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What the NFL and NBA drafts could learn from each other

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 6/24/2022 Dan Labbe,
NFL team super fans in the main stage prepare for the second day of the 2021 NFL Draft as they mingle and make friends with other team fan, April 30, 2021, in Cleveland. © John Kuntz/ NFL team super fans in the main stage prepare for the second day of the 2021 NFL Draft as they mingle and make friends with other team fan, April 30, 2021, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The NBA and NFL Draft couldn’t be more different events considering they both accomplish the same thing. While the NFL Draft has spawned a year-round industry almost as big as the league it feeds, the NBA Draft can sometimes feel like an afterthought unless you’re locked into the world of NBA podcasting.

Part of it is simply the rules. The NFL requires players to be three years removed from high school and fans get a chance to know players better — plus, more people watch college football, which is more accessible than following a scattershot college basketball schedule. There are some apples and oranges things here that won’t change.

The NFL Draft is simply more impactful longer, too. The Browns, for example, picked No. 26 overall in 2021 and the fanbase couldn’t get enough talk about it because it’s not unrealistic to find a starting-caliber player there, which they did.

In the NBA, once you get beyond the lottery, it gets a lot tougher to find difference-makers.

Still, there are things both events can learn from each other. Here are a few:

1. The NFL has the timing right

Had the NBA Finals gone seven games, the draft would have taken place just four days after a champion was crowned. In 2016, after the Cavs won a dramatic Game 7 over the Warriors, Philadelphia picked Ben Simmons No. 1 before J.R. Smith could find his shirt.

The NFL benefits from a shorter postseason while the NBA grinds through three months of best-of-seven series, but the NBA Draft generally has too little room to breathe while the postseason is happening, even as teams get eliminated.

The nearly two months between the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft, even with free agency in the middle, heightens the drama.

The NBA should create some more dead space with draft events to get fans engaged with the process. Which brings us to ...

2. The NBA should do free agency first

July 1 is the NBA’s biggest day, when free agents begin the process of picking their teams and the Woj-bombs start flying. It’s maybe the most fun week or two to follow the league.

There’s also a ton of lead-up to the start of free agency, building intrigue about what could happen. Unfortunately, like The Finals, this can overshadow the draft. The big story on Thursday night, for example, wasn’t who would go No. 1 or where Chet Holmgren would land. It was the discord growing on the Nets.

Let July 1 happen and then do the draft closer to the end of the month.

3. Create draft events

One issue with the above suggestion: What about summer league?

What about it? It’s a great opportunity to get players some coaching and get to know them, but is a player playing for a specific team’s summer league group all that vital to longterm development?

Let’s get creative and use summer league in a different way. Make it a draft event, like the Senior Bowl is in the NFL. Draft prospects could play on teams coached by NBA staffs — maybe, like the Senior Bowl, staffs who finish low in the standings, and it would create an event where fans could see prospects play in NBA-style games. Maybe some of the top prospects would skip, but many with less-certain positions would welcome the chance to compete and getting eyeballs on players who aren’t top prospects would only help the overall draft-night product.

The NFL combine is one of the league’s marquee events on the calendar. While the NBA’s version is different and doesn’t always include the top players, it should still be more than just a blip on the radar. Make it matter.

The NFL is putting pro days on its network in March and April. Certainly the NBA could use some extra time in July to create made-for-TV draft events to build up interest in the prospects whose names are being called.

4. Give us access

Teams in the NBA could do a better job of taking fans behind the scenes. NFL teams have done great work with showing the process without giving too much away. We see the war room when the picks get made and the draft falls the right way. We see the phone calls to prospects. Access is king.

The league itself, for its part, should be pushing players on us at every turn. Let’s follow Chet Holmgren’s draft process or Paolo Banchero’s climb to No. 1.

Victor Wembanyama is expected to be the No. 1 pick next year and might already have teams planning on how to get him. His overseas contests should be on NBA Network, for starters, and by the time the No. 1 team goes on the clock, Wembanyama should already be a star.

It’s not all the NBA making changes. Here are some NFL lessons.

1. Speed things up

Three days for the draft is way too long, but that’s not likely changing anytime soon. There’s no reason, however, the NFL can’t tighten the pick window in the first round.

Ten minutes offers drama and time to both recap a pick and look forward, but so would seven minutes. The NBA might be a little too quick for a TV event, but the NFL is too slow.

2. Do a lottery

This has a little bit to do with staying ahead of tanking, but it has even more to do with another night of entertainment. Fans watch the NBA lottery. It’s the type of made-for-TV event the league doesn’t do enough of and one thing they have the NFL should covet.

Could you imagine what an NFL draft lottery might look like when Arch Manning is entering the league?

My dream scenario will always be doing the lottery in real-time during the draft, so you don’t even know you’re on the clock until your card gets opened, but a draft lottery among non-playoff teams at the combine or during Super Bowl week would be an absolute home run.

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