Every summer, the National Basketball Association trots out its next generation of superstars in an overblown cattle call known as the NBA Draft. It's a chance for fans to dream of bigger things, and for teams who have been irrelevant since the end of the regular season to matter again. But more than anything else, it's a gigantic State of College Basketball address. With a ruling in the pivotal O'Bannon v. NCAA trial set for August, the very idea of the NBA Draft might undergo a serious reevaluation.
Until recently, the NBA and the NCAA had a weird brotherly relationship. The NBA was the cool older brother who drove a Mustang and bought beers for all the high school kids (and also had a habit of sleeping with everyone's sister). The NCAA was the dorky younger brother who only got to go to the cool kid parties because his older brother could buy beer.
Unfortunately for the NCAA, everyone's realized that they're a cheap, sniveling little wiener that's not worth anyone's time. Twenty of the twenty-seven first round picks in the 1993 NBA Draft were seniors. Last night, there were five. Seven of them were foreign players. One of those foreign players, Dante Exum, specifically chose not to play college basketball and was an unknown commodity until, well, a couple weeks ago. He went fifth.
Even if the judge in the O'Bannon case rules against the NCAA and does away with the illusion of amateurism in college sports, no university is prepared (or able) to pay the kind of salaries a top prospect could earn in the pros. If the NBA and the NCAA are brothers, then they're Michael and Fredo Corleone. Someone's about to get whacked.
Granted, the NBA has done its part to slow the death of college basketball, though it's not been enough. Preventing high schoolers from jumping straight to the Association was a start, but last night's top four picks were all freshman. Was there any point in Jabari Parker's brief stint at Duke? Did Duke benefit? It's pretty telling that two teams that made the Final Four—Florida and Wisconsin—did not have a single player drafted last night.
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College basketball and the NBA might as well be different sports at this point. If you're going to get paid either way, but you're going to get big money in the pros, why go to college? What we'll be left with is a surplus of amazing talent in the NBA, and a shrunken mass of flotsam in the NCAA. Duke, UNC, Kansas, Kentucky, and others will morph into feeder leagues for Europe and the D-League. The quality of play will continue to suffer and the NBA Draft will somehow manage to get more boring.
We collectively spend the weeks between the end of the Finals and the Draft speculating as to what might happen, despite the dirty secret that we pretty much already know what's going to happen. The intrigue and mystery of the Draft is invented to distract us from the death of the college game, and how this is all predetermined days in advance.
Sure, Joel Embiid might have to be retired to stud before he even plays a single second in the Association, but anyone who thought he was going to drop down lower than the top five was too busy sticking pins in their Greg Oden voodoo doll. For a week straight, we were reminded about Oden's injury-plagued career and how easy it is to whiff on a No. 1 pick so that all of this could seem exciting. It's almost as if the cabal of elite basketball commentators have some masochist need to keep flogging Oden (or themselves) whenever given an opportunity.
ESPN even dusted off Tom Penn, the former assistant general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers—who will forever go down in history as one of the men who drafted Oden over Kevin Durant—to be an analyst. I'm going to forget my Social Security number before I forget who went No. 1 in 2007, because pundits won't stop reminding me about it. Somewhere, the idiot who drafted Kwame Brown No. 1 is giggling to himself in between swigs of whiskey straight from the bottle (sup, MJ).
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We do our best to make a spectacle out of the simple procedural necessity of refreshing the league talent pool. I derive a certain sick pleasure from watching grown men try to make players like Doug McDermott seem interesting. I get metaphorically erect when a commentator provides me with a bit of ephemeral knowledge or a thinly veiled diss. Did you know that some people think Jabari Parker looks doughy? Did you notice that Andrew Wiggins was dressed like a black Austin Powers? If not, someone will remind you, to keep you from changing the channel.
We stick a microphone in front of the parents to say "all the right things" about hard work, dedication, gratitude, and optimism. Even with the kids who are legitimately humble, the humility seems forced. The NBA media machine is so well oiled that it leaves me in a state of awe I once reserved for a gorgeous sunset or a Vegas seafood buffet.
At first, all we saw of Joel Embiid after he went third to the Sixers was a blank face, as though he'd found out his bones were made of cottage cheese and toothpaste and he'd never play basketball again.
After a not-so-brief moment of genuine concern that he was not happy to be going to Philadelphia to lose 60 games next year, ESPN scrambled to find footage of him looking thrilled. Heaven forbid he be bummed out to be going to a team with no chance to compete for anything other than another lottery pick.
There was the occasional glimmer of something shaggy and natural. Adam Silver's uncharacteristically warm welcome from the crowd thanks to his vanquishing of Donald Sterling. New Cavaliers GM David Griffin revealing himself to be a huge dork, while also clowning his No. 1 pick (the team's sixth in franchise history) for his poor choice of attire. Silver, again, having a real bitch of a time pronouncing the name of All-Adriatic League All-Star Dario Saric (pretend there's an "H" in there, dude).
And yet, the cloud of O'Bannon hung over the evening. What is the Draft without college basketball? Is it just a fashion show where the most coveted piece of clothing is a hat? An awards show where everyone wins, but instead of a trophy, they get millions of dollars in guaranteed money?
In a post-O'Bannon world where colleges will have to pay their athletes, more players will jump early and we'll know less and less about them because we won't get to see them play nearly enough. We'll analyze players by how they look "doughy" or seem to have "alpha dog" qualities, because what the fuck else are we going to say about someone who played one year and didn't even get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament?
As the NBA Draft gets slicker, the analysts get more hyperbolic, and the hype gets stronger, my eyes keep drifting toward the calendar, praying for the season to start.