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Annual amateur drafts are so deeply embedded in U.S. professional sports culture that we rarely stop to think about how dumb they are. Why are we still doing this?
Zion Williamson is the most coveted 18-year-old basketball player in the world, and for that, he must let the whims of the NBA Draft Lottery dictate where he lives? Top-flight athletes can choose the high-school program that’s right for them and then choose the college program that’s right for them, then they go pro and have practically no agency whatsoever. That seems stupid!
There’s talk that Williamson may not want to go to play for the Pelicans — who scored the No. 1 overall draft pick — and our Andrew Joseph looked at his other options, which include returning to Duke for a sophomore season. I don’t personally understand why anyone wouldn’t want to go to New Orleans, arguably the best city, but maybe Zion Williamson hates good funk and great food; that’s his prerogative.
This is a half-formed thought of a brain that did not get nearly enough sleep last night, but what if, rather than subjecting the top eligible young players to the NBA Draft every year, they instead just didn’t do that?
I’ve written about this scenario for baseball multiple times and at fairly great length. But where MLB would need some sort of bonus pool to govern how much teams could spend on would-be domestic amateur free agents — lest the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs snatch up every single good young player — it strikes me that NBA teams are already restricted by a salary cap. Hey, Knicks, you want Zion so bad? Great, you’ve got cap room, go make your case to him.
The NBA’s byzantine salary-cap structure and caveats complicate things, but it feels like eliminating the draft would immediately end tanking as a strategy. It might even inspire the Knicks to figure out a way to stop sucking so hard at everything all the time, lest they sign only masochists every year.
The guess here is that neither NBA teams nor veteran NBA players would go for it, and no one represents amateurs at any negotiating tables. And I get that entering a career in professional sports means making some trade-offs, including giving up your right to choose where you live during the season in exchange for getting lots and lots of money to play a game.
But there’s nothing fundamentally unfair about having pro sports teams compete to sign top amateur talent instead of drafting it, and there’s really no other industry in which the most in-demand potential employees get so little say in where they wind up. Sure, people get transferred, but choosing not to relocate does not mean you have to find a whole new career. If you want to play professional basketball — or football, or baseball, or hockey — in North America, you pretty much just have to go where the league tells you to go.
It’s weird. Drafts have been part of the sports landscape for so long that we just sort of accept them as inevitabilities, but it seems like we could do better.
Wednesday’s big winner: Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports)
The Bucks’ big man scored 29 points to help his team overcome a big deficit and take Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals over the Toronto Raptors. He got all fired up and did some weird, animated clapping that looked like belonged in a silent film. Lopez’s career arc (no pun intended) is amazing: Across his first six seasons in the NBA, he went 0-for-7, total, from behind the 3-point line. Over his last three seasons, he is 433-for-1224.
Quick hits: Jets, Sale, Willis
– Everything only seemed like it was going smoothly for the Jets. Henry McKenna put together a good explainer on why they might fire their GM at this point in the offseason.
– Chris Sale struck out 17 Rockies in seven innings on Tuesday, so I made some very sensual GIFs of his best pitches.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
– Phillies fans booed Bruce Willis for bouncing his ceremonial first pitch. Anywhere else in the country and I’d insist they were saying, “Bruuuuuce!” Also, who knew Bruce Willis throws left-handed? I love this photo because it looks like Bruce Willis is just laboring out there. Sorry, Bruce Willis, I know you don’t have your best stuff tonight and your ERA’s going to take a hit, but we’re on the long side of a blowout and you’re going to have to wear this one to save the rest of the ‘pen for tomorrow.
– Hemal Jhaveri’s week of Wick continued with a look at the nice things Keanu Reeves does for the cast and crew on set. I’m probably going to see John Wick 3 tonight even though I already know it’s two hours and 23 minutes and thus probably far too long. Too many movies are too long now.
(AP Photo/Charles Sonnenblick)
It’s Randy Johnson, getting down on a beverage in 2005.