Eighteen years ago, we were treated to one of the most memorable drafts in NBA history. Out of the 58 players chosen in 1996, many have gone on to have long and fruitful careers. The number one overall pick, Allen Iverson – who’s jersey was lifted to the rafters in Philadelphia on Saturday – is one of the most iconic players of recent memory. His braids, baggy clothes and balls-to-the-wall style of play made him an instant fan favorite, as well as a living legend. Ray Allen, the NBA’s all-time leader in threes made, is still in the league today, albeit as a shell of his former self. Kobe Bryant, who’s name doesn’t need much explanation, is on the payroll for two more years, but has had a series of damning injuries lately that have put a frosty haze over his future with the Lakers.
But as you look further and further down the list of all the draftees from that year, one thing becomes clear: very few of those fresh faced rookies that stepped up to the podium nearly two decades ago are still in the league today. Stephon Marbury has found success overseas in China, the likes of Ben Wallace, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antoine Walker and Peja Stojaković hung up their sneakers for good years ago, and two-time MVP Steve Nash is dangling on the edge of retirement by a single thread.
And then, there’s Derek Fisher.
It’s amazing Fisher is still here. For 18 straight years, he’s had the same role. He’s never been one to fill up a stat sheet, but has been coined as a leader: one who is battle-tested and knows what it takes to win at the highest level. Every summer, he seems to find himself on some championship-calibre team despite not having as flashy, nor lengthy, of a resume as some of his aforementioned peers. 10,585 career points is impressive, but won’t be found anywhere on the NBA’s all-time leader boards. Add zero all-star appearances and some meh shooting numbers to the mix and there’s not much to be excited about. That is, until you see the five rings. [Ed. Note: Count tha ringzzzzz]
At 39 years old, Fisher’s days as a player in this league are coming to an end. His contract is up at the end of this season and the Thunder will have to decided whether or not he is worth keeping around. Every time he checks into the game, the same old jokes are recycled on Twitter. His flops are met by the same chorus of criticism and every three he attempts usually results in a gasp, waiting to be turned into a chuckle. But based on his play as of late, the Thunder might have a tough time turning him away.
The Thunder’s bench is much improved this year with the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III stepping up to the plate in just their sophomore seasons. And while they have proven their ability make big time contributions to this team, there are worries that they may fold under the pressure come playoff time. Without much experience left on the sidelines, Fisher finds himself as one of the few veterans in the second unit, and is – to the amazement of everyone – still making a positive contribution.
Over his last 18 games, Fisher is averaging 7.5 points in 17 minutes on 51.5 percent from three. Not only that, but he has come up big in a pair of marquee match-ups. On January 29th, Fisher scored a then-season-high, 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting from the great beyond, in 18 minutes against the defending champs on their home turf. Nearly a month later, he did nearly the exact same thing again, this time against the L.A. Clippers, scoring 15 points in 20 minutes off the bench.
Fisher is still the same old player he was, which may be the most impressive part of this all. While Ray Allen fights through the worst shooting season of his career and Kobe Bryant struggles to step foot on the court, it’s Fisher who is having the most successful season out of all the 1996 draftees. Granted he hasn’t endured the same bruising or mileage over the years as those players have, but he’s still old man Fisher, who just keeps on trucking. And the best thing of it all is that he hasn’t lost his knack for coming up big when his team needs it the most.
Whether or not Fisher’s career ends with him notching his sixth championship remains to be seen. The Thunder stand tall at the top of the Western Conference for now, and appear to be ready for another long post-season run. Their success doesn’t really hinge all that much on how Fisher performs; rather, whatever he brings to the table is an added bonus. But there is no denying that him winning another ring would be the icing on the cake. And he’s sure playing like a man who wants to end his career on a high note.