When Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Perry Jones of Baylor and Harrison Barnes of North Carolina surprised the NBA world by staying in college a year ago, the already-building buzz about the 2012 draft only grew louder.
Could this be one of the best of all time, the kind of crop that would rival the legendary likes of 1984 (Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton among them), 1996 (Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and Steve Nash) or 2003 (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh)? That much won't be known for years, when the All-Star appearances are tallied and -- should projections prove true -- the MVP trophies are counted.
But there is serious potential here beyond consensus No. 1 pick Anthony Davis of Kentucky, from Wildcats forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to brutish big men Andre Drummond of UConn and Thomas Robinson of Kansas, to a host of other players who might have been in the top 10 had they been part of what was considered a weak 2011 draft. Front-office executives knew that much even before the unexpected additions of Sullinger, Jones and Barnes, and some of them went to great lengths to make sure their team didn't miss out on this particular prospect party on June 28. New Orleans' insistence on landing the Clippers' first-round pick (from Minnesota) in the Chris Paul trade in December, and Golden State's shameless tanking down the stretch of this season -- in which it feared picking lower than seventh and thereby losing its protected pick to Utah -- were but a few of the examples.
But as sure things go, the five executives polled by SI.com for this story agreed that the 6-foot-10 Davis stands alone. The 19-year-old freshman, who led the Wildcats to a national title and 38-2 season while averaging 14.2 points (on 62.3 percent shooting), 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 blocks and 1.4 steals, is seen by most as the kind of transformative player who even the worst of talent evaluators couldn't miss on.
Charlotte, which just completed the worst season in NBA history based on its .106 winning percentage, has a 25 percent shot at the top pick. Washington (19.9 percent), Cleveland (13.8), New Orleans (13.7), Sacramento (7.6) and New Jersey (7.5) have the best odds of landing Davis after the Bobcats.
After Davis, though, one cautious Western Conference general manager said talent remains and uncertainty reigns.
"It's a good draft, but it's also a mistake draft," he said. "There will be guys who go from three or four down to 12 where you'll make a mistake on them, and guys from 15 to 30 who will be pretty good. It's deep, but it's also tricky."
Another West GM said "there will be good talent down to the 40 or 50 range, and some good bets the whole way along. It feels like there are three to five potential All-Star-type guys, but I'd probably bet against all of them -- not because of the players, but just the reality is nobody knows anything [for sure]."
Said another West executive: "How many guys have a chance to be stars? Probably six."
For all the reluctance to handicap the whole lot, Davis is inspiring some bold predictions from men who typically resist hyperbole. An Eastern Conference executive noted that the 220-pound Davis will need to get stronger to assert himself at the next level, but that was the closest anyone interviewed came to criticizing him.
One of the West general managers said Davis "is probably going to be better than Blake Griffin," and his GM colleague upped the ante by saying he expects him to be better than 14-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.
"There's not one doubt in my mind that he's going to be way better than Blake Griffin," the second GM said. "I don't even think it's going to be close. I think he might end up being a little better than KG.
"He may be the quiet, humble [player] who's not as great as Tim Duncan, but [he'll be] that kind of a person, and maybe have the game to back it up. I don't think he gets to that [Duncan] level, but he's going to be pretty good."
One of the West executives wasn't ready for such ambitious comparisons.
"I have times when I wonder, 'Is he Marcus Camby, a great defensive player who alters the game defensively' " but doesn't have much offense? he said. "And then there are days when I say, 'Oh, no, he has much more offense to his game. He has this, he has that.' Plus, I think Anthony Davis is a pretty cool kid."
The combination of Davis' two-way talents and his commitment to team basketball have impressed executives who are always eager to add versatile and selfless players. Talent evaluators have fallen in love with his back story, too. Davis spent most of his prep years going unnoticed in one of the country's basketball meccas, attending Perspectives Charter School in Chicago and playing in a lackluster league that was largely ignored by local media and college scouts. He grew seven inches from the end of his freshman year to the beginning of his junior season, standing 6-7 with a wingspan that reached much farther (it's 7-3 now). But even after that, when the attention finally started coming and the heads of most young men in his position would have swelled along with his frame and his fame, Davis continued to play the right way. He kept setting screens, blocking shots, finding his teammates for open looks -- making the proper basketball play, whether it paid off or not.
The talent around him improved in a big way at Kentucky, and his performance in the Wildcats' victory over Kansas in the national championship game last month showed why many consider him special. Despite hitting just 1-of-10 shots and scoring six points, Davis was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four because of all the other ways he made an impact. He finished with 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals against the Jayhawks.
"He had only six points, but he still controlled the game," one of the West GMs said.
He'll be controlling the draft order, too. And if the rest of the prospects pan out like so many expect that Davis will? This could be a draft to remember after all.