You know how this works, it’s dream-selling season. The worst teams in the league, and a couple shrewd ones, line up for the rights to the most promising young talent on offer. Franchise fortunes are altered—in which direction and by what degree, who can say. 6-foot-10 19-year-olds hug their mothers and put on ballcaps and kind of lie about being excited to play in Cleveland. They begin their descent toward bust-dom, or rocky starts that will bloom into All-NBA nods in their mid-20s. Every front office gets their guy, they wouldn’t tell if they didn’t, and Jay Bilas says wingspan a bunch, acknowledges that he says wingspan a lot, which is sort of a joke, the suggestion of a space where real humor might one day exist. A raw prospect, it has all the tools. Tony Wroten is only 28. It could technically still happen for him.
There are some self-evidently squickish elements to all of this. The meat market dimension of it, the shoe company-style hype that certain draft experts traffic in. The fact that it exists, that aspiring, abundantly qualified professionals can’t choose where they work but are instead assigned a job, a city, and a salary. Not to be a downer, but this needs to be said every year up front: abolish the draft.
But it is a fine spectacle, more in terms of what you imagine you’re seeing—the first step of some future great’s NBA career—than what’s actually happening on your TV screen, which can’t stack up to even the most perfunctory Pistons-Hornets tilt. It’s a time for optimism, to revel in the possibilities of youth. There is no real reason, if you’re not getting paid to be right about this kind of stuff, not to consider the fullest potential of the draftees as if they’ve already achieved it: Evan Mobley as a cross between Ben Simmons and Anthony Davis, Cade Cunningham solving defensive geometry by slashing through it, shooting over it.
Most fans are going to picture the player their team selects featuring for their favorite franchise for a decade-plus, because that’s what you fantasize about, landing your Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe Bryant, but I find myself increasingly conceiving of the incoming rookies as stewards of the sport’s future more than footsoldiers for the outfits that take them. This isn’t the place to grumble or enthuse at length about player empowerment, but it does seem like young stars are getting restless more quickly than ever before. It used to be that you drafted someone and the combination of their rookie contract and restricted free agency kept them in town for at least seven years. With Luka Dončić putting the Mavs on notice and Zion Williamson’s camp making noise about enacting the nuclear option—taking a one-year qualifying offer rather than an extension—at the end of his rookie deal if the Pelicans don’t get their house in order, we’re trending toward the draft being less determinative of where the league’s best talent spends the bulk of their careers. Cunningham might be awesome, an organization-anchoring superstar… and he might be a Laker by 2026.
Whether you find that exciting or depressing is up to you but it changes the color rather than the shape of what you would hope for, for a number one overall pick or a guy picked in the late 20s. We want these guys to do well, and to excel in ways that we haven’t thought of yet. There’s an understandable tendency to consider draft prospects in the context of what the league and sport are like circa now. Coming out of Oklahoma, Trae Young was often compared to Steph Curry because he’s small and shifty and has great shooting range. And because the Warriors had been at the top of the heap for the past few seasons. They were on everyone’s mind. Surely, there were fans and front office folks watching these playoffs that just wrapped up, thinking about how nice it would be to have an athletic, defensively versatile, rim-running big like Deandre Ayton or a secondary playmaker type with some size like Bogdan Bogdanović. You see that something works and immediately covet it. This is an impulse that’s maybe more applicable in free agency than in the draft, given that even the prospects who are pretty good right away aren’t going to peak until seven to ten years from now. Who knows what the league will look like, then.
Certain qualities are durable. Shooting is always a positive, the ability to defend multiple positions is always useful. But here’s where we get way out there, here’s where the draft gets really fun: we are going to realize, in time, that this gaggle of young guys provide new paths toward winning, that they have or will develop skills that we are not now properly considering the value of. They will recall established stars, rely on old standbys, while also becoming themselves, in turn making the game what it will be in 2025, 2030, and onward. That’s what the draft is about, on the broadest possible level. What you can’t wrap your head around, a surrender to the oracular unknown. It’s a dream too abstract to sell. What a relief, to remember that the true enormity of history in motion doesn’t fit in a commercial, bullet-pointed profile, or a press conference pitch.