Five seasons and 15 unhappy superstars demanding trades later, the 2015 draft class is entering its prime. Cody returns to the past to see what it can tell us about these players’ future.
I have been thinking a lot about potential lately. No, it’s not because I’m in my mid thirties and still struggling to confront my own idea of “success.” OK? It’s not about that. It’s not! Who keeps crying on my keyboard?
For athletes, potential is a chain linked to their livelihood. Potential is a construct. That construct can be constricting in most scenarios. This concept is never more visible than the NBA draft. Everything is about elusive future returns. Teams spend countless hours and funds trying to predict who will blossom into a transformational superstar. Or even just make the team. What happens when we are 5 years out from that vetting process? How does potential evolve or crumble?
I went back and watched the entire 2015 NBA Draft to take a look. Seriously, all four hours and I did so for three very clear reasons:
These players are reaching their athletic prime. I wanted to see how they were talked about when no one actually knew what they would become. I wanted to compare that to where they are now. This is getting to be make or break time for their potential.
I watched the telecast because I wanted to get a feel for the context around this draft rather than just look at the names on a list. How were they talked about in that most pivotal moment? How was basketball as a sport talked about in that moment? Would the men covering the draft, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Jalen Rose, and Rece Davis, have any truly outlandish takes?
Let’s go back to 2015. The draft started with a montage of some of the top picks doing some fake workouts in a gym intercut with Questlove playing the drums and narrating about hard work. I do believe this might have been inspired by Whiplash. The movie, not the Iron Man villain. Then, Adam Silver gave some context. The Golden State Warriors had just won the NBA title. They were a homegrown team, which was awesome for the press around the draft. And spelled some awkward moments when they signed the biggest free agent the next year. Still, in that moment, they had drafted the MVP, Steph Curry with the 7th pick in 2009, Klay Thompson with the 11th pick in 2011, and Draymond Green in the 35 slot in 2012. Their potential had been realized. You might even say that each one of those players far outshot their own perceived potential. But that is exactly the point. Perceived by whom? It’s all so relative. Then the draft kicked off.
Karl-Anthony Towns was the number one pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were the only team ever to have three consecutive number one picks on their roster. Towns joined Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. (The latter being an entire book about what potential means to different people). The draftheads all believed it was the right pick. The T’Wolves were following the Warriors blueprint of nurturing young talent. Towns was a can’t-miss prospect. Jalen compared him to Patrick Ewing. That was the part that really struck me. Towns’ defense was the highlight for most of these guys. They did explain that he was an incredible offensive player, but they liked his two-way ability a lot. That has not been what Towns’ pro career has proved. He should have been the number one pick, it’s true. All the numbers back it up. Crazily enough, he is the best three point shooter by percentage from his cohort. However, there remains a prevailing sentiment he has underachieved. At the time, every team in the league would have loved to have him. Now questions about his defense and his effort and his ability to win surround him. Still, the right pick. He just might not grow into the franchise superstar.
Following him was D’Angelo Russell to the Lakers, but he didn’t stay long. He is now on the Timberwolves with Towns and it’s already his fourth team in his young career. He was tagged as a passing “savant.” No mention of being a gunner who everyone can’t wait to be rid of.
The third pick was also the main reason I wanted to do this draft. Jahlil Okafor was taken by the 76ers. They already had Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel and yet they went with the center. Still, the consensus on the set was that it was a good pick because the 76ers were going with the “best player available” strategy. Okafor was seen as a great prospect with a dominant post game. Excellent footwork and smart passing make him a low post monster… The one problem with that was that the NBA was in the midst of transforming completely away from the post up game. The 2020 76ers led the league in post ups per game (Okafor is no longer on the team) with 11.5% of their offensive possessions. No one else was above 8%. In 2015-2016, 12 teams were over that 8%. Okafor would have fit perfectly in 1999. Towns has adapted to the modern game. Okafor has not. The scouting report was correct and none of that is his fault. What is tough for the 76ers, in my mind, is that they didn’t take the guy that went number four.
The Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis next. The fans in attendance at the Barclays Center HATED the pick. The draft hosts were unsure about it. The one person who was vindicated was Fran Fraschilla. He nailed the Porzingis scouting. If the 76ers had taken him, they probably still suck and still get Ben Simmons in 2016. They are then rolling with Embiid, Simmons, and Kristaps. I mean, that’s a huge line-up that can absolutely play together. Oh well.
I am not going to go through every pick. I thought this draft was going to be full of laughable choices and ridiculous takes in hindsight. I mean, it really wasn’t that bad. It ended up being fairly mundane. The main intrigue from the rest of the lottery selections was the fate of Justise Winslow. Every pick that came up, the talking heads felt like he should go. He is talented, he just hasn’t had much of an impact. Of course, he’s also constantly injured. The picks preceding him, 5 through 9, are barely clinging to roster spots.
The gem of the back half of the lottery was Devin Booker at 13. Booker is one guy—5 years into his career—that I could see continuing to develop and take another leap. He’s now paired up with Chris Paul as well as DeAndre Ayton on a team that could maybe, just maybe, make the playoffs. He’s always been a dynamic scorer. The question is whether he can expand his game. During the telecast, two separate people compared him to Klay Thompson. They raved about his defensive potential. He has not reached that potential.
The highest drafted player to already fall out of the league is Rashad Vaughn, taken by the Milwaukee Bucks at 17. Out of 60 selections, 29 are still on rosters. No one in the back half of the first round has really popped.
The second round did contain some real steals. Notable picks included Montrezl Harrell, Richaun Holmes, Josh Richardson, Pat Connaughton, and Norman Powell. Those are all contributors on playoff teams. If you swap Josh Richardson with Stanley Johnson, who was taken 8, we would see their careers very differently. The comments about Norman Powell were so wishy-washy, you would never know that he was going to score 16 points a game and be a key cog on a title team. This happens every year. Because the draft is apparently a crapshoot.
Speaking of a title team, Kelly Oubre had the quote of the broadcast. After being selected number 15, he was interviewed and said, “Whoever gets me is getting a jewel. We’re going to win a championship.”
Update: Kelly Oubre has not yet won a championship.
As for specific team selections, I was curious about the choices of the Boston Celtics. They had four picks. This was the start of their run of incredible draft capital. From 2015 through 2020, they made 22 draft selections! They nailed a couple of those, namely Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum… But is that it? Oof. The Celtics walked away from this draft with Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, Jordan Mickey, and Marcus Thornton. Yikes. I did enjoy the RJ Hunter highlight package. That dude could shoot the hell out of the ball.
The best name of the draft was Rakeem Christmas.
I had literally never heard of Joe Young. Turns out he was Pac 12 Player of the Year from Oregon, drafted by the Pacers, played 3 years. Nothing. Not a blip of recognition.
The most surprising moment of the night was when Steve Blake was traded. Not sure what that says about the draft…
My primary take away is that there is no surefire way to project who will succeed. Circumstance matters more than anything else. Where you get drafted is as important as what decade you get drafted in, I suppose. Teams will continue to take swings. When Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was drafted, one guy said, “the NBA guys want to love him because of how hard he works.” I’m not sure that’s the only reason you should draft someone, but we all have our process.
Potential is an elusive prize. It changes depending on the perspective of the beholder. Honestly, it is kind of remarkable that the best player in the draft, Karl-Anthony Towns, was actually taken with the first pick. You might be surprised how infrequently that happens. One of my goals was to determine whether this five-year window was long enough to determine whether there were still surprises to come. I have to say, I feel like we have a handle on most of these players. I could be just as wrong as the scout who told Orlando to take Mario Hezonja at 5. Ouch.
I want to end with a point that Jalen Rose said on the broadcast. He asked that we retire the term “bust.” These young men are not busts. Just over 4,000 people have done what they have done, just by making it to the NBA. The yoke of potential weighing on their shoulders is not their fault.” Still, Hezonja at 5??