A few weeks back, NBA TV ran footage of the entire first round of the 1990 Draft. The whole thing was frighteningly vintage, with 16-bit neon graphics, flat-billed tuques and renegade follicles flying around in a shameless, nostalgic blur. It was incredible. It was also a weird time for the NBA. The basketball world was still recovering from the tragic death of Hank Gathers. Derek Coleman was five solid years away from squandering his enormous talent. Rick Barry was, incredibly, still allowed in the broadcast booth — despite a rather remarkable racial twofer in the years previous (referring to Bill Russell’s smile as a “watermelon-eating grin” and christening a 1988 Slam Dunk Contest throw-down by Michael Jordan as the “Chinese Superman” – you know, because it “had a slant to it”). Oh, and Craig Sager wore matching black pants and a jacket. I know.
Up to that point, only four players had made the leap from high school to the Association. Of the 27 first round picks in the 1990 Draft, 25 were college seniors. (This year? Seven seniors, eight juniors, four sophomores, six freshmen, and five international players made up the first round roster.) It was also the last time the Knicks found themselves selecting at #17. Their pick? Kentucky’s Jerrod Mustaf. Yep, that Jerrod Mustaf.
Flash forward one score and a year. Given the tenuous nature of the NBA’s current labor non-agreement, many would-be lottery picks – Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, and Harrison Barnes being the most high-profile examples – opted to wait out the storm and suit up another year at their respective schools. Even before Thursday night, there were only a handful of “sure things” (Kyrie Irving, Enes Kanter, Derek Williams, and David Kahn doing something silly) – a term which pertained more to which players would end up going in the top five than it did any confidence that this year’s crop would yield any future perennial All-Stars. As such, non-lottery teams found themselves staring up a wholly unsteady ladder, unsure as to which players – if any – would crash through the overhead rungs and into their laps.
In the weeks and months leading up to the actual Draft, theories as to who the Knicks would target with the 17th pick pretty much ran the gamut. Depending on your preference and perspective, all of them made sense: immediate impact players like Kenneth Faried, Chris Singleton, Nikola Vucevic, and Markief Morris filled pressing and obvious needs (defense, defense, rebounding, Russians, tattoos, and defense); while classic Bilasian “high athleticwingspanupsideability” guys like Bismack Biyombo, Josh Selby, Iman Shumpert, and Donatas Montiejunas allured as both possible phenom and potential trade chip. By last Monday, there even arose rumors that the Bockers were looking to trade up ahead of Golden State at #11, in a targeted effort to land BYU scoring monster and defensive [whatever the opposite of monster is] Jimmer Fredette. We’ll let you guess which of the three was the most terrifying prospect for Knick fans.
By Thursday morning, New York had kept with recent tradition in holding a series of last minute workouts (a select few, including Selby, Vucevic, Brooks, Darrius Morris and Jeremy Tyler, were making their second Manhattan go-around). All the while, the specter of Donnie Walsh’s final “big decisions” as General Manager loomed over Knick Nation as a kind of parting gift; however history would view his New York rescue mission – a mixed but worthy bag, by most accounts – he wasn’t going to botch this one. This time around, there would be no Jerrod Mustaf.
* * * * * * * *
Even though I’ve lived on the East Coast for going on a decade, and even though I’d visited The City many a time, I’d been to (i.e. through) New Jersey but thrice; once to see .moe on New Year’s Eve in Asbury Park (the ticket was free, alright?), and the other two for a combined 120 minutes while driving from somewhere else entirely to somewhere else entirely. My knowledge of Newark, meanwhile, literally went no further than a) John Goodman was really pissed off when Jacob Rupert offered him the Bears Manager job in Babe; and b) Cory Booker is the mayor. I knew I was staying at the Holiday Inn near the airport. And I knew I had credentials to cover the Draft. Everything else, as they say, was just progress. Whatever that means.
I made sure to be a few hours early, if for no other reason than to be sure I didn’t miss anything. After walking through the wrong media door (great start), I grabbed my credentials and made my way to the main floor. Being my first Draft, I had nothing with which to compare the layout of The Prudential Center (from here on forward, “The Prude”). But everyone I talked to who’d been covering the thing for years seemed to agree that the setup was outstanding from top to bottom. As for the wisdom of holding the Draft in a city that by this time next year will no longer have an NBA franchise, that one’s lost on me.
Instead of sitting down, relaxing, and eating the free buffet dinner like a normal human being, I spent about an hour frantically looking for the elusive media seating chart, which exactly zero of the 30 or 35 people I asked recalled having seen. I finally tracked it down, realizing I’d walked past it at least a dozen times. I found out that the TrueHoop Network had its own row of seats no more than 60 feet from the stage. As I again approached the floor, I noticed Jeff Van Gundy sitting by himself about four rows up in an empty fan section. “This is it,” I thought. “What better interview with which to gain a little pre-Draft perspective than our old friend JVG?” I went for it, making a beeline with my decade-old digital voice recorder in hand and completely empty. It was all Jeff’s. He could’ve whistled the Smurfs theme song, grabbed the recorder, and eaten it, and I wouldn’t have cared. Hell, I would’ve been honored. I was closing in, about forty feet away, when… his cell blew up. I think he must have seen me coming, because he answered it more quickly than I’ve ever seen a human being answer a phone. Alas, it was not to be.
By the time I got myself situated, around 6:30, strange things were already afoot. Milwaukee, Sacramento and Charlotte had hours before consummated a truly orgiastic deal that would see the Bobcats send Stephen Jackson to the Bucks, and Charlotte move up to get their second top 10 pick (along with the ninth) at #7. Meanwhile, the Kings sent Beno Udrih to the Bucks (who gave them John Salmons in return), and moved down three spots to #10, where they eventually nabbed Jimmer Fredette. The Bucks then slid from #10 to #19, where they eventually grabbed Tennessee’s Tobias Harris. Got all that?
And then a whole bunch of other crazy stuff happened. Andre Miller went to Denver, former Knick Ray Felton found a new home in Portland, Rudy Fernandez got shipped to Dallas…. You should probably just read this recap. The important thing is that, by the time the clock struck seven and the ESPN theme sounded, DraftExpress and Chad Ford had the Bockers taking Iman Shumpert and Chris Singleton, respectively. “Cool!” I thought. “I really hope it’s that Singleton guy!”
The Draft started off as expected, with David Stern stepping in and out of frigid boo showers, and Kyrie Irving and Derek Williams going one-two. The first real shocker came when Cleveland tapped Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick, which got us thinking we could be in store for one of the wilder Draft night rides in recent memory. Unfortunately, the rest of the round followed a fairly conventional script, with only a few big names (Kawhi Leonard, the Morris twins, Josh Selby) falling further than expected. Still, with each Stern podium waddle, the Knicks found themselves looking at a pretty juicy menu of options. With Philadelphia on the clock at #16, the short list was basically down to three: Nikola Vucevic, Chris Singleton, and Iman Shumpert. The Sixers went with the 6’10” Vucevic, much to the chagrin of our friends over at PhilaDunkia. At that point, most — including many in the myriad Knick-heavy fan sections — assumed Singleton’s name would be called. It would be. Just not next.
The reaction to Shumpert’s selection inside The Prude was mixed. To put it mildly. Or very mildly. Or incorrectly. Amazingly, only Stern and digital LeBron bore a bigger brunt of the Knick faithful’s vocal venom than poor Iman. The other three TrueHoop bloggers stationed nearby couldn’t help but laugh, before genuinely trying to console me, as if my puppy had just been run over by a Hummer. Truth told, I would’ve preferred Singleton, or even Kenneth Faried. That said, I wasn’t mad, and I certainly didn’t think it was a bad decision. If anything, the few minutes I spent re-researching the uber-athletic Yellow Jacket – along with Donnie Walsh’s measured justification – convinced me the move was nothing more or less than a smart, safe pick in what many were calling the weakest Draft class in over a decade. Fine. We’ll go with it.
There was only one thing immediately wrong with Shumpert’s selection: he wasn’t even there. Not as in “not in the green room”. Like, not in the building. Or the state. There was no Stern handshake, no ESPN interview, no… whatever these are. Worse yet, there was no press conference, and thus no interview opportunities. Up to that point, the M.O. had been for Player X to a) walk on stage; b) do a two minute interview in front of one of the fan seating sections, roughly twenty feet from where we were stationed; and c) be followed by a dozen or so reporters, bloggers, and other media types back to the press conference area for an old fashioned Q & A. All of which is pretty hard to do when you don’t show up. Apparently, he spent the night with his friends and family. Understandable. But no less disappointing.
Throughout the night, NBA staffers would walk around and pass out one or two-page printouts from each of the picks’ media sessions. They were churning them out at an impressive clip, actually – no more than 20 minutes after the player’s name had been called, there they were. I figured that, at the very least, maybe Shumpert would provide a cursory phone interview that could then be transcribed and handed out. Nope — didn’t even get that. Thankfully, the past few days have yielded enough to prove Shumpert is nothing if not excited by the prospects of playing at The World’s Most Famous next… at some point.
After the Shumpert pick, the focus — and concern — immediately shifted to Donnie Walsh pulling a few final rabbits out of his hat in the form of second rounders. Finally, after numerous oft-mentioned targets had been plucked (Justin Harper, Reggie Jackson, Darrius Morris, etc.), James Dolan dusted off his money printer, and the Knicks snagged Kentucky center (and Patches O’Hoolihan protege) Josh Harrelson at #45 from New Orleans. In an already weak draft that was particularly lacking in high-upside bigs, Harrellson was probably the best the Knicks could do. Whether that translates into a serviceable rebounder and / or foul machine remains to be seen. We do know he can hurt people with basketballs. So there’s that.
Beyond the stats (which Mike K. outlined nicely on Draft night), here’s what we know regarding Shumpert: He fills a need – a few of them, actually. If there’s any position (other than at center) where we needed depth, it’s in the backcourt. Being a classic combo guard, the Knicks could very well play Shumpert and Billups alongside one another for extended stretches, allowing Chauncey to guard the less threatening of the opposing team’s backcourt tandem, while Shumpert concentrates his efforts on locking down the Rondos, Walls, Roses, Westbrooks, and – it’s at least half-expected – Irvings and Knights of the league. He still has a long way to go to become an efficient and reliable offensive option , but that’s the beauty of this pick: he doesn’t have to be. At least not right away. He just hast to not be Mardy Collins. Which shouldn’t be too difficult to pull off.
As for Jorts (Not making this up: he got the nickname after wearing tight jean shorts… on a Kentucky recruiting visit!), as long as he can grab a couple boards, collect some put-backs and foul effectively, he’ll probably be good for 5-10 minutes off the bench. Meanwhile, his reputation as a high-energy, vocally-involved guy, combined with a palpable refusal to back down from anyone — no matter how athletically superior — could quickly make him a Garden fan favorite. At the very least, it should make for some interesting practice sessions.
* * * * * * * *
Given how awesomely chaotic, unpredictable, and exhausting the entire night had been, stepping outside the Prudential Center to fetch a cab back to my hotel was pretty much the last thing I wanted to deal with. I didn’t even know if Newark had cabs (I told you, I know nothing about this city). Come to find out, Newark does indeed have cabs. Lots of them. Flagging one down with relative ease, I hopped in the back seat and told the driver my destination. Lap top satchel in tow and garbed to the nines, he picked up pretty quickly on the fact that I’d been at the Draft. Against my better judgment, I told him I was a Knick blogger. Oops.
The guy proceeded to launch fangs first into a 45-second tirade about how horrible the Knicks had f-ed up; about who was really calling the shots; about how the hell the Knicks could’ve passed on Singleton. I agreed at points. I listened politely. Mostly, I clenched the inside door handle, concerned that he might suddenly careen violently into a highway median. That’s how upset he was. Eventually I talked him down. I explained that the kid filled a glaring need, gave us more depth at two positions, and would more than likely end up being a decision viewed a year from now in a much more positive light. I don’t know if I convinced him.
It was around 12:30 when we pulled into the hotel entrance. I tipped the driver, reminding him once more to hang in there. Stepping through the revolving door, I made my second fastest beeline of the night to the bar, certain that — unlike my Van Gundy fail — I had this one in the bag. On this night, mere miles from the sleepless lights of the old island itself, only a Manhattan would do: Seagram’s, straight up, pinch of cherry juice. I approached the sparsely populated counter and politely made my order, only to be told that they were no longer serving. Disappointed but understanding, I thanked her anyway, and turned to leave. “Wait,” she said. “You know you can take a beer up to your room if you want.” I wanted. Cashed and tipped out, I walked to the elevator, jelly legged and brew in hand.
Riding up to the third floor, the metaphor was undeniable: Like my Knicks, I’d gotten to the bar too late to get what I wanted. With my options seriously limited, I made the best, safest choice I could make (This year’s Draft was this year’s Draft, and Holiday Inn bars are, unfortunately, Holiday Inn bars — there’s only so much you can control). I could’ve asked for a Guinness, or a Shock Top. But I went with Sam Adams. If I’d gone either of the other two routes, I probably could’ve come up with equally rational explanations as to why. Did I enjoy my Sam as much as I would have a Manhattan? No. Did I enjoy it more than I would have a Shock Top or Guinness? Hard to say. But I enjoyed it as much as I could. I appreciated it. I was thankful to have it. With each crisp, full-bodied sip, my mind again and again slid to a final, fair refrain — a libation’s one-line lullaby: “this beer is not Jerrod Mustaf.”