A lot of financial dreams came true on Thursday night in the NBA draft. Which is awesome. There were many instant millionaires minted with a hug from Adam Silver.
Now here’s the reality check: It will be a long time before many of the playing dreams come true.
The draft is a young man’s night. The NBA remains a grown man’s league.
Thursday night was a lot of empty calories. We have been force-fed a draft-related hype overdose that is all sound and fury, signifying nothing in the near term. Nobody getting picked Thursday is likely to significantly impact the league right away, and probably not for years, and maybe not ever.
So for all the months of analysis, the endless mock drafts and the mockery that was the LaVar Ball sideshow, not much will come of it before the next draft arrives. For all the hyperventilating about moving up for Markelle Fultz, or the blather over Lonzo Ball, none of it is likely to matter next spring when people are actually winning playoff games.
The vast majority of players are too young to do anything of consequence for two to three years. That’s the system the NBA has created, thus rendering the actual drafting of rookies little more than a protracted publicity stunt.
The trades for the veterans – that’s where the real substantive action is, in terms of 2017-18. Not the 10 freshmen taken in the first 11 selections Thursday night.
Of the four teams that made the conference finals, only one had a player under 25 who was top five on the team in minutes: 23-year-old Marcus Smart of Boston. That’s one out of 20. The average age of those 20 players who were top-five in minutes on conference finalists – the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and Celtics – was 29 years old.
So we wait for the younger generation to arrive.
Nobody from the 2013, ’14, ’15, or ’16 drafts has had a major impact on the latter stages of the playoffs. (Unless you want to count Steven Adams mauling people in the paint in the 2016 Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City. And, really, let’s not.)
Only two players from the 2016 draft even averaged double figures as a rookie: Buddy Hield and Malcolm Brogdon. Hield averaged 10.6 points last season as the No. 6 overall pick; Brogdon 10.2 as a second-round selection. What do they both have in common? They played four years of college.
Yes, many players are drafted onto bad teams, and it takes time to turn those teams around. But eventually those high draft picks are supposed to elevate those franchises to contenders, right?
Sixteen teams make the playoffs every year, but the last five No. 1 picks have played a total of four playoff games – Anthony Davis, the 2012 top pick, participated in a four-game, first-round sweep in 2015. Anthony Bennett (ugh), Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons have yet to be a part of playoff basketball. (In Simmons’ defense, he hasn’t played an NBA game, period, after getting hurt before his rookie season began.)
Certainly, nobody in many years has had the instant impact of a Larry Bird (Boston vaulted from 29 wins the year before he arrived to 61 his rookie year); Magic Johnson (the Lakers went from 47 to 60 wins and an NBA title); or Michael Jordan (Chicago improved from 27 wins to 38 and made the playoffs for the first time in four years).
Yes, those are three all-time-great examples. But the fact is, all three were mature enough mentally and physically to be instant stars on teams that won big.
Today’s first-round picks are more likely to spend their rookie season shuffling between the NBA and the developmental league learning their craft. Those who stay in the Association all season aren’t doing much to quickly improve their franchises.
Kentucky coach John Calipari sells draft night as the highlight of the year for his program – and there he was front and center on ESPN Thursday night, talking about his three lottery picks from a regional finalist. Perhaps he sells the draft because he can’t sell the playoffs.
They’ve largely gone on without his players.
Heading into Thursday night, Kentucky had produced 28 draft picks in the Cal Era – by far the most of any school. Eleven of them have been top-10 picks, three of them No. 1 overall selections.
Yet none of them has won a conference title or played in an NBA final, much less won a championship ring.
Only four of the 28 – Enes Kanter, who was ineligible at Kentucky and never actually played a minute for the Wildcats, Patrick Patterson, a Billy Gillispie signee, Terrence Jones and James Young – have played in a conference final, all in supporting roles. One Kentucky product in the Cal Era, John Wall, has had a starring role on a team that has won a playoff series.
Duke, which has copied the Calipari one-and-done formula in recent years, is similarly absent in terms of playoff impact since Kyrie Irving was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram, Jabari Parker – they’re just background scenery at this point.
So as much as everyone has actively immersed in draft hype for several months, keep this in mind: Next June we aren’t likely to be watching any of these draft picks play.
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