There’s a reason drafts are becoming some of the most interactive programming in professional sports. The shows are not just about who the teams pick, they’re about uniting the fans and filling the faithful with hope so they will show up for games, buy merchandise, and Talk Talk Talk about “their” team. And this draft gave teams and fans plenty to talk – and argue – about.
The 76ers, coming off a string of disappointing years, drafted another big man in the hopes of shoring up their future by building through youth. Ben Simmons, from LSU by way of Australia, should provide a strong force under the hoops and an interested cog in a machine that’s not quite ready to challenge in the East, but getting better every year.
Simmons was far from the only foreign-born player selected this year. In fact, 14 foreign players were picked in the first two rounds of the draft, reflecting both stronger international development as well as strong scouting outside the U.S.
Way back in the 90s, when the U.S. sent the Dream Team to the Olympic Games, the result, was essentially a foregone conclusion. The USA would win gold. But the event was also a coming out party for American hoops, an introduction to a soccer-obsessed globe. After watching Magic, Bird, Mike, and the guys dominate, millions of new basketball fans were born. These fans grew up, and so did their kids. Now, two decades later, the fruit of that PR effort is ripe for the picking.
The Suns went international as well, grabbing power forward Dragan Bender, a 7-foot-tall Croatian, who spent time developing in the Israeli professional league, and the Pelicans picked Bahamian shooting guard Buddy Hield. Closer to home but still from across the border, Jamal Murray was picked up by the Nuggets after standout time at another college hoops powerhouse, Kentucky.
That’s not to say traditional American basketball programs didn’t have something to pound their chest about as well. The Lakers had the second pick in the draft – how long since that’s happened? – and they chose Duke’s Brandon Ingram. An excellent shooter and ball handler, Ingram also comes from one of the nation’s perennial top basketball programs. Ingram is very young, only 18, but the NBA may just be the most forgiving of the pro spots when it comes to helping younger players excel early in their careers.
Each of these players, as well as the others picked in the draft, are not only there to handle the ball and learn how to be pros. Even more important for them and their teams, these players need to learn how to Be Pros, how to exist as a marketing apparatus on an even larger machine full of other previously plugged in marketing brands. This reality is even more pronounced as the NBA became the first major US sport to allow brands to advertise on jerseys. So these newly drafted players are entering a new world. Until now, they simply represented themselves. Now they have the team and an affiliated brand, literally, on their backs.