Watching from afar: After consensus top 3, surprises abound in NBA Draft

I used to attend the NBA Draft every year. Last summer, I again made the trip back to the east coast and joined my high school friends at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to take in the spectacle. It’s always a fun night and the 2014 draft had been anticipated for some time, expected to be the best crop of rookies since the 2003 class of LeBron, Wade, Carmelo and Bosh.

My friends and I are all Knicks fans, so the draft hasn’t really been memorable for its positive impact on our team. The Knicks have either botched or traded away just about all their first-round picks from recent and not-so-recent memory. The crowd gets extremely loud when New York is on the clock and then boos wildly at an unpopular selection or cheers irrationally for a player we may like, but we know deep down isn’t going to lead us to the promised land.

Memorable moments from draft nights tend to be anecdotes that have nothing to do with Knicks selections, like high-fiving 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley as he randomly walked through the stands or asking St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli where he thought Jameer Nelson would be picked as we wandered the halls of Madison Square Garden. Late in the second round, when most folks have cleared out of the building and you can hear everything, a friend of mine decided to catch ESPN’s broadcast crew’s attention by screaming out “Mike Tirico, take off your clothes!”

Tirico just shook his head, remaining fully clothed.

While leaving last year’s draft, we saw former Knicks coach and general manager Isiah Thomas talking to a reporter in the next room. That was surreal. Thomas is basically the least popular person ever associated with the Knicks. To see him in that building on a night when New York – again – had no first-round pick was like walking into a meeting for a bank loan and seeing the guy who stole your identity and decimated your credit score.

But while I didn’t get to attend this year’s draft, it was the Knicks that set off the chain reaction of unexpectedness that continued for much of the first round. I wasn’t in the building to hear the boos when New York selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick, but they were apparently audible throughout all five boroughs.

Now, Knicks fans aren’t always the best judge of talent. We may have been irrevocably scarred from selecting Frederic Weis in the 1999 draft instead of Queens native and St. John’s hero Ron Artest. Weis never played a single minute in the NBA and is known only for becoming intimately familiar with Vince Carter during the most famous Olympics slam dunk of all time.

We were uncontrollably giddy when the team got John Wallace, Walter McCarty and Dontae Jones in the 1996 draft, as well as Michael Sweetney, Maciej Lampe and Slavko Vranes in 2003. A whole lot of nothing came from all those selections.

So Porzingis could prove to be an amazing selection and a cornerstone of a successful Knicks rebuilding effort. (This was my 11:11 wish for the day.) But after New York took the 19-year-old Latvian, lots of proven talent started slipping through the lottery. Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who was projected as high as third overall, was passed over by New York, Orlando and shockingly Sacramento, who went with big man Willie Cauley-Stein. Could the Cauley-Stein pick be a signal that the Kings really may deal DeMarcus Cousins? Yes, if they’re dumb – which we can’t yet rule out.

Duke’s Justise Winslow, who has received the “Baby James Harden” moniker, fell all the way to number 10, where the Miami Heat happily scooped him up. I truly believe Winslow will be a star in this league and, just like Paul Pierce, we’ll someday wonder how he dropped past nine NBA teams.

Michael Jordan continued to prove how much he loves NCAA Tournament stars as he selected Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky with the ninth pick. Since taking over the Bobcats/Hornets/Disappointing Charlotte Professional Basketball Team, Jordan has been keen on March Madness darlings, having already taken Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. I love Kaminsky and I think he’ll have a nice NBA career, but never did I imagine he could go higher than Winslow.

And to the Laker fans, you got a great player in D’Angelo Russell. It was a bit of a stunner for Russell to go ahead of Duke big man Jahlil Okafor, but L.A. obviously sees Russell as their next backcourt star.

We’ll see if his development is stunted beneath the weight of Kobe Bryant’s ego, but if not, slotting Russell next to last year’s top pick Julius Randle gives a lot hope for the future.

I may not have gotten to eat chicken fingers, boo the commissioner and argue with other fans in the cheap seats, but this was a fun draft that could become a memorable one – hopefully for good reasons.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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