NBA Draft Flashback: Jay Williams and Nikoloz Tskitishvili were two different types of draft bust
Since the turn of the millennium, there have only been three top-five draft picks - so far, anyway - that have played their final game as a pro within five years of being drafted. Two of them came from the same draft class - 2002, one of the most uneven drafts in recent history.
The top-10 produced two perennial All-Stars in big men Yao Ming (No. 1) and Amar'e Stoudemire (No. 9), but in between them were Jay Williams (No. 2) and Nikoloz Tskitishvilli (No. 5), both of whose careers would end up among the most disappointing of any players ever drafted in or near their respective slots.
When reading over ESPN draft guru Chad Ford's recent list of the 25 greatest draft prospects of the last 15 years, the selection of Williams at No. 8 - higher than Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, or indeed, anyone from the 2014 class-to-be - nearly made my jaw drop. It wasn't that I disagreed with his ranking, really, or that I held any particularly strong opinion about Williams as a player or prospect. I just would never have thought of Williams when guessing who would be on a list like that. His place in NBA history had all but vanished, as far as I was concerned.
Jay Williams is among the most unique players as far as draft disappointments go, because his career was yanked out from under him at such an early stage in his development. At Duke, Williams - then known as Jason, before he shortened the name to avoid confusion with the two (!!) other Ja(y)son Williamses in the league at that point - was an absolute superstar, helping lead the Blue Devils to the 2001 title (averaging nearly 26 PPG in the process) and then winning just about every Player of the Year honor possible in 2002, his final year before declaring. If not for the presence of a once-in-a-lifetime big in Yao, Williams would've been the consensus No. 1 overall pick that summer.
But after his rookie season for the Chicago Bulls, Williams would make the life-altering (and contract-violating) decision in the offseason to go for a motorcycle ride without a helmet or even a proper license. The point guard's lower body would be so badly injured in a motorcycle wreck that amputation and death were both possible outcomes early on, and even once he was stabilized, there was question of if he would ever walk again. He did, and he recovered enough of his motor function and athleticism to attempt an NBA comeback in both 2006 and 2010, but both times he remained too limited by his injuries to get a regular-season deal from a pro squad.
The injury was a devastating blow to the Bulls, and to the NBA at large. In many ways Williams was Kyrie Irving before Kyrie Irving, a small-ish point guard with incredible scoring instincts, good passing vision and the athleticism to get anywhere he wanted on the court. He was seen as a natural leader and smart player, and even managed to graduate early at Duke before declaring for the draft at the end of his Junior season. He had the drive, as well - Chris Collins, then an assistant at Duke, later told the New York Times that "no one loved playing basketball more than Jason."
What really makes Williams such an odd case, though, is that we did get to see a little bit of him as a pro, and it was a pretty inconclusive sample. Jay's rookie season was an up-and-down one, to say the least, as the point guard went from college's most prestigious program at the time to the rebuilding (and largely freelancing) Chicago Bulls. The pace of the NBA was a major adjustment for Williams, both on and off the court, as the former had his mind blown by teammates who would smoke weed before games and hit on girls in the stands in the middle of them.
Williams would finish the season averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists a game on under 40 percent shooting, with a 12.2 PER. Not terrible numbers for an average rook, but certainly not ones befitting of a top-10 prospect inthe 21st century. Jay had his moments - a 26-14-13 triple-double against the Nets in just his seventh game remains an obvious highlight - and he ended the season strong, averaging 15 and 5 on 61 percent shooting over his final seven games. In that same NYT article, Chris Collins claimed that the following June, he was playing stronger in pickup games than Collins had ever seen the Duke grad play before.
Then the career-ending crash, and now we are left with a rather muddled picture of Jay Williams as a pro. In the case of someone like Len Bias, a draft "bust" who died of complications rising from a cocaine overdose in 1986 before ever even getting the chance to play a single game in the bigs, the fact that we never saw him lace up with the Celtics gives him a mythic status. In our minds, all we picture with Len Bias is what could have been - an extended Boston dynasty, a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career spent learning from the likes of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, a player every bit as successful and exciting in the pros as he was as an undergrad phenom at Maryland.
Because of the growing pains we saw him endure through his first season as a pro, Williams isn't afforded that same kind of best-case extrapolation. He very well might have turned out awesome - he'd hardly be the first future All-Star to struggle through his NBA rookie season - but because he only ever showed middling pro ability during his limited time in the Association, NBA fans couldn't just assume that to be the case. It'd be a little like if Kings guard Ben McLemore suffered a career-ending injury this summer after an occasionally promising but mostly underwhelming debut season.
As such, Williams doesn't have much of a legacy to fall back on, good or bad. You feel bad calling him a bust because he never got a chance to demonstrate that label's accuracy in either direction, but you also can't get too wistful about what could have been, since he showed only sporadic and mostly limited greatness in his one pro season. Instead, his NBA career just kinda hangs suspended in limbo, its cruel interruption defining it and fating it to near-total anonymity. These days, it's mostly just a reminder of how long it took the Bulls to get their crap together after the dismantling of the team following Jordan, Pippen and company's last title run in '98.
Nikoloz Tskitishvili, however, suffers from no such labeling difficulty. The big man, taken fifth by the Denver Nuggets, is not a player that people tend to hesitate or qualify before deeming a "bust." In fact, if not for another European player taken the very next draft - you know the one - the man they call Skita might have gone down as the biggest bust of the NBA's 21st century.
And truth told, Tskitishvili was really a much bigger bust than Darko. The Nuggets' center wasn't just disappointing by top-five draftee standards, he really just never had any kind of sustained run in the pros as a credible NBA player. Skita averaged just 3.9 PPG and 2.2 RPG as a rookie, shooting an unthinkable 29 percent - as a seven-footer! - and posting a PER under 5.0. His numbers never improved from there, and his minutes were gradually slashed to nil, and by his third year, he was already starting to team-hop, letting down one team after another that gambled on his dwindling potential.
In 172 career games, only twice did Skita post a Game Score - a number formulated by John Hollinger to assess the totality of a player's single-game performance - in the double-digits. Even in his underwhelming rookie season, Jay Williams played 25 such games. And Milicic - who, lest we forget, actually had three straight 20-point games for Minnesota in 2010, including a 23-16-5-6 against the super-sized Lakers - had a whopping 72 such performances over his 10-season career.
Darko is the more famous bust, because he was taken ahead of three future Hall of Famers and was immediately thrust into the limelight as a striking figure on a contending Pistons team. But if we're talking who had the more brutal NBA career, it's no contest. Milicic at least had his moments. If Skita had any such moments, they've long since disappeared from public record.
So what happened with Tskitishvili? Well, the fairest answer is that him being such a bust wasn't really his fault, since he never should have been taken anywhere near that high to begin with. Skita's overinflated draft stock came as a result over the then-recent breakout success of European big men Dirk Nowitzki (a first time All-Star in '01-'02) and Pau Gasol (that season's Rookie of the Year). Suddenly, the hunt for the next great overseas project was on.
Enter Benetton Treviso coach Mike D'Antoni, one-time leader of the Nuggets, who alerted NBA scouts to a 19-year-old kid with size, skills and shooting that was playing for his team on their run to the Italian Championship. Never mind that Skita was playing sparingly off the bench and only contributing modestly for D'Antoni - the scouts saw the near-seven-footer work out and were smitten. Kiki Vandeweghe, then the Nuggets' GM, drafted the big man without ever having seen him play. "In five years, he may be the Kevin Garnett of the draft," wrote Ford in his post-draft grades column.
The only other time Tskitishvili's name was ever mentioned in connection with KG's was in the 2003 New York Times article "A Basketball and a Dream," which recounted the difficulties the 19-year-old faced over the course of his rookie season. In addition to being flummoxed by American driving laws and groupie culture ("I am so scared of American girls" - direct quote), Nikoloz was further put on tilt when introduced - via Garnett, of course - to the American art of trash-talking. "How can you say such thing?" Skita would later wonder aloud of KG's profanity-laced dismissal of his abilities. "You are All-Star and I am just kid.''
Needless to say, it was pretty clear that Tskitishvili was woefully unprepared for life in the Association, and that he perhaps never even had the true skill to make it in the pros anyway. He did have one shining week in Las Vegas during the 2004 Summer League, where he averaged 25.7 points per game for the Nuggets and was named League MVP. But even the Summer of Skita would prove to be more a cautionary tale about Summer League mirages than anything else, as Nikoloz scored just 34 points total over 22 games for the Nuggets that regular season, before being traded to the Warriors and beginning his mini-journeyman's career.
The overarching lesson here with both Williams and Tskitishvili? Just that s--- happens on draft night, I guess. Tskitishvili might have been the riskiest pick in the draft that season, and Williams the safest, but in the end both would prove disastrous. You can try to sniff out the warning signs, of which there were plenty with Skita - and for what it's worth, a scout on Grantland invoked his name in a column yesterday in relation to Australian mystery point guard Dante Exum - but ultimately, you can never totally avoid a worst-case scenario. The draft will break your heart, and the Bulls and Nuggets took very divergent paths to that same conclusion after the summer of 2002.
More NBA Draft Flashbacks:
How did so many teams pass on Kobe Bryant?
Did drafting Steve Francis kill the Vancouver Grizzlies?