Eighteen years ago today the 1996 NBA Draft went down. The ’96 draft is considered one of the best in league history. A 5′ 11″ kid out of Georgetown, you probably know him as Allen Iverson, went first to the 76ers. UMASS star Marcus Camby went second to the Raptors. Other future All-Stars from this draft include Shareef Adbur-Rahim (#3), Stephon Marbury (#4), Ray Allen (#5), Kobe Bryant (#13), Peja Stojakovic (#14), Steve Nash (#15), Jermaine O’Neal (#17), and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (#20). Four time All-Star and four time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace went undrafted but was quickly signed by the Bullets/Wizards.
The Boston Celtics drafted a polarizing three time All-Star at #6, the same pick they hold this year, by the name of Antoine Walker. Walker was coming off of a national title at Kentucky.
‘Toine spent his first seven seasons in Boston on pretty awful teams, making just two postseason appearances during that stretch. He was a volume scorer and solid rebounder over that stretch, averaging 20.8 a game while chipping in 8.7 boards per. But Walker also took 19.4 shots a game during his Celtics career, while only hitting 41.3% of them. Perhaps even more frustrating was the fact that he attempted 5.2 threes a game despite being just a 33.3% shooter from deep. Other than Dwyane Wade and Iverson, no mediocre shooter has made his three-point game such a huge part of his teams offense.
Walker, with plenty of help from a young Paul Pierce, helped the Celtics reach the conference finals in 2002. After bringing Walker back for the ’02-’03 season the Celtics front office quickly realized that Walker’s already terrible efficiency was on the decline and a 1-2 punch of Pierce and Walker wasn’t going to bring banner #17 to the Garden. So Walker was traded to the Dallas Mavericks just before the ’03-’04 season.
During the 2005 season Walker was traded back to Celtics for a package including Gary Payton and Tom Gugliotta. The Celtics made the playoffs that season but lost in the first round. Walker was then traded, in a 13-player deal that remains the biggest in NBA history, to the Miami Heat. Alongside Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, Walker refined his game and adjusted to his role on the bench. He provided invaluable scoring and rebounding off the pine for a team that would go on to win the title that year.
That has to be considered the high point of ‘Toine’s career. He played two more years, one with Miami and one with Minnesota, but lost many of his minutes and saw his shooting percentages dip back to the levels us Celtics fans were used to seeing out of him. After having issues with alcohol and bankruptcy Walker attempted to revive his career in both Puerto Rico and the NBA D-League but was ultimately unsuccessful. He officially retired in 2012.
Walker will likely be remembered in a negative light by many basketball fans but it’s hard to ignore that he pretty much kept the Celtics out of the lottery for a couple seasons. You were never winning a title with Walker as one of your two or three best players. But as Miami proved, his unique skill set for his body made him a valuable role player if used correctly. Looking back it’s easy to say the Celtics should’ve drafted Kobe or Nash but Walker came into the ’96 draft as the best player on the national champions.
You can make cracks about his financial decisions, ball-hogging, and weight. Just don’t forget that there was a three year stretch where Antoine Walker was the only relatively positive thing about the Celtics.