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Opinion: NBA draft exciting, fast-paced and totally overrated

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 6/19/2019 Dan Wolken
© AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

For an event that will cause multiple meltdowns on social media, put the reputation and job security of several executives on the line and set the table for all kinds of trades and free agent signings over the next several weeks, there is nothing in sports more overrated than the NBA draft. 

Sure, it’s fun to watch. It’s fast-paced, it builds hope for downtrodden fan bases and it combines instant reaction to what just happened with speculation about what’s to come. Anyone who has watched 20 minutes worth of college basketball can feel invested and pretend to be an expert. And in a league where potential transactions are often more fun to talk about than the games themselves, it’s an event that NBA fans look forward to probably as much as any other. 

It’s also not nearly as important as it will all seem Thursday night.

That’s not to suggest that what happens won’t have consequences. Of course it will. The draft is the original source of the player capital that will turn into on-court results and the ability to acquire other players through trades and free agency. It’s the aorta of the league. 

But it’s also presented in a misleading way. Every year, as the first-round picks hug their family members, put on the hat of the team that drafted them and shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand, we see them not as they actually are but as the idealized versions of what they could be. 

This is true in all drafts, of course, but it’s different from the NFL in a very important way. In football, an early round draft pick may or may not live up to the hype but the salary cap implications demand that players on rookie contracts play a key role in winning and losing. Outside of the quarterback position, development is less important than cheap labor. What happens on draft night is going to matter a lot in whether your team makes the playoffs or not next season. 

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In the NBA, where the power structure of the league is more static, you’re generally drafting a player in the top 10 for a roster you hope to have five years from now, not the one you’ve got today. And as history shows, more will go wrong than right before you get to that point. 

The recently completed NBA Finals is a good example of this. On their respective draft nights, the world champion Toronto Raptors’ starting lineup featured players who were picked 48th (Marc Gasol), 46th (Danny Green), 27th (Pascal Siakam), 24th (Kyle Lowry) and 15th (Kawhi Leonard) on draft night while their best bench player, Fred VanVleet, went undrafted.

Among those starters, only Siakam was originally drafted by Toronto. And even then, while it’s clearly become a home-run pick for general manager Masai Ujiri, most of the hype on that draft night centered around Jakob Pöltl, whom the Raptors picked No. 9 overall.

In fact, draft analyst Sam Vecenie gave the Raptors a B-minus at CBSSports.com, writing that the Siakam pick “doesn’t make a ton of sense” and that taking him at 27 was “a reach, pure and simple, on a guy who dominated in college basketball’s worst conference.” Kelly Dwyer at Yahoo! wrote that Siakam “doesn’t factor to be the answer at power forward, while Jeremy Woo at Sports Illustrated was critical of the pick because Siakam was already 22 and projected to be in the second round. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

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And that’s not a shot at those analysts, by the way. They're all very knowledgeable about basketball, study the prospects hard and are better at this than most. If you talk about the draft at all, you’re going to be wrong a lot. (The popular Twitter account @OldTakesExposed recently uncovered one of my gems from the 2011 draft about Kawhi Leonard that was off by, oh, six million miles.)

But that’s kind of the point here. We really don't know anything. 

Clearly, the Raptors got the 2016 draft right because it netted them Siakam, who became a very important piece to a championship team. You can also say they got it wrong since they’re among the teams that passed on Siakam and picked a lesser player. Maybe they just got a little lucky.

But that kind of story betrays the certainty with which Thursday’s draft will be talked about and the speed with which most of the players in it will be forgotten about. 

Let’s go back to the Siakam draft in 2016. The players from that crop have now been in the NBA for three seasons, which is a reasonable amount of time to figure out what trajectory they’re on.  

Among the top 10 picks, No. 1 Ben Simmons has already made an All-Star team, No. 3 Jaylen Brown has been a key contributor on a playoff team and looks like a potential All-Star (albeit with some ups and downs) while No. 6 Buddy Hield might be one of the best shooters in the league already. 

Jamal Murray, whom Denver took at No. 7, looks like a good pick in retrospect but probably falls just short of being a star. Brandon Ingram, whom the Lakers took No. 2 that year, has never quite had the look of a franchise cornerstone but will get a fresh start in New Orleans. 

On the other end of the spectrum, No. 4 Dragan Bender and No. 8 Marquese Chriss have been complete busts, No. 10 Thon Maker doesn’t seem to be progressing after some early flashes while No. 5 Kris Dunn has been disappointing enough that Chicago is already looking for his replacement.

When you look at the next 50 players out of that draft, only seven or eight would currently have enough value to net a draft pick equivalent to or close to where they were taken three years ago. That’s how quickly the excitement and the potential fades away. 

Certainly there is going to be a team Thursday night that ends up with a player in the Siakam mold. There will also be at least a few teams who pick in the top 10 and will regret the decision they made.

But by the time we figure out which is which, all the excitement from draft night will be a distant memory. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: NBA draft exciting, fast-paced and totally overrated

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