In the hours leading up to Thursday night’s NBA draft, many of the top prospects will be in hotel rooms watching TV analysts speculate where they’ll spend the next few years of their lives. The “experts,” like the players themselves, have little concrete information. One thing is certain: As much as the players dreamed about this day, by Thursday afternoon they just want it to end.
I’ve had inside access at the last three NBA drafts. In 2013, I shadowed National Player of the Year Trey Burke. The next year, I did the same for another Michigan player, Nik Stauskas, and I followed Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker last year. All were first-round picks. I won’t be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday for the 2016 draft, but I know what the draftees will be thinking on the biggest day of their lives.
Some prospects will admit they are nervous and others will lie. Think about your own career: deciding where you worked may have been stressful but the choice was yours. These young basketball players have no control over what city they’ll be working and living in. It’s unsettling. None of the three players I covered had ever even been to the cities they’d eventually call home.
When I say the players don’t know where they’re headed, that uncertainty lasts until the commissioner calls their name. Mock drafts are now a 12-month enterprise. But remember the definition of mock: “not authentic or real.” They are nothing more than speculation. How could they be anything more? The teams themselves often don’t know who they’ll pick until minutes before they must decide. The rumor mill churns harder as the draft approaches, so at the midtown Manhattan hotel on draft day it nearly spins out of control: I’m hearing the Lakers like Buddy…Boston’s trading their pick…If Phoenix takes Dragan, that opens things up. Whether it be an agent, a writer, or a scout, nobody knows anything for sure. That doesn’t stop them from tweeting.
The teams themselves often don’t know who they’ll pick until minutes before they must decide.
For Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and the dozen other top prospects invited to the draft by the NBA, it’s a long day. While any players can attend the draft ceremony, those expected to be chosen with the top picks have an entire day of scheduled events. Of course, many are teenagers, so they have trouble keeping track of everything. (The three players I shadowed were considered old for having stayed in college two or three years. Each of the first eight picks in last year’s draft was a 19-year-old with no more than one college season under his belt. They still couldn’t legally enjoy a beer while watching Sunday’s NBA Finals.) If past drafts are any indication, Buddy Hield and Kris Dunn—who spent a combined seven years in college—will be the go-to guys for logistical information.
Each of the first eight picks in last year’s draft was a 19-year-old.
An 11 a.m. meeting in which a current NBA player implores the prospects to celebrate responsibly is followed by lunch with commissioner Adam Silver. Fashion is important. The prospects typically wear one suit for the day’s events and change into another for the actual draft. Jackets with college jerseys sewn on the inside were all the rage a couple of years ago; last year I noticed a lack of socks. We’ve got two Kentucky teammates in attendance this year: Is a Dumb and Dumber-inspired ensemble too much to ask for?
A couple of hours before the cameras start rolling, the prospects take a bus from the hotel to the arena for group photos. Several will be as or more nervous than they are before championship games.
They’ll take a seat at their assigned table in the “green room” along with, usually, some combination of their parents, siblings, agent, and college coach.* At least one person at the table will say, “Can you believe we’re actually here?”
*The green room is a physical space that is neither green nor a room. It’s a roped-off area in front of the stage.
At 7:30 ET the commissioner will put the Philadelphia 76ers on the clock. Though the draft is simply an announcement of names, the 30 picks of the first round will take more than three hours. If you think it seems slow on TV, try attending. The time between picks seemed like an eternity to me, and I had no direct stake in where any of the players went. Like many fans, the players furiously check Twitter, hoping for some meaningful news from insiders like Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony.
But that’s not enough to give the players peace of mind. During the pre-draft process, teams will tell prospects things like, “You had a great workout” or “We’re very interested” or, in some cases, “We’ll draft you if you’re available.” But that plan can change if a different player unexpectedly slips. A pre-draft promise holds no weight come Thursday night.
Not until a player’s phone rings with a call from an unfamiliar area code can they get excited. It is the coach or GM or team president on the line welcoming him to the franchise. Moments later, the player is walking on the stage to shake Silver’s hand. Keep in mind that at this time a year prior, many were on stage receiving a high school diploma.
If you have a heart, root for no draft-day trades. I saw firsthand what a trade entails when Minnesota selected Burke only to immediately send him to Utah. Burke had an inkling he’d be dealt as soon as his name was called, making the NBA TV interview—in which he donned a Timberwolves hat—especially awkward. Real-life trades don’t happen like they do in fantasy sports. The terms of the deal must be approved by the league. Burke spent two hours in a holding room, knowing he’d been dealt but unsure of the particulars. The post-selection media responsibilities—dozens of photo shoots and interviews—can be overwhelming for any player; a trade only delays the process.
If you have a heart, root for no draft-day trades.
Even without a trade, mid-first round picks won’t leave the arena until midnight. They’ll have scores of texts and missed calls. Actually, if a draft pick left his phone on vibrate the entire day, his thigh would probably be numb by early afternoon.
Other than the size of the initial contract, a player’s draft slot means nothing. The NBA is a ruthlessly competitive business. Roster spots are not unlimited. Some veterans will retire this offseason. Others will be cut and forced to play overseas. But the majority will return, disinclined to cede their jobs to the new class of rookies. Getting drafted is the realization of a lifelong dream. But really it’s just the beginning.
A version of this story appears on Yahoo’s The Post Game.