Take a trip back in time with me.
The year is 2006 and the Florida Gators just won a National Championship on the shoulders of the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Center Joakim Noah. Noah was a goofy, but tenacious player with an unorthodox yet effective offensive game and a relentless defensive presence. With all of his success and how he performed on the national stage, chatter began about Noah potentially being the top pick in the draft. But Noah had been vocal about wanting to return for a Junior season all along, and ended up sticking with his guns.
In 2007, when Noah entered the draft, he wasn’t even the first player from his Florida team selected, Al Horford and Corey Brewer got selected ahead of him. Noah fell all the way to the Chicago Bulls at the 9th selection, being passed over for the likes of Brewer, Brandan Wright, and Yi Jianlin. I remember thinking at that time, “That seems weird.” His stats hadn’t dropped significantly – remember, this Florida team was stacked and didn’t need Noah to be the guy who fills up the stat sheet. He was a proven winner and competitor, coming off consecutive NCAA National Championships. And yet his stock plummeted, for no concrete reason.
Last year, Marcus Smart was in the conversation for being the top overall pick. At worst, the Oklahoma State guard would be a top 3 pick, especially given how weak last year’s draft was and the injury to Nerlens Noel. But Smart didn’t do what everyone expected him to do. He returned to OK State for a sophomore season, a move that he felt was needed to help him develop more point guard skills. Statistically, Smart actually had a better season than his freshman campaign, shooting a higher percentage, scoring more points, contributing more rebounds and assists, while lowering his turnovers. But Oklahoma State struggled to live up to expectations and Smart got into a bit of a national hoopla over pushing a fan during a game.
Smart was suspended three games by the NCAA for shoving a fan at the Texas Tech game. The Cowboys lost all three games Smart missed, and at that point it was questionable if the 16-10 (4-9 in conference) Oklahoma State team would even make the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys made the tournament but received a prompt first round ousting to Gonzaga. Many mocked Smart for his decision to return and not make any significant team progress.
Fast forward to today.
The Lakers ended up with the 7th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. That means six players will be drafted before the Lakers get a shot at who they want. Some combination of Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, and Smart are likely to be the first ones off the board. With Boston and Utah, two teams that have point guards, ahead of the Lakers in the draft, Smart can realistically be available when the Lakers are on the clock. If he is, the Lakers will hope its another case of someone’s talent being underestimated because of new, shiny prospects that just arrived on the scene. Just like what happened to Joakim Noah.