It’s kind of amazing to think that it’s already been 25 years since Derrick Coleman was taken first overall in the 1990 NBA Draft. I was only nine years old at the time, and just thinking about it makes me feel really old. About 34 years old, to be exact. Coleman’s selection remains the first and only time a Syracuse University basketball player was taken with the top pick in the NBA Draft, and kicked off a strong NBA career that spanned 15 seasons.
I was barely old enough to remember watching Coleman play for the Orange, but I vividly recall watching him dominate in those early years with the New Jersey Nets. But it was his incredible career at Syracuse that will have people forever talking about him as one of the finest power forwards in the history of college basketball.
While people tend to think more about the slightly out of shape, run down version of Coleman from the tail end of his career, it can’t be overstated just how explosive an athlete the 6-foot-10 forward from Detroit was. Thin, fast, and a terrific leaper, he was a rebounding machine from the moment he set foot on campus. I mean, this is a guy who set an NCAA record for most rebounds in a national championship game as a freshman (he had 19 in the loss to Indiana in 1987).
One of the most amazing stats about Derrick Coleman’s time at Syracuse is that, despite scoring 2,143 points (an average of 15.0 points-per-game over his 143 game career) he never led one of Jim Boeheim’s squads in scoring. He always had someone like Sherman Douglas or Billy Owens carrying most of the scoring load, while he just consistently put up double-doubles (and boasted a career average of 10.7 rebounds-per-game on his way to leaving Syracuse as, at the time, the all-time leader in NCAA history).
But Coleman wasn’t just an athletic freak. He was also remarkably skilled for a guy his size, with the ability to handle the ball and stretch the floor. As a senior, he hit 36.6% of his three point attempts and finished out his incredible career averaging 17.9 points and 12.1 rebounds, and shot 55.1% from the field. That’s not even mentioning his shot blocking prowess, sporting a career average of 2.2 per-game, including an incredible 3.4 blocks-per-game as a junior.
With a lot of former number one picks, it’s easy to look back and wonder what on earth the teams that took them were thinking. Michael Olowokandi, for example, would never even be a lottery pick in most other drafts, even before knowing he flamed out. The same goes for Kwame Brown. But when it comes to Coleman, there is no question that year in, and year out, he’d be solidly in the mix to be the number one pick. Put him up against any number one draft picks over the years and in the vast majority of those drafts, his combination of talent, size, and skill would make him the favorite to be the top pick.
In fact, since 2000, I’d say the only top overall picks you’d probably select ahead of Coleman would be LeBron James, and Anthony Davis (who is actually probably the most similar to Coleman at the same age of anyone drafted in the past 15 years), and possibly Dwight Howard. You could argue for Derrick Rose, and maybe Blake Griffin. But could you really say that even burgeoning stars like John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins would be surefire picks over a 6-foot-10 super athlete who dominates the glass, can handle the rock, and score from anywhere on the court?
Coleman will be remembered as someone who never quite lived up to his potential, unfortunately. Charles Barkley once said that Coleman should have been the greatest power forward in history. But even if his career wasn’t quite what people expected, it was still pretty damn good. In 15 NBA seasons, Coleman averaged 16.5 points, 9.3 points, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks-per-game.
In his early years with the Nets, he was absolutely superb in the playoffs. During the 1993 playoffs with New Jersey, Coleman averaged 26.8 points and 13.4 rebounds in five playoff games, and the following year he boasted averages of 24.5 points and 14.3 boards. Overall in his three playoff appearances with New Jersey, Coleman put up stunning averages of 24.7 points and 13.0 rebounds per game in 13 games. The Nets were knocked out in the first round of each of those seasons, but it was through no fault of the Orange great.
Coleman remains heavily involved with Syracuse basketball, and is an ardent supporter of the University in general. He also remains one of the greatest players to ever don a Syracuse jersey in any sport, so as we sit here 25 years removed from his becoming the top pick in the NBA Draft, it feels right to reflect on just how remarkable he was in his four seasons with the Orangemen.