A Look Back at the 97 Draft – Raptors Take Tracy McGrady With the 9th pick

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Cover Photo Credit: Craig Jones / Allsport

With the 2022 NBA approaching on June 23rd, we want to take a look back at the Raptors draft history; giving a bit of an accounting of the state of the Raptors, what we thought of the pick in the moment and in retrospect. Each day we will examine the Raptors significant pick(s) and additions in each draft, and frame it in the context of what was going on during that year. You can find all the pieces in this draft history project here.ย 

The State of The Raptors Heading Into The Draft

Ok, things are moving up to the right for the Raptors. Under Rookie head coach, Darryl Walker, the Raptors finished 30-52, a nine-game improvement from their previous/first year. A really brutal offense was anchored by a respectable middle-of-the-pack defense. Two rising young stars in Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby, and a solid, youngish two-way player in Doug Christie. Games were packed at the Skydome (Raptors were eighth in attendance).

To be honest, and maybe someone can refresh my memory in the comments, but it didn’t seem Darryl Walker used Stoudamire any differently than Brendan Malone (Mighty Mouse still logged about 41 minutes a game and ran the same sets more or less), but Thomas was happy, which meant he kept his job.

Shot creation and athleticism were lacking, there was absolutely no one to run the offense when Stoudamire sat those seven minutes a game (sound familiar?), but goddamn those Huskies jerseys they wore on opening night were dope.

Photo Credit: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

From a roster perspective, notable moves included:

Traded Jimmy King, a 1998 second-round draft pick (Ansu Sesay was later selected) and a 1999 second-round draft pick (Gordan Giriฤek was later selected) to the Dallas Mavericks for Popeye Jones and a 1997 first-round draft pick (John Thomas was later selected). Toronto had the option to swap first-round draft picks with Dallas in 1997 (a draft pick owned by Dallas that was originally owned by Minnesota) but did not do so.
– This was not the Fab 5 Jimmy King we thought we stole in the second round of the 96 draft, so sending him for Popeye, who was a serviceable big who was asked to do more than he should have been, plus a first was a serious haul.

Signed Walt Williams as a free agent.
– The Wizard. Nice offensive player who wore his socks up to his knees. Was a nice player who fell off fast after posting a solid 96-97 campaign for the Raptors. A trend of players having career years in Toronto then disappearing once they left the team was emerging.

Signed Donald Whiteside as a free agent.
– Nothing notable other than Whiteside had baller aspirations and went from being a high school teacher to the NBA. Met him once and he was a really nice guy, just mentioning it here cause he left a good impression on me as a good human being.

Traded Acie Earl to the Milwaukee Bucks for Shawn Respert.
– Another solid college player who didn’t translate to the NBA. Meh.

The Draft

PickPlayerDrafted ByCollege TeamVORP
1Time DuncanSASWake Forest91.1
2Keith Van HornPHIUtah9.6
3Chauncey BillupsBOSColorado43.5
4Antonio DanielsVANBowling Green10.1
5Tony BattieDENTexas Tech0.8
6Ron MercerBOSKentucky-2.5
7Tim ThomasVillanovaNJN6.4
8Adonal FoyleGSWColgate1.1
9Tracy McGradyTORHigh School55.7
10Danny FortsonMILCincinnati-2.6

The Raptors had real needs around shot making and athleticism on the wing, and this wasn’t a very strong draft. Duncan was obviously the number-one pick, and Ron Mercer, who would have fit the bill theoretically wasn’t going to be on the board at nine, and talk about some high school kid from Orlando was starting to gain steam.

Garnett was obviously going to be a stud, and while Kobe didn’t have a great rookie campaign, he showed a lot of promise and creativity in the limited minutes he got. So maybe drafting high school kids was the new inefficiency to be taken advantaged of. You know how we all “Trust in Masai?” Isiah Thomas just hit two back-to-back homers, and when he drafted McGrady, we were all like “Ok, bet!”

We actually didn’t get this footage of Tracy back then, seeing this now for the first time, but had I seen this back then, I would have been all in.

From my perspective, with Mercer off the board, I liked Jacque Vaughn out of Kansas, but he was an undersized guard, and we had one of those already. Gimme the tall, athletic kid, shake the tree, and see where the leaves fell.

In The Moment

There was no YouTube, The Ringer Draft Show, or anywhere to get a sense of what it meant, so we had to just trust in the process.

Word started to get around on how impressive his workouts were, that he could handle the ball, create his own shot, get up and down the court. The key was that he would be able to reduce the load on Stoudamire who was carrying a massive workload.

What it Meant for the Raptors

While his raw numbers weren’t impressive (7pts 4.2rebs 1.5ast 45% FG% 34% 3FG% 71% FT%), when you account that he only played like 18min a night, he made a lot of things happen when he was out there on the floor. The athleticism, off the bounce stuff, that jumper; dare I say we had a Kobe? The similarities were too obvious not to jump there:

  • Both jump to the pros from high school
  • Both were incredible athletes
  • Both had no fear in their eyes
  • Both did a lot on the court in limited minutes

His numbers weren’t muted forever; the rise looked for a minute like it might be meteoric. By his third season, the 45-37 Raptors were sixth in the East (their fifth year in the league), and reaching the playoffs. Vince Carter was the man in Toronto, his second season in the league, but McGrady was the second half of our dynamic duo. We had two young up and coming stars, who were clearly special. The sky was the limit.

In Game 1 of the playoffs against the Knicks, down nine heading into the 4th, it was McGrady who led the comeback that ultimately fell short. Final score was 92-88, and was one of the most stressful nights of my life. At this point I’d been watching basketball for like 13 years, but was never this invested. Felt sick to my stomach tbh.

It was McGrady who gave us hope there. Jumper. Off the bounce finishes at the rim. Getting into to passing lanes. Snatching boards he had no business grabbing. Jesus…

25pts 10rebs 2ast 2stl 1blk, the shooting was alright, but this is what it meant to have a star on your team; you always have a chance. The Raptors ultimately got swept, losing Games 2 and 3 in a brutally prodding 90s style of basketball (the first round was best of five back then), but the environment in arena was out of control the entire game; literally everyone was standing and screaming the entire time; absolute insanity.

The dream ultimately lasted only three years with McGrady bolting in free agency. Right before that playoff series started, Butch Carter launched a lawsuit against Marcus Camby derailing the playoffs before they even began, then getting fired for trying to take then Raptors GM Glen Grunwald’s job (he says he only wanted the assistant GM job; OK, Boomer!).

It was no wonder McGrady ran the first chance he got to his hometown Orlando Magic, and to this day we are left dreaming of what could have been.

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