By Gerald Hopkins
Congratulations! Your favorite NBA team just finished selecting a key to your future!
As the host of a podcast that talks solely about rebuilding teams, the NBA draft, like every professional sports draft, is one of my favorite nights. But, as beautiful and amazing this night is for everyone involved, the draft night can make and break efforts to compete for championships.
Let’s just take a look at some of the most important NBA draft moments in recent memory. Back in 2017, the 76ers had the first pick in the draft and the Boston Celtics had the third pick. The 76ers selected Markelle Fultz, and Jayson Tatum was picked by the Celtics. Now in 2020, Markelle Fultz has been traded away to Orlando, and the 76ers in the bubble went home after a first-round sweep. Jayson Tatum this year was on the All-NBA Third Team and made his first All-Star appearance while leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals.
Want a shorter example? Luka Doncic was selected fourth by the Hawks in 2018 then traded to the Mavs for Trae Young. Doncic has already been to the playoffs, been in MVP talks, and made the All-NBA First Team. Young has one All-Star appearance and has not made the playoffs since he was drafted.
Yes, there are tons of other factors that contribute to both of these examples such as Fultz’s year-or-more-long injury that changed his perception around the league, or the fact that Young is on a team that does not have a second star in Kristaps Porziņģis, and that Young has been a star in his role. Still, the effect of choosing the right guy on the draft night can be the difference between being in the playoff hunt for years or being a Rebuildables episode.
Yet, I want to take a different approach to the result of the NBA draft. This season, let’s let these rookies breathe a bit before we call who is the “steal” or the “bust.” Let me explain.
In case you forgot about the pandemic and the absolute waves of change it has caused our society, the pandemic has already pushed this draft back from July to November. The draft is being held virtually, and the pre-draft process has been nothing like what NBA teams and executives are used to. Plus, not all of these picks had adequate places to work out and stay in shape like other classes. To top it off, the free-agency rumors are going on full-steam during this process. If sports were supposed to bring back some sense of normalcy during all of this, the NBA didn’t get the memo.
Now, combine this with the start of the next NBA season starting on December 22, the loss of summer league, and the fact that the league has only released the first half of the schedule for this season. These changes are so new that even some NBA vets may struggle during this *checks intro of last received email* “unprecedented time” (yes that phrase) in NBA and sports history.
Simply put, be nice to your new rookies, because this season is most likely the worst season to join the NBA ever. All of the COVID protocols, weird practice and game schedules, and the general uncertainty and problems of this season are more than likely going to affect even the most surefire and safe picks (whatever that means).
But do you know you should blame? The GMs and owners, because while they may not have had the opportunity to have a normal evaluation of the players they have chosen, they were compensated rightfully with time. As the Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas stated about having the first pick in an ESPN article by Royce Young, “do it in a year where you’ve got six, seven months to prepare.”
You might be sitting there and asking “if we are supposed to give these rookies time, how do you not bash the player(s) these GMs and owners that tie themselves to these picks? Isn’t that how we directly evaluate a GM’s performance? Doesn’t that mean blaming the GM or owner also indirectly shame the rookie we are not supposed to shame?” Great questions!
You can shame a GM for making a bad pick while not shaming the player themselves because not all players who struggle in their first spot are a lost cause. Let’s go back to that draft with Markelle Fultz and Tatum. While in hindsight that pick was not great, after Fultz went to Orlando he carved out a great spot for himself and has improved tons after the move. While Fultz may not have the future superstar ceiling that Tatum has, being a solid starting point guard is not a bad role by any means. He just failed to be what Philly needed and, when the GM and owners are supposed to make teams that work together well, the players have no control over this. This is a perfect example of the pick that the GM of this team whiffed on, but the player himself was not a bad or bust in terms of being a good athlete.
With how this draft has been characterized as “weak,” especially in the lottery, these GMs have had time to understand the pros and cons that come with whoever they choose. It’s not a player’s fault if they can’t fix the culture or fit in the style of the team they play on. It’s on the person who drafted these players for not making picks that line up with whatever timeline fits their future, and when you have extra time to make and solidify that timeline, the excuses just become weaker and weaker.
All of this to say that this upcoming NBA season is one that no one is prepared for. So, before you as a fan declare your rookie as a “bust” or a “steal” or something in-between, remember that it’s not these rookies’ fault that they are being asked to try and contribute and catch up when no one has been in their situation before. Instead, if you feel that your current rookie is not one that you see in your team’s future, first take a deep breath, then google the GM and owner that made the pick and direct your insults there.
Edited by Emma Moloney