The Best NBA Draft Class of All Time: 1996 or 2003?

Erik MackayContributor IJune 5, 2008

When buying basketball cards, most people search for the most valuable ones: the rookies. 

For example, if you buy a pack of cards, box of packs, or case of boxes from the year 1997-98, you tend to look for Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and Chauncey Billups cards, or from 1995-96, the Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett ones.  

It is the 1996-97 and 2003-04 packs, boxes, and cases that seem impossible to purchase without spending a fortune because they are loaded with big name rookies. 

In 1996, most people did not think that Kobe Bryant would ever be all that he has become. 

Similarly, in 2003, a lot of people did not think LeBron James would ever reach the level he is at now. 

This is because when we look at an upcoming draft class, we see potential, and when we look back on rookie classes, we see accomplishment. 

It is very difficult to foresee who will become what down the road.  It would be easy if everyone amounted to his full potential.  If everyone amounted to his full potential, Michael Jordan would not have been drafted third overall. 

Some rookies are standouts from the get go and have an immediate impact, such as Rookie of the Year winners Allen Iverson and LeBron James.  For others, it does not work quite that way. 

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Kobe Bryant spent one year as a novice before becoming a franchise player.  David West didn't become an All-Star caliber player until his fifth season. 

To make the best educated predictions of who will be what, we look mostly at previous performance, which usually provides pretty accurate results.  We also need to take into account that at the next level, things change.  It is similar for college scouting. 

There are some high school players that dominated for four years that never even start a game in college, as are there players who didn't even play on the team for four years in high school that become All-Americans in college.  This is what makes drafts and rookies so exciting.  You get to see who are the sleepers and who are the busts at the professional level.

The talent brought to the NBA by the 1996 and 2003 draft classes are both tremendous and compare quite closely.  Below is a comparison of the finest products produced from these two drafts and a conclusion explaining which one is the best draft class of all-time. 

It would not be fair to compare where the players are at today for both classes because most of the '96 class is well in their 30s and past their prime, so the '96 class is assessed based on the conclusion of the 2000-01 season, their fifth season, and the '03 class is assessed based on the completion of this past season (07-08), their fifth season.

96-1: KOBE BRYANT (Drafted 13th overall by Charlotte, traded to LA Lakers)- Very hardworking 6'7" shooting guard displayed excellent all-around game quickly rising to the NBA's elite.  Dropped a career high 28.5 points per game (Fourth in the NBA) in '00-'01, teaming up with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Lakers to back to back NBA championships.

03-1: LEBRON JAMES (drafted first overall by Cleveland)- Also out coming out of high school, this versatile 6'9" small forward met all expectations, proving that he is MVP material.  Led the NBA in scoring averaging 30.0 per game in '07-'08, leading his team well into the playoffs to a tough game seven loss in the second round in Boston.

Edge: LEBRON JAMES.  Kobe is the better player now after all he has been through, but in five years LeBron has made more progress as an individual, mainly because he is the Cavs' premier player where as Kobe had to share that honor with Shaq in LA.

96-2: ALLEN IVERSON (drafted first overall by Philadelphia)- Quick, talented 6'0" guard entered the league after two years in college and showed everyone right away what he can do.  After five years, Iverson was seen as undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA.  A huge scoring threat, averaging 31.1 points per game in '00-'01 to lead the NBA, took the Sixers to the Finals where they lost to the Lakers in five games.

03-2: DWYANE WADE (drafted fifth overall by Miami)- A fast, strong 6'4" shooting guard finds every which was to get to the basket.  Had a quiet impact at the start of his career, but rose to the top very quick winning himself an NBA championship.  Looked as though the sky was the limit for this young gun until he got injured.

Edge: ALLEN IVERSON.  D-Wade had it going for him until two injury plagued seasons quickly dropped the anchor.  Iverson battled and battled in his first five seasons and proved a lot, where as Wade still has a lot of question marks floating over him.

96-3: STEVE NASH (drafted 15th overall by Phoenix)- a finesse 6'3" point guard with very strong fundamental skills backed up Jason Kidd in Phoenix for a couple seasons before going to Dallas and becoming the starting point guard.  He earned his reputation in Dallas becoming a steady starting point guard, averaged 15.6 points per game and 7.3 assists per game in '00-'01.

03-3: KIRK HINRICH (drafted seventh overall to Chicago)- another talented 6'3" guard, added a much needed valuable backcourtpresence to a rebuilding Chicago Bulls team.  Eventually teamed up with Ben Gordon to form a strong backcourt 1-2 punch, leading the Bulls to a fourth place Eastern Conference finish and a Sixth place Eastern Conference finish, upsetting the NBA Champion Miami Heat in the first round, in back to back seasons.

Edge: STEVE NASH.  Lets face it, Nash could not flash the highlights or the numbers that Hinrich can, but proved to be such a valuable consistent performer to the Mavericks against all odds.

96-4: BEN WALLACE (undrafted, signed by Washington)- no one thought much of this small 6'8" center-forward at first as he had little to nothing to show for in his first couple years, getting cut from the NBA.  Eventually making a comeback to the league when the Boston Celtics took a flier on him at the Shaws Summer League.  Was traded around the NBA, going to Toronto, Denver, Chicago, and Orlando where he proved that he was a hard worker and would become something.  In a trade for Grant Hill, the Magic sent Big Ben to Detroit where he took off.  Based on reputation, who would have thought that Wallace would be the big time shot blocker and rebounder, and Hill would be an overpaid, injury prone let down.

03-4: CHRIS BOSH (drafted fourth overall to Toronto)- Right from the get go, the 6'10" Bosh had expectations to meet.  Though he didn't necessarily start off as with fourth overall pick quality numbers, worked his way to the top becoming a franchise player dropping 22.3 points per game in '07-'08, leading the Raptors to the playoffs which is huge considering where the Raptors were when he started.

Edge: BEN WALLACE.  Yes, it is true that Wallace did not hit his prime until after '00-'01 and was never the scorer that Bosh is, but he was a very clutch defender which impressively made up for the offense lost from trading Grant Hill.  Bosh has not necessarily fit the meaning of clutch, getting manhandled by Dwight Howard and the Magic in the '07-'08 playoffs.

96-5: STEPHON MARBURY (drafted fourth overall by Minnesota)- This quick, strong 6'2" point guard had a lot of weapons.  He was a playmaker, he could shoot, he could get to the basket, andhe could defend.  Teamed up with Kevin Garnett to form a powerful dynamic duo and was then traded to New Jersey.  Marbury never had MVP caliber talent, but could really perform, putting put 23.6 points, 7.6 assists and 1.18 steals per game in '00-'01.

03-5: LUKE RIDNOUR (drafted 14th overall to Seattle)- Ridnour came into the NBA as a very talented prospect with a finesse backcourt style game.  Coming out of Univ of Oregon, Ridnour had heads turning at the rookie camps.  He has become a steady performer in Seattle with a lot to offer, but not enough to carry a team.

Edge: STEPHON MARBURY.  It is a pretty simple choice.  Marbury provided that much more.  A much more dominant player than Ridnour.

96-6: RAY ALLEN (drafted fifth overall to Milwaukee)- Ray Allen, a 6'5" shooting guard, was never a flashy player that you would see all over highlight reels, but he got the job done.  He was a very consistent performer.  He played for a very lowly team that never made it far, so he was very often overlooked despite his 22.0 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game, and 1.03 steals per game effort in '00-'01.

03-6: JOSH HOWARD (drafted 29th overall by Dallas)- Drafted as an underclassman at Wake Forest, this explosive 6'5" shooting guard has so much to offer despite taking a few years to develop.  Not quite a big time scoring threat yet, Howard has high hopes and has become a part of the nucleus of the Mavericks.  Howard is an uptempo player that dropped 20 points and grab 7 rebounds a game.

Edge: JOSH HOWARD.  Ray Allen may have better numbers, but Josh Howard's are not too bad.  Considering that Howard is not alone over in Dallas, he may be able to carry a team more successfully than Ray Allen did.  It is a close call between the two, but Josh Howard just has a little more game than Ray Allen.

96-7: JERMAINE O'NEAL (drafted 17th overall by Portland)- A 6'10" power forward, O'Neal was little to nothing at first, playing backup for a powerful front court, which included Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis.  It wasn't until 2000 when O'Neal was traded to Indiana in a deal sending Dale Davis to Portland, when he had his first season as a full time starter as a center-forward.  He was just that, finishing the '00-'01 season with 12.9 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, and 32.6 minutes per game.  Each of those stats tripling from the prior season.

03-7: DAVID WEST (drafted 18th overall to New Orleans)- A tough, gritty 6'9" power forward improved every year, becoming a full time starter in '05-'06 when the Hornets played in Oklahoma City.  West had a very impressive '07-'08 season, earning all-star starting power forward honors, over many incumbents, and teaming up with Chris Paul to lead New Orleans to a division title and a run for even more that ended in game six of the conference semis, losing to perennial powerhouse, San Antonio.

Edge: DAVID WEST.  The numbers say it all.  West has made a lot more progress than O'Neal did in five years.  He helped turn a very dismal team into a NBA finals contending team.  Something that O'Neal, who joined an already strong team that didn't make much more progress, wasn't able to do.

96-8: ANTOINE WALKER (drafted sixth overall by Boston)- A strong 6'8" forward withthe ability to shoot, rebound, and defend, Walker inherited a team that was headed downhill very fast.  With the loss of premier player Dino Radja, Walker had very little supporting cast on a team that managed 16 wins, second worst in the NBA, in his first season.  Walker was quick to become an All-Star.  With help of eventual front court partner Paul Pierce, Walker was able to gradually improve and rebuild the remains of what once was a mighty dynasty.  In '00-'01, Walker had 8.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.70 steals per game.

03-8: CARMELO ANTHONY (drafted third overall by Denver)- A flashy, dynamic 6'8" small forward that took just one year to lead Syracuse to a NCAA title, Carmelo was an immediate impact player who led Denver to a rare playoff experience where they were immediately bounced by top seed Minnesota in five games.  Carmelo was very impressive, giving LeBron James a run for rookie of the year honors.  His numbers stood out from the get go, finishing his rookie year with 21 points, 6 rebounds and a steal per game.  The 25.4 points per game he averaged this past season are misleading because many see Carmelo up there with the best in the NBA, but in reality he is not a reliable franchise player.  The only impressive thing that he has done is show that he can put points on the board.  He is a go-to guy down the stretch that you can give the ball to for that big shot at in the last play of the game, but it takes more than offense to even have a chance to win the game at the end.

Edge: CARMELO ANTHONY.  Antoine Walker was very impressive until he dwindled later on, but even with Paul Pierce, the Celtics were never able to get much done in Walker's first five seasons.  With or without the help of Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony has the Nuggets a playoff contender every year.  He brought a completely new look to the team from a talent perspective and from a marketing perspective.

96-9: SHAREEF ABDUR-RAHIM(drafted third overall by Vancouver)- This underrated 6'8" forward was assigned the do-it-all role when he was chosen to play for the Grizzlies.  Inheriting a team with very little to work with, Abdur-Rahim proved that he was a competitor, despite finishing with a league worst 14 wins in his rookie season. Shareef could score, rebound, and defend, as his numbers always looked impressive, finishing '00-'01 with 20.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.  However, his team couldn't even manage a decent season, never even coming close to the playoffs.  Shareef could really play, but it was a mystery why his team couldn't, even with a lot of individual talent, going through big names such as Bryant Reeves, Greg Anthony, Byron Scott, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Stromile Swift, and Felipe Lopez.

03-9: BORIS DIAW-RIFFIOD (drafted 21st overall by Atlanta)- Diaw, a 6'8" forward, never amounted to much in Atlanta.  He was practically given to Phoenix in a trade that sent Joe Johnson to Atlanta and he joined a stacked lineup with the potential to explode and rise atop the NBA.  That they did, becoming a nearly unstoppable run and gun style team.  Diaw fit very nicely into a starting lineup with Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire.  Diaw impressed many showing that he was able to step up and play center when Amare Stoudemire was injured.  This allowed the suns to play with a very small, fast team.

Edge: SHAREEF ABDUR-RAHIM.  Shareef had a lot more talent.  He was a leader and a franchise player who put up some nice stats.  Though he was not able to produce the results that Diaw is, there's no telling where the Grizzlies would have been without him.

96-10: PEDRAG STOJAKOVIC (drafted 16th overall by Sacramento)- Few people would have guessed that Peja Stojakovic was even drafted this year.  He did not make the cut, and played two very successful years in Greece before debuting in the NBA with the Kings in '98-'99.  The 6'10" small forward came up almost unnoticed as he took a couple years, but emerged into an outstanding shooter that played a key role in the Kings' success.  In '00-'01, averaged 20.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 40% from 3 point range.

03-10: KYLE KORVER (drafted 51st overall by New Jersey, traded to Philadelphia)- This 6'6" small forward was another underrated small conference collegiate player, who proved to a lot of the doubtful that he could succeed in the NBA.  Ranked 22nd among rookies, Korver played the sixth man role, but more impressively, was invited to participate in the 3-point shooting contest at All-Star weekend and finished third overall.  Korver is one of the best shooters in the NBA today.  Not too bad for a near last draft pick.

Edge: PEDRAG STOJAKOVIC.  Peja was an essential part of the very successful team put together by the Kings.  Korver never really led a team, nor did he have the size of impact that Peja did.

96-11: MARCUS CAMBY (drafted second overall by Toronto)- Lanky 6'11" center from UMass was never much of a scorer, but could really defend and rebound.  Had a couple tough seasons where he battled with injuries, but provided a big middle presence and an asset to the Raptors, who tremendously lacked defense.  Finished '00-'01 with 12 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.16 blocks per game.

03-11: CHRIS KAMAN (drafted sixth overall by Los Angeles)- Finesse 7'0" center teamed up with Elton Brand to form a dominant front court that led the Clippers to a couple strong runs into the playoffs.  Kaman had his breakout year in '07-'08 where he averaged 15.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 2.80 blocks per game.

Edge: CHRIS KAMAN.  Chris Kaman just shows more upside.  Camby has that defenders instinct and can really put on a show, but Kaman simply gets the job done.  Kaman looks to be able to take a team much further than Camby was ever able to.

96-12: DEREK FISHER (drafted 24th overall by Los Angeles)- Another one from a small name NCAA school Arkansas-Little Rock, this quick, 6'1" point guard was used to back up an aging Nick Van Exel in the Lakers backcourt.  Watching players like Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Elden Campbell, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, and Glenn Rice come through LA, Fisher always had a lot of competition.  When given the starting point guard position, he had big shoes to fill, and he did not let a soul down, proving to have become a very clutch point guard with the playmaker instinct that was needed from him.  Fisher never had spectacular numbers, but turned out to be a Robert Horry-like player in a sense that he was always there to take that big crunch time shot when Kobe was completely covered and Shaq had fouled out or wasn't able to get the ball.

03-12: T.J. FORD (drafted eighth overall to Milwaukee)- This super agile, sharp shooting, 5'10" point guard had a huge career at Texas, taking their season into late March a couple times, and was drafted with a lot of question marks.  The biggest one being, is he too small?  Ford's game is similar to that of Earl Boykins and Terrelle Brandon.  Ford has yet to reach all-star status, but has definitely proved that he can be a good NBA point guard.

Edge: DEREK FISHER.  Derek Fisher is a winner.  It is as simple as that.  He has played around winners the whole first five years of his career, and has been bred to be a winner.  T.J. Ford is in Toronto right now, so he doesn't quite have that situation.  He still has to prove that he can be as clutch as Fisher.

96-13: ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS (drafted 20th overall by Cleveland)- This tall, fundamentally sound, 7'3" center from Lithuania spent the 96-97 season on the disabled list, so didnt really see his first action until the following year.  When you think of tall guys like that, you think of long, lanky players like Rik Smits and Mark Eaton.  However, Big Z is a stronger, more filled out center with the ability to get to the basket andget to the foul line.  He is not the quickest center around, but dont kid yourself, he will get by defenders.  He finished the '00-'01 season averaging 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.54 blocks per game.

03-13: NICK COLLISON (drafted 12th overall by Seattle)- This quiet 6'10" center plays his role over in Seattle and goes largely unnoticed.  His numbers wont blow you away, averaging maybe ten points to go along with 9 rebounds a game, but make no mistakes, this kid has a great knowledge for the game and is a big part of a solid young core being put together in Seattle right now.

Edge: ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS.  With a big height advantage on most centers, and a good strength advantage on other players his height, Ilgauskas is a weapon.  When healthy, the Cavs are not afraid to use his advantages.

96-14: LORENZEN WRIGHT (drafted seventh overall by Los Angeles)- This tough 6'10" center-forward combined with Lamond Murray and Loy Vaught to give the Clippers a very muscular frontcourt.  Wright was more of a defensive minded player than offensive minded, but he still chipped in 12.4 points per game to go along with 7.5 rebounds per game.  Wright, however, never managed to become the winning type, playing for a perennial sub-.500 team.

03-14: DARKO MILICIC (drafted second overall by Detroit)- Detroit did not really need a pick as high as second to get what they wanted.  Of course the Pistons were aware that there were many other valuable players on the board, but they were a good team developing into a great team and did not need a costly player like Carmelo or D-Wade.  They got 7'0" forward Darko Milicic from Serbia & Montenegro, and kept him on the bench mostly.  Milicic did not get a chance to show what he can do until he was signed by Orlando.  Darko still has not shown that he can be an all-star, but he has some upside to him.  This past season he had 6.1 rebounds and 1.63 blocks per game.

Edge: LORENZEN WRIGHT.  This is a tough call because neither player was spectacular, but both did do some good stuff.  I would give the edge to Wright because he played more like a center-forward.  Darko is now a center-forward also, but has not shown that he can play it like it is a natural position.

96-15: ERICK DAMPIER (drafted tenth overall by Indiana)- An aggressive 6'11" center, Dampier is best known for his defensive presence he brings.  He helps clog the middle with his shot blacking and rebounding abilities.  His statistics aren't going to win him any awards, but what you see on the court from him looks a lot more than the 7.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.35 blocks per game he averaged in '00-'01.

03-15: KENDRICK PERKINS (drafted 27th overall by Memphis, traded to Boston)- A low key 6'10" center, Perkins is known for his defense and for his energy he brings to the Celtics.  Next to players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, he wont get much attention, but he is certainly an essential part of a dynasty caliber team.

Edge: KENDRICK PERKINS.  In the '07-;08 conference finals, K-Perk was performing under critical conditions when teammates were struggling.  He won't bring great numbers to a stats sheet, but what he brings to the team's presence is more valuable than anything Dampier had to offer.

96-16: CHUCKY ATKINS (undrafted, signed by Orlando)- It took him a while, but the South Florida Bulls all-time scorer finally found his nitch in the NBA.  Orlando signed 6'1" Chucky Atkins to play back up point guard for Darrell Armstrong.  Atkins never started a single game that year, but was an outstanding back up.  After an all-rookie second team performance, Atkins was a free agent looking for a starting point guard job.  He was resigned and traded to Detroit in the Grant Hill trade.  Atkins split the starting job with Lindsey Hunter and put up 12 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds per game.  Not bad for someone who got very little regard in the '96-'97 draft.

03-16: STEVE BLAKE (drafted 38th overall by Washington)- Blake, a 6'3" point guard that was part of the Juan Dixon Terps team the won the NCAA Championship in 2002, was reunited with teammate Juan Dixon when drafted to the Wizards.  However, this meant that Blake would sit the bench to Dixon.  Blake turned out to be even better than Dixon, backing up Gilbert Arenas andeventually being traded to Portland where he became the starting point guard this past year.  He still has yet to live up to the hype that he was all about in college when he lead UMD to some big wins, but nonetheless, his career is brightening.

Edge: CHUCKY ATKINS.  A very tough call, but considering how far he came, Atkins is the one in this matchup.  Atkins has far exceeded any expectations he had, where as Blake has high expectations of which he is still working on.  Atkins stepped up and played the starter role a little more confortably than Blake did.

96-17: SHANDON ANDERSON (drafted 54th overall by San Antonio, traded to Utah)- This tough, gritty 6'5" swingman joined a Jazz line up, which at the time needed very little help.  They were simply worried about taking down Jordan and the Bulls and not developing their future team.  Anderson left the Stockton-Malone show when he joined the Houston Rockets.  There he earned the starting small forward spot and held his own pretty well.  He managed nine points, four rebounds, and three assists a game in '00-'01.

03-17: LEANDRINHO BARBOSA (drafted 28th overall by San Antonio, traded to Phoenix)- Practically given to Phoenix for nothing but a future first round pick, the 6'3" guard is lightning quick and has developed a nice shooting touch.  Leandro Barbosa sat the bench to Steve Nash, but mostly to shooting guard Raja Bell.  Barbosa turned out to be an outstanding sixth man.  Raja Bell is a sharp shooter, and Leandro is more of a take it to the basket kind of guy, which the Suns' starting lineup was full of already.  Leandro Barbosa brings his high energy uptempo game off the bench to a team that loves to run.  A perfect fit in Phoenix he turned out to be.

Edge: LEANDRHINO BARBOSA.  The young, speedy guard is just capable of much more than Anderson ever was.  His career will go much longer and be much more successful than Shandon Anderson's was.

Well, looks as though the 1996 draft class won that one by a slim margin, 9-8.  It is very close indeed, and you could certainly argue bothsides, but the way I see it, the highlights of both drafts are analagous, with the '96 class having a slight advantage over the '03 class.  I see the 1996 draft class as being the best group of rookies of all time.  '07 came close, but one of these years, maybe we will see a draft class dethrone '96 and its secondary, '03, and who knows, maybe they will match up well to each otherlike these two, but it is going to have to be quite a group of rookies to match the seventeen standout players that came out of both of these classes.  I look forward to draft day '08, and future drafts.  Until June 26th, thats all.  

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