- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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One month. Three drafts.
With all these leagues divvying up new talent in the space of a few weeks, you could say that June really isn't so breezy.
But congestion really isn't the problem.
The most lamentable aspect of tonight's NBA draft is not that it falls so close to baseball's amateur draft, which leads off every June, and even closer to the NHL draft, completed just days ago.
The problem is that the NBA draft, year after year, looks more and more like the baseball draft. Or the hockey draft. It's tough to get revved up about those drafts because the draftees are mostly kiddies who are at least two or three years away from helping their new teams. Yet with each passing June, my beloved league swoons a little farther away from the old standard it shared with the NFL, where teams actually draft to fill needs and count on finding some immediate plug-in talent.
"I think where (the draft) has lost a little luster is that a lot of people don't know the international players and they don't know the high school players," said Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "So when these players come in, they have no following. The fans don't know who they are until they start performing as a pro. So we don't have the same kind of excitement that we used to have."
I generally try to avoid nostalgic waxing, but the modern-day Draft Week makes it tough not to long for The Way It Was. Just a few short years ago, just before the new millennium, teams could still come away with a handful of ready-to-contribute rookies in the NBA draft, in spite of the ongoing flood of college underclassmen going pro. Witness the top of 1999's draft: Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Lamar Odom ... with Wally Szczerbiak, Richard Hamilton, Andre Miller and Shawn Marion not far behind. They were all good NBA players as rookies, and the promise of no less than a handful of those every year is what put the NBA draft on a level, stature-wise, with the football version.
In this millennium, rather suddenly, the supply of ready-to-play NBA rookies seems virtually exhausted. Even in a historically significant draft like Thursday's, which will launch one of the most anticipated hoop careers of all-time when LeBron James goes No. 1 overall to his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers, there is little expectation that James, Darko Milicic or Carmelo Anthony will be a franchise player next season. Down the road, sure, but not instantaneously.
Yep. It's a lot more like the baseball draft now. Or the hockey draft. The youthful state of the talent pool forces NBA teams to be more patient than they've ever been, which isn't easy when there's no minor-league system, like baseball and hockey have. That's one of the main reasons why the drafting of international players is so prevalent now. NBA teams retain the rights of players who continue to play overseas, so long as they draw a professional salary, making Spain, Italy and Points Lesser Known unofficial minor leagues.
"I started in this business in 1986 with the Trail Blazers, and almost all your (draft candidates) were four-year college players," Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace said. "There were no high school guys and any international players were all much older and had very significant national team and club experience under their belts. Now you fast-forward 15 years and the high school guys are at the top of the list. And the international prospects are all younger players.
"But that doesn't necessarily hurt us on the floor. Many critics say the league has deteriorated because the players who are coming to us are not fundamentally sound, that they lack experience and polish. I don't buy that argument, because the league has a large number of very exciting young players. They're starting to blossom in every corner of the league.
"Where it probably hurts us is in terms of marquee value. ... The biggest difference (between the NBA and NFL drafts) is that (in football) they gear the theme more that you're going to see your favorite team draft guys to fill specific needs. You're going to hear: 'The Packers are picking up two big cornerbacks so they can handle Randy Moss the two times they have to play them in the Central Division.' (In the NBA) we're sometimes drafting for need, but an awful lot of our drafting now is based on that elusive term 'potential.' And that's a little bit harder for the average fan to get worked up over."
Said Milwaukee Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld: "I think it's still very exciting. There are some terrific players in this year's draft. ... But now, what we have to do a lot of times is draft on potential, because nobody wants to pass up on a young player who could turn out to be another (Tracy) McGrady or (Kevin) Garnett."
It's no mystery how we got to this point. The stigma attached to playing four years of college basketball means that almost every NBA prospect leaves school early, making college sophomores seem old. Dream teens like James and Milicic, meanwhile, don't even flirt with college and proceed straight to the big leagues to learn as they go. Throw in all the foreigners a notch below Darko's level and it shouldn't be too shocking that the projected top five picks, based on ESPN.com's latest mock draft, have two seasons combined of collegiate experience to bring to the Green Room.
The truly scary part, though, is that the NBA draft is actually as important to the 29 teams as it has ever been. Drafting well is doubly critical in the luxury-tax era, where player movement is constrained by tax-fearing owners and where productive players at modest salaries are literally priceless.
No one knows it better than the San Antonio Spurs, who last week became the Greatest Rebuilding Team in league history largely because Tim Duncan got more help than anyone could have ever expected from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs' roster was actually assembled with this summer in mind, when they plan to use a projected $14 million to $16 million in salary-cap room to pursue a new All-Star sidekick for Duncan to replace the retiring David Robinson. Great as Duncan is, San Antonio could not have won a championship in its current state without Parker and Ginobili -- whose combined salaries total less than $3 million -- producing at such a high level.
That's Parker, the 28th overall pick in 2001. And Ginobili, who went No. 57 in 1999. Arguably no two players better illustrate the difficulty projecting the progress today's young draftees will make.
"History shows, if you go back and evaluate drafts three or five years later, there are about 10 or 12 good players in every draft," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, the man responsible for convincing Gregg Popovich to draft those two guards. "Our job is to figure out who those players are, and they're not always drafted in the top 10, like Tony. The younger the draft becomes, I think the more you'll see some of those players fall later in the draft, because of the uncertainty" involved in evaluating undeveloped talent.
It's difficult to envision the trend changing, either, barring the unlikely introduction of commissioner David Stern's 20-year-old age limit to replenish the college game. Teams leave the lamenting and nostalgia to guys like me, because there's no time to waste worrying about a buzz factor. Maybe this draft is one of the deepest in years, as NBA director of scouting Marty Blake contends. Problem is, we won't know this week. Like baseball, and like hockey, we won't know for a few years.
More than ever, basketball is part of the same club now, largely because teens and foreigners are the only draftable commodities that haven't run out.
"I've been wondering when the well is going to run dry," Indiana's Walsh admits. "Because we keep taking the players of tomorrow today. We're certainly emptying the barrel."
More and more, the NBA draft is becoming a crapshoot like the drafts in baseball and hockey.