Nikoloz Tskitishvili: #8 NBA Draft Bust

Synopsis: As a 19-year old from Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the state), Nikoloz Tskitishvili was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 5th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. With six foreign players taken in the first round that year, the NBA’s evolution into an international league hit another gear. Relative to draft position, that group included three very productive players (Yao Ming at #1, Nene Hilario at #7, and Nenad Krstic at #24), two under-productive players (Bostjan Nachbar at #15 and Jiri Welsch at #16), and one unproductive player (Nikoloz Tskitishvili). Based on a combination of horrendous shooting and abysmal production, Tskitishvili earned the title of #8 NBA Draft Bust.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili Deflategate
I hope Ted Wells interviewed Tskitishvili to ascertain his whereabouts during the 2015 AFC Championship Game

With over 100 foreign-born players on opening day rosters for the 2014-15 season, the NBA passed a meaningful milestone for the first time. More impressively, almost 15% of the league (63 out of 447 players) never even played organized basketball in the U.S. before joining the league. At this point, the NBA is no longer dominated solely by American players. While the internationalization of the NBA is far from over, it has gone through a few important stages along the way. The following tables highlight those stages.

Stage 1: Mid to Late 1980s

Foreign players initially needed to move to the U.S. before getting drafted. Specifically, they went to an American college for at least three years to gain exposure to NBA scouts. Once in college, they didn’t appear to be treated any differently because they played against the same competition.

Representative Players

  • Hakeem Olajuwon: #1 pick in 1984 after three stellar years at the University of Houston.
  • Detlef Schrempf: #8 pick in 1985 after four years at the University of Washington.
Stage 2: Late 1980s to Mid 1990s

In the late 1980s, NBA teams started drafting players directly from foreign leagues. There often was a delay between the draft and the player’s NBA debut because of extended buyout negotiations. For this reason, the players arguably fell lower than they otherwise would have if they could have come over immediately. Additionally, they rarely got drafted or made their NBA debut before the age of 21.

Representative Players

  • Drazen Petrovic: 3rd round pick in 1986 (drafted at 21 but debuted in NBA at 25)
  • Vlade Divac: #26 pick in 1989 (drafted and debuted in NBA at 21)
  • Peja Stojakovic: #14 in pick 1996 (drafted at 19 but debuted in NBA at 21)
Stage 3: Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Starting in the late 1990s, NBA teams showed a willingness to gamble on less experienced foreign players. This trend was supported by the ability of certain international players to become NBA stars. Furthermore, an increase in the number of high school players going directly into the NBA seemed to change the risk / reward profile of early 1st round picks. 

Representative Players

  • Dirk Nowitzki: #8 pick in 1998 (drafted and debuted in NBA at 20).
  • Pau Gasol: #3 pick in 2001. (drafted at 20 but turned 21 before NBA debut).
  • Nikoloz Tskitishvili: #5 pick in 2002 (drafted and debuted in NBA at 19).
  • Darko Milicic: #2 pick in 2003 (drafted and debuted in NBA at 18).
Stage 4: Mid 2000s and Beyond

Perhaps as a indication of their full immersion, international players no longer follow a single path into the NBA. Of note, recent drafts have included foreign players who reflect each of the prior trends. In addition, these players reflect the full spectrum of success.

Representative Players:

  • Andrew Wiggins, who moved to the U.S. to play at Kansas for one year, looks like a budding superstar. The Cavaliers took him with the 2014 #1 overall pick, but traded him to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love before ever playing in Cleveland. Wiggins was drafted and debuted in the NBA as a 19-year-old.
  • Ricky Rubio, who went to Minnesota with the 2009 #5 overall pick, has had a reasonably productive NBA career (when healthy). He was drafted at the age of 18, but made his NBA debut at 21.
  • 2006 1st overall pick Andrea Bargnani has been marginally productive (when healthy). The Toronto Raptors drafted him as a 20-year-old, but he turned 21 before playing in his first NBA game. 
  • Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2007 #6 pick, completely failed as an NBA player. In fact, his production ranked in the bottom decile of all players ever taken with a 6th-10th overall pick 

The period in the early 2000s proved to be the riskiest for NBA teams due to two major trends. First, they used high draft picks on unproven players given the success of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Second, they used high draft picks on international players given the success of Nowitzki and Gasol. The confluence of these trends led to the selection of unproven foreign players like Milicic and Tskitishvili. Unfortunately, neither player delivered as a high draft pick.

In an earlier post regarding Detroit’s selection of Darko Milicic, I detailed the breakdown that occurred given limited information on the 17-year-old. Many people consider Milicic as an all-time bust because the Pistons took him over Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2003 Draft. With almost 3,000 points and 2,000 rebounds during his NBA career, Milicic didn’t live up to the expectations of a #2 overall pick. He just wasn’t unproductive enough for me to call him a Top 10 Bust. 

Denver made a similar mistake one year earlier by taking Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the 2002 5th overall pick. Tskitishvili had a more exposure than Milicic based on appearances in the FIBA European Championships from 1999-2001. However, the additional information didn’t help the Nuggets make a better decision. The following table shows Tskitishvili’s stats from those three tournaments as well as from the 2002 tournament, which took place after the draft but before the start of his rookie season.

        Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Age FIBA Group Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Points
1999 15 Cadets (16U) 17 45.9% 59.6% 7.5 0.6 0.9 13.4
2000 16 Cadets (16U) 10 53.2% 56.0% 7.8 0.7 1.1 11.7
2001 17 Men (all ages) 3 50.0% 75.0% 1.3 0.0 0.0 3.7
2002 18 Young Men (21U) 5 40.8% 66.7% 8.8 1.0 1.0 16.2
      35 46.6% 59.9% 7.2 0.6 0.9 12.5

Tskitishvili put up some impressive numbers when competing against similarly aged players. After two strong performances against players who were 16 and under, he moved up to the unrestricted Men’s group as a 17-year old. Unfortunately, the heightened competition proved to be too tough so he moved down to the 21 and under group for the 2002 tournament. While his totals of 16 points and nine rebounds per game were commendable that year, his field goal percentage of 41% was not. Of concern, Tskitishvili attempted over 1/3 of his shots from behind the 3-point arc and made only 28% of them. Perhaps more concerning than his poor shooting percentage should have been his poor shot selection.

Prior to the 2002 Draft, the Nuggets also were able to evaluate Tskitivili based on his performance with Benetton Treviso of the Italian League. Of note, that team was coached by former Denver Nuggets coach and future Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni.



    Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Points
2002 11 60.0% 83.3% 1.8 0.4 0.5 0.2 6.6

While Tskitishvili’s per game averages don’t appear to be noteworthy, he had limited minutes coming off the bench for the eventual league champions. If his stats were adjusted to 36 minutes per game (i.e. starter minutes), he would have averaged 19 points and six rebounds. Apparently, Tskitishvilli did enough to impress his coach because D’Antoni publicly stated before the draft, “He’s a Gasol type with better outside shooting.” Gasol won the NBA’s 2001-02 Rookie of the Year Award after recording 18 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game in his rookie year. Furthermore, he shot 50% from the floor that season so D’Antoni’s comparison was quite bold.

As the following table shows, the coach was either overly complimentary toward his former player or grossly mistaken.

        Shooting Percentage Per Game Averages
Season Team Age Games FG 3-PT 2-PT Rebounds Assists Blocks Points
2002-03 DEN 19 81 29.3% 24.3% 32.4% 0.7 2.2 1.1 3.9
2003-04 DEN 20 39 32.8% 27.3% 33.3% 0.8 1.6 0.3 2.7
2004-05 DEN / GSW 21 35 29.7% 11.8% 35.1% 0.6 1.2 0.3 1.4
2005-06 MIN/PHO 22 17 35.1% 33.3% 35.3% 0.6 1.3 0.2 2.1
Career  4 Teams   172 30.4% 23.5% 33.2% 0.7 1.8 0.7 2.9

Given Tskitishvili’s lack of production, D’Antoni’s statement ultimately proved to be a gross exaggeration. In fact,the former Top 5 overall pick statistically ranked as the worst shooter in the NBA from 2002-2006.

How much more bad could he have been as a shooter? The answer is none. None more bad. Just like, how much more black could the following album cover be? And the answer is none. None more black.

Smell The Glove Album Cover.

If you don’t get the previous reference, the following link might help.

Rank* Player Team Games Made Attempts FG% Next Year Rank*
405/419 Ryan Humphrey ORL/MEM 48 35 120 29.2% Only played in 2 games
400/419 Jeryl Sasser ORL 75 51 163 31.3% Out of league
398/419 John Amaechi UTA 50 37 118 31.4% Out of league
397/419 Kenny Satterfield DEN/PHI 39 50 155 32.3% Out of league
396/419 Nikoloz Tskitishvili DEN 81 78 241 32.4% 402/435

*Ranks determined by the number of players who made at least one shot in an NBA game during the year. Given these ranks, Tskitishvili surpassed only 23 players out of 419 players who made at least one shot during the 2002-03 season and 33 players out of 435 players who made at least one shot during the 2003-04 season.  

I eliminated players with fewer than 100 shot attempts to add statistical relevance to the field goal percentage calculation. Based on this restriction, Tskitishvili had a better shooting percentage than only four players during the 2002-03 season. Three of those four players never played in the NBA again and the fourth only played in two games during the following season. In other words, a field goal percentage that low effectively served as a ticket out of the league. With respect to players with at least 200 2-pt field goal attempts (i.e. approximately 2.5 shots per game), Tskitishvili had the lowest shooting percentage in the entire league.

3P FG% Rank* Player Team Games Made Attempts FG % 2P FG% Rank*
246/274 Andre Miller LAC 80 23 108 21.3% 260/419
237/274 Mike Batiste MEM 75 18 81 22.2% 152/419
233/274 Rodney White DEN** 72 32 134 23.9% 191/419
230/274 Nikoloz Tskitishvili DEN** 81 37 152 24.3% 396/419

* Ranks based on the total number of players who made at least one 2-point or 3-point shot in an NBA game. There were 274 players who made at least one 3-point shot and 419 players who made at least one 2-point shot for the 2002-03 season.

** Denver’s two players on this list accounted for over 1/3 of the team’s 3-point attempts so it should be no surprise that the Nuggets ranked last in the league by shooting under 28% from beyond the arc.   

With respect to players with at least 80 3-point attempts, Tskitishvili had the fourth worst shooting percentage in the league. Out of the four, Tskitishvili was the only one who also ranked as one of the worse 2-point shooters. While it’s fair to question why someone shooting less than 25% from behind the arc would be allowed to heave almost two 3-pointers per game, his effective shooting percentage of 36% from long range actually exceeded his 32% shooting percentage from inside the arc. Furthermore, the team hoped to get as many entries as possible in the LeBron James Sweepstakes so his poor shooting wasn’t the worst thing. With Tskitishvili’s help, Denver tied with Cleveland for the worst record in 2002-03. However, the team had to settle for Carmelo Anthony after finishing third in the lottery for the 2003 Draft.

Based on the two previous tables, it should be clear that Tskitishvili ranked as the worst shooter during the 2002-03 NBA season. He was only a 19-year old rookie so perhaps that season was an aberration. Well, it wasn’t.

Rank* Player Team Games Shots Made Attempts FG % Next Year Rank*
423/435 Kyle Korver PHI 74 34 120 28.3% 233/458
412/435 Michael Ruffin UTA 41 38 117 32.5% 346/458
402/435 Nikoloz Tskitishvili DEN 39 37 111 33.3% 423/458

* Ranks based on the total number of players who made at least one shot in an NBA game during the respective seasons. There were 435 such players for the 2003-04 season and 458 for the 2004-05 season.

During the 2003-04 season, Tskitishvili had a better 2-point field goal percentage than only two players with at least 100 shot attempts. With respect to the three players in the table, he was the only one who didn’t improve dramatically in the following season. In fact, he didn’t get any better in his fourth (and final) NBA season by ranking 423rd out of 449 players. To summarize, Tskitishvili’s field goal percentage from inside the arc ranked in the bottom 8% for each year he played in the league. After the elimination of low-volume shooters, he undeniably ranked as the worst shooter in the NBA during his four-year career.

For those of you haven’t been keeping track, Tskitishvili is the third 5th overall pick I have recognized as an all-time bust. As a “None-and-Done” player, Jonathan Bender (#5 in 1999) was given a T10B exemption because he lacked the experience to be worthy of such a high pick. On the other hand, James Ray (#5 in 1980) didn’t earn an exemption. Instead, he began the countdown of Top 10 Busts at #10. Lest you think that there are any more all-time busts drafted with a 5th overall pick, the following table should end the conversation.

Draft Year Team Player Position Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG Win Shares
1972 PHI Freddie Boyd PG/SG 327 2,784 533 986 8.5 1.6 3.0 1.4
1999 TOR Jonathan Bender PF 262 1,453 582 170 5.5 2.2 0.6 3.8
2002 DEN Nikoloz Tskitishvili PF/C 172 507 307 114 2.9 1.8 0.7 -1.6
1980 DEN James Ray PF 103 334 228 76 3.2 2.2 0.7 -0.3

Perhaps the most interesting stat from the table involves the negative win shares for both Nikoloz Tskitishvili and James Ray. In essence, teams would have been better off keeping them on the bench. Overall, Tskitishvili (-1.6 win shares) was worse than Ray (-0.3 win shares) because he had more opportunities to hurt his team. As additional support for ranking Tskitishvili as a bigger bust, he was drafted before the best player from the 2002 Draft (i.e. Amar’e Stoudemire) whereas Ray was drafted after the best player from the 1980 draft (i.e. Kevin McHale).

 Notable Picks from 2002 NBA Draft (updated after 2017-18 season)
Draft Pick Team Player Pos. Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG Win Shares
#1 HOU Yao Ming C 486 9,247 4,494 769 19.0 9.2 1.6 65.9
#2 CHI Jay Williams PG 75 714 195 350 9.5 2.6 4.7 0.8
#3 GSW Mike Dunleavy SF 986 11,048 4,211 2,185 11.2 4.3 2.2 58.5
#4 MEM Drew Gooden PF 790 8,653 5,618 896 11.0 7.1 1.1 43.9
#5 DEN Nikoloz Tskitishvili PF 172 507 307 114 2.9 1.8 0.7 -1.6
#6 CLE Dajuan Wagner PG 103 964 142 195 9.4 1.4 1.9 0.0
#7 NYK Nene Hilario PF 923 10,758 5,705 1,693 11.7 6.2 1.8 71.9
#9 PHO Amar’e Stoudemire PF/C 846 15,994 6,632 1,050 18.9 7.8 1.2 92.5
#10 MIA Caron Butler SF 881 12,430 4,387 2,007 14.1 5.0 2.3 50.9
#23 DET Tayshaun Prince SF 1,017 11,272 4,332 2,406 11.1 4.3 2.4 63.1
#24 NJN Nenad Krstic PF/C 419 4,210 2,261 346 10.0 5.4 0.8 21.5
#34 CLE Carlos Boozer PF 861 13,976 8,192 1,928 16.2 9.5 2.2 80.3

The most accomplished players from the 2002 NBA Draft include Yao Ming, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer. In addition to putting up the numbers in the table, they received the following recognition. 

  • Yao Ming – Eight All-Star appearances / two 2nd Team and three 3rd Team All-NBA teams. 
  • A’mare Stoudemire – Six All-Star appearances / one 1st and four 2nd All-NBA teams.
  • Carlos Boozer – Two All-Star appearances / one 3rd Team All-NBA.

[Since I wrote this post, Ming was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The standards for international players don’t seem to be as high as they are for American-born players. Of note, Stoudemire had a more impressive career but is on the fence with respect to getting inducted in Springfield. China’s best NBA export readily admitted that he received the honor far too soon so I don’t need to emphasize the ancillary benefits of playing to the NBA’s largest international market.] 

The least accomplished players from the top of the 2002 NBA Draft (i.e. potential Top 10 Busts) include Jay Williams, Dajuan Wagner, and Tskitishvili. Williams (motorcycle accident) and Wagner (knee injuries and ulcerative colitis) had their careers cut short so their lack of production can be explained. In contrast, Tskitishvili had no such excuse. Instead, he deserves being recognized as the #8 NBA Draft Bust.

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