It Ain't Easy Being a Top Draft Pick

The signature event of the NBA off-season, the NBA Draft, has morphed into so much more than what you see on TV.

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Complex Original

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The NBA Draft ain’t like it used to be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s also not necessarily a good thing. It’s just the nature of the beast. 

The signature event of the NBA off-season, the draft is so much more than what you see on TV. And for the lucky teenagers and 20-somethings who were in the house at Brooklyn's Barclays Center Thursday for the extravaganza, it was much of a mental and emotional grind as it was a celebration and coronation. 

The draft wasn't always this mega media event. It used to be held in smaller venues that didn’t seat anywhere close to the thousands on hand in Brooklyn, the draft’s home for the past four years. ESPN had multiple tricked-out television sets and a million moving cameras that easily cost a semester at Duke. The massive stage you watch the draftees stride across is massive. In the bowels of Barclays, there’s the expansive interview room where each draftee gives his first official press conference as a pro before shuffling over to the Nets weight room, which was reconfigured by the NBA’s social media team. There, each pick ran through a veritable car wash of promotional setups, from GQ’s Instagram Video Portrait shoot to JBL’s Autograph Rookie Card Vine setup. 

None of that, of course, was around when Jay Williams (who this year was at Barclays working for ESPN) went No. 2 to the Bulls in 2002.  “It’s a little bit overwhelming now,” Williams told Complex. “Before it was a lot more manageable.”

The draftees probably envisioned the moment their name was called a million times leading up to Thursday, but there’s so much more to draft night than shaking the commissioner Adam Silver's hand. They can prep all they want for the biggest night of their life. But in today's draft, the wave of emotions often catches players by surprise.

You can talk about it, you can think you’re prepared for it by your agent, but nothing compares to actually walking up to that podium and now recognizing you’re a brand.

Everyone knew Ben Simmons was going to be taken first overall — even Simmons himself. But when Silver strode to the podium to officially kick things off, the young player was nervous. He admitted later on that his “legs were shaking when I was on stage.”

Roughly 15 minutes after being picked by the 76ers, shaking Silver’s hand and doing a few quick TV hits, Simmons was rushed to the interview room to face the media.

“It honestly feels like all this pressure just has hopped off me,” Simmons said. “Now I can relax.”

He wishes. At that point, you could say Simmons’ night—or more accurately a grueling 48-72 hours—was just getting started. Williams, speaking from experience, said these rookies had no idea what was about to hit them.

“As soon as you get drafted it becomes a whirlwind,” Williams said. “You get the hat, you leave your family, you shake David Stern’s hand—or Adam Silver now—you go in the back and you do a media blitz. You go through about 30-40 interviews. Then by the time you get out of here, man, you’re dead tired and then you go to a family event or party where you still have to entertain and play that game, too.”

Then it's wake up early and get your ass to the city that drafted you. In Simmons’ case, that’s Philadelphia, a quick jaunt south from NYC where the media was waiting for him Friday. He’ll answer the same questions he was just asked in New York and then do more photo shoots and tour the city and entertain more people and take care of more obligations.

And he thought school was a grind?

“It’s not until a day or two later that you realize, wow, I got drafted,” Williams said.

In a few years, they'll be lucky if they remember a thing. But if they ever need a reminder, they can just look down at their wrist. Tissot, the official timekeeper of the league, had a room to itself underneath Barclays where it gifted each first rounder a shiny new watch, individually engraved to mark the milestone. Roughly a half hour after No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram was selected by the Lakers, the freakishly tall and sinewy 18-year-old stoically observed his new (and certainly very expensive) accessory go through the engraving process right in front of him. He debated whether to wear his new one, rock two (because he already had a massive timepiece on his rail thin wrist), or bag it and hand it off to someone on his team. 

It’s all a little overwhelming for a teenager — even one who played his ball in the crucible of the Atlantic Coast Conference and was mentored by Jerry Stackhouse. Ingram didn’t have a deer in the headlights look on him like some of the other draft picks—especially the ones unfortunate enough to be stuck in the green room longer than expected—but you could tell he was processing a lot.

“You can talk about it, you can think you’re prepared for it by your agent, but nothing compares to actually walking up to that podium and now recognizing you’re a brand,” Williams said. “You’re a business, man. You’re a celebrity; you’re a star now. How are you going to handle it?”

Welcome to the NBA, kid, where it's supposed to be just about basketball.

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