Hoop dreams beckon for brightest as NBA draft anoints stars of the future
Right player can make a team’s season, but get it wrong and success can prove elusive
Former Bulls star Michael Jordan: Altered the game of basketball and sports marketing. Photograph: Reuters
There are just 60 places. On Thursday night, the NBA held its annual draft lottery, the summer soap opera in which the teams select the best young basketball players on earth.
It is called a lottery because the team that gets the number one draft pick – this year it was the ever-hapless Cleveland Cavaliers – is decided by lucky dip. It’s a childishly simple way of deciding where the most high-profile players on earth will get to play and it is brilliantly fair.
But the term also works for the chosen few, because making it to the NBA is as difficult and precarious as having your numbers come up in the lottery. America is a continent but when it comes to elite basketball, it is a small town: the very best are known nationally. But this year’s lottery though reflected the NBA’s global expansion.
Of this year’s top five picks, Andrew Wiggins, the number one selection, is Canadian. Joel Embiid, who was chosen by the Philadelphia 76ers at three is from Cameroon. Dante Exum, who was picked by the Utah Jazz in the fifth overall pick, is Australian. Embiid is 7ft tall only began playing organised basketball in Cameroon at the age of 15. Just five years later, he finds himself at the centre of this frenzied public and media charade, his potential as a ball player subject to intense speculation.
Embiid was a phenomenon during his single season at the University of Kansas but suffered a stress fracture in his back before the NCAA finals tournament and that was that. He made himself eligible for the draft but wasn’t able to attend Thursday’s event in New York because of ongoing treatment for a stress fracture in his foot. Those injuries are enough to make people jittery and most likely led Cleveland, who had the number one pick and Milwaukee, who had the number two, to pass on him. The story of the NBA draft is rich with players destined for brilliance whose bodies couldn’t take the sheer toil and graft of the gruelling NBA eight-game season. In 1989, the Boston Celtics chose Pervis Ellison with their first round pick: the big man earned the name Never Nervous Pervis during his years with Louisville, quickly changed to Out of Service Pervis because of the litany of injuries which afflicted him with the Celtics. Sam Bowie achieved a strange notoriety merely by being picked as number one in the 1984 draft, two places above Michael Jordan. Bowie suffered two leg breaks which contributed to a mediocre NBA career while Jordan changed the game of basketball and sports marketing. Chicago, who chose Jordan,
were rewarded with six NBA titles. Portland, who chose Bowie, has won none since the 1977 title run, starring their number one draft pick from three years earlier, Bill Walton.
Getting it right with a draft pick can change the future of a club. When the Boston Celtics drafted Larry Bird in 1981, they went on to win three titles in five years. They were untouchable in 1986 when they drew the first pick in that year’s lottery and went with Len Bias, an extraordinary player who drew justifiable comparisons to Jordan. Bias went partying on the University of Maryland campus on the night he was selected and died of a cocaine overdose. The Celtics failed to win another NBA title for 12 years.
So these draft picks mean everything and for Philadelphia, Embiid represents a huge gamble. Slipping a few places in the overall scheme of things may cost him an estimated million per year in the four-year contract he will likely sign. But that will be small beer to him if he goes on to have the kind of impact on the NBA that scouts think he can.
Someone within this year’s cast of 60 may well make a fool of the scouts and the stats sheets by exploding into greatness over the next decade. So much of it is guess work: college games and statistics can’t really account for what happens to a young man when he becomes fabulously wealthy overnight or how a players’ temperament might mature to make him an invaluable asset in play-off games or how he might deal with the pressure.
60 chosen ones are the blessed. There are hundreds of ball players out there who came preciously close to getting to sign an NBA contract, a job offer which, if used smartly, can leave a player financially set for life. But avoiding the pitfalls is down to luck as well as athletic brilliance. At the moment, the world of the NBA is transfixed by the wait for LeBron James to decide whether to renew his contract with the Miami Heat or to sign for a another team. The equation that where James goes, the NBA championship follows, may be a stretch. But if so, it is only just. He has the power to changes teams.
James was drafted as number one draft of 2003.
But all through his school days, the one player who eclipsed James in scouting predictions and breathless reviews was a New Yorker named Lenny Cooke. He declared himself eligible for the draft in 2002 but injuries sparked a flood of passes. He finished the day undrafted.
And there is the haunting footage of Cooke at a 2001 camp with a bright future ahead, sitting with the others as Kobe Bryant tries to give them a heads -up on what lies ahead.
“Don’t rely on basketball for your happiness ’cos it’s not going to happen. You have to make sure you . . . get your education right. Then, on the basketball court, just rip hearts out.”