During his collegiate years, Greg Buckner was such a potent offensive threat that he led Clemson in scoring all four years from 1994-’98. becoming the first player in the school’s history to pull off such a feat.
So, naturally, Buckner figured to land somewhere in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft. Especially since he led the Tigers to three NCAA bids in the Atlantic Coast Conference – the toughest in college basketball at the time.
However, disappointment set in for Buckner when the 6-4 shooting guard wasn’t chosen in the draft until late in the second round – No. 53 overall – by the Mavericks. And after missing out on the guaranteed money that’s afforded first-round draft picks, Buckner went to the Mavs’ training camp as a wide-eyed rookie who wasn’t even sure he was going to make the team.
That is, until something Donnie Nelson – then the assistant general manager of the Mavs – said that caught Buckner’s attention.
Buckner said: “I was a scorer, but I got into training camp and I got physical and I grabbed somebody and (Nelson) stopped practice and he said, ‘This second-round rookie is probably going to get cut on this team if he doesn’t change some things, but his defensive intensity gives him an opportunity to make this team.’ And I was like, ‘(Forget about) scoring. I need to think about playing defense.’
“Some guys can’t adjust to that. I’ve seen young guys come in and they just can’t adjust to a role and understand that nine times out of 10 the team already has their scorers and they need other guys to help the team win and need people to do other things.”
As the NBA tips off its annual draft on Thursday at 6 p.m. from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Buckner has a message for the players who are on the verge of having their dreams realized. But he also has a particular enduring message for those players who, like himself, will wind up as second-round draft picks after they entered the draft with high hopes of becoming a first-round selection.
“I think the message will be just listen and learn, and keep your mouth shut,” Buckner said. “I would say adjust your game and do whatever it takes to make the team.”
The Mavs don’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft, because it was traded to the Atlanta Hawks last summer as part of the deal that helped them acquire rookie sensation Luka Doncic. So, on Thursday the Mavs only have a second-round pick – the 37th overall selection – provided they don’t make any trades.
However, second-round picks have been known to make powerful impacts throughout the history of the NBA. Mark West (17 years), Sean Rooks (13 years), Lucious Harris (12 years) and Buckner (10 years) all were drafted by the Mavs in the second round and they each played at least 10 years in the NBA, although not all for the Mavs.
Other Mavs’ second-round picks who had long NBA careers include Jay Vincent (nine years), Elston Turner (eight years), Morlon Wiley (eight years) and Bruno Sundov (seven years).
Buckner, 42, remembers the night he got drafted as if it happened yesterday.
“I was expected to be drafted in the mid-20s to the end of the first-round, but obviously that didn’t happen,” he said. “I was at home in (Hopkinsville, KY) with my mom and my brothers and a few of my friends from high school — my high school teammates.
“We watched the draft, and as it kept going everybody started to scatter away from me.”
As the night wandered, the disappointment with the way the draft was unfolding was clearly etched on Buckner’s face. Teams told him they were going to select him on the first round, but as he learned the hard way, things changed.
“Some unexpected guys went higher than they were expected to, and then some guys dropped to them and they felt like they were a higher talent than what they were picking, so they chose them,” Buckner said. “So I just kept dropping and dropping and dropping.
“I was disappointed, but when I look back on it I fell in the right spot and it helped me to be able to play 10-plus years in the NBA.”
Like with Buckner, the Mavs are hoping what occurred last season will happen again on Thursday. Guard Jalen Brunson led Villanova to two of the previous three NCAA championships and also was the college Player of the Year in 2018, but miraculously fell to the second round where the Mavs drafted him with the 33rd overall pick.
With additional playing time following the season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon injury to J. J. Barea in mid-January and the trading of Dennis Smith Jr. to the New York Knicks on Jan. 31, Brunson wound up becoming one of the top rookies in the NBA this past season. Buckner can certainly relate to what transpired with Brunson in the draft.
“It was a little nerve-wrecking, because you understand, especially back then, not many second-rounders made the team because everybody was guaranteed and they could only keep 13 (players) around at the time, so they weren’t keeping those two extra guys unless somebody really got hurt,” Buckner said. “And I knew that money (for second-round picks) wasn’t guaranteed, so I figured if I go in the second-round I probably would end up in Europe somewhere when it was all said and done.”
Buckner said he benefitted from the fact that then-Mavs coach, Don Nelson, was a huge fan of playing a smaller lineup.
“He loved having smalls that could post, and that was my forte and that’s what I could really do well, and I was versatile enough to guard,” Buckner said. “If I would have gone to one of those team that guaranteed me that they were going to take me (in the first round), it was some dysfunctional organizations and I probably would have played two years in the NBA to be honest with you.
“But I got with a good place (in Dallas) and Mark Cuban came (and bought the Mavs on Jan. 4, 2000) and turned the Dallas Mavericks’ franchise around, and the history is history.”
Buckner, now 42, wound up playing four of his 10 NBA seasons with the Mavs. While he was in the midst of his pro career, the shooting guard didn’t miss those days when his coaches and teammates were counting on him to put up some big offensive numbers.
“Playing defense was just like second nature – I didn’t think anything about it,” Buckner said. “Then you get to the league and you see so many guys that don’t play defense, and then coach brings it to my attention that I can make the team by playing defense.
“I was like, ‘Playing defense is easy compared to trying to get 20 (points) a night.’ It’s about heart, desire and want-to and studying your opponent.”
In a way, Buckner feels there’s a heavier burden placed on first-round picks to succeed in the NBA than there is on a second-rounder.
“I think most of them feel like they’ve got to come in and be big scorers,” he said. “Some guys just can’t come in and handle that pressure, and obviously some guys get over-drafted. Some guys are not as good as they think they are, and then they draft a lot of guys for potential, and you don’t always reach your potential.”
As far as second-rounders go. . .
“You’ve got to understand your situation,” Buckner said. “Not many of us are guaranteed locks in the NBA.
“The rest of us have to be in the right situation and in the right fit, and a lot of times those successful guys who go in the second round we got placed in the right place at the right time to be successful. So, you’ve just got to get in the right situation and take advantage of it.”
Which is what whoever the Mavs take in the second round hopes to do.