As the Denver Nuggets prepared to make the 20th pick in the NBA Draft's first round last week, anticipation and speculation shifted into high gear.
After all, the Nuggets looked like a team on the cusp of a breakthrough this past season. Having already survived the trade of star Carmelo Anthony to New York, they endured yet another major trade, dealing Nene to Washington during the season, and still came away strong enough to make the playoffs.
Denver lost in the first postseason round to the Los Angeles Lakers, but the general assumption around the league was that with one or two smart moves in the draft, head coach George Karl might have the roster he needed to make a much longer playoff run.
Just a year ago, the Nuggets had made a terrific choice at No. 22, grabbing Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, whose fast development as a relentless, energetic rebounder should help them for years to come.
This time, many thought Denver might pick a big man or a point guard. With another Faried-type success, that would put the Nuggets in much better position.
Instead, they selected Evan Fournier.
He's a long, stringy, wimpy French fry, a 6-foot-7 guard with the body frame of a toothpick. He's not physical, and he's also not much of a shooter. In fact, he's projected at least two years away from ready for the NBA.
Many followers of the Nuggets instantly likened him to Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the 7-footer from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, whom Denver grabbed with the No. 5 pick of the 2002 draft. Tskitishvili never amounted to anything, a huge waste.
That comparison is understandable. But this scenario reminds me more of 1996, when the Nuggets needed help in the draft, yet traded down from 10th to 23rd in the first round. Still, they could have had the likes of point guard Derek Fisher or forward Jerome Williams.
Instead, they went with Efthimis Rentzias, a 6-foot-11 project from Greece. The reports were mixed on Rentzias, who just weeks later would be on Greece's team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
At the Summer Games, I made it a point to cover one of Greece's pool-round games and arranged an interview with Rentzias. I even set up an interpreter volunteering in Atlanta — University of Colorado business professor John Lymberopoulos, father of longtime Channel 5 morning anchor Georgiann Lymberopoulos.
Rentzias entered that game several times as Greece's backup center, and he looked decent — for a few minutes. But quickly his play turned sporadic at best, and he looked totally out of shape. After the game, we were told to meet Rentzias in a "mixed zone" where athletes and media could mingle. We found Rentzias with several teammates, smoking cigarette after cigarette.
His immaturity was as obvious as his on-court inconsistency. Still puffing away, Rentzias said he should've been a starter, despite his lack of endurance, and added, "I don't think I will have trouble playing in the NBA." But his coach, fluent in English, candidly said, "Right now, Efthimis is not so strong in the heart. That's why he doesn't play too much yet."
It was obvious that the Nuggets had made a serious mistake. Other Europeans, most notably Pau Gasol of Spain, have been able to thrive in the NBA. But that continent never has been a huge gold mine for NBA teams.
Rentzias never played for Denver. But the franchise has continued to make these draft blunders, when the Nuggets could have done much better with American college players.
They could have had Syracuse center Fab Melo, a 7-foot defensive presence. Or Vanderbilt shooting guard John Jenkins, point guard Marquis Teague of Kentucky (my favorite) or power forward Jared Sullinger of Ohio State. Then they could have gambled on Fournier in the second round or, more appropriately, as a post-draft, free-agent signee.
Instead, that first-round draft pick instantly turns into a big, fat zero.
And Denver fans won't forget it any time soon.
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