The hype built slowly, years ago, when NBA types first laid eyes on these kids, still pimple-faced awkward teenagers bursting with talent and promise.
The 2014 NBA Draft class will be as good as any in recent memory.
Or so it was said.
This being sports, a measuring stick was necessary, and 2003 – featuring LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh – became just that.
Comparing past and future was never wrong, no matter how outlandish the parallel, because events still had to unfold. The kids still had time.
The hype picked up steam before the 2013-14 college basketball season, a loaded campaign featuring Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Creighton’s Doug McDermott and more.
Then warts and weaknesses were revealed. The masses saw these players, especially freshmen such as Wiggins and Parker, and picked apart their game like buzzards.
Suddenly, these kids weren’t all that, and neither was the 2014 class.
A new proclamation emerged: it’s a good class, sure, solid but nothing special.
And here we are on Thursday, draft day. A few years from now, it’ll be easy to judge, but for now, is this crop as good as originally foretold? As so-so as was later predicted? Somewhere in the middle? Or something else altogether?
“There’s a lot of potential in this draft,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, whose team holds the No. 6 and 17 picks in the first round.
“There’s a lot of guys that can be starters in the NBA – if not right away then down the road, depending on what quality of teams that they go to. And I think that there are a couple of potential All-Stars in this draft as well.”
Then, Ainge offered this: “I think there’s a group of seven or eight guys that it wouldn’t shock me if they turned out to be the best player in this draft. Although I would put odds on the favorites still, but I think those odds would be spread out a little more evenly than in some drafts.”
Ainge continued, saying there wasn’t a Tim Duncan, a James, or someone of that ilk, in this draft. “There’s not that clear-cut player,” he said. Some might be All-Stars, some might not, but no sure bets stand out.
Conversations with scouts and executives across the league reveal the dramatic swing in expectations from the start of last year’s college season until now, and how that swing began.
One point was made clear — this year’s class, at the very least, is expected to be much better than the class of 2013, led by Anthony Bennett as the No. 1 overall pick to Cleveland, a forward who struggled big time as a rookie, averaging 4.2 points in 12.8 minutes per game.
“Oh, last year’s class stinks possibly at an all-time level,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “I think this year’s class is really good. I think the hype of the class being good was legit, but I think outsiders and people who just read the hype and don’t pay attention for their own benefit get confused. Because yes, it’s a good draft and there’s a lot of good prospects, but there’s not a lot of Hall of Fame prospects.”
Another Eastern Conference scout said that each draft produces between 12-15 legitimate starters, and that he expects the same to happen this year.
He added that Wiggins, Parker, and Embiid are not “franchise” players, a term too often used incorrectly.
“ ‘Franchise guys’ are one out of every 7-10 years,” the scout said. “The last guy you could argue is [Kevin] Durant. Before him, you would say it was LeBron. Those are franchises. Those are cornerstones of organizations. Those are the rocks. Those are the brands.
“Yes, the draft produces some other very good players that could be multiple-time All-Stars, possibly Olympians, but really, ‘franchise players’ come around as often as a comet. Every 7-10 years, there’s one guy that changes the total landscape of the league with everything. I’m not just saying what they do on the court, but their being off of it and their brand, taking the game to another level.
“And right now it’s two guys — it’s LeBron and Durant. And there’s no one that’s come after Durant yet and I don’t think there’s anyone in this draft, because if there was, the first pick right now would be totally clear-cut.”
One Western Conference executive said that only Parker, Wiggins, and Embiid appear to have a chance to make a significant impact on a franchise. “But there’s a lot of questions about them,” the executive said.
A Western Conference scout pointed out some of those nagging questions:
“What if Embiid’s back and foot are problematic? What if Wiggins never gets a jumper or [it] turns out never has a motor or desire to be great? What if Parker does turn into a 240-pound glorified four-man with some skills? What if Marcus Smart never shoots? What if Dante Exum turns out to be a semi-fraud, a product of the hype machine and agents?”
The Western Conference scout added, “Now, if they’re all pretty good, then it’s a good draft. It’s not like LeBron’s draft, where you say LeBron is going to be great, Carmelo will be great, Wade will be great. It’s not like that. Again, I think it’s good, it’s better than most, but anyone who really rates drafts until two or three years into it, you’re just hyping.”
The fact that the class was so hyped, then picked apart, is not necessarily new, either. One Eastern Conference executive said that happens almost annually.
“Everyone gets so excited about the draft class at the beginning, and then we go out and we watch these kids five times and you see them so much and you start seeing all the warts, and you’re like, ‘I don’t really know about all these kids anymore,’ ” the executive said.
“And then at the end of the year, you go to the McDonald’s All-American games and [Nike] Hoops Summit and you see next year’s class, and you’re like, ‘Man, these kids are way better than this year’s class.’ Then you start overvaluing this year’s class. It’s just kind of a cycle.”
However, some can go overboard with how much they critique a player, said an Eastern Conference scout.
“Everyone wants to pick at Jabari, saying he doesn’t do this or doesn’t defend, that Wiggins doesn’t do this, Joel needs this, Randle isn’t long enough, so on and so on,” the scout said.
“Well, let’s look at this: Jabari is ready to score in the NBA right away at 19-20 years old. Joel Embiid is probably the best true center to come out since Greg Oden, who, if he doesn’t get hurt, there is no telling what that kid could’ve done. [Doug] McDermott, the knock is that he can’t defend, that he’ll never be able to score this or that. I get that. I agree with all that. But the fact of the matter is, he’s one of the best shooters to come out in years.”
In all, the Eastern Conference executive said every draft is often judged by the top five picks. “If there are 1-2 All-Stars, then it’s a decent draft,” he said. “If there are 3-4, then it’s an incredible draft.”
But, the executive said, the draft is just much deeper this year.
“This year, I feel like legitimately there are almost eight players that you’re comfortable with,” the executive said. “I don’t feel like teams will be ecstatic to get the guys that they want, but they’d be comfortable with one of those guys. Whereas in years past, I think after [pick] four or five, you start really kind of being like, ‘Well, now what do we do?’ I think that’s the difference this year.
“It’s so heavy at the top that it pushes down more other players than normal – guys that you might be able to get at 15-16 that would normally go at 9-10. I definitely think that the level of high-end talent in this draft is as good as it’s been in the last few years.”
Down the road, the draft may be better or worse than previously thought. The 2012 draft, for instance, featured Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and Andre Drummond in the top 10; considering how good those players are now, their class may go down as one of the best in recent history.
But it’s not always about hitting the jackpot. It’s about drafting smart, year after year.
“If you get lucky and you hit with the draft, if you take a guy and he turns out to be something, you’re that much better if, in a solid draft, you just take solid pieces and are slowly building and getting better,” an Eastern Conference executive said.
“I think that’s an underrated approach to the draft – just get valuable assets that help your team. Even if they don’t turn out to be the greatest player ever, if they’re what you’re looking for and they’ll play a role and they’re a good teammate and they’re in a starting role, I think that’s a win in the draft in any year.”