NBA commissioner Adam Silver poses for a photo with draft prospects in attendance before the 2014 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
After the overwhelming disappointment that was the 2013 NBA Draft, much was expected of this year’s incoming rookie class.
Last year’s overall top pick, Cleveland’s Anthony Bennett, was injured before the season started, came in overweight and basically stunk up the joint. The result was that the Cavaliers once again (by some miraculous luck with ping pong balls) were set to pick first in the 2014 NBA Draft.
The big difference that this time, there were so many excellent players to choose from.
As the first NBA Draft presided over by new Commissioner Adam Silver, he had an unusually rich bumper crop of rookies applying. There was a running argument for the cases of three in particular: Kansas University center Joel Embiid from Cameroon, his teammate and shooting guard Andrew Wiggins, and Duke University forward Jabari Parker. In Wiggins and Parker, you have two versatile swingmen who are projected to be go-to guys particularly on any team’s offense.
On the other hand, Embiid only had four years of organized basketball behind him. The tantalizing thing about the 7-foot center is the fact that his skills had developed considerably in that short amount of time. Comparisons to Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon were thrown around before Embiid ran into a proverbial wall. Mere days before the draft, a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot was detected and Embiid had to undergo surgery. This meant the center would be out until December at the earliest.
From most accounts, Embiid had become the top target for the Cavaliers until his injury happened. Cleveland and new coach David Blatt wanted to place Embiid in the paint and hope that he’d help keep another former top pick and Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving, from bolting for another team next season.
The persistent rumors of the Cavaliers trying to woo back former hometown hero and four-time MVP LeBron James also had the Cleveland faithful dreaming of having Embiid holding down the shaded lane for “the King.” With Embiid down though, it would then be a toss-up between Parker and Wiggins.
In the end, Cleveland went with Embiid’s teammate, Canadian-born Wiggins, because he supposedly impressed their braintrust more than Parker during team workout sessions. As a result, the Milwaukee Bucks and their new ownership group gladly selected Parker second overall.
For the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that has the reigning Rookie of the Year in Michael Carter-Williams and preparing to finally have another injured big man from last year in Nerlens Noel, the opportunity to select Embiid was too tantalizing to pass up. The Sixers thus sent the message that they can wait for Embiid to heal up in the hopes of teaming him with Noel in a dynamic frontcourt.
The next level
What followed was a flurry of picks, any of whom, it could be argued, were good enough to be selected number one overall in the draft. The Orlando Magic chose Arizona power forward Aaron Gordon, followed by the Utah Jazz taking a chance on Australian combo guard Dante Exum.
Two franchises not used to choosing so high in the draft then picked back-to-back. The Boston Celtics picked volatile point guard Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State with the sixth overall pick, immediately causing people to wonder if Rajon Rondo was now expendable. The archrival Los Angeles Lakers then addressed a big need by choosing Kentucky power forward Julius Randle with the seventh selection.
Smart famously showed off a little too much intensity last season when he pushed a heckler when his Oklahoma State Cowboys played at Texas A&M. Despite that, and even though he and Rondo both play point guard, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and owner Wyc Grousbeck said that they liked the competitive fire he brings.
In Randle, the 16-time champion Lakers get a Zach Randolph clone, a 6-foot-9, 234-pound banger who loves mixing it up in the paint. The last time the Lakers drafted this high, they took James Worthy with the top pick in the 1982 NBA Draft just months after he brought North Carolina a championship.
Austin gets the spotlight
Perhaps the most poignant moment at the draft happened after the Atlanta Hawks took Adreian Payne with the 15th selection. Silver then announced that the NBA selected Isaiah Austin, a center out of Baylor University.
Just a week before, Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects the heart. Effectively ending Austin’s playing career and his NBA dream, it was heartbreaking for a kid on the cusp of entering the league.
However, Commissioner Silver was able to make at least one of Austin’s dreams come true; that of being called to the stage on Draft Day. Joining his fellow draft hopefuls at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Austin received a standing ovation when he came to the stage, donned an NBA cap, and shook Silver’s hand.
Amid the excitement of welcoming a new batch of rookies looking to make an impact, amid the wheeling and dealing going on between sides looking to move players or create salary cap space, this moment might prove to be the most memorable for the 2014 NBA Draft.
No one had a bigger, more meaningful smile on this night than Isaiah Austin.