Summer League is over, and the players selected at the NBA draft in June are beginning to find out just what their new lives will be like. Four weeks ago, collegiate stars like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball walked across a stage at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York, and shook NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s hand. The players knew that their whole careers were ahead of them and that draft night was just the beginning.
College players look forward to the NBA draft for years, maybe even imagine it when they are kids playing ball everyday at their local courts. When draft night finally arrives, emotions run high. Players sit right in front of the stage, many with family members by their sides, waiting nervously for Silver to call their names.
Jayson Tatum of Duke, who went to the Celtics with this year’s third pick, said of being drafted, “Oh, man. It was the best feeling I've ever had in my young life, and I'm only 19. It was the moment I've always been dreaming about and waiting for. It was as special as I could have imagined and that much more.”
Super fans traveled from all over the country to share in the excitement, to be in the room when their team drafted a new player. People filled almost every seat in one half of the Barclay’s Center, which was arranged so that all fans could see the stage. Even though many knew what would most likely happen, the stadium was loud with anticipation.
The loudest cheers came from the many Philadelphia fans hoping for a big turnaround, when their team took Fultz with the first pick. Even when it’s expected (as with Fultz and Ball, who went to the Lakers with the second pick), being drafted is a huge relief.
But the road isn’t even close to being over. In reality, the experience is a complicated mix of excitement about being chosen and nervous anticipation about fitting in with a new team, proving oneself on a national scale, and settling into a new home.
So De’Aaron Fox, who was rocking a Kings visor, was happy about the prospect of playing with a young, up-and-coming team, but the fifth pick admitted it would be difficult to adjust to being part of a losing team after playing for the prestigious Kentucky program. “A lot of people say I could be a franchise player,” he said, “and that’s what I really want to be.”
Fultz knows he will have to work very hard to help the 76ers get into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. And 38th pick Jordan Bell of Oregon, who will try to add athleticism to a Warriors team that has been in the Finals for three consecutive years, had to work extra hard during Summer League to prove that he can someday earn a starting role on the championship team. He did well, averaging nine rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, and shooting 60%. He hopes to make the Warriors roster.
Many players approached their new lives with gratitude and humility. Malik Monk isn’t upset that he wasn’t drafted until the 11th pick, just thrilled to learn from the G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan, owner of the Hornets. He said he heard that Jordan would compete with his players one-on-one.
Ball was ready for the pressure of playing for his hometown team and excited to learn from Magic Johnson, the team’s new president of basketball operations, whom he called “the greatest point guard of all time.” Ball went on to win Summer League MVP.
Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, drafted by Orlando, plans to “be the hard worker who comes in and doesn’t have an agenda, is humble, and can just do whatever he has to do.”
Dennis Smith of North Carolina State, who was taken ninth, just calmly announced that he was excited to play guards like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Derrick Rose because he models his game after them.
Every time a player is drafted, the circumstances and the expectations are different. Everyone is destined for different careers in the league. Take the 1984 NBA draft. Hakeem Olajuwon, the top pick, was an incredible player, won two titles, and was a 12-time All-Star. But that certainly didn’t stop the Rockets from eventually kicking themselves for not taking Michael Jordan, whom the Bulls drafted with the third pick. Sam Bowie was selected second by Portland, but the biggest individual accomplishment he had was squeaking onto the All-Rookie first-team in 1985.
Expectations and predictions about this year’s draft class have already begun. Within five years, young teams like the Kings, Lakers, and 76ers will be competing for titles. There is a changing of the guards in the NBA, with more super teams being created, but young teams are trying to rise. Hopefully we will see many great battles between Fultz, Ball, Fox, and other rookies throughout their NBA careers.
The NBA Summer League is a great way to get young players adapted to NBA play, and many stars shined. Now the real journey begins.
Photographs by (from top): Mike Stobe/Getty Images (Fultz); Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Ball)