Bro, do you even League Pass? If so, well, this news won’t be a shocking development, nor will it be for the draftniks of the world. But if you’re just tuning in to this NBA season, there’s a new crop of players demanding your attention. A couple weeks ago, this space was dedicated to late-blooming breakouts, and it’s time to complete that thought. Point being, the 2014 draft class has turned out very, very well, and not one, not two, but all three of its can’t-miss prospects are looking like, well, exactly that.
Their respective journeys and stocks have ebbed and flowed, but the early polls are in on Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid and the results are overwhelmingly positive. That draft was the first I covered for Sports Illustrated, and the annual intense overhype was in full force. But so far, these guys are more than living up to it, and beating the odds in the process.
The conversation surrounding this class in high school was always between Wiggins and Parker, the former of coming into the spotlight in full after the latter broke his foot in high school. Wiggins was the superior athlete and higher-ceiling prospect, Parker was innately skilled and possessed everything you could want in terms of makeup. Both had imperfect freshman years at Kansas and Duke, during which Embiid, Wiggins’ Jayhawks teammate, came into national prominence. Then Embiid hurt his back and broke his foot, Parker tore his ACL as a rookie, Embiid broke his foot again, and suddenly, the prognosis for the whole group was a little bleak. Wiggins stayed healthy, but the predictable obstacles of an NBA adjustment got in the way of a kid whose desire to be great has come under question from time to time.
So, the fact that we’re here now, where Embiid can set the Internet ablaze just by sneezing on the court, Parker dominates the baseline and corners like a young Paul Pierce, and Wiggins is actually growing into that “Maple Jordan” nickname that nobody talks about nearly enough, well, it’s time to treat these guys with the proper care and attention. None of them are on teams that are ready to win yet, and somewhat ironically, all still get overshadowed by teammates with even starrier-looking futures (though the Sixers are still waiting on Ben Simmons). But, eh, screw that.
Wiggins went for 47 points 10 days ago and is suddenly near the top of the league in three-point shooting (45.7%), an area that has never been his strong point. Spending a great deal of his summer building a diverse mid-post game has paid off immensely and he’s officially more than a slasher, averaging almost three post-ups per game and making two thirds of those attempts, according to NBA.com tracking data. He also gets to the line a ton. Watch a little bit.
He’s not even especially fluid or natural at this yet, and he’s only 21 years old. When the best athlete on the court evolves into one of the most skilled guys on it, great things tend to happen—just ask Blake Griffin. Andrew Wiggins has been rebuilt, and he’s in a situation where Karl-Anthony Towns can deftly handle the media spotlight and he can be one of the guys, which are conditions in which he’s thrived. Zach LaVine looks like he’s going to pan out. You know about the current Timberwolves zeitgeist. I have a buddy who decided a few years ago that his newborn son would be a Minnesota fan, and he’s feeling like the best dad in the world. It’s all well and good. Basically, the past few weeks have wiped out any past hesitance I had with Wiggins and then some.
Why skeptical? Well, I was a little bit stubborn and a little bit Chicago-biased two years ago, when I probably touted Parker over Wiggins louder than most found acceptable. The former has also come along about as well as anyone hoped, scoring the ball efficiently and beginning to add three-point range to what has always been a mechanically sound jumper (in 13 games, he’s made two more longballs than he did in two seasons). Parker’s been paired with the perfect complement in Giannis Antetokounmpo, both owning unique offensive skill sets that defy positions and making the Bucks eminently watchable every night.
(God, it’s a shame they’re killing Vine.)
The other exciting thing about Parker is his willingness to blend and thrive. I worried a bit about Giannis dominating the ball too much, but it hasn’t really mattered. Jabari has always been an unselfish player, and that’s been a blessing for the Bucks, who can continue to experiment with lineups. Now, I’ve theorized that it’s this very reputation that sometimes keeps Parker out of headlines. So, can we all please just take him off the list of players who “quietly” do things? There’s never been anything quiet about his skill set. I mean, he’s publicly taken stronger political stances than 99% of the league, and he’s literally a decade younger than LeBron. Take away Giannis (well actually, please, please, don’t) and the Jabari goggles would be real.
Anyway, the third wheel loudly rolling into the middle of this conversation is Embiid, who, is basically an entire year older than Parker and Wiggins and has made a truly peachy debut. He’s probably going to be on this minutes limit all season, and he’s probably still going to win Rookie of the Year. He’s huge, can play both sides, can shoot threes (!) and is a willing contributor to NBA internet culture, which has grown his star exponentially in one month and inserted him squarly into Sixers lore. The Doctor. The Answer. The Process.
It’s so, so tempting to get way ahead of ourselves when discussing Embiid, especially for Sixers fans who deserve and have fully embraced this sort of basketball talisman. He does have some truly insane per-minute numbers right now, but I tend to hate any emphasis on theoretical production, particularly when you’re looking at a kid who we should be happy can even play two minutes a night, given history. It suffices to say that heath-willing, Embiid is a star of some sort.
Man, you can’t go to the club in your own jersey unless you’re Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, or you’re a rookie carving up a guy in a one-on-one matchup who just cashed out after leading the league in blocks.
Well, JoJo is that man.
To finish with a little perspective, when was the last time the teams with the first three picks in a draft legitimately all struck gold? The 1996 draft turned out pretty well, but the best player that year was Kobe, who went 13th. Yes, 2003 was outstanding, but there’s a Darko Milicic sandwiched within a generation-shifting group of LeBron, Melo, Bosh and D-Wade. Have the first three picks in a draft ever actually turned out to be the three best players in that draft? Well, this is a start. Give thanks this week, and check back in 15 years.