The Jazz have built a reputation of being generally shrewd judges of potential when it comes to the NBA Draft. Everyone knows how they stole future All-Star John Stockton at No. 16 in 1984, and followed by taking relatively unheralded Karl Malone at No. 13 a year later.
There have been other excellent picks over the years, as well: Blue Edwards at No. 21 in 1989 and Dell Curry at No. 15 in 1986. But perhaps the best pick the Jazz ever made was a fourth-rounder in 1982 who barely played in college. "Mark Eaton was probably the most notable selection," said Jazz Director of Basketball Operations Scott Layden. "He gave us immediate credibility in the middle."The Jazz will try to, as Layden puts it, "get lightning to strike" once again this Wednesday when the annual NBA Draft is held in Indianapolis. They have no first round pick and will be selecting far down at No. 47 overall, barring any last-minute trades.
If ever there was a pick that came out of nowhere, it was Eaton. Claimed in the fourth round - at No. 72 overall - in the 1982 draft, Eaton played just 196 minutes and scored only 53 points in two seasons at UCLA. But he went on to become the No. 2 all-time shot-blocker in NBA history, earning one All-Star invitation and two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards.
"To get a player like Mark in the fourth round is like winning the Florida State Lottery - it's impossible. You have to be very lucky. We had second- and third-round picks that year. I guess the question is why we didn't take him in the third round that year," Layden continued.
Indeed, the Jazz had other things on their minds than a 7-foot-4 project who was discovered working in an auto repair shop in Southern California. That year they drafted Georgia's Dominique Wilkins in the first round (third overall), then took Jerry Eaves of Louisville and Steve Trumbo of BYU in the third round. Wilkins was shortly traded to Atlanta for players and cash to keep the struggling franchise alive, while Eaves and Trumbo faded into the long list of players who never stuck in the NBA.
"Probably the luckiest pick we've ever had," said Layden. "The impact (Eaton) had was incredible."
Layden said as far down as the fourth round - the NBA has only two rounds in the draft nowadays - they weren't even terribly concerned about who they picked. Far bigger concerns were what to do with Wilkins and how to keep the franchise going.
As lucky as the Jazz claim they were, they also took measures to ensure his success. They worked tirelessly at developing Eaton's defensive and shot-blocking skills. They signed him to a five-year contract in his first year - a nearly unprecedented move - though not all the years were guaranteed.
"We gave him a guaranteed contract and put him on the floor and played him," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "We had a team that was struggling and he got some game experience and some confidence and it ended up being a great move on everyone's part."
There were other players who could be considered among the best picks ever. Sloan says the Jazz's selection of Bobby Hansen in the third round of the 1983 draft (54th overall) could well be the next best pick, considering the circumstances. Hansen went on to become a starting guard.
Jazz President Frank Layden maintains the Jazz's best pick ever was Louisville guard Darrell Griffith. Though Griffith was the No. 2 player selected overall in 1980 - hardly a risk - Layden says it was a smart pick nonetheless. That year, Golden State took Joe Barry Carroll at No. 1 and Boston selected Kevin McHale at No. 3.
"In all honesty, when we picked Griff, we knew he would be great," said Frank Layden, "and we knew he would enhance the franchise. I don't think we knew that when we picked Karl Malone at No. 13 and John Stockton at No. 16. Face it, if they were that good, they'd have been picked a lot sooner. After that, they became the greatest players. But for the best pick, I think it was Griff."
Frank Layden also mentioned the Jazz's selection of Wilkins at No. 3 overall in 1982. But before he ever played in Utah, his draft rights were traded to Atlanta for John Drew, Freeman Williams and cash.
As for the Jazz's worst pick ever, the name that most often comes up is their 1987 first-round pick, the erstwhile Jose Ortiz (15th overall) of Oregon State. "You might say it was Jose Ortiz," said Sloan. "On the other hand, a lot of people were pretty high on him. There are certain things you look at and you know when mistakes are made."
Frank Layden admitted one of the worst mistakes was taking Loyola of Chicago's Larry Knight in the first round in 1979.
Asked if he had ever changed his mind at the last moment on Draft Day and chosen an alternative player, Scott Layden joked, "I wish I had done that in '87. But the decisions are all made by Draft Day. There are no last-minute surprises."
Former Jazz picks: Where are they now?
Jose Ortiz: Played last year with Club Baloncesto Malagia, Spain
Eric Leckner: Played last year in Philadelphia, starting 17 games
Walter Palmer: Played last year in Germany, lives in S.L. part time
Andy Toolson: Played last year in Andorra, made the All-Star team
Darrell Griffith: Owns club in Louisville, other business interests
Dell Curry: Broke his own team record in Charlotte for treys (152)
Delaney Rudd: Averaged 23 points in France
Isaac Austin: Played last part of regular season with Sixers
Thurl Bailey: An unrestricted free agent after three seasons in Minnesota