actually more productive at 32 than he was in Spain at 30. Schmidt being able to do what he did at the age of 36 and 37 years old in Spain is the best indication to me, he would have been an All Star level player in the NBA as well in his prime, especially when you couple it with what he did in the Olympics or to team USA. When you score like that I think it would travel anywhere.

Projected NBA Career

Many people would knock Schmidt for his defense and lack of athletic ability, and probably write off his impact. I would counter with the fact Larry Bird wasn’t exactly any more fleet of foot after he hurt his back in 1985. Yet Bird was still a highly effective NBA player even in the years after, actually registering his best statistical season at the age of 31. He was still one of the best players in the NBA at 35 years old with a bad back.

Bird would lay on the floor when he was subbed out to keep his back from starting to spasm. He was obviously a shell athletically at that point, even from his average athletic starting point. I think if there was a place in the NBA for 35 year old bad back Bird to average 20ppg, I believe there would have also have been a place for Schmidt at any point so I reject that argument.

Schmit’s scoring was similar to Bird but he could do little else but score so they aren’t similar players in that respect the way Bird could rebound and pass. The career I envision Schmidt would have had in the NBA is a career trajectory similar statistically to Dale Ellis. Ellis could score but did little else on the court as well. At worst, I think Schmidt’s floor would be similar to a 30 something Ellis when he was more of a 3 point specialist that that averaged about 15ppg. Watching both’s highlights Schmidt did seem to have better driving ability and ball handling.

Ellis at his best averaged 23.5ppg to 27.5ppg for four seasons in his prime and made one All Star game and played until he was 39 years old. He was still good for about 16ppg until he was 36 years old. I think Schmidt showed even at 36 years old he would still have been a quality NBA player.

Another comp I considered as well is the career Kiki Vandeweghe had. Vanderweghe didn’t shoot three’s though, which is why I lean less to that one less and I believe Schmidt would have been allowed to bomb away at some point. He could have probably approximated a similar type of career to Vandewegh’s career even without a high volume of 3’s, Vanderweghe still found a way to be highly efficient and average 20+ seven times. He also did little else productive outside of score like Ellis. I think Schmidt could have been a mix of the 2. Detlef Schrempf also comes to mind in the following draft class but he was a way to good of a rebounder and passer I think to be a comp. Schmidt was a much better pure scorer as well.

If Schmidt had come into the league at 26 years old after the 1984 draft, I think his main contribution would have been one of the pioneering 3 point shooters similar to Ellis that would have probably helped push the league even quicker to shoot threes and even out of the PF position at times. Schmidt was making 4+ or three’s a game in the Olympics and Spain, at a time when this was pretty unheard of to even make 2 a game in the NBA. I think he would have helped change the game in that aspect and would have been his biggest historical NBA impact.

The New Jersey Nets

Assuming a mix of a Dale Ellis/Kiki Vandeweghe-type game and career trajectory, let’s look at the interesting team that drafted him.

The New Jersey Nets were a quality franchisee in the mid 80’s. They were coming off a 45 win season where they upset the star studded 2 seed 76ers with Dr. J, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeds, and Moses Malone in the playoffs. The 76ers had been to the NBA finals just the season before. This Net’s team was a team ready to win.

Schmidt would have come into the league at 26 years old pretty much in his prime as well and ready to start winning as well. He almost assuredly would have spent the first 3 or 4 seasons with the franchise that drafted if not much longer which was the case in those days. The 1984-85 Net’s were a team with 3 recent All Stars let’s talk about them briefly as even NBA history buffs might not be that aware of them.

Otis Birdsong Shooting Guard

Birdsong was 29 years old the 1984-85 season and coming off an All Star season the year prior, his 4th overall. He was the 2nd pick in the 1977 NBA draft a very quality SG who averaged 20ppg this season.

Micheal Ray Richardson Point Guard

Richardson is probably most famous in the NBA for being suspended for substance abuse in 1986-87 in David Stern’s crackdown on the excess. Prior to that, he had had a great career and was probably not remembered fondly enough in NBA history simply because the NBA tries to forget the drug problems and sweeps him under the rug some.

The former #4 pick in the 1978 NBA draft made his 4th All Star team in that 1984-84 season. He was one of the best PG’s in the NBA that year averaging 20ppg 8.2apg. Previously in his career, he led the NBA in assist at 10.1apg one season and steals 3 times and is 2nd all time in steals per game in NBA history. He was also 29 years old in what would have been Schmidt’s first season.

Buck Williams Power Forward

The #3 pick in the 1981 Draft Williams would make 2 all star games in his first two years in the NBA. In 1984-85 he would average 18.2ppg 12.3rpg but not make that All Star team. He would make his 3rd all star team the year after though at the age of 25.

1984-85 NET’s42-401st Rd
AgePPGRPGAPG
CMike Gminski6-11, 2502512.87.82
PFBuck Williams6-8, 2132418.212.32
SF
SGOtis Birdsong6-3, 1802920.62.64.1
PGM. Ray Richardson6-5, 1892920.15.68.2
CDarryl Dawkins6-11, 2512813.54.61.2
SGAlbert King6-6, 1902512.83.81.4

What is clear is the Net’s had some serious talent with 3 homegrown All Stars all age 24-29 years old when they would have added 26 year old Schmidt to the mix in a gapping hole at Small Forward. They also got some quality play with the 2 headed center platoon of Mike Gminski and Darryl Dawkins who were very productive as well.

Dawkins and Birdsong only played 39 and 56 regular season games with Birdsong missing the playoffs which likely cost them 45+ wins and a 1st round exit. With Schmidt he could have picked up some of that unfortunate injury luck and that slack IMO.

If Schmidt were a mix of Vanderwehe and Dale Ellis in their prime, I think I would favor that team over the Bucks with the quality of depth they had. Detroit beat the Nets in the playoffs that year, but they had just started their accent to what they would become. I think the Nets with Schmitz even without Birdsong would have been a much closer series. It just feels like the Nets would have been a top 4 team in the east and could have given anyone a series in what would have been Schmidt’s first 2 seasons.

In 1985-86 the Net’s returned essentially the exact same team and this is likely where Schmidt would have shined the most and became the lead dog on offense on a good team. He would have been 27 years old right at his peak on a team no one averaged more than 16.5ppg that season and were a collective group by that point begging for a go to scorer. He likely would have filled that role up.

As it were, this was still pretty good team that went 39-43 and to the playoffs but again suffered bad injury luck losing Richardson who only played 49 games and missed the playoffs. Schmidt would have had the opportunity to pick up a lot of that slack. I still think they could have approached 50 wins both of these seasons and been a contender with Schmidt filling an obvious hole. It would have been a memorable team.

By the following year, however, their window was closed and the team was falling apart with Richardson being suspended and never returning to the NBA. Birdsong only played 7 games and was never the same after. These next few years would have likely been trying to scratch out the 8th seed and coming to a little short and winning around 30 games, but one where Schmidt would have likely put up big scoring numbers near 30ppg. I could have seen him getting 28ppg on these type of teams in his prime in his late 20’s that had nothing else on them by that point really. They would have been able to spend their money on someone other than Orlando Woolrdige which could have helped though. Maybe it’s possible with Buck Williams still playing well they could have snuck into the 8th seed one of those years of Schmidt really went nuts too.

After a couple years of that, and approaching his 30s he likely would have been traded to a contender like Buck Williams was eventually. I do think those first two seasons would have been the window and a chance to really make a name for himself in the playoffs. The team even injured was pretty good and it was set up for him to help move the needle. Richardson was never a natural scorer who had to take on that role in 1984-85 after Birdsongs injury, so having Schmidt would have really maximized the make up of the team.

We’ll never know for sure, but I do think Schmidt would have put up big numbers either way from 1985-1990. After that, he’d likely have found his way onto contenders and took a step back in his role but still could have been similar to Dale Ellis in the 1990’s as a nice 12-15ppg 3 points specialist on a contender somewhere. Who I don’t know but especially by the early and mid 90’s the NBA was starting to have 3 point shooting PF’s like Matt Bullard and Terry Mills. Moving the line up would have been big for Schmidt too when you look at his volume and percentage from the international like. He would have aged well in this period. I think he would have made an All Star team or two as well along the way and had a very notable career.

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