It's nice to get a high grade for a draft in the hours after the crowds have left the theatre at Madison Square Garden. It's even nicer to get one at the end of the season...or even later.
Last year, the Nets were generally praised for taking Antoine Wright at No. 15 and Mile Ilic at No. 43. Wright was viewed as a lottery pick on most mock drafts, with some draftniks thinking he could go as high as No. 7 and virtually everyone thinking he was a lottery pick. Only one had him going as low as No. 15. Ilic was seen as a good pick as well, with most analysts thinking he would have gone late in the first round or earlier in the second if it wasn't for a late rumor of a big buyout. Ed Stefanski said Wright reminded him of Allan Houston and later said Ilic was lottery caliber.
Basketball writers agreed, with most giving the Nets grades between B and A, with a consensus that the Nets had one of the best drafts of any NBA team. Of the 12 sites that graded the draft, none gave the Nets a lower grade than a C. That was CBS Sportline's grade. Two sites--NBADraft.net and DraftExpress--said Nets aced the draft. DraftExpress in fact gave the Nets its highest grade, an A+.
That's not the way it looked by season's end, with most analysts suggesting that the Nets would have been better served by taking Danny Granger or Gerald Green or even Hakim Warrick at No. 15. Granger had a much better year for the Pacers and Green, although he played a lot of last season in the D League, exhibited some late season highlight reel skills. In an interview with NBADraft.net, the Nets' international scout, Rob Meurs, even hinted that there was dissension in the war room on draft night with some in the room, apparently including him, wanting Green. Wright, on the other hand, was stuck at the end of the Nets bench through the first half of the season, his shooting suspect, his ball-handling erratic and his decision-making and confidence wanting.
As for Ilic, he has made a lot of progress, leading the ULEB League, Europe's second best international league, in blocks. but not as much as hoped. When given playing time, he looked like what the Nets thought he would look like: a more athletic, taller version of fellow Serb, Nenad Krstic. But he didn't match the stretch he had in late 2005 that won him accolades and his draft position. In the Serbian league semifinals, he had gone for 24 and 10 back then, showing all round skills that wowed scouts. To be kind, he was inconsistent this year at a time when people thought he would make a big leap just as Krstic did. Some blamed his coach at FMP Zeleznik. Among the critics were the Nets brass. And there is indeed a big buyout--somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million--that was blocking his way into the NBA.
But no one is giving up on either. Wright became the defender the Nets thought he could be late in the season, taking on some of the best players in the NBA, including Richard Hamilton and Dwyane Wade in late game situations. Lawrence Frank reminded people regularly that Wright was playing behind two of the NBA's best swingmen, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. And Ilic IS 7'2" and athletic, things they don't teach in basketball camp. Moreover, both are willing workers, according to all reports and it is that quality that the Nets think could justify those high grades given in the days after the 2005 draft.
Over the next few weeks, there will be an opportunity to regrade the 2005 draft, with Wright continuing his development, and Ilic in training camp.
Wright has looked good...so far, first with his solid performance in the summer league and preseason--where last year his liabilities first showed up. He locked himself in the gym, at the Nets' East Rutherford training facility as well as locations in Daytona Beach and Las Vegas, doing what many had advised: shoot and shoot and shoot. Wright's summer numbers were nice, 17.2 ppg to lead the Nets along with a 50% average from beyond the arc and 2.0 steals per game, all enough to put him among summer league leaders in each category. His turnover rate was 2.0, half of teammate Williams. More importantly though Wright acted like a leader and was willing to show that he had played in the NBA, being seen jawing at one point with Bobcat pick Adam Morrison. The Nets also seem to be encouraging on and off court chemistry with Williams, possibly looking to pair them off the bench.
He has continued that improvement in preseason, averaging very similar numbers.
For Ilic, the situation is more complicated. He played for the Serbian National Team and did well enough, in spite of the surfeit of seven footers on hand. In two NT exhibition games prior to the Worlds, he went for 14 and 5 against Canada, filling in for Darko Milicic, then scoring 6 points in 6 minutes against China. Serbia controlled China's top-flight seven foot prospect, Yi Jianlian, by rotating he, Milicic and Warrior pick Kosta Perovic, all taller than Yi. One thing that slowed him down was a buyout from his Serbian team. The Nets could pay $500,000 of the cost, leaving him to pay the remainder. Until Josh Boone tore his labrum and required shoulder surgery, it looked like the Nets wanted to bring him over and let him develop slowly under the tutelage of big man coach Bill Cartwright and strength and conditioning coach Rich Dalatri. Roster spots were at a premimum and apparently Ilic's agent wanted him to get more than the minimum--$412,000--usually given to second rounders and/or a commitment beyond one year. Moreover, the agent, Marc Cornstein, had taken to negotiating in public, telling the Record's Al Iannazzone that other teams in Spain and Russia are looking hard at his client, raising the possiblity that he could get more money from rich teams there...and a much bigger buyout. Then, things changed. Zoran Planinic, who shares an agent with Ilic, decided it's better to get minutes in Spain than bench time in New Jersey and that roster logjam eased. Moreover, by saving money on Planinic, the Nets have more for Ilic. He signed a two year deal contract for $800,000 per...about what he would have gotten if taken at the end of the first round.
So what will justify the Nets' high draft grades from a year ago? It will be hard to justify the A+ from Draft Express. But if Wright becomes the Nets stopper off the bench and someone who can hit a few J's from long range--say, a poor man's James Posey or Bruce Bowen, he will be well worth the pick no matter what the others picked after him do. Ilic must just show up with a Serbian-English dictionary and a willingness to hit the weight room and work with Cartwright.
Bottom line: it won't be easy. The Nets need Wright to contribute this year. He knows it. No such pressure on Ilic. But he will have to show progress. All that said, there is a lesson in all this: the Nets draft grade this year was even higher than last. Of the 14 basketball writers who actually assigned grades, two gave the Nets an A+, three an A, and eight gave them either an A- or B+. Their lowest grades was a B.
Let's see how they look next June.