Hawks draftee Alpha Kaba embracing Mr. Irrelevant tag, NBA opportunity

The plane landed around 4 a.m. local time in Belgrade, Serbia. Alpha Kaba was experiencing an adrenaline rush.

After spending nearly two weeks in the United States working out for seven teams, the French product and 6-foot-10 Adriatic League standout was eagerly checking his phone as the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft started. Kaba, admittedly stressed, had been monitoring the event throughout the nine-hour flight. He and his Mega Leks teammates were still available.

“We just take our baggage, take a taxi, go home straight to see the end of the draft,” Kaba said. “I see my man getting drafted at (pick No.) 49, Vlatko Cancar. My man Ognjen Jaramaz (at) 58 with the Knicks. I was so happy and just called him (to say), ‘What’s up.’”

Reality set in: There are only 60 total selections in the draft.

“And then I realized I wasn’t drafted yet, you know? I realized I wasn’t drafted yet so I was pretty scared,” Kaba continued. I just like saw 59, still not drafted. And then I see 60 and I can’t explain the feeling I had.”

Atlanta’s new-look front office, helmed by former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk, made Kaba the 2017 version of the NBA’s Mr. Irrelevant. The 21-year-old wears the distinction with joyful pride, aiming to join a list of productive 60th overall picks from Michael Cooper to Drazen Petrovic to current Celtics star Isaiah Thomas.

Kaba’s phone bill can attest to his enthusiasm. When news of the Hawks’ pick reached his TV set, he dialed his family, his best friend, his agent — practically everyone of note: “To share with them, that was like the craziest moment in my life. I think I didn’t sleep all day. That was really a special moment for me.”

Neighbors in his Belgrade apartment complex can also vouch for the big man’s excitement.

“I think I even woke up my neighbors because I was screaming in my apartment,” Kaba continued, “so I think like all the building was awake because of me.”

The Hawks introduced Kaba alongside earlier picks John Collins and Tyler Dorsey on Monday morning, but while the American college standouts should follow fairly clear-cut paths to the world’s top league — with the occasional rookie rite of passage through the rebranded G League — Kaba’s immediate future is up in the air. The current plan is to play in Summer League with his fellow draftees, undrafted free agents and additional Hawks developmental projects before reevaluating his status with his agent and the coaches. In other words, his time in Las Vegas will give him a better sense of where he stacks up against NBA-caliber competition. There’s a good chance he could return to play in Serbia next season, following the draft-and-stash model.

Still, Atlanta’s front office sees upside in a forward/center who put up 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds in a competitive league before his 22nd birthday.

“His length with a 7-5 wingspan, his ability to rebound, his ability to run,” Schlenk said when asked about Kaba’s strengths. “He’s got a really nice touch on his jump shot that we feel like we can develop.”

The ocean-hopping draft night was a step forward for Kaba, who worked out for teams but withdrew his name from previous drafts. Following years of watching recorded NBA games and highlights the next morning in France and Serbia, Kaba is inching closer to a destination he’s eyed since watching his uncle play pro ball.

“Some people might say the 60th pick isn’t something special,” Kaba said. “But yes, it is something special because you are in the 60 players who have the opportunity to be drafted and have the opportunities to play in the Summer League and everything, to show up.

“It’s really really the best thing I could have asked for.”