The National Basketball Association draft can be a crap shoot. Even the top picks can prove to be duds. Does anyone remember Sam Bowie? How about Kwame Brown? Add Greg Oden to the list, too.
Fortunately, the Detroit Pistons had a wise basketball wizard at the helm in the 1980s. General Manager Jack McCloskey had the midas touch for several years as the brains behind the Pistons, with many of his best decisions leading to the dynasty that was the “Bad Boys” of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Twenty-five years ago, in the 1986 NBA Draft, McCloskey made two of his best decisions when he drafted not one, but two future stars.
The Pistons were a good team already, having made the playoffs each of the three previous seasons. But the Atlanta Hawks in their own division and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, were still treating them like punching bags. The Pistons needed some new blood.
McCloskey wanted to improve his defense, and one of his great desires was to acquire a shot blocker. He had his eye on John Salley, a tough east coast kid who played college ball at Georgia Institute of Technology. Salley was just a shade under 7-foot and he was projected to be a good NBA player. Drafting at the #11 spot, McCloskey thought he’d still have a shot at Salley, as many other pure scorers were going to be picked before him. Scouts thought Salley needed work on his perimeter game and on playing with his back to the basket. McCloskey wanted him for his long arms and shot blocking ability.
It so happened that the Pistons had an early pick in the second round that year, due to a trade. It would be the 27th overall pick of the draft. McCloskey toyed with trading that pick until he set his eyes on a player in April at the Portsmouth Invitational, a tournament set up so NBA officials could take a look at college seniors who will be eligible for the draft.
Dennis Rodman was a 6-foot 7-inch forward playing at tiny Southeastern Oklahoma State, an NAIA school that received little attention. But Rodman was putting up some amazing numbers on the court, so he got an invite. At Portsmouth, Rodman was the best player in the tournament. He was jumping all over the gym grabbing rebounds and making putback baskets against competition from major colleges. McCloskey was impressed, but so were many other scouts.
Then at subsequent invitationals against stiffer competition, Rodman performed poorly. His stock dropped. McCloskey was puzzled until he heard from his training staff: Rodman was riddled with allergies. The training staff assured McCloskey that they could get Rodman’s allergies under control.
That’s where McCloskey went into sleuth mode: he put out feelers with every team ahead of the Pistons in the draft to see what they were saying about Rodman. No one was even mentioning him. It was a gamble, but “Trader Jack” felt he could snatch Rodman at #27.
On draft day, the Pistons selected Salley with the 11th pick, giving them the shot blocker McCloskey wanted in the middle of his defense. As the picks clicked away, Rodman was still on the board. Michigan State guard Scott Skiles went to the Bucks at #22. The Lakers took Ken Barlow from Notre Dame next, then the Trailblazers took Arvydas Sabonis from the U.S.S.R., and the Cavs nabbed Mark Price at #25. McCloskey was drooling at the thought of getting Rodman. He thought the high-strung youngster with amazing energy and the ability to jump like a pogo stick, would fit perfectly in a revamped Piston lineup that would focus on defense.
The Indiana Pacers had the 26th pick, the second selection of the second round. They immediately selected 7-footer Greg Dreiling, a player they’d had their eye on. McCloskey had his man. The Pistons picked Rodman at #27.
Most Detroit fans were familiar with Salley, as he’d been bantered about among NBA experts that spring, but Dennis Rodman was a mystery. What had McCloskey gotten?
In the 1986-1987 season, the rookie year for Salley and Rodman, Pistons fans soon realized what they had. The pair became known as the “X-Factor”. Salley led the team with 125 blocks and averaged just over five points per game. Rodman averaged 6.5 points off the bench and provided defensive spark, drawing charges and delighting the crowd with his fist-pumping enthusiasm.
With the rookies, the Pistons won 50 games for the first time in 13 years and advanced to the Conference Finals. They would go to the NBA Finals the following three years, winning twice. Salley and Rodman were key members of the “Bad Boys”.
McCloskey was a keen judge of talent: Salley played 13 years in the NBA, winning four titles with three different teams. Tutored by Adrian Dantley as a young Piston, later in his career Salley became an elder statesman himself and helped others make the jump to the NBA.
Rodman exceeded everyone’s expectations – except those of McCloskey. The small forward (just a bit over 6-foot-6) defied the odds and led the NBA in offensive rebounds six times, defensive rebounds three times, and overall rebounds four times. He paced the league in rebounds per game in seven consecutive seasons. His rebound percentage ranks in the top twelve in NBA history.
When he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 (the only player drafted in ’86 who entered the Hall of Fame based on his NBA career alone), he tearfully thanked McCloskey in his induction speech.