Exactly 24 years ago tonight, Kobe Bryant was the 13th overall pick of the famed 1996 NBA draft, which many say is one of the greatest in history. Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, the then-17-year-old phenom from Lower Merion (PA) High School was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, joining forces with Shaquille O’Neal to become one of the most lethal 1-2 combinations in NBA history, winning three consecutive titles from 2000-2002. Bryant then won consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010.
Over the course of two decades with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant became one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen. Along with his five NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVP trophies, the Black Mamba also won NBA MVP honors in 2008, the same year he won the first of two Olympic gold medals. He was an 18-time NBA All-Star, a four-time All-Star Game MVP, a 15-time All-NBA selection, a 12-time All-Defensive Team selection, a two-time scoring champ and had both his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys retired by the Lakers in 2017, one year after scoring 60 points in his final game.
Kobe scored 33,643 points in his career, currently good for fourth on the all-time list, and likely would have broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record had injuries not piled up in the final years of his career. Tragically, Kobe Bryant died on January 26, 2020, in a helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Bryant was scheduled to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year but the ceremony has been postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what about those 12 players that were taken before Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA draft? Well, in total, the dozen combined to win four championships, one less than Kobe had himself, and one MVP, which was won by top overall pick Allen Iverson. So let’s take a look at these 12 players, who are broken up into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Two-thirds of the players selected ahead of Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA draft actually have to be placed into the “good” category for various reasons. There was so much talent in that draft class. Everybody knew the Philadelphia 76ers were going to take Allen Iverson with the top pick, as they should have. He was an All-American at Georgetown and was certainly more NBA-ready than Kobe at the time, as many of these players were. So let’s start with A.I. and go down the line in this category.
- Allen Iverson (1st overall pick-Philadelphia 76ers): Played 14 seasons with four teams, 1997 Rookie of the Year, 11-time NBA All-Star, 2001 NBA MVP, four-time scoring champion, three-time steals leader, Olympic bronze medalist, averaged 26.7 points per game, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2016
- Ray Allen (5th overall pick-Minnesota Timberwolves, traded to the Milwaukee Bucks): Played 18 seasons with four teams, two-time NBA champion, 10-time NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, all-time leader in three-pointers made (2,973), averaged 18.9 points per game, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018, played the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game when Kobe Bryant turned it down
- Antoine Walker (6th overall pick-Boston Celtics): Played 13 seasons with five teams, three-time NBA All-Star, averaged 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game
- Marcus Camby (2nd overall pick-Toronto Raptors): Played 17 seasons with six teams, 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, four-time blocks leader, averaged 9.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game
- Stephon Marbury (4th overall pick-Milwaukee Bucks, traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves): Played 13 seasons with five teams, two-time NBA All-Star, Olympic bronze medalist, averaged 19.3 points and 7.6 assists per game
- Shareef Abdur-Rahim (3rd overall pick-Vancouver Grizzlies): Played 12 seasons with four teams, one-time NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, averaged 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game
- Erick Dampier (10th overall pick-Indiana Pacers): Played 16 seasons with five teams, averaged 7.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, played in two NBA Finals
- Kerry Kittles (8th overall pick-New Jersey Nets): Played eight seasons with two teams, averaged 14.1 points per game
Now we come to the “bad” category. Obviously, just to be selected in the lottery of the NBA draft means a player has a massive amount of talent. But, as every NBA fan knows, talent alone doesn’t make for a great career. And sometimes a player just has bad luck.
For example, you’ll see the late Lorenzen Wright’s name below. He was a stud at Memphis before coming to the NBA but was then drafted by the LA Clippers when they were…well, the Clippers. He struggled and while he had a couple of decent years in Memphis, overall he’d have to be looked at a somewhat of a “bad” player by the standards set by this class. And the injuries he suffered in his career didn’t help matters. The same could be said for Vitaly Potapenko.
- Lorenzen Wright (7th overall pick-LA Clippers): Played 13 seasons with five teams, averaged 8.0 points and 6.4 rebounds per game
- Vitaly Potapenko (12th overall pick-Cleveland Cavaliers): Played 11 seasons with four teams, averaged 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game
It’s interesting to think what would have happened had the Cavs drafted Kobe Bryant as it likely puts them in a position to not draft LeBron James seven years later.
It might be a little odd to put one of the three players that won an NBA title in the “ugly” category but Samaki Walker simply didn’t live up to expectations and earned his ring as a bench player for Kobe Bryant’s third championship. And then, of course, there’s Todd Fuller, who just never found success in the NBA.
- Samaki Walker (9th overall pick-Dallas Mavericks): Played 10 seasons with six teams, one-time NBA champion, averaged 5.3 points and 4.7 rebounds
- Todd Fuller (11th overall pick-Golden State Warriors): Played five seasons with four teams, averaged 3.7 points and 3.0 rebounds
And there you have it. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 12 players taken ahead of Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA draft. RIP, Mamba.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference