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Secret: The NBA Draft is Really a Guessing Game

The NBA Draft is, at its core, one big educated guess.

A team scouts, interviews and works out potential draftees in order to project how they fit within the pro game and what their prospective ‘upside’ might be. One the day of the draft, teams select their chosen player (or second choice, or third choice, etc), who then typically says all the right things about working hard and being happy with where they ended up.

Yet for all the hype that goes into the event, these selections simply exist as hopefuls until they can prove their value (or lack thereof) as key contributors in the NBA. This is particularly true of those considered ‘high-risk, high-reward’ prospects. That is, players with a high ceiling who give team executives pause with notable weaknesses that could ultimately lead them towards ‘bust’ territory.

In recent draft history, these picks have played a hand in transforming the direction of their team, for better or for worse. The risky selection of Brandon Jennings, who had struggled while playing overseas with Italian club Lottomatica Roma, by the Milwaukee Bucks last year resulted in the team’s first play-off appearance in four years and an NBA Executive of the Year award for GM John Hammond. The big question in Jennings’ case was one of maturity, a question which he seems to have answered by embracing his prominent role in the Bucks’ offence while also creating for teammates.

On the flip side – or maybe the ‘flop’ side – prioritizing raw talent over character can lead to damaging draft decisions. Only in recent years has Portland has moved past their “Jail Blazers” period in which they seemed to attract troublesome talents whose on-court skill could not outweigh their off-court woes. Between 1999 and 2004, Portland drafted Bonzi Wells, Zach Randolph, Qyntel Woods and Sebastien Telfair, all of whom ran into legal trouble or clashed with fans and teammates.

The maturity question holds particular significance this year, with several prospective lottery choices facing some scrutiny over how the will handle themselves in the NBA and whether they will put forth the effort required to realize their potential. Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Ed Davis and Hassan Whiteside have the physical tools to succeed, but their perceived character flaws will go a long way in determining both where they get drafted and how well they can adapt to the NBA game.

It could be argued that Cousins doesn’t have as much to worry about as the other two. After all, you won’t find a mock draft out there that projects the Kentucky product slipping past Golden State’s No. 6 slot. But the 6’11” power forward won’t get very far without some real dedication to improving his game, most notably his penchant for foul trouble that will only be made more glaring as he prepares for the faster, more physical NBA game. The fact that conditioning is a widely held concern in Cousins’ scouting reports also points to a player who simply hasn’t put in the work needed to allay concerns relating to maturity and commitment.

Like Cousins, Davis has faced questions regarding his motor, particularly in light of a disappointing sophomore season at UNC when he was expected to step out of Tyler Hansbrough’s shadow and lead the team as a dominant inside presence. After all, a 6’9” left-hander with length who can finish above the rim offers reason for optimism. Instead, he seemed content to rely on his physical gifts rather than assert himself in the paint, play aggressively and improve his game. Whether his flaws can be attributed to a lack of killer instinct or simply a relatively passé approach to the game, Davis will continue to leave people wanting more if he doesn’t put the necessary effort into improvement.

Whiteside, meanwhile, could be the biggest enigma of the draft as someone whose suspect work ethic and emotional maturity issues could keep him waiting until the end of the first round to hear his name called. It takes some major red flags for any GM to steer clear of a shot-blocking seven-footer with a 7’7” wingspan, but it’s hard to look past weaknesses when they include academic issues, questions of toughness and concerns over how much coddling and hand-holding he will require. That Whiteside is already 21, after being academically ineligible for college in his first year following high school, is another strike against him.

Talent talks in the NBA, and the bottom line is that these players will be drafted on Thursday. The question will then be, what happens next?


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