Who's on Tap in the NBA?

With this year’s draft, we will get a good idea of which teams are going all in for next season and which teams are just buckling down to ride out the recession.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Last summer, Brandon Jennings looked like a pioneer who would change the way that young men become professional basketball players. Now, he looks like just another teenager with NBA dreams.

Jennings, a 19-year-old from Compton, Calif., had signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Arizona. He wasn’t planning on receiving a degree, instead he was eager to follow in the footsteps of many of the top young NBA players by spending one year in school—and starring for the school’s hoops team—then applying for the NBA draft. NBA superstars Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all arrived in the league straight out of high school, but in 2006, the NBA adopted a rule requiring players to be one year beyond their high school graduation to be draft eligible.

Jennings’ plans to star in the NCAA for Arizona became unraveled when his academic records failed to satisfy minimum entry requirements. Rather than spend a year at a community college or some other off-the-beaten-path institution, Jennings thought outside the box and signed a contract for $1.2 million per year to play with Lottomatica Vitrus Roma, a top European team.

Almost immediately, speculation grew that Europe would become the preferred avenue for top high school basketball stars on the way to NBA riches. The advantages were enormous. They would get paid officially and handsomely rather than have a few hundred dollars funneled to them from shady sources in cahoots with the player’s friends and family. The players would spend time in major European capitals instead of American college towns, and there would be no nettlesome midterms and final exams to get in the way of basketball. In addition, the players would get to prove themselves against top international competitors rather than the bound-for-law-school crews of this or and that state university or what not.

It was that last part that may have proven Jennings’ undoing. Just as one American national team after another over the last decade has found out, they play good ball overseas. Rather than dominate, Jennings struggled for playing time and was often overmatched playing against competition five to 10 years his elder. His final numbers—5.5 points, 2.3 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 17 minutes a game—do not scream “future superstar.” Although his star has been tarnished somewhat, Jennings will enter the draft, which will be held Thursday evening, and still figures to be one of the first 10 players chosen. It’s unlikely that he will be the first point guard, however. Ironically, that distinction will probably belong to Ricky Rubio from Spain, a teenaged player who fared substantially better in the Euro leagues; he figures to be one of the first three or four players selected.

Although Jennings’ struggles didn’t clear the way for future teenagers looking to avoid spending their “one and done” year on a college campus, it may not hurt his draft stock much due to the weaknesses of this year’s class of future NBA players. Also, Jennings’ stock is helped by the fact that last’s year No. 1 pick overall, point guard Derrick Rose from the University of Memphis, helped turn a Chicago Bulls team that had gone 33-49 in 2007-2008 into a team that nearly upset the defending champion Boston Celtics in this year’s playoffs. This draft is heavy in backcourt players, and teams are on the lookout for another game changer like Rose.

In most drafts, it’s fairly easy to forecast the first five to seven picks, but not this year. The Los Angeles Clippers own the first overall pick, and they are almost certain to choose Oklahoma State power forward Blake Griffin. Rubio and University of Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet are highly likely to be among the next three or four picks, and after that it’s anyone’s guess. Just for the record, I think Jennings will go to the New York Knicks with the No. 8 selection. The Knicks covet Davidson guard Stephen Curry, but he is a safe pick, and I think someone will trade up to take him before the Knicks’ selection.

On draft night, who drafts whom won’t be as important as the trades. There figures to be a lot of teams looking to unload players just to lower their payrolls, and they may use draft picks as sweeteners in trades that are essentially nothing more than belt-tightening measures. While many teams will tout their new picks as future impact players, that won’t be known for sure until autumn.

Last summer, John Hollinger, a statistician and ESPN columnist who is one of the best forecasters of future performance, cast grave warnings about Rose, who won Rookie of the Year. With so little data about players who are still very young, the NBA draft represents a bigger crapshoot than the NFL draft. However, from the trades and other personnel moves of the night, we will get a good impression of which teams are going all in for next season and which teams are going to hold tight and watch the bottom line.

 

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