Whatever Happened to Vitaly Potapenko, the Player Drafted 1 Pick Ahead of Kobe Bryant in 1996?
Vitaly Potapenko is a name that will forever live in infamy. Not because of the historic stats he put up or all the championships he won. In fact, his actual NBA career was wildly forgettable. He averaged 6.5 points per game, never made an All-Star team, and didn’t win a single NBA title in 11 seasons as a pro.
But “The Ukraine Train” is a crucial part of the league’s history solely because of the player he was drafted directly before in the 1996 NBA draft — Kobe Bryant. So, whatever happened to Potapenko, and where is he now?
Vitaly Potapenko went one pick ahead of Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA draft
The 1996 NBA draft class was one of the deepest and most talented groups in league history. At the top of the class were six seemingly can’t miss prospects: Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Antoine Walker. The crew became known as the “Super Six of ’96,” but none of them stand today as the biggest storyline from the draft.
Kobe Bryant, the high school phenom out of Philadelphia at the time, was patiently waiting in the wings to hear his name called, but teams weren’t convinced he would be able to contribute right away as a 17-year-old.
A few picks after the “Super Six of ’96” went off the board, the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves on the clock at No. 12 with Bryant still available. But instead of taking a chance on the talented youngster, the Cavaliers opted for the Ukrainian big man out of Wright State — Vitaly Potapenko.
The 6-foot-10, 280-pound center averaged 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game in college while shooting an incredibly efficient 60.3% from the field. Potapenko was considered an NBA-ready talent who could immediately contribute off the bench, so Cleveland went the safe route instead of taking a chance on an unproven high schooler.
One pick later, Kobe Bryant went off the board, and the rest is history.
Potapenko went on to have a forgettable NBA career
As the No. 12 overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, Potapenko was expected to fill Cleveland’s backup center role and eventually take over the starting spot for the franchise. But that’s not exactly how it panned out.
Potapenko lasted just two full seasons with the Cavaliers before he was traded to the Boston Celtics in the middle of the 1998-99 season. The third-year center immediately jumped into the starting rotation and averaged 10.8 points per game with Boston, which turned out to be his highest mark as a pro.
He spent three more seasons with the Celtics before signing with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2002. Another three seasons flew by before Potapenko finished his NBA career in a short stint with the Sacramento Kings.
Over the course of his 11-year NBA career as a journeyman, Potapenko averaged a pedestrian 6.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks per game. He started just 189 of the 610 games he appeared in, and he retired in 2007.
The guy who was drafted one pick after him? Oh, he only went on to win five NBA titles, be named an All-Star 18 times, and make the Hall of Fame. Potapenko didn’t ask to be drafted directly before Kobe Bryant, but that fact will, unfortunately for him, be apart of his NBA legacy forever.
Where is Vitaly Potapenko now?
Like so many former athletes, Potapenko retired from the NBA and immediately tried his hand at coaching. He joined the Indiana Pacers as an assistant coach in 2010 and later joined the team that drafted him, the Cavaliers, as a player development coach in 2014. Potapenko spent six seasons as the assistant director of player development in Cleveland.
In 2019, Potapenko was pegged by Taylor Jenkins to join the Memphis Grizzlies staff as an assistant coach, where he still resides today. The former NBA center is only 45 years old, so don’t be surprised if you see him land a head coaching job in the league in the next few years.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference