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Paul Pierce is one of Boston Celtics’ all-time best players, but he wasn’t even on the team’s radar in the days and hours leading up to the 1998 NBA Draft. Rather, Boston had its sights set on Dirk Nowitzki, a potential NBA Hall of Famer.
Pierce was a standout player at Kansas and was generally expected to be the first overall selection in the 1998 draft. The Celtics, on the other hand, were so smitten with Nowitzki that they were forced to scramble when the Milwaukee Bucks selected him one place ahead of Boston’s No. 10 choice.
Prior to the 1998 NBA Draft, the Celtics developed a crush on Dirk Nowitzki.
NEW: Excuse me? “For what?” you may wonder. @SInow tweeted Paul Pierce’s response. Pierce discusses his departure from ESPN as he prepares to join the Hall of Fame. And he reflects on his 19-year NBA career, which was both illustrious and unexpected. https://t.co/CYqR5MNAz4
September 7, 2021 — Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix)
Prior to the 1998 NBA Draft, former Celtics head coach Rick Pitino was certain he had discovered the next great Boston Celtics player. But he thought it was Dirk Nowitzki, a German adolescent.
Pitino saw the 7-footer drop in threes like it was nothing during a practice in Rome, and he was instantly taken with him. Pitino told Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix that he was “blown away.” Nowitzki was taken to lunch by the current Iona head coach, who promised him that the C’s would choose him with the 10th overall selection. He even had Red Auerbach contact Dirk.
Pitino told Mannix, “I went home believing we got our man.”
At the outset of the 1998 NBA Draft, everything went according to plan, and it looked even better when the Dallas Mavericks, a club Pitino knew had a soft spot for Nowitzki, selected Robert Traylor with the No. 6 pick. The Celtics had no idea, though, that the Mavericks were still plotting to acquire Dirk.
The Milwaukee Bucks selected Nowitzki at No. 9 overall, one place ahead of the Celtics. In return for Traylor, Milwaukee quickly dealt the foreign product to the Mavs.
The Celtics’ draft room went from DEFCON-3 to DEFCON-4 all of a sudden.
Boston had no idea who Pierce was, and he believed he’d be in the top 10 sooner.
Paul Pierce was expected to go in the top three picks in the 1998 NBA Draft, but he ended up in 10th place.
Those that were chosen before him? #1 Michael Olowokandi Raef LaFrentz (#3) is a third-place finisher. #6 Robert Traylor (#8) Larry Hughes
“I was ready to pass out” during the wait that night, Pierce recalled. pic.twitter.com/FB4WtqR45C
February 11, 2018 Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell)
While the Celtics waited for Nowitzki to fall to them, Paul Pierce was completely perplexed.
The former Kansas Jayhawks standout was one of the draft class’s most successful college players. In his junior season, he was named to the consensus All-America First Team and scored over 20 points per game. Pierce, on the other hand, was quickly slipping down the draft board. Roy Williams, Pierce’s former college coach, questioned if some executives didn’t think Pierce was dynamic enough.
Williams told Mannix, “I believe some people looked at Paul and questioned whether he was athletic enough.” “I believe there were concerns about his ability to score in the NBA as well as he did in college.”
The Celtics didn’t have a lot of questions about Paul Pierce. In reality, they didn’t know much about him. Pitino said that he hadn’t done any research on Kansas’ top player. Chris Wallace, the assistant general manager, had to calm his concerns by insisting on selecting the best player available.
“Rick was a bit jittery,” Wallace recalls. “He was curious as to what everyone else knew that we didn’t. ‘Well, if he’s there, don’t worry about what we know or don’t know,’ I replied. ‘Let’s simply get him.’ And that is exactly what we did.”
-Chris Wallace, Assistant General Manager of the Celtics, via SI’s Chris Mannix
Despite the Celtics’ decision to sign Pierce, they were not sure he wanted to play in Boston.
The Boston Celtics were said to have planned a deal that would have transferred The Truth to the Houston Rockets. Pierce, on the other hand, was eager to show competing executives that they had made a terrible error by passing on him. He told Pitino that he intended to remain.
Celtics supporters are sure to be pleased with Pierce’s choice. He established himself as one of the greatest players in club history during the following 15 seasons.
Both Nowitzki and Pierce mapped out a route to Springfield.
Both Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki had Hall of Fame careers | Adam Glanzman/Getty Images; Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
Needless to say, the Celtics’ 1998 NBA Draft went off without a hitch. It also worked out nicely for the Mavericks.
Dirk Nowitzki played with the Mavs for his entire 21-year career, earning the MVP Award in 2007 and guiding Dallas to its first NBA title in 2011. He ended his career as the sixth-highest scorer in franchise history.
Paul Pierce took longer to win consistently in Boston, but he did it before Dirk when the Celtics rode their “Big Three” to a championship in 2008. Pierce’s reputation as a Celtics legend was cemented by the title. In terms of victory shares, he’s third all-time in the club, and he’s second in scoring.
Pitino and company were correct to place such a high value on Dirk. But Celtics supporters aren’t grumbling after Pierce established himself as one of the best players in franchise history and paved the way to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
CBB Reference and Basketball Reference provided the stats.
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