The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t had a lot of luck over the years when they held a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Bill Walton and Greg Oden’s injuries, Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan—after losing the coin flip that would have netted them Hakeem Olajuwon that year—and passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul to take Martell Webster come to mind. Despite that, they have managed to snag some diamonds in the rough over the years, finding serious talent outside of the first round. If you’re a Blazers historian, or just hoping that Gary Trent Jr. turns out fantastic, remember that before these four Portland notables were notable, they were fairly nondescript draft picks.
While the 1984 draft will be best remembered for the Blazers taking Bowie between Hakeem and MJ, they also selected Jerome Kersey out of Longwood University (then College) in the second round that year. Kersey was largely unknown when he was drafted. Just take a look at this piece in the L.A. Times from Kersey’s rookie year:
Occasionally in the NBA, a little- known player from a small college will find his way onto a roster. That’s the case with Kersey, who played at tiny Longwood (Va.) College, a Division II school with no basketball tradition. In fact, Longwood was an all-girls’ school until nine years ago. The enrollment is still predominantly female, which might be why Thompson calls Kersey “Romeo.”
Obviously, it’s a longshot that any player from Longwood could be drafted in the second round. No doubt when the Trail Blazers made the selection, people around the NBA whispered, “Who’s that.”
But since Kersey had longed to be an NBA player, he had been told many times what a mistake he had made choosing Longwood as his college.
”Everybody said I couldn’t make it to the NBA from there,” Kersey said. “I’m the only guy who’s done it.
From 1986-93, Kersey averaged nearly 15 points and eight rebounds a night. Not too shabby for a kid no one had heard of.
Though he logged fewer than 1,000 minutes in a Blazers uniform. Portland drafted a legend in the third round of the 1986 draft. Drazen Petrovic became one of two foreign players selected by Portland that year along with Arvydas Sabonis (rd. 1, pick 24).
Petrovic’s arrival was delayed, and after little more than a year in Portland, he was traded to the New Jersey Nets during the 1990-91 season. There he burst on the scene, averaging more than 12 points per game with New Jersey. ESPN’s Zach Lowe gives a rundown:
His spirit and work-all-the-time ethos intact, Petrovic was ready to explode when Portland traded him in January 1991 to New Jersey in a three-team deal for Walter Davis -- who was then 36. (Ainge was, and remains, aghast at the trade. “We all knew Drazen was a great player,” he says.)
He came off the bench at first, but the Nets finally started Petrovic in the 1991-92 season, and he responded by averaging almost 21 points per game. He shot 44 percent from deep, second in the league, on 3.3 attempts per 36 minutes -- a volume few guys approached in that era.
Petrovic hit 43.7 percent of his career 3s, the third-best mark in league history, behind only Steve Kerr and Hubert Davis.
After scoring more than 22 ppg and making the All NBA Third Team in the 1992-93 season, Petrovic was killed in a tragic car accident. His example helped open the door for an entire generation of European players ready to play in the NBA.
A staple of the great Blazers teams of the early 1990’s, Cliff Robinson became one of the most iconic Blazers of the last 25 years. Though he was incredibly talented and played at a known basketball school (UConn), “Uncle Cliffy” fell to the second round where Portland snagged him at number 36. Richard Hoffer at SI explained why:
Come the 1989 NBA draft, the word on Cliff Robinson was not good. The word was that Robinson, then a senior at Connecticut, was the biggest dog since Sgt. McGruff. A hound. The general managers, the scouts, they all agreed that he was talented. But sometimes these drafts become word-driven. And word was, this kid belonged on a leash.
Here was a guy who could run and jump, who could block shots, who could fill the rim.
Nothing personal, though; just the word. “There were a lot of things we just had to guess at,” says Donnie Walsh, general manager of the Indiana Pacers. “With Cliff we questioned the way he wanted to play, how hard he’d want to work, how physical he’d be willing to get. We questioned his intensity.” It was just business.
Fortunately for the Blazers, Robinson managed to put it together, averaging 16 points and five rebounds in his eight years with the team; making an All-Star Game, two All-Defensive 2nd Teams, and winning Sixth Man of the year in 1993. His all-around game (including defense) and the ability to play multiple positions kept him in the league for 18 total seasons.
Will “The People’s Champ” Barton never got a chance to showcase his talents fully in a Blazers uniform. Expected to go in the mid- to lower first round in the 2012 NBA Draft, he fell inexplicably into Portland’s lap with the 40th pick. Connor Letorneau discussed this in the Oregonian that summer:
So when Barton went 40th overall to the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA draft, he couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied. After all, he hadn’t even worked out for Portland. He’d been hearing he could go as high as No. 17 to the Dallas Mavericks, that there was no chance he would fall past the Miami Heat at No. 30.
”I was just trying to figure out why I didn’t get my name called,” Barton said this week. “I was definitely going to get my name called in the first round, so I was just kind of disappointed and puzzled.”
But while Barton sat at his mother’s Baltimore home and wondered why he’d slipped to the second round, Blazers executives in Tualatin were ecstatic. They felt they could have just landed a draft-night steal -- a skilled, rangy swingman with the potential to develop into a quality rotation player.
Those executives were right. Unfortunately it would be for another team in the Northwest Division. In 2015 the Blazers traded Barton to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Arron Aflallo. Since arriving in Denver, the 27-year-old has averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game. Barton also finished fourth in Sixth Man of the Year voting in 2016.
What Blazers (or even NBA) players with modest expectations and great results do you remember? Chime into the comment section with your stories and memories!