1. NBA Draft Awards
• The Sam Bowie Award (the guy taken before a stud)
Winner: Keegan Murray of the Sacramento Kings. He joins a bunch of other Sam Bowie Award winners drafted by the Kings. This brutal ESPN graphic explains it:
Murray could end up having a long NBA career, but he doesn’t have the same star potential as the guy drafted after him, Jaden Ivey. Murray turns 22 before the season starts (Ivey is 18 months younger) and he’s neither a high-wire athlete nor a knockdown shooter. The Kings obviously drafted for fit, but with a number of teams reportedly interested in trading up to get Ivey, it seemed to make more sense to do a pick swap, get some extra assets and save a couple of million bucks with Murray on a lower scale rookie deal. Then again, they’re the Kings and they’ve become particularly good at being bad.
Honorable mention to Chet Holmgren, to whom we might end up retrospectively giving this award five years from now, depending on how his body holds up against real men. But I’m moderately high on Chet, so I’m hedging a bit.
• The Bruno Caboclo Award (the guy who is two years away from being two years away)
Winner: Ousmane Dieng of the Oklahoma City Thunder (via the New York Knicks). This reaction by Stephen A. Smith and Spike Lee says it all:
Dieng wasn’t a good player in the Australian NBL last season. He only averaged 8.8 points, 3.1 boards and an assist with an unimpressive 40/27/67 splits. Compare this with: LaMelo Ball’s 17ppg/7.6rpg/6.8apg in the year he spent Down Under; Josh Giddey’s 10.9ppg/7.4rpg/7.5apg; and undrafted Kai Sotto’s 7.5 points and 4.4 rebounds on 50/38/69 splits. The point is guys who struggle in a second-tier league like the NBL often end up undrafted rather than a lottery pick. This was an upside play by OKC (unlike Sotto, Dieng is an elite athlete); I guess we’ll see where he’s at two years from now.
• The Christian Laettner Award (the token white guy coming off a national title)
Winner: Christian Braun of the Denver Nuggets, by way of the 2022 NCAA champions Kansas Jayhawks.
• The Nikoloz Tskitishvili Award (the Euro guy who’s supposed to be the next Dirk)
Winner: Nikola Jovic of the Miami Heat. I was tempted to shelf the award this year because it is typically reserved for lottery guys—Jovic at number 27 is very, very late. But ESPN’s pre-draft write-up convinced me otherwise.
“[W]hat makes Jovic a bit more intriguing than your typical catch-and-shoot forward is the potential he shows off the dribble, regularly bringing the ball up the floor for Mega Mozzart, displaying sharp pick-and-roll vision going to his right while also knocking down several deep hesitation pull-up 3s with bigs switched onto him. His high center of gravity with the ball and finishing struggles in traffic (46% at the rim) limit him as a primary shot creator. And teams have also found quite a bit of success just defending him with small guards and daring him to punish that mismatch on the low block, which he hasn’t done with much success. But because Jovic can make hesitation and step-back 3s, find his teammates on the move when willing and occasionally drop in Dirk-like fallaways from inside the arc, it’s not out of the question that, in time, he can eventually evolve into a Danilo Gallinari-style second or third creator who can function as a big wing or a mismatch four.”
Hmm, haven’t we heard that before?
• The Chuck Person Award (most ridiculously dressed)
Winner: Paolo Banchero of the Orlando Magic and his purple suit. It made me grimace.
We’ve seen some goofy outfits through the years, but in case you’re wondering why the award is named after Chuck Person:
I don’t know if “The Rifleman” thought he was going to prom, moonlighting as a caterer or performing a magic trick. Maybe all of the above? It’s a legitimate question.
• The Jan Vesely Award (best prom date on draft night)
Winner: Caitlyn Newton, girlfriend of Jaden Ivey of the Detroit Pistons. I guess I should add that Newton is an accomplished athlete in her own right, a multi-time All-American for Purdue’s volleyball team.
• The Steph’s Mom Award (MILF – which stands for [M]other [I]n a [L]ovely [F]ancy dress)
Co-Winners: We have a tie! The mother of Dyson Daniels of the New Orleans Pelicans and the mother of Christian Braun of the Denver Nuggets. Here’s the official walk-up video for the award.
• The Aaron Rodgers* Award (the draft snub with a chip on the shoulder)
Winner: Jabari Smith of the Houston Rockets. Many considered Smith to be a lock for number 1 right up until draft day, which made Orlando’s decision to go with Banchero a bit shocking. I believe Smith is the best player from the class right now and will be in five years’ time. Maybe the snub turns out to be a good thing because he’ll have extra motivation.
Sign me up for Smith’s rookie season revenge tour! And I’m all-in on him winning Rookie of the Year, too.
* We often hear players having a chip on their shoulders because teams passed on them, but draft-day vendetta might be a myth in the NBA—at least when it comes to motivating superstars. Michael Jordan was drafted third, Larry Bird sixth, Steph Curry seventh, Kobe Bryant 13th, Giannis Antetokounmpo 15th and Nikola Jokic 41st, yet none of these guys have publicly said that the draft day snub drove them to be great. I mean, Jordan was more upset about Leroy Smith making the high school varsity team ahead of him than Hakeem Olajuwon and Bowie going 1-2 in 1984 (though MJ did make the Blazers pay in the 1992 Finals).
So I decided to go cross-sport with this award because Aaron Rodgers’s desire to stick it to the 23 teams that passed on him in the 2005 NFL draft, particularly the 49ers which had the first pick, is well-chronicled. Plus, his post-draft interview in 2005 was practically a more savage version of Smith’s above.
2. My NBA draft history
There’s this saying that goes something like, “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Here’s the equivalent for NBA fans: Tell me who your favorite draft prospects are and I’ll tell you the type of [pretend] GM you are.
Take the recent draft for instance. If you’re high on Banchero, you’re the risk-averse type who likes a safe bet, NBA-ready contributor. If you prefer Holmgren, you’re more of an idealist who puts a premium on upside. If Smith is your guy, then you’re a bit of both, a pragmatic optimist of sorts. If you think Max Christie is the steal of the draft, then you’re just a delusional Lakers fan.
So I did some self-circumspection and went through the list of my all-time most hyped prospects. Being more of a “player fan” (as opposed to someone who supports a particular team), the draft has basically shaped my basketball fandom. Some turned out great, many were busts, here’s my honest-to-goodness list:
• 1994: Grant Hill
• 1997: Tim Duncan
These two were more of proto-picks during my early years as an NBA fan. The Duke-Florida 1994 Final Four game was the first NCAA game I caught on TV, and Hill was Duke’s best player. I didn’t know anything about Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd entering the 1994 draft, so Hill was my guy by default (I probably had Corliss Williamson number 2 in my pre-teen draft board).
Meanwhile, Duncan was on SportsCenter almost every time Wake Forest had a game for two consecutive years (1995-1997, back when they still broadcasted the US version locally; the Dan Patrick and Stuart Scott era was the golden age). I was familiar with the other lottery guys from the legendary 1996 draft class, but I always liked Duncan more. I recall that he strongly considered joining the ’96 class before ultimately deciding to return for his senior year. Which made me appreciate him more, actually, since the impressionable young me bought into the NBA’s “Stay in School” infomercials.
• 1999: Jonathan Bender
I’d say he’s my OG draft prospect. Hill and Duncan were known commodities by the time they entered the league, but Bender is that skinny 6’11” kid who broke Michael Jordan’s McDonald’s All-American Game scoring record. MJ retired in 1998, and Bender was my hand-picked successor in NBA Live 2000.
• 2001: Eddie Griffin
He was putting up near-quadruple-doubles (points/rebounds/blocks/assists) at Seton Hall. RIP.
• 2002: Mike Dunleavy Jr.
My first NBADraft.net crush. They’ve taken down his profile from the site (unlike Deshawn Stevenson’s more infamous one), but if I remember correctly, they compared him to Larry Bird(!) Plus, he was a coach’s son, which according to scouts meant he had a high basketball IQ. To be fair, the latter statement was true.
• 2003: LeBron James and Darko Milicic
You may be surprised to know that I was a LeBron fan once upon a time (yes, the tipping point was The Decision; no, it wasn’t because he left Cleveland—it’s because he joined rival Dwyane Wade instead of trying to beat the 2006 Finals MVP). The SLAM magazine featuring him on the cover as an incoming HS senior (along with Sebastian Telfair) is probably still stashed somewhere in my parents’ house.
As for Darko, I remember ESPN’s Chad Ford salivating over him pre-draft. I read a scouting report about him playing point guard (apparently, he just brought the ball across the halfcourt line, which even Shaq must have done at least once in his career). I mentioned the other day that I was very much into the hunt for the next Dirk, and I was sold that Darko was the T-1000 model.
• 2005: Raymond Felton
He came up clutch in UNC’s 2005 NCAA Final win and was highly regarded by scouts, unlike previous title-winning point guards Mateen Cleaves and Khalid El-Amin. He beat Deron Williams’s Illinois in the title game and led the ACC in assists, finishing ahead of Chris Paul. He also won the Bob Cousy Award as college basketball’s best point guard over both Paul and Williams. I really thought I was on to something here.
• 2007: Kevin Durant
He was the guy I hoped Bender would be. Soon after he was drafted, I bought his Supersonics replica jersey—first time I did for an NBA rookie.
• 2008: O.J. Mayo
I remember HoopsHype reporting that his initials supposedly stood for Oscar-Jordan-Magic (turned out that it was Mayo himself who made that proclamation). Around this time, I was very content being a fan of LeBron and Duncan who had just met in the Finals, so I wasn’t as invested in the Felton-KD-Mayo trio.
• 2010: Derrick Favors
He almost averaged a triple-double (points/rebounds/blocks) during his junior year in high school. Eddie Griffin 2.0.
• 2012: Harrison Barnes
Barnes went to UNC (GOAT connection alert!) and was the first freshman ever selected to the AP’s Preseason All-American team in 2010. He was the best player in the Tar Heels’ back-to-back Elite Eight runs in the NCAA tournament (went back to school like Timmy). I was eager to move on from LeBron, while Duncan and the Spurs looked washed after being upset by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round. Barnes was the anointed one until…
• 2014: Andrew Wiggins
Sports Illustrated featured Jabari Parker on its cover and boldly proclaimed him as the best high school player since LeBron. I’ve become wary of S.I. covers after what happened with James, so I didn’t get on the Parker hype-train. A few months later, Wiggins reclassified and became the consensus number one of the recruiting class. The kid who was better than S.I.’s “next LeBron”? Sounds like my kind of guy.
Wiggins dropped 57 points in a game after S.I. published an article criticizing his work ethic (the S.I. editors apparently weren’t too fond of Maple Jordan). In college, he outdueled Parker in the nationally televised Kansas-Duke matchup in 2013. That clinched it for me. He’s Neo.
When people ask why I like Wiggins so much, my simple answer is his athleticism. But the NBA is filled with athletes, so the long version of it is that watching high school and Kansas Wiggs was the closest I’ve seen any athlete run the floor as effortlessly as “The Black Cat” era MJ (1984-90). I’m not quite sure if I buy the explanation in this video, but it’s similar to what I’m trying to say.
• 2018: Michael Porter Jr.
I had soured on KD at this point and was already looking for the next tall scorer with a high release point. Like Bender and Durant, MPJ took home MVP honors in the McDonald’s Game. He was in the conversation as the potential first overall pick before a back injury in Missouri’s season opener sidelined him for practically the entire college basketball season. I’m a sucker for this type of story—a former prodigy who misses time and suddenly becomes underrated. That’s why Mitsui is my favorite Slam Dunk character.
By 2018, I got burned by Darko so bad that I was skeptical of the Luka Doncic hype (I thought he’d be like Milos Teodosic or Sarunas Jasikevicius in the NBA—I admit, not my finest moment). I initially liked Trae Young; after seeing some of his games in college, I thought, “how can teams not take him #1?” But then he opened his mouth and said something like “LeBron is the GOAT,” so that’s the end of that.
Which brings me to this year. I like Smith and Holmgren—in fact, I like them more than anyone from the 2021 and 2020 draft classes. But I was never as pumped with Smith and Holmgren as I was with the other guys on the list. Victor Wembanyama next year though…
WHOA! I actually got through the list that spans 28 years of being a basketball fan! A couple of next Jordans, some oversized shooting guards, plenty of overly optimistic comparisons, a few bigs and a solitary point guard. Yep, that’s me as the GM.