As a sports fan, it’s often a challenge to remain reasonable. At this time of year, at draft time, it’s a real challenge not only to manage our expectations, but to not get swept away. It’s difficult not to fall in love with some player’s unique skill set or measurements. That’s because the draft is all about imagination — and, more often than not, players who can be termed “very good basketball players” do not excite the sports fan’s imagination. There’s something else there that makes us dream big about certain guys.
Every year, very good basketball players tumble down the board on draft day and go on, in many cases, to have fulfilling pro careers and (one might imagine) lives. What really makes a sports fan see red at this time of year are the players who may not be the very best basketball players, but who have some wrinkle to their make-up that convinces us that Player X has it. This is why we go nuts over guys with wingspans never before measured or verticals never before reached or athleticism never before embodied. These are the things that whisper, “This guy is different. Okay, well, how different? How about future all-star different? How about future defensive anchor of a NBA championship defense different? How about solid rotation player different?”
But, hey, that last guy was a pick toward the back of the second round. So … you know, that’s really good!
Fans even know that, no matter how much a singularly exciting skill or statistic is, likely, their fascination is getting sold a bill of goods. We have numbers to help protect us from our sports imaginations, but even those numbers are being used to suggest a hypothetical projection of some future time; that’s using numbers to fuel imagination. And imagination, at the end of the day, is what makes this all so much (kinda) fun anyway.
No, Rudy Gobert is not likely to be the type of shot obliterating big man in the pros that he was at the combine. We know that. But … maybe. No, the fact that Giannis Adetokunbo has looked (occasionally) amazing against pretty low level competition does not mean he’ll look even remotely like that going against NBA players. But, man, have you seen those hands?! Do you realize he grew three inches this past year and is now a hyper-athletic 6’9” small forward prospect? Maybe, maybe… Yeah, sure, Alex Len’s a good player. He’s got good size and decently developed skills for this point in his career. But, wow, Nerlens Noel just looks better doing it. Those hands. That hair. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
(Side note: Yes, it’s official. This is the first year I have become irrationally attached to a player’s pro potential based, largely if not in full, on his hair style. It’s a piece of the package)
Every year, there’s a player who should be a full-on imagination all-star, but who gets caught up in someone (or many people’s) insistence that we have moved beyond imagination, that we are reasonable people now.
Kenneth Faried should have gotten everyone’s imaginations excited. He sure did mine. His rebounding was that bizarre wrinkle in his make-up that (along with his hair – See! It’s a real thing) should have had people dreaming up scenarios where Faried played … well, about as good as he has in his first couple of years. But he was too short. Conventional wisdom suggested that he might not be able to achieve in the pros what he did in college. It happens. And so GMs talked themselves down, away from the rebounding (and the hair!) and decided to let conventional wisdom rob them of a very exciting young player. It happens.
So, who will it be this year? Who will be the player whose singular skill, combination of intangibles or collection of measurements will be looked past because we’re being smart? And who will teams reach for because, for an instant, they blinked and let imagination get the better of them? Here’s to this draft’s imagination all-stars: you may not end up being great players but, just for a moment, you showed something that made the less rational fan part of my brain go, “Right now, I can see him being awesome. It may not happen, but I can just see it!”