Henry Abbott and David Thorpe go back and forth, re-capping what mattered from Thursday night’s 2019 NBA draft:
HENRY: NBA commissioner Adam Silver took the stage to kick off the first round of the NBA draft at the reasonable hour of 7 p.m. Eastern. But by the time deputy commissioner Mark Tatum called the 56th pick it was close to midnight. That’s about the time I walked through the Barclays Center section 23. This is not the glittering “green room” on the arena floor. These are the sloped seats of the lower bowl, set aside for prospects who were not invited as the NBA’s guests. They wanted to come anyway.
The arena was more than half empty by this late hour. This part of the stands was a collection of clumps, people sitting in threes or fours. Almost every clump included one uncommonly tall man. Only then did I realize how many people had flown themselves here—and were NOT having a great night. Once I got even closer, I could see the crazy stress on the faces of basically everyone. How many years—entire lifetimes in some cases—had they been telling everyone they were going to the NBA? And now … what?
The answer, of course, is just more. More days. More hard work. What does it take to get a job in Europe? Or Summer League? What does it take to get into law school? Work. Just more work. Every day more work.
That’s when it struck me. The emotions of draft night are all wrong. It’s billed as a “you made it” party, as if this is when all the hard work pays off. But it’s just more work for everyone. Zion Williamson might have a big salary, but if he doesn’t make New Orleans support the NBA in new and profound ways, the franchise could be in trouble. And he has to do it while guarding Anthony Davis and with people wondering if he’s as good as advertised, or overweight.
When I started covering the league, players tumbled out of the draft in groups, into buses and limos, there were stories of nightclubs. I’m sure that still happens, but everything is more global and competitive now, more serious. The players who make it now talk more of getting adequate sleep. There’s a covered exit behind Barclays Center where the VIPs can be picked up by their tinted-window SUVs—I once saw Rihanna wait there. But just 150 yards away, around a corner, there’s an overcrowded little scrap of shoulder. Taxis and Uber drivers yell at each other while trying to pick up and drop off. That’s where 25th pick Nassir Little was, drizzle falling on his red-suited shoulders. By all appearances, he was with his family, waiting for an Uber.
On my car ride home, David Thorpe called, maybe a tad bummed that a young man he has been training didn’t get drafted. But when he first met him in March, David told him the draft is “just another night.” Meaning no matter what happens, it’s a great big world and you have to outplay all kinds of people. No matter where you get drafted—or not—if you can’t outplay people you’re unemployed anyway.
David said it makes him sad. So many of those people shaking Adam Silver’s hand will never see the commissioner again. It’s not nice to make them feel like it’s their birthday, when in fact more almighty challenges are ahead.
DAVID: Adam Silver publicly acknowledged his concerns over the emotional well-being of NBA players. They are more anxious than Silver wishes were the case. Two All-Stars, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, admit to issues with depression. Mental health is incredibly complex, and no one choice by the league or players will serve as the perfect antidote. Something happened at the start of the draft, though, that made me think we might see progress in this area. Zion Williamson cried alongside his mom just after hearing his name called, as he was interviewing with ESPN. His left cheek had a river of tears running down toward his strong chin. His eyes were red, his voice quivered slightly. Zion spoke about the sacrifices his mom made for him to chase his dream.
Moments later it was Ja Morant's turn to speak to ESPN as the No. 2 choice overall. His dad stood next to him and Morant choked up, warning his interviewer he didn't want to “get emotional.” He didn't break down, but his emotions were very visible.
Then it was RJ Barrett's turn. He was the Knicks’ choice at No. 3, the first pick that was in doubt until we heard his name called. Right up to Thursday evening’s draft start, there were reports the Knicks were considering two other players in that third slot. RJ was a consensus top 5 player in this class and has been a star for years. He was on TV a hundred times at Duke this past year, playing or being interviewed. Yet as he answered questions about his dad's role in his upbringing, RJ lost his cool and ultimately curled up into his dad's arms. The camera caught his wet face as his dad fought back tears and spoke about his love for his son.
“My dad, oh, man, that's the guy that got me going in basketball. Watching him is where I got my passion,” Barrett said a few minutes later. Then his grandfather came up. “That was one of the reasons why I was crying, because we used to watch the Knicks growing up and he would always tell me I was going to be a Knick. I'm sad he can't be here to see it. But I'm just very happy, man.”
In the roller coaster ride that is the NBA, with social media being a 24/7 operation, players struggle to balance authenticity juxtaposed with self-protection. They fear admitting their true feelings, so they don't. That anxiousness Silver spoke about is rooted in that conflict. Twitter loved seeing these young men—and it’s worth noting that most of these men at the top of the draft are teenagers and so are likely to be more attached to their families—show humility and admiration for their parents. More honesty, more openness, more genuine human connection can at least be one step toward better feelings from them overall. A willingness to be vulnerable is actually a sign of strength, not weakness. Maybe they can win more fans over in the process too.
HENRY: Total genuine emotional highlight of the night was when, while on the podium taking reporter questions, North Carolina’s Coby White learned his college teammate Cameron Johnson was drafted 11th overall. Here’s the official transcript:
Wow. Wow. Wow, bro! That's crazy. That's so low, bro. Y'all know Cam? You don't know how hard Cam worked. There's a lot of people that doubt him. But wow, that's crazy, bro. Wow, that's so crazy. I'm so happy for him right now. Y'all don't understand how happy I am for Cam. He proved it night in, night out that he deserves to be in the conversation for a lottery pick, man. He shot the ball like anybody I've never seen before in my life or played with. Wow. I'm getting chills up here.
HENRY: Beyond “Zion will be good!” projecting players is either an inexact science, or not a science at all. However, worth noting: A few weeks ago on TrueHoop, in talking about players the Pelicans might want if they trade Anthony Davis, David Thorpe singled out Jaxson Hayes as a super-athletic center who would make sense alongside Zion. He was projected to be drafted 10th or so. David suggested the Pelicans might trade down and get him. It wasn’t even in a story about the draft—I’m not sure he mentioned any other prospects in the leadup to Thursday. FiveThirtyEight’s sophisticated CARMELO projections, however, also liked Hayes, calling him the fourth best prospect in the draft, ahead of RJ Barrett. Turns out Thorpe was dead on: The Pelicans did trade down and did draft Hayes to play alongside Zion. Hayes sees the logic too: “I think it will pair really well. We’re both really athletic guys. Zion, obviously, is a freak.”
HENRY: Much of the talk behind the scenes at the draft was about a report by Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill that the Rockets’ stars Chris Paul and James Harden don’t get along. The Rockets have denied it, more or less. Whatever the precise semantics, of course Chris Paul and James Harden have friction. You can see that on your TV. Has anyone ever said Paul is easygoing? One of the things Paul has always been passionate about is moving the ball, and he’s playing with one of the highest-usage players in history. That he cares so much is part of his charm, I guess, but I mean… if Harden finds it annoying, it would be entirely in keeping with a reputation Paul has earned over a long career. (The idea that Goodwill made up that story or those sources offends me.)
In Thorpe’s view, it’s costing them: The Rockets offense is taking a back seat to the Warriors, he says, because Harden is the predictable single point of attack. Paul’s last years of relevance are slipping away watching Harden dribble into yet another series loss to the Warriors.
So why would Paul and the Rockets executive Daryl Morey deny Goodwill’s story? It’s easy to guess: Because if Harden and Paul can’t get along, a) it’ll be hard to convince the Rockets owner to add even more salary and luxury tax to this squad and b) Paul, at such an age and salary, is even less relevant, tradable, valuable, and important if he is also seen as toxic. (In a Twitter poll, 80 percent of voters said the Knicks—who might not get any stars—would be dumb to trade for Paul, even though with their cap space they wouldn’t have to give up anything.)
The story from Morey and Paul needs to be that everything is fine, because it increases everyone’s value. For this same reason, the Rockets also pitched a story to reporters years back that Dwight Howard and James Harden were great friends. It’s their right to make the attempt, but it’s our right to laugh it off.
DAVID: The Clippers added two high motor, outstandingly tough, high IQ guys who fit so well next to Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I'd bet all four guys are on this team for the next few years, unless they are traded in a bigger deal. Very few teams will be able to say that about their four youngest acquisitions.
Right now the Lakers need two starters and the entire bench. They might spend all their cap space on one person. If they do, the CBA leaves them with incredibly stingy options (the mid-level, minimum contracts) to pay even starters, let alone the entire bench. It’s hard to see how the majority of next year’s 15-man roster won’t be on minimum deals. Question lingering in my head from the injured Warriors in the Finals: How many minutes a game can you play minimum players and be good? The Lakers will be attempting to break that record.
Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker was selected 17th and says: “That means I chose the right profession.”
Maybe it feels like a Canadian invasion. Raptors champions, four first-round picks. Barrett broke into fluent French in his press conference, and the newest Knick said: “I call New York just a bigger version of Toronto.”
LeBron James recently said in an interview that he has a lot of advice for Zion Williamson, and that Zion knows how to reach him. Zion says he saw the interview. “Yeah, I probably will hit him up.” It’s the next part that seemed so honest: “Hopefully he responds to me.”
Much of the night there was excitement about the tumble of Bol Bol, Manute Bol’s sweet-shooting center of a son, who—coming off a bad injury—fell to the second round.
HENRY: Dikembe Mutombo’s nephew Mfiondu Kabengele is on his way to the Clippers. What role did Mutomobo play in Kabengele’s life? “He's always flown us out to family events, graduations, Christmas, Thanksgiving. So when basketball started to get involved, it was probably going to my freshman year, my Elite Eight run. Just picking his brain and asking him a lot of questions. And by me doing that, I think he recognized that I was very interested and poised about the game and the next level. So that's when it grew to picking his brain about how to eat, the nutrition, the day-to-day, challenges you would face off the court and on the court. He's given me so many gems.”
DAVID: Thomas Friedman wrote a book called The World is Flat. The NBA, and the draft, are examples that the basketball world is flat too. Not just in terms of how global the game is, but more because of the sameness we see from one player to the next in the drafts over the past few years. Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely be the regular-season MVP. Kawhi Leonard was the Finals MVP. Neither was a lottery pick. Draymond Green has been deeply instrumental in the Warriors’ success, just as Pascal Siakam was to Toronto this year. Green went in the second round, and Siakam was a late first rounder. Fred VanVleet earned one Finals MVP vote, an undrafted player from Wichita State. In fact, the final four NBA teams didn't have a single lottery pick from the last five years playing for them.
We hear draft comments centering on “finding gems.” That's not how I see it. Mostly, these gems are all nearly the same. Instead of seeing them as jewels, see the players are very similar pieces of clay. In the hands of the right artist, we’ll see more Draymonds, Siakams, and Kawhis. Had those three players been drafted by some of the worst franchises in the NBA, I have no doubt they wouldn't be where they are now as players. In this draft, I see the first two picks—Zion and Ja Morant—as having games that translate anywhere. Starting with Barrett, now headed to New York, what the next 58 draft picks become is significantly hinging on just how talented their franchises are in turning young players into valuable contributors.
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