With the fifth pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets select ...
To fully understand the hype train surrounding the pick of Nikoloz Tskitishvili (hereafter referred to as "Skita" because I refuse to spend any more time typing out his name) some historical perspective is needed.
Having served a front office role and a brief stint as an assistant head coach with the Dallas Mavericks, developing a similar gangly European in Dirk Nowitzki, Kiki knew in his heart of hearts that he would look like a genius if another foreign prospect like Skita panned out. Even though he had a rough start, Dirk turned into one of the most dynamic players in the league in just two years, leading the 2000-01 Dallas Mavericks to a 53-29 regular season record.
Why couldn't Skita turn out similarly good? Kiki probably asked himself a hundred times leading up to the draft. Despite averaging only 6.6 points and 1.8 rebounds in just 11 games for Italian League champion Benetton Treviso, the Nuggets' front office confidence in selecting Skita was bolstered by the fateful words of a one Mike D'Antoni:
"His skills are off the charts," D'Antoni said. "He doesn't have a (fully developed) body. He's two or three years away. Hopefully, Denver will have some patience because he could be something special."
It's worth noting that it was D'Antoni who was in the Nuggets organization from 1997-1999 as Director of Player Personnel, and head coach during the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season. Thanks for the advice, Mike.
With an imposing 7-foot, 225 pound frame, Skita's sheer size and predraft workouts were enough to convince people of his potential.
Every team in the NBA traveled to Treviso to see him play. They all came away impressed. It isn't very often that you find a big man with the type of skills he possesses. While he's still a project at 19, he's as fundamentally sound as anyone in the draft. Has the potential to play four positions in the NBA, that's why he's getting all of the attention. He's a lock for the lottery and could go much higher once teams start pondering the alternatives.
It's not clear who wrote the above paragraph, but I can only imagine that the individual is now employed by the Charlotte Bobcats.
An extremely raw, 19 year old, seven-foot European dominating practice squads with his fundamentals couldn't possibly backfire. Said ESPN's Chad Ford, evaluating the 2002 NBA Draft:
In the end, Denver just couldn't pass on Tskitishvili's upside. Some have predicted that he's three years away. I don't think so. We said the same thing about Pau Gasol last year. He's so sound fundamentally, I think he'll be just fine at small forward. Eventually, he'll put on weight and muscle and turn into a devastating four. In five years, he may be the Kevin Garnett of this draft.
Ah, the famous "20 pounds of muscle" canard, which never actually materialized on Skita's frame. It's not every day that you hear a supposed "expert" compare Skita to future Hall-of-Famers Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett. Keep that quote in mind the next time you're reading a draft-day evaluation of a player. Especially if it's from Chad Ford.
While Kiki was juggling Skita's lottery balls - so to speak - with his left hand, with his right he was busy deftly trading a "disgruntled Antonio McDyess" and the 25th overall pick to the Knicks for Marcus Camby, Maybner "Nene" Hilario (via the seventh overall pick, from the Knicks) and ... Mark Jackson(!) (who was immediately waived by the Nuggets). Both Camby and Nene turned out to have long and relatively productive careers with the Denver Nuggets.
Skita's time in Denver was marked by the opposite of a career arc. His was a career meteorite. For all of his amazing predraft athletic showings and D'Antoni-praised skills, Skita was absolutely overwhelmed by the speed and athleticism of the 2000s-era NBA. He "led" the 2002-03 Nuggets to a 17-65 record (tied for the worst in the NBA), posting averages of 3.9 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1 turnover in 16.3 minutes per game in 81 games. He shot 29% from the floor on 393 shots that season.
That was his most productive year with the Nuggets.
Each season thereafter, Skita's skills regressed - if you can call it that. By 2004-05, Skita was averaging just 6.3 minutes per game, putting up a meager 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds on just 30% shooting from the field before being traded mid-season to the Golden State Warriors, along with Rodney White for Eduardo Najera, Luis Flores and a 2007 first-round pick (the pick was traded to the 76ers as part of the Allen Iverson deal). Skita never played more than 39 games a season after his rookie campaign, and was dumped unceremoniously from the NBA by 2006.
Skita was hyped as the next big European success story by scouts and D'Antoni, while the NBA was witnessing firsthand how dominant a skilled foreign big man in his prime could be in Nowitzki. The Nuggets franchise was desperate for an answer after an abysmal 27-55 showing in the 2001-02 season under Dan Issel, and bought into Kiki's faith in Skita. A perfect storm for an inexperienced GM with a high pick to shoot himself in the foot, and Kiki shot himself in both feet.
A'mare Stoudemire. Caron Butler. Tayshaun Prince. Carlos Boozer. Luis Scola. All players who have gone on to lead long, productive NBA careers. All taken after Skita. The selection of Skita with the fifth overall pick has passed into the annals of NBA history as one of the worst ever. But hey - at least the Nuggets didn't take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant (or Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan).
Ultimately, Skita was a victim of his own good play against inferior competition in Italy, during practice, creating high expectations for a player with a low ceiling. As the Nuggets' most hyped player, Skita simply turned out to be the biggest fish in a very small pond.