JOSHUA LARS WEILL | @AgonicaBoss | E-MAIL
On Thursday, the National Basketball Association will conduct its annual drafting of first-year players. Since Clifton McNeeley was selected by the Pittsburgh Ironmen first overall in 1947, every year the League has had college, and later high school then international, players line up to hear (or read about weeks later while they worked an actual job) their name called by a team. Over the decades, this has gone from a silent, un-cared about process to today’s stupendously be-suited, mega-affair.
When the Draft was held annually in Madison Square Garden, I used to attend, partially as a fan, but mostly because the whole thing was a ridiculous and thoroughly entertaining event. From the over-enthusiastic home crowd to the repeated booing and taunting of soon-to-be-ex-NBA Commissioner and Lord of the Rings extra David Stern to the late second round parade of overly complex Eastern European will-absolutely-never-play-in-the-NBA names, the total package was something akin to that family reunion organized by the cousin you never met on a lake with campers and way too much Sunkist. In other words, awesome in its awfulness.
While the format has been altered, like everything, to cater more to TV than the crowd, and to offer viewers the pretense that anyone on Earth–particularly the ‘experts‘ nodding or shaking their heads after each pick–knows who the hell will pan out among these mostly gargantuan, athletic misfits arrayed before them, I offer a quick guide to why the NBA Draft is still the premier Draft event. Which, of course, is like saying Hardee’s is the premier low-class burger joint found east of the Rockies and south of the Northeast, but hey, you gotta have a Monster Thickburger somewhere (you don’t, actually).
The run-up to the NBA Draft is a whirlwind of bad information and bad scouting. A season, or more, of college results are overcome by physical metrics like “wingspan” and “reach” and “standing vertical leap.” Which isn’t to say those things don’t matter. There are plenty of great college players who cannot compete with the demanding physicality and athleticism of today’s NBA. But there are also lots of guys who overcome being short, skinny or slow because they have skills that translate. A guy like Paul Millsap, who is too short, not “bouncy” enough, and not quick enough, has carved out a seven-year career with averages of 12 points and seven boards, despite being drafted 47th overall in 2006. This is because he plays with maximum effort and has one translatable skill: rebounding.
I’m sure the teams that drafted Mouhamed Sene, Cedric Simmons and Hilton Armstrong in the first round would love to re-pick. You could say the Jazz did their homework, I suppose. But beyond the one or two clear-cut pros, scouting is generally an overrated part of the process. Sometimes what you see is what you get. So when someone says that Alex Len is a sure-fire pro because he is really big and can jump and has long arms, be skeptical. He may well be, but tell him Patrick O’Bryant says “Whut up!”
The NBA Draft Lottery dates to the 1985 “Patrick Ewing” Draft, when it was widely clear that teams were tanking the end of the season to get the first overall pick: Ewing. The evolution of the lottery is interesting unto itself.
The NBA Draft Lottery is also hugely entertaining. Teams freak out over the ability to pick one, two, or three, no matter the pool of talent they are picking from. This year, the Cleveland Cavaliers were high-fiving each other over the chance to select first. But it’s still a crap shoot. While, yes, some of the NBA’s best players have been top-three picks, the list of top three picks also includes such notables as Michael Beasley (a huge dickhead), Hasheem Thabeet (terrible at everything), Greg Oden (legs made of matchsticks), and the infamous Darko Miličić (well documented as a putz).
But the selection of the Lottery is also the first real marker of the Draft which, for nerds like me, is great. So for our purposes here we will consider the Lottery the first seven or eight picks. Great players may reside in these picks, but also some turds. But most if not all of them will sit in the green room during the draft and come on stage to receive extremely stiff baseball cap versions of their selecting team and shake the hand of the smallest and most powerful man in the room.
THE LATE LOTTERY
What is considered the “late lottery” would be the picks from roughly 9 to 14. These guys are often talked about as “best available” players, which implies they have probably played well in college but measured out poorly at combines and workouts or are athletic marvels who have little or no track record of success in actual competitive basketball. Here’s where a guy like Tyler Hansbrough, who scored 2,872 points in college, will be picked 13th. There’s nothing wrong with him. He plays hard, does the dirty work and rebounds. But teams are skeptical of big, plodding (often white) guys as top 10 picks. Instead, they’ll choose a Thabeet, a Jhonny Flynn or Terrence Williams based mostly on being awesome at jumping and/or really really tall. There’s tremendous value here, usually as a solid, if unspectacular, NBA player, but occasionally a budding star. In recent years, guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Klay Thompson and Andre Drummond have been around. Of course, so have Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and “The Jimmer.”
After pick 14, you begin to get into sketchy territory as a selecting team. For every Iman Shumpert or Kenneth Faried, there’s a Luke Babbitt or Elliot Williams. These are the last of the guaranteed contracts, meaning that getting picked from 15 to the end of the first round is awesome if you’re a player. There are also really good players that are undervalued. Rajon Rondo, arguably the best passer in the NBA, was picked 21st in 2006, after Rodney “Don’t call me Jay” Carney and Quincy “smoke a” Douby (I am well aware that was an easy joke). But mostly, if you’re a player taken here, you’re first-bumping mom cause she just got her new house paid for (until it’s foreclosed on in three years).
Another popular move, particularly for the San Antonio Spurs and for teams who spent way too much on Jerome James, is the “draft and stash” method for foreign players. Guys enter the draft from Europe with no intention of coming to the NBA for a few years, if ever. The teams retain their rights in perpetuity but don’t have to count any salary for that pick. It also lets unseasoned Euro youngsters get bigger, better or crappier, depending on what the NBA team sees. Guys whose names look like exotic foods end up camped out in Spain, Turkey, or Italy, or wherever and the team that selected them either keeps a tab on them or lets them do whatever it is they do. However, some fantastic players have entered the NBA over the last 10 years coming over this way. Ricky Rubio, Tiago Splitter and Marc Gasol did this. Giorgos Printezis, a.k.a. ‘The Greek Lightning,’ and Vladimir Veremeenko did not.
THE DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
By the time the second round starts, teams are praying. They try and rely on scouting reports and game film, but at this point if your pick pans out, you are super excited. There are value picks to be found (see Millsap, Paul further up or Manu Ginobli) but you may have to be patient. The great thing for teams here is that if the guys stinks in training camp or summer league you don’t owe him squat. But you find a guy with a chip on his shoulder, or a guy who was undervalued because of some perceived weakness. A few other names of note: Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Ramon Sessions, and Sasha Kaun (just kidding).
THE CAN MISS
These guys stink. Or, alternately they stink at NBA-level basketball. If they aren’t already overseas, these guys soon will be. Or they will be selling cars or insurance. But if you’re looking for awesome foreign names, this is your place. If you’re also looking for your favorite college team’s undersized power forward, 6’1″shooting guard, slow-afoot three-man or center from a small school, you’re also going to love this part of the draft. JamesOn Curry is here, as are Derrick Byers and Shan Foster. Basically, if you went to Vandy, you’re going to hang out here. Plus Maarty Leunen, y’all.
So there you have it, one man’s take on the NBA Draft. It’s great in part because it’s so random. Teams surprise you with picks (Renaldo Balkman!) and picks surprise you by sucking (seriously, Thabeet). But mostly it’s a great night for tailors with neon cloth they mistakenly bought from a skeevy salesman. Oh, and feel free to boo incoming commissioner Adam Silver. Based on the reception he got doing the second round the last decade, he’s pretty used to it.
Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill has written for GQ.com, Yahoo! Sports, The Classical, The Huffington Post, The Awl and many others. He lives and writes in Washington, DC. He is the Founder and Managing Editor of AGONICA Magazine. Follow him on twitter @AgonicaBoss.