There’s a cruel irony to the NBA draft. As we watch a given year’s top prospects take the stage to shake some commissioner’s hands, we get smacked dab in the face with the fascinatingly unknown future in all its tantalizing glory. Reality detaches, as images of Andrew Wiggins raising the Larry O’Brien trophy, Jabari Parker dropping 50 on some pour group of souls some Tuesday night, and Zach LaVine airballing a step back 30 footer over a defender flood our willing and wanting imaginations. 60 basketball players are picked, all of whom offer an endless road of possibilities.
And then, like a wet blanket thrown over a fire, the prospects disappear and the NBA offseason follows. All possibilities are halted in the name of trade exceptions and airplane stakeouts. The sheer insanity of free agency can be fascinating in its own right, but as it envelops the entire NBA world, it leaves the draft as a major tease. We want to see the rookies and we want them now.
Summer league is supposed to offer a release valve to that pressure, giving us a first taste of the incoming class. But the valve is creaky and rusted. The scattered gameplay, rudderless and stacked with competition on the wrong side of the fringes, can often mask an enticing prospect under a shroud of mindless boredom. It’s hard to dream when your mind is clouded.
This year’s LVSL has so far been, as expected, high on choppy play and missed jump shots. And yet, somehow, magnificently, the rookies have shined. Perhaps it’s because the top of this year’s class is blessed with fluid, intuitive basketball. Wiggins, Dante Exum, Noah Vonleh, Brian Caboclo and nominal 2014 classmate Nerlens Noel all have the kind of athleticism that makes their games look effortless, as if splitting a team of defenders or filling the lane on the break was as simple as rolling downstream. Parker, Rodney Hood and Doug McDermott look like they can shoot in their sleep. Even Gary Harris had that one 30 point game. There are still discombobulated rookie glances at a rotation that was supposed to be but wasn’t, but there is very little laboring.
That’s not to absolve this class from flaws, or to insinuate that there will not be road blocks ahead. There will be. Inconsistency and growing pains are but natural aspects of progression, and that’s for those who will make it, of which there is no guarantee. Bruno Caboclo had a strong debut, but struggled in later games, frustrated and upset after a technical was called against him on Monday. Parker has forced the issue at times; Wiggins, as advertised, was sometimes passive. Rodney Hood looked like he didn’t understand the basic objective of shooting in one game and redefined it the next.
But compared to last year, when an underwhelming class was further sabotaged by their own lower extremities, these new rooks radiate comfort on a basketball court. Translating that onto an actual, honest-to-goodness NBA court is the process that truly interests us, and it may be a troublesome one for many of them. But for the time being, they are washing away some of the dull, dry heat of Las Vegas in July.