Many would argue that the 1996 NBA draft was one of the most talented in NBA history. Ten of the players selected that year were future All-Stars, including names like Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Ray Allen. With the twelfth pick that year the Cavaliers decided to pass on reigning Naismeth High School Player of the Year, Kobe Bryant, in favor of a big man from Kiev, Ukraine.
Vitaly Potapenko (pronounced vee-TAH-lee poe-TAH-pen-koe), also known as "The Ukraine Train," had an impressive two-year campaign at Wright State before being drafted, averaging 20.2 points on 60% shooting, to go along with 6.8 rebounds a game. The Cavaliers were desperate for a center after Michael Cage, Danny Ferry and Tyrone Hill manned the middle the season before, and Vitaly’s large frame fit the bill. He was lauded for having a soft touch, and the ability to play with his back to the basket. He averaged 5.8 points and 2.7 rebounds his rookie season in only 15.5 minutes a game, but the depth he gave the Cavs was appreciated. With Tyrone Hill out in a game against Micahel Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Potapenko logged 32 minutes and scored 12 crucial points in the 4th quarter, leading to one of only 13 Bulls losses that season.
The next season the Cavs added Shawn Kemp to their line-up via trade, in addition to having the services of a healthy Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who sat out the season before with a broken bone in his right foot. Potapenko continued to come off the bench as the team’s third big, averaging 7.1 points and 3.9 boards in 17.7 minutes a game. During the middle of the next season he was traded to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Andrew DeClerq and a 1999 first-round pick, which was eventually used on Andre Miller. His minutes took a significant jump and he posted career best stats of 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. He played 3 ½ seasons in Boston before being moved to the Sonics, and then finishing his NBA career with the Kings. Do not let the picture at the top of the post fool you, during his playing career he was known as a tough guy that few had the audacity to mess with. He played the role of the enforcer well, constantly jawing with the competition and getting in skirmishes down low. I specifically remember a game where he squared-up with another player in a uniquely-intimidating, old-timey boxing stance, before being separated by teammates.
After the NBA, Vitaly played one year in Spain, and then moved onto coaching. Jim O’Brien, who coached Vitaly during his tenure with the Celtics, helped him get a gig as an assistant with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. From there, he went on to coach with the Indiana Pacers, and most recently, the Santa Cruz Warriors (formerly the Dakota Wizards), whom he helped lead to a NBADL Finals appearance. Beginning this season you'll be able to spot Vitaly on the sidelines at Cavaliers home games, serving as a player-development coach.