While coaches and team officials were finalizing all-important first round draft picks Thursday night, the majority of those in Brooklyn's Barclays Center were sitting anxiously and excitedly in the stands, transfixed by the arena's oversized Jumbotron. Beyond routine dance cams and nostalgic highlights of NBA yesteryear, the monitor turned to one idea over and over again: hope. Before the five-minute time limit came to a close for each team, the screen displayed four successful players once chosen in past drafts with that same pick.
Sustained excellence for No. 1 pick in any draft isn't only surprising, it's expected. So when this graphic first came up, seeing LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and their ilk reinforced what we and the Minnesota Timberwolves already knew. Karl-Anthony Towns is the best player in the draft, and will hopefully be one of the best players in the NBA for years to come. But it was for later picks, like the fourth, which listed Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and Dikembe Mutombo, that really honed in on what this NBA Draft is all about. Simply put, this draft is deeper than in recent years, and franchises with picks in the first ten slots have a lot to be hopeful for, just as their chosen players have much to aspire to.
Consider the first three picks: Towns went No. 1 — seemingly a no-brainer. His combination of defensive talent and raw offensive potential was difficult to pass up. At No. 2 the Los Angeles Lakers selected D'Angelo Russell, a smart, efficient playmaker from Ohio State with excellent court-vision. He was taken over Jahlil Okafor, a once-in-a-generation big-man who went one pick later to the Philadelphia 76ers. The fact that all three were at one point in the conversation for the top pick, especially when most mock drafts had Okafor in front, (and there are a lot of mock drafts), suggests that there's a rare level of parity to this draft.
There was a similar level of parity in 2013, just without the talent. The first overall pick, Anthony Bennett, has been already traded once, (from the Cavaliers to the Timberwolves) and will be actively shopped again this summer. His woes have set the barometer for most of his peers. Otto Porter, the third pick that year, has seen little time on the Washington Wizards, and Cody Zeller, the fourth pick, has been a non-factor on the Charlotte Bobcats. This year is nearly the polar opposite. Kristaps Porzingis, picked fourth by the New York Knicks and who hometown fans booed, is widely considered the player with the highest ceiling after Towns. Mario Hezonja, picked fifth by the Orlando Magic has absurd confidence, (and arguably the skills to back it up), while Willie Cauley-Stein, chosen sixth by the Sacramento Kings, is most likely the most skilled defensive mind in the Draft.
One could argue that the real talent level of this draft goes ten deep, considering that the Miami Heat's newest small forward, Justise Winslow, was projected as high as fourth, and Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a freak athlete with pro experience from a season spent in China, went seventh. When asked to compare his game to a historical all-time great, Mudiay didn't hesitate: "Magic," he says "I like the way Magic played."
Though not nearly as large as the Lakers's most famous face, Mudiay's 6-foot-5 frame fits the mold of the new brand of larger, more athletic point guards. Russell Westbrook and Tyreke Evans come to mind. It is this athleticism that had some drafts taking him off the board about three picks earlier, and is a reason he can be a force in the league.
Only time will tell if this draft will answer fans' prayers. Okafor needs to practice defense, Porzingis needs more size, everyone but Sam Dekker needs to work on his shot. That's just how the NBA is — every man, no matter how good, is a work in a progress. But it's reasonable to suggest that someday, when looking up at the Barclays Center Jumbotron, anxiously awaiting the next pick, some fan might notice and remember that Emmanuel Mudiay had once been a seventh pick, his face right next to champion and MVP Stephen Curry.
If the recent Golden State Warriors title taught us anything, it's that with the right development, for the right players, any team can hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That's one more thing to hope for on a Thursday night in June.