As fast as you can blink, college players whose seasons are now over are declaring for the NBA Draft. The latest? Kyle Anderson and Zach Levine, both from UCLA. They are projected to be end of the first round picks. Not so for Tyler Ennis, the guard from Syracuse who is a lottery pick. He declared his intentions to go pro yesterday morning. As did Joel Embiid who will be the number one pick on most teams draft boards though there were conflicting reports of his entry into the draft. On Monday, Indiana forward Noah Vonleh decared himself eligible. Jabari Parker and Andre Wiggins and Marcus Smart have yet to confirm or deny. Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon are still playing in the tournament. In the coming weeks more will declare and a few will decide to stay in school.
Celtics general manger Danny Ainge, in an interview with the Boston Globe, was skeptical about this draft class. “It’s not even close to one of the best draft classes in the last 10 years”, Ainge said, in reference to previous draft classes that introduced superior talent. The 2009 draft class produced five All-Stars: Blake Griffin, James Harden, Steph Curry, Jrue Holliday and DeMar DeRozan. The 2008 draft class produced three All-Stars and a MVP: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love. The 2004 draft class produced five All-Stars and a Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Hoard, Luol Deng, Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson, Andre Iguodala.
If you go back farther than that the two best drafts in NBA history were the 1996 draft and the 1985 draft. The 1996 draft produced 10 All Stars and 4 MVP’s: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ray Allen, Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Stephon Marbury, Jermaine O’Neal, Antoine Walker, Peja Stojakavic. The 1984 draft produced 7 All Stars and 7 MVP’s : Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis.
And yet, even the most gifted of all players take a while to turn a franchise into a winner. Blake Griffin didn’t make the playoffs until his third year. Same with Kevin Durant. Steph Curry did not make the playoffs for four years. Kevin Love has never made the playoffs. It is an impossible task and unfair to ask a 19 year old to come into an organization and change its fate. The fact that a team is in the lottery is indicative of a rebuilding project. Something has gone wrong. Players have failed. Or they have retired. Or they were overestimated. Or they were injured. Or they did not fit the system. Or the coach was a mistake. It all collapses into this one very real entity: a bad team. To solve the problem seems less complicated than it really is because one player is never the answer.
Yes the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and won. But to keep on winning they had to draft James Worthy even when he was not considered the best player available. They took a chance on an undrafted power forward from Santa Clara, Kurt Ramis. They drafted Michael Cooper out of New Mexico. They traded Norm Nixon for Byron Scott. They added Mychal Thompson. When the Lakers won 33 games during the 1993-94 season they drafted 10th and selected Eddie Jones from Temple. But they also traded Michael Finley to the Suns for Cedric Ceballos. When the Lakers won 34 games in 2004-05 they drafted 10th again and selected Andrew Bynum. But they traded for Kwame Brown and brought back Phil Jackson.
So what exactly is expected from a lottery pick? Can he change things as quickly as the Lakers may want? Tournament performances are a glimpse of what players can do. Kevin Durant did not get to the Sweet Sixteen but in his elimination game he scored 30 points. Chris Paul did not get to the Sweet Sixteen but in his elimination game he had 22 points and 9 assists. Blake Griffin did not get to the Final Four but in his elimination game he had 23 points and 16 rebounds. Russell Westbrook did not get to the National Championship but in his elimination game he had 22 points and shot 52%. Derrick Rose did not win the NCAA Championship but in his elimination game he had 18 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds.
This year Jabari Parker shot 28%, missed all of his threes and scored 14 points in a game against Mercer in which his Duke team was eliminated. Andrew Wiggins shot 17% and missed all his threes. He had four points in a game against Stanford in which his Kansas team was eliminated. Marcus Smart shot 35%. He missed 4 out of 5 threes. He had 13 rebounds and 23 points against Gonzaga in which his Oklahoma State team was eliminated. Tyler Ennis shot 33%, missed all five of his three point shots and scored 19 points in a game against Dayton in which his Syracuse team was eliminated. These are the alpha dogs of the lottery, the best players college has to offer. It makes sense why Danny Ainge says there are no “game changers.”
Two years ago the teams at the top of lottery were New Orleans, Charlotte, Washington, Cleveland, and Sacramento. What has changed for them? New Orleans has not made the playoffs. Neither has Cleveland and Sacramento. They will be back in the lottery this year. But Charlotte and Washington will be in the playoffs this spring after a long drought because of John Wall and Al Jefferson. John Wall was the number one pick four years ago; Al Jefferson was a high school player drafted a decade ago.
No one yet knows if all of the hype these past six months was warranted for this draft class. Other draft classes were less heralded but more sensational. Players were great. Players became champions. The Lakers are desperate for help and someone will get their chance because any college player is better than what they have right now. Their cupboard is that bare of talent and hope. But remember in 2005 Andrew Bynum rarely played. It took him three years to develop and it took the team three years to trust his ability to score and defend. It is easy to be swayed by the unseen. Exum and Parker and Embiid and Wiggins have not played a professional game. Be careful what you wish for. Or whom you wish for.