Iowa Hoops And The First Round Of The NBA Draft

The 2022 NBA Draft is tomorrow night (7 PM CT, ESPN / ABC) and while our interest in the draft is generally fairly casual as Iowa basketball fans, we have a whole lot of interest in tomorrow night’s draft. Why? Because a 24-year drought is on the verge of ending, courtesy of one Keegan Murray.

The rocket-powered developmental jump Murray took between his freshman and sophomore seasons not only led to one of the greatest seasons in the history of Iowa basketball and earned him All-Big Ten and All-America honors – it’s also likely to have his name called pretty early on Thursday night. Mock drafts vary, but Murray could go as high as # 4 or # 5, though some also have him slipping to later in the Top 10. But there’s unanimous consensus on him being selected in the first round and if – when – that happens, it will end a very long, very annoying drought related to Iowa basketball: the lack of a first round draft pick. No Iowa player has been taken in the first round of the NBA Draft since the immortal Ricky Davis was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 21st pick in 1998. That’s 24 long, empty years without a first round draft pick (and let’s be honest: without a draft pick of any kind in most of those 24 years). But that drought should be over soon, which seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at the Iowa’s past first round selections.

1952 | Chuck Darling | # 9 overall – Rochester Royals

The first-ever Iowa player selected in the first round of the NBA Draft was the late, great Chuck Darling way back in 1952. He was taken with the ninth pick by the Rochester Royals (who eventually became the Cincinnati Royals, and then the Kansas City Kings, and finally the Sacramento Kings). But professional basketball was not quite the lucrative endeavor in the early ’50s that is now, though, and Darling opted against pursuing a career with the Royals. He did continue playing basketball, though, and was part of the United States team that won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.

1970 | John Johnson | # 7 overall – Cleveland Cavaliers

18 years later, John Johnson became the second Iowa player to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. After an excellent Iowa career (in which he set scoring records that stood for 50 years) Johnson was taken with the seventh pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers and began a highly successful pro career as well. He was selected to the All-Star Game in 1971 and 1972, becoming the first Cavalier player ever to receive that honor. He was traded to the Seattle Supersonics in 1977 and was a key member of the Sonics team that went to back-to-back NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979, winning an NBA championship in ’79.

1971 | Fred Brown | # 6 overall – Seattle Supersonics

A year later, Johnson’s Iowa teammate Fred Brown was also taken in the first round, with the sixth pick by the Seattle Supersonics. Brown remains the highest-drafted Hawkeye ever, although Murray seems like he may have a real opportunity to challenge that status this year. Brown was selected to the All-Star Game in 1976, a season in which he also finished fifth in the NBA in scoring average and free throw percentage. Brown, alongside former Iowa teammate John Johnson, was a key contributor on the Sonics teams that went to the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979 and won the championship the latter year. Brown had a longer career than any Iowa player ever (13 seasons) and he ended his career as the Sonics’ all-time leader in games played, points scored, field goals made, and free throws made; he still has the Sonics single-game records for points scored (regular season and playoffs) and steals.

1973 | Kevin Kunnert | # 12 overall – Chicago Bulls

Two years later, Kevin Kunnert was another former Iowa player taken in the first round, selected 12th overall by the Chicago Bulls (the first of many former Hawkeyes taken in the first round by the Bulls), though he never actually played for the Bulls – – he was traded to the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) shortly before the 1973 season. Kunnert was a throwback player, from a time when big men were highly valued, and he parlayed that status into a nine-year NBA career with the Braves / Clippers, Rockets, and Trail Blazers. Kunnert was also involved in one of the most infamous plays in NBA history; he got into a skirmish with Kermit Washington which led to Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich, one of Kunnert’s teammates, and earning a 60-game suspension.

1980 | Ronnie Lester | # 10 Overall – Chicago Bulls (via Portland Trail Blazers)

After a legendary Iowa career (marred by an unfortunate knee injury), Lester was taken with the 10th pick in the 1980 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers and immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls. Lester probably would have gone higher than 10th were it not for the knee injury that shortened his senior season at Iowa. Unfortunately, that knee injury also severely limited his NBA career – he played just six years and four of those seasons were shortened due to his recurring knee problems. When he did play he could only play limited minutes and dealt with consistent soreness and swelling in his knee. That knee injury not only cost Iowa a chance at one of their best-ever finishes (possibly even a championship), it limited the rest of Lester’s career, preventing a player who once earned ebullient praise from no less than Magic Johnson, who called Lester “The toughest player [I] ever faced in the Big Ten, “from living up to his sky-high potential.

1989 | BJ Armstrong | # 18 overall – Chicago Bulls

The ’80s were a good decade for Iowa in the NBA Draft – they had at least one player taken every year from 1980 to 1989 * – but they didn’t have another player selected in the first round until 1989, when the Bulls again went back to Iowa to find a point guard. They took BJ Armstrong with the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 1989 draft. Armstrong joined the Bulls just in time to help the team complete their ascension from good team to “all-time great,” as he was part of the Bulls’ first three NBA championship teams in 1991, 1992, and 1993. After serving as a sparkplug off the bench in the first two title season, Armstrong became a starter for the 1992-1993 team.

Armstrong was also one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA at this time, leading the NBA in 1993 and finishing second in the league in 1994, a season in which he also made the All-Star Game. (An aside: Armstrong led the NBA – for an entire season! – in 1993 on 63/139 shooting from deep. Steph Curry calls 63 made threes “a decent two weeks.”) Armstrong was not part of the Bulls’. second three-peat squad; he was taken by the Toronto Raptors in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft but refused to report and was ultimately traded to the Golden State Warriors. He ended his career with stints in Charlotte, Orlando, and Chicago (again).

1989 | Roy Marble | # 23 overall – Atlanta Hawks

Armstrong was not the only Iowa player taken in the first round of the 1989 NBA Draft – five picks later, Roy Marble, Iowa’s all-time leading scorer for 30+ years, was taken 23rd overall by the Atlanta Hawks. Unlike his prolific college career, though, Marble’s NBA career was not one to remember – he played in just 24 games as a rookie and scored 51 points total. He spent most of the next few seasons bouncing around minor league pro basketball teams and had just one more stint in the NBA, with the Denver Nuggets in 1994.

1993 | Acie Earl | # 19 overall – Boston Celtics

The first Iowa player taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in the 1990s came four years later, when the Boston Celtics selected Acie Earl wit hthe 19th overall pick. Earl played two years with the Celtics and was taken by the Toronto Raptors in the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft. He played the next few seasons with the Raptors (and the Milwaukee Bucks) before wrapping up his professional basketball career with several stints in Europe (and Australia) over the following six seasons.

1998 | Ricky Davis | # 21 overall – Charlotte Hornets

And, finally, the most recent Iowa player taken in the first round of the NBA Draft – Ricky Davis! Davis played just one year at Iowa, but his potential was high enough to get him taken 21st overall by the Charlotte Hornets. Davis had an itinerant NBA career – he played for six different teams (and had two separate stints with the Miami Heat) – but he also had a very lengthy career, lasting 12 years in the NBA. He’s perhaps most known for his infamous attempt at a self-assisted triple double and for saying that the Cavs were going to draft LeBron James to give him some help, but Ricky was also a hugely productive player for a variety of NBA teams for a long time – ain’t nothing to sniff at there. After the NBA, he bounced between Europe, China, and the NBA D-League for another four seasons.

A day from now, Keegan Murray should add his name to this list – and then we’ll get to see where his NBA career stacks up with these players, some of whom went to extremely successful and long NBA careers. Go get ’em, Keegs.

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