The 2014 NBA Draft went about as scripted. There were a few wrinkles, and a few reaches, but for the most part this draft went about how we expected.
Usually, I try to have my draft grades in the day after the draft, but things have gotten a little hectic in the NBA world, so sitting down and really focusing on the draft didn’t happen as expected, but I did want to get them in before the flurry of free agency clouds everything.
Before we get too far into this, there are a few disclaimers:
#1 – The true value of a player plays out over time. There is no way to know what kind of NBA player a guy will be the week after the draft, so we’re not going to try and do that.
#2 – My grades are based on three criteria:
a.) Did the team draft the best possible talent on the board?
b.) Did the team solve an immediate roster need?
c.) Can the player selected contribute right away?
With those criteria in mind, let’s look at how the 2014 NBA Draft grades out…
Round 1: Adreian Payne (15)
Round 2: Walter Tavares (43), Lamar Patterson (48)
This is a really good draft for Atlanta; picking up a ready-to-play big man like Payne and scooping up some interesting prospects in the second round like Tavares and Patterson are very good value picks for the Hawks. Overall they got better. The Hawks added players who can help them now and more importantly help them tomorrow. In terms of getting great value for their picks, the Hawks did that. They filled an immediate need and they got a player in Payne that can play right away. Tavares at 43 is a bonus and Patterson, a Basketball Insiders blogger, has a real chance to contribute in the NBA.
Round 1: Marcus Smart (6), James Young (17)
Round 2: None
This draft is two-part for the Celtics; one, they get a bench in terms of Marcus Smart and James Young being able to come in and contribute right away. It also gives Boston some offensive punch and covers the Celtics at those positions long-term. Also, if Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley start to become too expensive or are not in the long-term picture for the Celtics at any point, they have capable replacements. Overall this draft really solves a bunch of immediate needs. It gives the Celtics options and more importantly gives them replacements if things don’t work out going forward.
Round 1: None.
Round 2: Markel Brown (44), Xavier Thames (59), Cory Jefferson (60)
Considering Brooklyn entered the draft with no draft assets to speak of, coming out with Markel Brown , Xavier Thames and Cory Jefferson is just simply good draft night work. These guys may or may not be in Brooklyn’s big picture but it gives them cheap talent to evaluate, especially for a Nets team that is spending crazy money. Brown is most likely going to make the roster, while Thames and Jefferson may be on the outside looking in. Overall, given that Brooklyn had almost nothing to work with when the draft started, they came out with three interesting prospects, a couple of which will might be on the team in the future. Even though these players were basically bought by the Nets, they got good value for Brown at 44. Thames at 59 and Jefferson at 60 were reasonable gets as well. The only knock you could make is if you were buying players, why not buy some a little higher on the board? They may not have been able to, making their picks solid value given the circumstances.
Round 1: Noah Vonleh (9), P.J. Hairston (26)
Round 2: None
Charlotte got a great value player in Noah Vonleh with the No. 9 pick. This was a huge get for the Hornets as they seemed pegged to take a slightly lesser talent. The fact that Vonleh was there for them is amazing. P.J. Hairston is also extremely good value at 26, although he was part of the Shabazz Napier trade with Miami, he could be the perimeter player they’ve been looking for. There were some red flags on the injury front concerning Hairston and his shoulder, which is why he slipped on draft night. But overall, the Hornets got better. They addressed roster needs and they got real value with their first round picks. They traded their second round pick Dwight Powell to Cleveland in a deal for Alonzo Gee and sold their other second rounder Semaj Christon to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash considerations.
Round 1: Doug McDermott (11)
Round 2: Cameron Bairstow (49)
The Bulls’ biggest need was perimeter scoring and they got it with McDermott. On the surface, it seemed like this move was about cutting costs and getting one player instead of drafting two, however this move really didn’t cut costs. It actually added some in the form of Anthony Randolph’s guaranteed contract in the deal with Denver. In the end, the Bulls showed their commitment to McDermott. In the immediate future McDermott can help the Bulls. The Bulls have not had a perimeter player that can score like McDermott since maybe Kyle Korver and the similarities between the two players are uncanny. McDermott should be able to contribute right away and is very good value at 11. He should fit into the culture in Chicago pretty quickly. Cameron Bairstow is a little more of a project. There’s a chance that he makes the training camp roster, but it’s more likely that he is going to start his Bulls career on another team, likely overseas. Bairstow has some potential, but overall this draft was about McDermott and the Bulls got the guy they wanted.
Round 1: Andrew Wiggins (1)
Round 2: Joe Harris (33), Dwight Powell (45)
The Cavs had the top overall pick and did not miss with Andrew Wiggins. They took a solid upside player who fits into their their culture and could be the future star they’ve been looking for. Factor in his relationships with guys like Tristan Thompson and last year’s top overall pick Anthony Bennett and Wiggins should be a good fit for the Cavaliers both offensively and defensively. The late picking up of Joe Harris in the second round and trade for Dwight Powell was just simply good value for the Cavs. They may not be in the big picture for them right now, but overall the Cavaliers did what they needed to do. They drafted a can’t-miss player number one overall and got a great value in the second round.
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
Dallas used their draft assets to make the deal with the New York Knicks. The appeal of those draft assets was the grease to get the deal done to get Tyson Chandler back in the fold. When the Mavs entered the offseason and started looking at draft prospects, they were looking for rim defenders. They clearly didn’t find one in the draft and made the trade to get one instead. Overall, the Mavericks’ roster is better but they did not use those picks so therefore they get an incomplete grade.
Round 1: Jusuf Nurkic (16), Gary Harris (19)
Round 2: Nikola Jokic (41)
By way of a trade with Chicago, the Denver Nuggets turned the No. 11 pick into two picks (No. 16 and No. 19). And they got two really good players. Nurkic could be a very good NBA center. He’s a big body that can play in the post and has a great feel for the game offensively. He had great success overseas and should make an impact from day one. Landing Gary Harris, a great perimeter threat, at 19 is huge value for the Nuggets. Jokic at No. 41 could be a good value pick as well. Overall considering what Denver started the draft with and what they came out with, they did really well. They got value for the two picks they traded for, got roster players that can help them right away and are good long-term building blocks.
Round 1: None
Round 2: Spencer Dinwiddie (38)
The Pistons didn’t have a first round draft pick, but came out of the draft with a really good player in Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie, who tore his ACL last season, doesn’t come without questions. The biggest is how quickly will he be able to join the Pistons and integrate into their system? Given what they have in front of them in free agency and what they did not have coming into the draft, they came out with a quality asset and a very interesting player. This is a good pick for the Pistons.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
The Golden State Warriors traded all of their draft picks to make the move to get Andre Iguodala last offseason. The Warriors sniffed at trading into the draft, but ultimately opted to hold the line. Therefore, they get an incomplete grade.
Round 1: Clint Capela (25)
Round 2: Nick Johnson (42)
With the No. 25 pick Houston drafted Clint Capela. This was a little bit of a reach given the needs that could’ve been solved in the draft. Capela is a very interesting long-term prospect and might be on the roster this year. His ability, or more important inability, to impact the team immediately dings the Rockets’ grade. Getting Johnson at No. 42 is an interesting get, but overall Houston could’ve done a lot better with this draft, therefore their grade takes a little bit of a hit.
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
The Indiana Pacers entered the draft with little interest in being involved. They could’ve traded into the first round, but it came down to the cost being too high. The Pacers, overall, have a loaded roster that’s ready to compete and there’s not a lot of room for young guys. The big improvement for the Pacers will be from last year’s first rounder Solomon Hill. The hope is that he can move into the lineup as the Pacers try to find some energy from the bench. The Pacers did not participate, therefore get an incomplete grade.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Round 1: C.J. Wilcox (28)
Round 2: None
Drafting C.J. Wilcox is a little puzzling considering last year the Clippers drafted basically the same player in Reggie Bullock. Wilcox is an interesting option and does look to have some promise for the Clippers. He can shoot the ball incredibly well from the outside, however you have to wonder with Bullock already a year ahead, does Wilcox really have a role with the Clippers? This is a value pick with No. 28, but given that there were better fitting options on the board and Wilcox may not contribute this year, the Clips get dinged on this one.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Round 1: Julius Randle (7)
Round 2: Jordan Clarkson (46)
The L.A. Lakers did tremendously well drafting Julius Randle No. 7. Not only did they get a future franchise player, they also picked up a value player, buying the rights to Jordan Clarkson later in the draft. Given what the Lakers had to work with, this was great value and an excellent draft the Lakers, who really could not have done any better given where they were positioned. The fact that they got two assets out of this draft class and both of them being possible steals means the Lakers did very well for themselves.
Round 1: Jordan Adams (22)
Round 2: Jarnell Stokes (35)
Drafting Jordan Adams with the No. 22 was huge value for the Grizzlies. They addressed an immediate roster need and added some perimeter punch. The Grizz also obtained the rights to Jarnell Stokes later in the draft, another huge get for the Grizzlies. Stokes can play right away and he should be able to fill in nicely behind Zach Randolph. The Grizz got real value in their picks; they got players who should fill immediate roster needs and contribute right away. This was a solid draft.
Round 1: Shabazz Napier (24)
Round 2: None
While there was a lot of talk that LeBron James wanted Shabazz Napier, the move to get him in a trade was more about Miami’s immediate need at point guard than anything LeBron may have wanted. Napier fills that need, is great value at No. 24 and, overall, is a very good acquisition for Miami. The fact that James approves doesn’t hurt either. When you factor in all the things Napier is, he should fit in nicely in Miami, especially if they can keep the core together. He’s a playmaker who has played at a very high level. He should contribute right away. This is a good trade for Miami, even though they were sort of held up at gun point by Charlotte, who knew they wanted Napier at all costs.
Round 1: Jabari Parker (2)
Round 2: Damien Inglis (31), Johnny O’Bryant (36)
Jabari Parker is arguably the most pro-ready player in this draft. He brings everything the Bucks organization needs: Maturity, control, self awareness, great character and tremendous skill. In the second round, the Bucks get two interesting players in Inglis and O’Bryant who could help the Bucks down the line. The Bucks got value out of their picks. They filled immediate roster needs and tapped players that could eventually become contributors.
Round 1: Zach LaVine (13)
Round 2: Glenn Robinson III (40), Alessandro Gentile (53)
Zach LaVine is an all upside player. He has nothing but potential to offer Minnesota. As they will start look at life beyond Kevin Love, LaVine could be a star in the making. Glenn Robinson and Alessandro Gentile in the second round were about quality. Robinson likely makes the roster while Gentile is probably playing abroad next season. Overall, this was a quality draft for Minnesota, they got value out of both their picks in the first and in the second round they got quality talent that helps their roster right away. There is an argument to be made that LaVine at No. 13 might be a little high especially with other options on the board, but overall if he becomes what he could be this is still a solid draft.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Round 1: None
Round 2: Russ Smith (47)
This one is a bit of a head scratcher. The Pelicans tried to get into the first round all throughout the draft process, offering a bevy of players to other teams. When all was said and done, they swapped Pierre Jackson for Russ Smith. Jackson was arguably the better player, so it’s unclear why they made this move unless it was completely financially motivated. Pierre was going to require a significant guaranteed contract given his play last year in the D-League. Smith should add some value to the team, especially after they decided not to issue a qualifying offer to Brian Roberts. The better player in the deal was Jackson, so this move is a bit strange. At the end of the day, Smith should get a chance at the back up spot, so this is not a terrible move.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Round 1: None
Round 2: Cleanthony Early (34), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (51), Louis Labyrie (57)
Given that the Knicks entered the draft with no draft picks at all and came away with three players is fairly impressive. The fact that they came away with two quality talents including Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo gives them two players that could make the roster and provide minutes from opening day. Labyrie is more of a draft-and-stash and it’s unlikely the Knicks do anything with him in the near term. Given that the Knicks had nothing to start this process with, they came out with a lot of value and quality players who could help them right away. This is a good draft for the Knicks, especially considering both of the players can play and are likely on non-guaranteed contracts.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Round 1: Mitch McGary (21), Josh Huestis (29)
Round 2: None
Typical to Oklahoma City, they draft two players who could help their organization, both of which probably in the long-term not the short-term. Mitch McGary at No. 21 and Josh Huestis at No. 29 are quality pick ups for their draft position. McGary is probably someone who can help them some time next year, but is unlikely to see much time this year. The Thunder are typically a year ahead of their needs when drafting, so both players are likely to see more time in the D-League than on the floor for Oklahoma City. This is quality value for the picks. The players fit the culture and fill needs down the road. Overall this is a very good draft; it just may not offer much help next season.
Round 1: Aaron Gordon (4), Elfrid Payton (10)
Round 2: Devyn Marble (56)
On the surface, this is a bit of a puzzling draft for the Magic, especially at No. 4 with Aaron Gordon. However, when you look at the draft in its entirety and what was available to the Magic at No. 4 and No. 12, the Magic come out with two really good players. More importantly, those players really fit the future of what they’re trying to do. The Magic may have gotten a gem in the second round with Devyn Marble, acquiring his draft rights in a trade. When you look at what Orlando came into the draft with and what they came out of the draft with, they used both picks to solve immediate needs. They got quality value for their picks and both first round players should solve an immediate need. Payton and Gordon as a combo were relentless during the draft process; they should be very good in Orlando.
Round 1: Joel Embiid (3), Dario Saric (12)
Round 2: K.J. McDaniels (32), Jerami Grant (39), Vasilije Micic (52), Jordan McRae (58)
Philadelphia is getting killed over the selection of Joel Embiid and then the trade for Dario Saric. Both are really moves not motivated for this year but more the long-term. The Sixers could’ve drafted other players at No. 3 and gotten better right away, however in the long-term the Sixers may have ended up with better players overall, certainly if Embiid can get healthy. K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant and Vasilije Micic in the second round were steals. They traded Nemanja Dangubic for Jordan McRae and Cory Jefferson, who they immediately flipped to Brooklyn. Overall, Philly is in acquisition mode, trying to re-stock the cupboard. Looking at this draft from the long-term vantage point is exactly what they did.
Round 1: T.J. Warren (14), Tyler Ennis (18), Bogdan Bogdanovic (27)
Round 2: Alec Brown (50)
The Suns did really well with their draft assets. Nabbing T.J. warren is a huge get for the Suns, and the fact they were able to get Ennis at No. 18 and Bogdanovic at No. 27 were value selections as well. The Suns now have a ton of options, especially with Eric Bledsoe hitting restricted free agency. The Suns exited the draft with lots of very trade-friendly assets and a ton of future cap space, so their offseason could be very interesting. Alec Brown at No.50 may be on the outside looking in simply because Phoenix is jam packed with young guys. Overall, the Suns got value out of their picks, adding players that can help them right away and and in the future. This is a quality draft.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
The Portland Trail Blazers looked at buying into the draft, however with first round assets fetching a very high price, the Blazers sat this one out. Given the loaded nature of their roster, it is unlikely that anyone the Blazers could have obtained would have really mattered in their big picture. Since they did not participate, they get an incomplete grade.
Round 1: Nik Stauskas (8)
Round 2: None
The Sacramento Kings targeted perimeter scoring in this draft, looking at guys like Stauskas and Doug McDermott. They looked at some point guards too, but at the end of the day Stauskas’ ability to play both guard positions and really shoot the ball well from the perimeter swayed the Kings in his direction. Overall, this is great value for the Kings. It solves an immediate need. Stauskas at No. 8 might’ve been a little high but there was a real belief that he would be gone at No. 9 or at No. 10. The Stauskas pick does open some questions around Ben McLemore’s future but overall the Kings got a quality player that fills immediate needs.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Round 1: Kyle Anderson (30)
Round 2: Nemanja Dangubic (54)
The Spurs, in very typical fashion, caught the guy who fell. Anderson is a great addition for San Antonio. It’s doubtful he plays a big role right away, but he is a quality talent with the last pick in the first round. Overall, given where the Spurs were drafting and the sense they were going to go with an international player, this is a good pick that should make the roster. It does not necessarily fill an immediate need and he may not contribute right away, but this is a solid selection. Dangubic is someone they’ll monitor for a season or two before seriously considering bringing over.
Round 1: Bruno Caboclo (20)
Round 2: DeAndre Daniels (37)
The Raptors are getting killed for their first round selection of Bruno Caboclo at No. 20, but this is a player many scouts and teams were very high on. There was a sense that while he was a second-round talent, he wouldn’t be on the board when Toronto got there a second time. Much like Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo last year, Caboclo could be a stud in a couple of years. DeAndre Daniels in the second round is a tremendous get and is a first round talent who should be able to make the roster right away. The first pick was about future, the second pick was about the present. Overall, the Raptors did well in acquiring talent, although they may have reached for Caboclo. In the short-term, the Raptors could have gotten a talent who filled an immediate need at No. 20, but in the long-term they may have gotten a very special player. Their draft grade gets dinged for the deferred nature of the Caboclo pick, but in a few years this grade might look better.
Round 1: Dante Exum (5), Rodney Hood (23)
Round 2: None.
The Utah Jazz did extremely well in this draft. They got a future star in Dante Exum who fits in nicely with their overall roster plans. In the short-term he can play with Trey Burke; in the long-term he may supplant Burke as the starter. With the No. 23 pick, the Jazz got a steal in Rodney Hood, a knock down shooter that gives the team options at the small forward spot, especially with Gordon Hayward headed into restricted free agency. The Jazz got great value out of their picks. Both players fill immediate needs and both should contribute right away. This was a stellar draft for Utah.
Round 1: None
Round 2: None
Much like the Portland Trail Blazers, the Wizards sniffed at the draft and ultimately opted to sit this one out. The Wizards are loaded with young guys. There was not much available to them that mattered, so they stayed away. Because the Wizards did not participate, they get an incomplete grade.
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NBA Daily: The All-Star Game’s Scandalous Past
The first All-Star Game was birthed of an infamous point-shaving scandal that rocked the basketball world.
College basketball’s point-shaving scandal of the early 1950s remains one of the biggest black eyes in the sport’s history, but without it, there may never have been an NBA All-Star Game.
Known more famously as the CCNY (City College of New York) Point-Shaving Scandal, this public relations nightmare occurred in 1951 when several players from the CCNY Beavers, one of the most innovative teams in college hoops that played their home games at Madison Square Garden and won the national title the year before, took money in exchange for shaving points to help nail down easy wins for bettors.
The story is a lot more complicated that; it starts in the Catskills in New York in the 1940s and slowly works its way into the college game, but the end result is that several players from seven different colleges, most of whom attended CCNY, took money in exchange for impacting the outcomes of meaningful collegiate sports competitions.
Obviously the aftermath of this was significant. CCNY, just a year removed from being national champions, deemphasized their athletics programs and dropped down to Division III, never to return to Division I. Any player found to have been part of the scandal was permanently banned from playing in the NBA, and CCNY head coach Nat Holman, who completely modernized the game of basketball, was cleared of any wrongdoing officially but saw his legacy tarnished because of the whispers that predictably followed the scandal.
The whole thing was awful for basketball in general, so while the NBA was not directly impacted outside of having a few top-rated players be made unavailable in that year’s draft pool, the sports-ingesting public at large soured on the sport somewhat in the wake of these dishonorable actions.
And that’s where the idea for the NBA All-Star Game came together. A handful of NBA bigwigs held a meeting to discuss bettering the league’s perception among fans, and it was there that the idea of an All-Star Game involving the league’s best players surfaced as one possible solution.
The idea was pitched by the NBA’s publicity director Haskell Cohen, who took the idea from Major League Baseball, which had seen the midseason event grow increasingly popular every year. The first one of those took place in 1933 as an attraction at the World’s Fair in Chicago as the invention of a Chicago Tribune journalist named Arch Ward. If it could work for baseball, Cohen argued, maybe it could work for basketball, too.
Boston Celtics owner Walter A. Brown immediately jumped on board, growing so enthralled with the concept that he offered not only to host the event but to take on full financial responsibility for it. If the event was a behemoth failure, Brown himself would incur those losses.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, as the first All-Star Game in 1951 drew over 10,000 fans to Boston Garden. That doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but average attendance at the Garden that season was only around 3,500 people per game. This star-studded exhibition nearly tripled that.
Today, of course, the NBA All-Star Game is an entirely more complicated and dazzling spectacle, with internet votes and slam dunk contests further encouraging fan interest. It’s fascinating to think that it all exists because the league felt the need to do something following a deeply embarrassing scandal for the sport. CCNY’s basketball program certainly isn’t better because of it, but it’s hard to imagine a world without the NBA All-Star Game.
Thank goodness for the rainbows that follow storms.
NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans
Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.
By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.
In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.
Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.
“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”
That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.
“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”
He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.
“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”
Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.
“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”
Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.
“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”
NBA AM: Jahlil Okafor’s Strange NBA Journey
After things went awry at his first NBA stop in Philly, Jahlil Okafor has a new opportunity in Brooklyn.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Jahlil Okafor.
The former NCAA champion, who spent most of his only college season as the highest rated NBA draft prospect, was supposed to be a sure thing. But then a noted agent of chaos—Sam Hinkie, the former GM of the Philadelphia 76ers who drafted Okafor with the third pick in the 2015 Draft—came into his life, and life took a detour.
With Thursday’s trade of Okafor, shooting guard Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Trevor Booker, the initial, anticlimactic phase of Okafor’s NBA career comes to a close. What lies ahead is a new opportunity to reach his potential with Kenny Atkinson, a coach with a massive reputation for player development. It’s also an opportunity for Okafor to start with a clean slate after his stay in Philly was marred by off-court drama.
“Never having coached him, no player that we bring into our program from another program, we don’t prejudge them,” Atkinson said during Thursday’s media availability in Mexico City prior to Brooklyn’s 100-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We’re going to welcome both of those players with open arms. We judge them on our terms. That’s how we do it with everybody.
“I think they’re coming into a strong locker room. I think they’re coming into a program with a staff that really cares, a front office that is top notch, and I’m really excited about this.”
Interestingly, Okafor’s arrival in Brooklyn means he will share a team with another player whose fate was directly intertwined with his on draft night in 2015: D’Angelo Russell.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers worked out current Knick Kristaps Porzingis to the point of exhaustion but came away convinced that he was a long-term project. After Karl-Anthony Towns went to the Timberwolves with the first pick, the Lakers went with Russell, presumably the safer pick in their minds.
With Russell and Towns off the board, who could know what Hinkie, the maverick GM, and implementer of “the process” would do?
Porzingis, according to Wojnarowski, had his heart set on New York. After Porzingis worked out in front of all 30 teams in Las Vegas, Porzingis’ agent Andy Miller declined to give Hinkie a one-on-one meeting with his client. Thus frozen out of Porzigis’ pre-draft process, Hinkie likewise went with the presumptive safe pick in Okafor.
As with Okafor, Russell arrived in Brooklyn with an opportunity to start over after an off-court mishap (in the form of a bro code violation) in L.A. Fortunately for the newly-minted teammates, Atkinson doesn’t care about the past and is only concerned about what the Nets organization can help them become.
“When we bring in young, talented players it’s a great opportunity for our staff and organization to develop another young player … or two young players because Nik is young, too,” said Atkinson. “I can’t tell you I know their game intimately. Part of the onboarding process, part of the development process is to map out a specific plan for these guys.”
While Atkinson stayed focused on the positives, he wasn’t unaware that Okafor and Stauskas come to Brooklyn with limited resumes on the defensive end.
“I think like anybody that comes into our program, we need to defend the basketball,” said Atkinson. “That’ll be a challenge for both of them, that we need those guys to be two-way players. We’re going to demand it as we do of everybody that comes in our program.”
When Atkinson spoke of a staff that cares about its players, his sincerity became obvious as he spoke of the departed Booker and Sean Kilpatrick, who was waived to make room for Stauskas.
“It’s an emotional day when you lose guys you’ve worked with,” said Atkinson. “Sean Kilpatrick and Trevor Booker … you get close to these guys.”
While Okafor’s strange NBA journey now takes him to Brooklyn, Booker’s day included an unexpected early flight out of Mexico City for his newest destination. Atkinson and Nets GM Sean Marks had an opportunity to meet with Booker once the trade was announced.
“I had a long discussion with him today, me and Sean,” said Atkinson. “It was a mutual respect on both sides, how much we enjoyed him and loved him and how much we appreciated the things he brought to our program.
“He is on a flight tonight to Philadelphia. They want him there, which is normal. I think we’d do the same thing: ‘Hey, can you get here as soon as possible?’ I know they had an injury and it makes total sense to us. Not an easy situation.”
When Jeremy Lin was setting the NBA world on fire at the height of Linsanity, he went out of his way to publicize how Atkinson made himself available as a Knicks assistant to help with his development. Now Okafor will have a similar opportunity in one of the NBA’s marquee arenas under the bright New York lights that Lin shone under and Porzingis longed for.
Okafor couldn’t have imagined on draft night that he’d end up in Brooklyn on the same team as the player drafted one pick ahead of him. But now that his journey has brought him to the five boroughs, he’s presented with the perfect opportunity to re-write his story.