Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie were both selected in front of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Basketball is a height game, and Hakeem was a spectacular player so that one makes sense, but Sam Bowie?? It’s hard to fathom that MJ wasn’t a lock for no.1 in the draft, but he wasn’t the player you thought of now back in 1984.
At that time, Jordan was considered to be a raw talent with loads of potential. But how do you decide if that talent will translate and the player will develop? That’s the art of drafting (and being lucky). A lot of players with such athleticism don’t develop other skills as it’s enough at first. That’s where MJ was different.
People most familiar with that are the poor guys that had to defend him. One of them was John Starks, a New York Knick. Starks was a posterchild for the Knicks’ physical play during the 90s led by none other than the legendary Pat Riley, and he would be an annoying shadow if he defended you. When he ranked and elaborated, who was hardest to guard, he finished the list with Jordan and just wrote “good luck.”
Defending is about sacrifice – physically and tactically. Every player has a weakness, and you exploit it. Not a good shooter? Take a step back and give yourself time to react. Can’t use his left hand? Get stuck on his right side. That’s why one of the most valuable things in basketball is to be good at everything. You don’t have to be great at everything – but don’t have a weakness that enables the defender to hedge. Here’s Starks on MJ:
“When he first came in the league, everybody talked about he wasn’t a good outside shooter – he became a good outside shooter. Everybody talked about he couldn’t shoot a three-pointer – he became a decent three-point shooter. Down low didn’t have a post-up game – developed a post-up game. Say he wasn’t truly a good ball-handler – became a good ball-handler.”John Starks
To top it all off, Starks said his best attribute was his mind. MJ was always thinking about the game, and that’s why it looked so simple. Just a few dribbles to get to his spot and a jump shot. Looks easy. But that was the exact place he wanted to get to, and there was a thinking process behind that decision.