Older players face uncertainty in NBA Draft

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s an announcement and a joke all at once, a resigned acceptance and a defiant proclamation.

Draymond Green can make two syllables of nothing seem so substantial.

“Zee-Row.”

Those are Green’s expectations on draft night. Zero. Nothing. Nil. Surprise him. He’s ready.

It’s not that the Michigan State forward isn’t confident. He is. And talented. And personable, too. Barring some major screw-up, he’ll be drafted, perhaps even in the first round. Yet, he has no expectations, no hopes for what’s to come June 28.

Draymond Green isn’t crazy. He’s just realistic.

Green, 22, is one of the oldest players in this year’s NBA Draft. He played four years at Michigan State, making him one of about 20 seniors who are likely to be drafted this year. To be a senior in the draft is to be forced there — you cannot play any longer in college, and this is the natural next step.

For younger players who declare early, it’s a different reality. They’re told where they’re projected to be picked, and they leave school only if that projection seems worth it. That usually means a higher slot, perhaps even a place in the lottery.

Younger players go by choice. They have some measure of control over their fate. They hold the potential of untapped skill and rampant improvement. Seniors? They’re talented, and some might be top picks. But for the majority, there can be a sense of helplessness. Resumes speak for themselves, and for whatever reason, theirs didn’t warrant leaving early. Their futures are more vague.

But unlike many of the 18-year-olds, players like Green and Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor, who were both present at the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Tuesday workouts, have the maturity to deal with the uncertainty.

The 2012 NBA Draft will likely be the youngest in recent years. Right now, there are 18 players projected as likely first-round picks who are 20 years old or younger. In 2011, 16 first-round picks were 20 or younger. In 2010, that number was significantly lower, at 10. And in 2009, only 11 of the first-round picks were under 21. These are freshmen and sophomores, teenagers of the one-and-done era. And for every spot they take, an upperclassman might be pushed further back into the recesses of the draft.

Might be. Might is the key word, the lynchpin to all of this. Do a quick Google search for past mock drafts, and what you’ll find is a treasure trove of errors. It’s no one’s fault. Mock drafts are titled as such for a reason. They’re guesses, subjective, with so many factors influencing each hypothesis. One team deviates, and the order of the whole thing can fall like dominoes. That’s why players like Green feel the way they do, why they show up at draft workouts for teams like the Timberwolves that seem so ill-positioned to take them.

Green is likely an early second-round pick. So is Drew Gordon, who was also present in Minneapolis on Tuesday after working out there on May 31 as well. The Timberwolves will pick 18th and 58th (barring any trades), long before and then long after Green’s and Gordon’s names should be called. As of now, according to a few predictions, absent the input of GMs.

It’s all hinging on Anthony Davis going first and Thomas Robinson third. One false move, one deviation from what everyone’s been told is true, and suddenly the Timberwolves could be calling Green’s name at 18 — or 58, for that matter.

It’s fun to tinker with all the possibilities, but when you’re living that uncertainty, it has to be tough. When you’re spending a few hours nearly every day on an airplane and you sometimes forget what city you’re in, it’s brutal. That’s why when Green chimes his “zee-row,” you want to hug him. You want to pat him on the back and congratulate him for understanding, because he really does seem to get it — a wise old man among unibrowed and tattooed teenagers.

“You just don’t know,” Green said of the draft. “You just got to keep on taking the process in and enjoying it. You can’t worry about what’s going to happen on draft night because at the end of the day, it’s out of your hands, out of our control. You just go hard in your workouts, and everything will take care of itself.”

Green said he’d never knock a player for leaving school after a year. He acknowledges those players’ talent. He’s seen it on the court before. But he knows that whatever advantages in terms of skill and youth the one-and-dones might hold, he can match them with his maturity. He spent four years in college, not only playing, but also watching, learning, listening. That will help, but Green has no illusions it will set him ahead of the freshmen and sophomores.

No matter what age, all 60 players picked that Thursday night will be a rookie next season. Some will be rookies in the NBA, some in the D-League. Some will succeed; others will fade into names we barely recognize in two years. And despite how many workouts and meetings go into each year’s draft, so little of that success is contingent upon draft order.

Anyone who looks at a past draft can see that. An astute senior prospect should know that. It should be the thing he thinks about to quiet his mind and fall asleep each night. Though many younger players trade in the currency of what can be, older prospects can offer only what they are. Green has four years of statistics in the books, an identity that teams evaluate. He’ll be selected for who he is, not who he can be.

“I’m not going to come in and show them something just so they can draft me, because then I’ll be screwed when I get here,” Green said. “I’m just going to be myself in every workout, and talking is what I do.”

And Green was himself on Tuesday. He was vocal, shouting directions and commanding the court. That’s the player he was at Michigan State, the player he’ll be in the NBA if this all works out like he hopes it will. Green is a shouter, a leader. He has a story independent of this draft and the teams who are watching him.

Anthony Davis does not. The draft has dictated the narrative of Anthony Davis for months. He’s the No. 1 pick more than he’s a Kentucky Wildcat. If he meets the potential the world sees in him, then yes, he’ll ascend to another plane from Green. But he’s a teenager still, on his way to becoming the man the world envisions him to be. Green, Taylor, Gordon — they’re already those men, or much closer to them.

Davis’ future is proscribed. He’ll go first overall, second if something monumental happens in the next two weeks. The differences in his fate are infinitesimal. That’s not the case with the Greens and Taylors of the draft — far from it. They can see themselves contributing in the NBA as easily as they can see themselves fighting for a spot in Europe.

That’s the reality of it all, as harsh as it might be. Green has accepted it, embraced it even. He’s put on his blinders, focused only on workout after workout, controlling what he can until the night when he can control nothing.

Green’s talent will garner attention, his dedication will bring more phone calls and meetings. His athleticism will be crucial. His past will speak volumes.

His maturity and acceptance will keep him sane.

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