Too often lost in the smoothed over TV coverage and manicured process of the NBA Draft are the stories of the players themselves, each trying to reach the pinnacle of the sport they live and breathe every day of their lives. DraftExpress writer J.L. Weill takes a look at four of those stories.
At 6'10" and 240 pounds, Fran Vasquez does not exactly cut a wide figure. But that didn't stop the Magic from making the 22-year old from Carballedo Lugo the 11th overall pick and the first player with no American hoops experience chosen.
Despite a final weekend before the draft workout which was nearly unanimously described as "unimpressive," Vasquez's prior work -- a strong showing for one of Europe's most talented clubs -- and a vast potential clearly were too much for the Magic to overlook.
All weekend Vasquez was a treat for reporters, gamely flashing thumbs up signs and generally reveling in the attention he was getting. Sitting in the Green Room on Tuesday, he frequently chatted with Spanish fans and friends and was hounded for three days by a posse of Spanish media folks, all to his delight.
And when he was finally chosen, he beamed, striding across the stage to shake hands with the NBA's little Godfather, David Stern, seeing his professional goals finally come to fruition.
Whether the big kid is the next Pau Gasol or the next Nikoloz Tskitisvili remains to be seen. Regardless, for one night, the world -- an American one, full of champagne, hip hop, hoop dreams and larger than life SUVs -- belonged to a skinny Spaniard who was loving every minute of it.
The crowd mumbled as the name emerged from the commissioner's lips, "David Lee."
And just like that, a ballroom full of Knicks fans ready to erupt, most standing on their feet in anticipation of the final pick of the first round -- the last guaranteed money available -- were silenced by their favorite team's choice.
Not a big man with raw potential, not a college shooter with All-American credentials, not a McDonald's All-American jumping to the league. David Lee.
But wait, let it sink in and it begins to make more sense. Athletic frontcourt player, solid rebounder, good wingspan, pro-style college offense, good pedigree, intense competitor and hard worker. It's this last trait that seems most likely to stick in the mind of the GM.
The kid worked out for 16 teams, never taking time off, even when he was icing his knees between workouts. Though he never played in the Final Four -- not even the Sweet 16 -- he improved every year, working first on his stamina, then on his rebounding and now on his shooting.
Maybe the Knicks fans will change their tune once they see him in action. Maybe they won't. Still, the deflated scene is remarkable. Perhaps only by uttering the name "Frederick Weis" could Stern have elicited more groans and emptied the crowded room faster.
But somewhere, in the middle of the country, surrounded by his friends and family, a curly-headed Lee didn't care about any of that. Among those who have watched his every game, who traveled the country as his support, Lee was probably on the verge of tears at the center of hugs and cheers, because the hard work -- the hours in the weight room, the times he didn't leave the gym until he hit one more jumper -- has finally paid off.
His NBA fantasy has become a reality.
Before the draft, he was sitting with his agent and family in the stands just a few rows up from the Green Room. Names began to get called. The Green Room emptied with Hakim Warrick getting chosen at No. 19. The first round was unlikely, but there were 30 more picks to go, and he was here, among the rest of the best, as select players thought to be in the mix for late first and second-round selections had traveled to New York to be in the stands just in case.
Julius Hodge went, then Jarrett Jack. Then a run on international stars: Croatian guard Roko Ukic at 41, Lithuanian Martynas Andriuskevicius at 44. Both sat in front of him. But then France's Mickael Gelabale and his family erupted as they got word he would be drafted at 48. The trouble? The mop-haired Frenchman was sitting several rows behind Angelo Gigli.
By the time Uros Slokar was taken by Toronto at 58, Gigli was alone among draft possibles in the stands. And when teams picked Cenk Akyol and Ersan Ilyasova, they weren't even here.
The Italian center wore on his face a look of utter disbelief. His agent fumbled with a palm pilot, writing who knows what note to God knows whom. The family sitting with Gigli looked to have aged years in the course of a single night. With spotlights beaming down and a roving camera emerging every few minutes to catalogue another family's bliss, Gigli had to sit there and wait.
And then it was over. The 12-year old autograph hounds had left, and the TV cameras packed up, but Gigli was still there, dressed to the nines, unsure of what more he could have done.
Gigli, a 6'10" stringbean who, at age 22, has improved tremendously since being tabbed as maybe a nice player for the Italian league a few years back, will no doubt head back to Europe, his NBA dream fading into a bitter memory of a humid day in New York.
Lost amidst all the fanfare, the floodlights and the glare, are stories of lost opportunities. These are familiar stories to followers of the draft, played out every year to differing degrees.
But don't be fooled into thinking this is the story being screeched by chattering sportscasters or disembodied heads via satellite telling you about the slow demise of "the college game," as if such an entity is above the dirty laundry of money and blind ambition.
And don't think that this story is like the crushed dream of the undrafted high school star turning pro because he can't make the minimum score on his SATs for college, lamentable as that might be.
Rather, it's something in-between, something less easily explainable to the predominately white, middle-class fanatics of college programs. It's a story of perceived betrayal and wasted glory.
The protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your point of view) of this tale is a good kid, by all accounts, a quiet giant with a strong GPA and an even stronger bond with his family. See, this kid's got talent -- untapped, perhaps -- and size to boot. But there's something missing, a trait nearly impossible to measure, and yet it is this trait that is the only thing that matters in the end.
Name after name was called from the podium in New York, 60 of them in fact, but his was not. And however disappointed David Lee might have been with the silence his named elicited among Knicks fans, or high school phenom Louis Williams might have been to fall into the second round, it must pale in comparison to the sheer disbelief that Kentucky freshman Randolph Morris had to feel as the hours, and the remaining spots in the draft, trickled away.
Morris spent several years playing AAU basketball with two of the NBA's best young players. The Atlanta Celtics were national AAU champions behind Morris, Josh Smith (Hawks) and Dwight Howard (Magic). But while the latter two went straight to the pros, Morris felt he needed work on his game and his life before making the jump. So he cast his lot with the tradition-rich University of Kentucky, starting all but one game in his freshman season.
But while his prep buddies leapt to the top of the rookie heap -- Smith winning the slam dunk crown at the All-Star Game and Howard vying for the Rookie of the Year Award -- Morris struggled with foul trouble. Despite flashes of brilliance, a few 20-point games and an improving focus, Morris never seemed to show 'it.' And when the season ended in a double-OT loss to Michigan State, it seemed to most that Morris would return for another year to discover 'it,' and then join his friends as a pro player.
Surprise. A fax to the athletic department, some disinformation from the family and then it was decided. But the drive, the passion, that first-round pick Lee showed in every one of his double-digit workouts was still missing in the young Morris. NBA scouts dropped him off their radar. A poor workout in Chicago and no appearance in the pre-draft camp hurt him even more.
It remains to be seen as of this writing if Morris will be eligible (or willing) to take advantage of a loophole in the NCAA's rules allowing him to return to Kentucky if he did not sign an agent. But, regardless, the sheen is off of the young center. If he returns, the stigma of his experience will be his burden to carry, both to UK fans and to pro scouts. If he heads to Europe or developmental leagues or pursues free agency, he'll be fighting an uphill battle.
While there is much glory -- as much pomp in this rite of athletic passage as a college graduation and twice the media scrutiny -- there is, too, a hard truth to Draft Night, one that only a few players truly know, and which they carry with them forever.