The internet is filled with hundreds of thousands of nostalgic tales, but that’s to be expected. As a wise man once said, “Nostalgia is a mild form of depression,” and everyone can get a little blue when thinking back to 1997. With the summer sun shining, however, we’re in a cheery mood. And with the NBA having settled down after a busy first few weeks of offseason transactions, we thought it best to highlight some random NBA players who may have done their best work a decade or two ago.
This isn’t a list of your “Top 12 File Sharing Services of 2002” or “27 Ways Britney Ruled the VMAs.” No, this is …
Random Players, NBA Edition
We continue with Ron Mercer.
No narcotics were used in the making of this picture. No legs were snapped, ACLs torn, or lives threatened. The subject even got a fat second contract, and a two-year deal towards the end of his career. Outside of one bar fight in 2007, we haven’t heard any bad news about this player during his retirement years.
Still, it boggles as to why Ron Mercer didn’t work out. He seemed to have the perfect setup laid out before him, and yet he disappointed team after team after such a promising upbringing.
When Del Harris, then coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, saw Ron Mercer play in high school he made a startling declaration. In Harris’ estimation only Oscar Robertson looked like a superior high school player to Mercer, who would soon be on his way to Rick Pitino’s program at Kentucky.
For Pitino, this guy was a real get. Mercer was considered the top-rated senior in the country, ahead of Stephon Marbury (already a New York legend), Kevin Garnett, Antawn Jamison, and Vince Carter. Already working with shooting guard size, Mercer could both swing to small forward and act as an adequate passer. As a freshman he was part of Pitino’s NCAA championship team. As a sophomore he was the SEC Player of the Year, understandably declaring for the NBA draft soon after the (Kentucky) Wildcats were downed in the NCAA title game by Arizona.
Awaiting him in the pro ranks was a familiar face.
Pitino left Kentucky to join the Boston Celtics as both team president and head coach a month after the tournament ended. Due to a deft move made by the previous administration the year before, dealing lumbering center Eric Montross and the ninth overall pick in the 1996 draft for 1996’s sixth pick (former Kentucky Wildcat Antoine Walker) and Dallas’ unprotected selection in the 1997 draft, Pitino was now working with the best odds for the first (theirs) and fourth (the Mavericks’) overall picks heading into the 1997 lottery.
Luck deserted Boston as the team fell to third and sixth, but Pitino was still able to snatch up what seemed like a dream backcourt: Chauncey Billups and Mr. Mercer. That Pitino would boast two members of his former Wildcat club on his new pro team was only somewhat laughed at – when the players in question were Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer, you happily brought the band back.
Things started swimmingly. The defending champion Chicago Bulls came to town on opening night in 1997-98, and yet the young Celtics overcame a massive early Bulls lead to down the champs by a 92-85 score. Walker would pace the C’s with 31 points, as Mercer added 15 in his debut as a pro. That would be his average for the year, as the 21-year old started 62 out of 80 games in what was a tumultuous 36-win Celtic season.
Slated to act as another rebuilding year, Pitino grew enraptured with making the playoffs as the season moved along. He dumped Billups, the third overall pick, in a just about unprecedented trade deadline move for veteran Kenny Anderson. Meanwhile, the yearlong yanking in and out of the starting lineup for Mercer (in deference to such luminaries as Greg Minor and Dana Barros) could not have sat well with the rookie, working with Pitino for his third consecutive season.
Boston missed the postseason but lucked into swingman and expected Rookie of the Year Paul Pierce during the 1998 draft, something that once again should have created a Big Three to build upon, but Pitino wasn’t wasting any time after the C’s once again missed out on the playoffs in 1999. Noting how the eighth-seeded New York Knicks made the Finals in a Jordan-less East, Pitino dealt Mercer (who averaged 17 points per game in his second season) to Denver for rebounder Danny Fortson, swingman Eric Williams (still recovering from a 1997 ACL tear), and a heavily-protected first round pick that would later turn into Kedrick Brown in 2001.
For Mercer, heading into a contract year with a Denver team that liked to run, it seemed like a sound setup. He would get as many shots as he could handle with the Nuggets, and reunite once again with Chauncey Billups. Billups separated his shoulder at the fin de siècle, however, and mindful of Mercer’s upcoming free agency turn the Nuggets dealt both Ron and an injured Billups to the Orlando Magic for middling compensation and cash.
Mercer played out the string in Orlando and averaged 16.9 points in total with Denver and Orlando. He hit free agency and, after Chicago struck out on signing Tracy McGrady, he was the Bulls’ free agent (consolation) prize.
Given all the minutes and shots he could handle in Chicago, Mercer’s limitations in his fourth season became apparent. He had never built on that Oscar Robertson comparison – the guy barely rebounded, his ball-handling skills never developed, and his defense was lacking. The one thing he could do well – rise up and make a contested long-range two-point jumper – was being outmoded by a league that didn’t even know it yet. He didn’t take or make three-pointers, he rarely got to the line, and his 19.7 points per game average in his first year in Chicago seems less impressive once you note that he needed 18.4 shots to get there.
Making no dent with the Bulls, Mercer was dealt in a package (with future All-Stars Ron Artest and Brad Miller) for Chicago’s newest savior in Jalen Rose. Working with a seeming mentor in Reggie Miller, Mercer’s flat-lined game stayed the same. His scoring average dipped to single digits as he came off the bench in Indiana, he hit just four three-pointers in 85 career games with the team, and he was dealt to San Antonio in the 2003 offseason.
Mercer struggled with the defending champs and again became a free agent. The New Jersey Nets, who at the time loved shooting guards that didn’t shoot three-pointers, signed Mercer to a two-year, $3.3 million contract in the 2004 offseason, but they waived him after just one year while using the amnesty provision. Just to get his $1.7 million off the books.
Ron Mercer was out of the league in his seeming prime at age 28. Years before the NBA realized that long twos were to be avoided and that three-pointers (even at a reduced accuracy rate) were worth more than two-pointers, Mercer’s game just wasn’t working. The same guy that entered the league in 1997, ready to play alongside Chauncey Billups, Antoine Walker and eventually Paul Pierce, left with just about the same skill set in 2005.
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