This was the scouting report on a young foreign point guard drafted in the first-round of the 2001 NBA Draft.
“The best thing about [point guard’s name omitted] is his speed, vision of the game, offensive talent for generating his own shot opportunities and above all, that he improves the contributions of his teammates. He needs to improve a lot on defense and his outside shooting needs progressing, but since he is an excellent ball-handler, defenders should not play him too close because he can take advantage of that to penetrate.”
It was not Tony Parker, but rather Raul Lopez that Alex Gozalbo, a Spanish journalist who saw Lopez play multiple times, was speaking on. And as many Jazz and Pacer fans can attest to, the first point guard selected in the 2001 NBA Draft wasn’t Tony Parker. And neither was the second.
The buzz entering the 2001 NBA Draft was about 3 teenagers, who stood 6-11, 7-1, and 6-10 respectively. With every team seeking the next Kevin Garnett – the Wizards made 19-year old Kwame Brown the #1-overall selection. The Clippers owned the #2 pick, but the Bulls thought so highly of a lanky 7-1 power forward that they traded 22-year old Elton Brand (who had posted 20&10 in his first two seasons) for the draft rights to Tyson Chandler, whom they paired with Eddy Curry (their #4-overall selection) in hopes of building a “twin-tower” frontline similar to San Antonio’s Duncan-Robinson pairing.
The run on bigs (7-footers including Pau Gasol, Desagana Diop, Brendan Haywood, Steven Hunter) and high-profile wings (Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Richard Jefferson, ect) continued without a single point guard being drafted in the first 23 picks.
Then came the Utah Jazz and the run on point guards started, with 8 going over the next 17 selections.
Pick #24: Raul Lopez – Utah Jazz
Lopez, who had played professionally in Spain since age 16, first burst onto the national scene in 1998. Playing alongside fellow Spaniard Pau Gasol, the Spanish National Juniors Team brought home the European Championship and the following year won the World Championship. Shortly thereafter in 2000, European powerhouse Real Madrid bought out an escape-clause in Lopez’s current contract with a mediocre Joventut club. At the time, it was the largest buyout a Spanish team had ever made. Lopez began the 2000-01 season as the backup PG (playing behind a seasoned veteran in Sasha Djordjevic) before gradually assuming a larger role and helping lead Real Madrid to the Spanish league finals. By that time, he had worked his way onto NBA draft boards and a few months later became the first PG to come off it.
The Jazz knew all along Lopez would stay over in Europe for at least another year, and with John Stockton showing few signs of slowing down even at age 38, they didn’t mind the wait in order to obtain the prospect they viewed as Stockton’s ultimate successor.
Then in November 2001 disaster struck when Lopez tore the ACL in his right knee on a basic non-contact play. “I turned my body, and I felt my knee start to go. I turned, but my knee didn’t,” Lopez said, describing the injury.
Despite the setback, the future still appeared bright as John Stockton agreed to return for the 2002-03 season which coincided with Lopez and Real Madrid negotiating a buyout that allowed Lopez to come to the Jazz and spend at least one season playing behind Stockton.
Unfortunately, lightning struck twice. While playing an exhibition game as a member of the Spanish National team, a Russian player landed against Lopez’s surgically repaired knee – re-injuring his ACL.
Lopez signed a 3-year contract with the Jazz but would spend the first year of it watching Stockton in street clothes behind the Jazz bench. Nevertheless, he still spoke like a Stockton clone: “I’ve always wanted my teammates to be happy when they play with me. When a player is down, you have to get him the ball more often so he can feel good. The point is for everybody to produce at their best for the benefit of the team.”
Lopez finally made his NBA debut in the 2003-04 season (after Stockton retired) in which he spent the year backing up Carlos Arroyo. While he showed flashes of brilliance, he never regained his blazing quickness and at his diminutive size he took a pounding. As a result, in July of 2004 the Jazz re-signed Arroyo (who had a breakout performance in the same 2004 Olympics Games in which Lopez sat out at the encouragement of the Jazz) to a 4-year contract.
Lopez would miss all of training camp and the first 18 games of the 2004-05 season after having more surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee. His return only lasted 31 games before it was announced he would miss the remainder of the season, this time having surgery on his left knee.
For a point guard who had once possessed many of the same traits that reminded them of Stockton, it was more crushing news in an injury-riddled nightmare 2004-05 season. “He was devastated when I talked to him,” said Jerry Sloan in February of 2005. “I feel very, very bad for him.”
Eventually, Lopez began to grow homesick for his homeland and Jazz management came to the realization that he would no longer be the player they envisioned when they drafted him nearly 4 years ago. In August of 2005 the Jazz packaged Lopez in a 5-team trade that sent him to the Grizzlies. He would never play again in the NBA, signing a 4-year deal a few weeks later to play in Girona, Spain.
In June of 2008, Lopez earned a surprise call-up to the Spanish National team.
“I want to enjoy this experience. In my career, I have gone through difficult times that have denied me the chance to play for the national team,” Lopez said at the time. “To have made it to this team was one of my aims and I have achieved this.”
Lopez would win a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, backing up another young Spanish point guard prodigy – Ricky Rubio.
Aside: Pure conjecture, but I believe that the injuries to Lopez (and other team members during 2004-05 season) influenced the Jazz to select Deron Williams ahead of Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft. While fitting into Jerry Sloan’s system was often the main explanation, numerous times Kevin O’Connor mentioned durability as something the Jazz specifically liked in Deron who went 6-3/208 compared to Paul, who at 6-0/178 was very similar to Lopez’s 6-0/165 stature.
Pick #27: Jamaal Tinsley – Memphis Grizzlies
Jamaal Tinsley’s path to the NBA was nothing like that of Lopez’s. Tinsley began his hoops journey on the playgrounds of New York, where he earned the nickname “Mel Mel The Abuser.” After spending two years at Mt. San Jacinto Community College, he transferred to Iowa State where in 2000 he and future #4-overall pick Marcus Fizer led the Cyclones to the Elite-8. The following season, Tinsley would earn 2nd-team All-American and Big12 Player of the Year honors as a senior. He was viewed as a tremendous distributor and at age 23, the most NBA-ready PG.
Although selected by the Grizzlies, Tinsley would be packaged with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and dealt immediately to Atlanta in exchange for veterans Lorenzen Wright, Brevin Knight and Atlanta’s 3rd-overall selection: Spaniard Pau Gasol. On the same night, Tinsley would again be traded – this time to Indiana in exchange for the draft rights to Frenchman Boris Diaw.
With the Pacers, Tinsley secured the starting job as a rookie posting averages of 9.4 pts and 8.1 ast. He would win rookie-of-the-month honors twice thanks to those averages that included a 19-point/23-assist performance against Michael Jordan’s Wizards. Tinsley spent the next six seasons battling injuries (in 4 of the 6 he played fewer than 52 games) for an Indiana squad that changed coaches three times and gradually declined from contender to draft-lottery.
Prior to the 2008 season, Tinsley was informed by the Pacers he was no longer welcomed in or around the team. Ownership was looking to clean up the organization’s marred image and Tinsley (who wielded a dust pan during the Palace Brawl, was present for the “Stephen Jackson strip-club” incident, and was also involved in a bar fight – though charges were later dropped) was the last vestige of the Ron Artest/Stephen Jackson/Jermaine O’Neal Era the Pacers were trying to move-on from.
Tinsley was eventually waived, spending one season in Memphis and one season out of the league before resurfacing in the D-League in late-2011. The Jazz saw enough from Jamaal to sign him to a 2-year contract at the conclusion of the NBA lockout. While never a jitterbug point guard, Tinsley’s quickness and athleticism had faded to the point he struggled defensively and mainly relied on guile and savvy as a point guard. Maintaining his excellent vision and handle, Tinsley’s streetball roots still dazzled and as a backup at a more advanced age of 33, he brought much-needed professionalism and leadership to a young Jazz team. The Jazz appreciated his contributions so much that they picked up the option on his second year. In 2012-13, injuries to Utah’s top-2 point guards forced Tinsley to make 32 starts during which the Jazz posted a 20-12 record.
Pick #28: Tony Parker – San Antonio Spurs
Tony Parker’s career path is well-known to the point very little needs to be said for the period beginning with Charles Barkley’s astute draft-night analysis and Parker hitting the game-winner against LeBron James last night in Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Of course in between there were 72 up-and-down starts as a rookie, nearly being cast aside for Jason Kidd as a 21-year old (Popovich apparently wanted to move him to SG although Parker doesn’t think he’d still be in San Antonio if Kidd had signed there), winning 3 championships, marrying Eva Longoria, the affair with Brent Barry’s wife, divorcing Eva Longoria, and finally replacing Tim Duncan as the center piece of the Spurs offense while quietly developing into one of the best players in the league.
Parker’s journey into becoming arguably the best point guard in the NBA (at least for the 2012-13 season) had many twists and turns, but like many great players those minor hiccups will fade with time whether he retires with 3 rings or more than that.
The career paths for Raul Lopez and Jamaal Tinsley weren’t nearly as glamorous, yet both still managed to achieve some degree of success playing professional basketball at varying levels. Fifty years from now, someone will review the draft and Lopez and Tinsley will be a footnote thought of along the lines of a Tony Eason or Ken O’Brien.
If Parker was drafted by Boston (whom Rick Pitino said would have likely selected him if not for Joseph Forte dropping to them), perhaps he is nowhere near the player he is today…If the Spurs signed Jason Kidd, perhaps Parker flames out as a 2-guard…If Raul Lopez stayed healthy, perhaps he has the type of NBA career Parker did…If Tinsley stays healthy and if the Palace Brawl doesn’t happen and he wins a championship with the 2004-05 Pacers…If…
One thing is clear, Tony Parker’s success is a lot about him being a great player and hard worker – but also because many things around him fell just right. Conversely, while Raul Lopez may never have had the same talent that Parker did – a lot of things outside his control went wrong.
Behind every success story is a complicated journey. Similarly behind every “bust,” is an equally complicated journey.
In hindsight those picks were mistakes. At the time though, they made quite a bit of sense.
Footnote: For several years, the consensus choice for the best point guard to come out of the 2001 NBA Draft wasn’t even Tony Parker but rather Gilbert Arenas – who was chosen by the Warriors in the second-round – just two picks after Parker. Arenas wasn’t included because not only was he drafted after Parker – you could probably write an entire novel recapping the strange saga of Agent-Zero’s career.