This NBA draft may have been short on All-Star talent, but it could be strong in leadership. Many of the lottery picks earned their way to high first-round salaries because they were able to overcome deficiencies in athleticism or size -- which says a lot for their character as basketball players.
It was hard to find a pick in the lottery Thursday who didn't possess one of the lauded (but often overlooked) intangibles. The trend began with the Cavaliers, who were looking to recast themselves in the vacuum created by LeBron James's abrupt departure last summer. They didn't invest in Kyrie Irving with the idea that he would dominate athletically like other young point guards. Instead they're counting on Irving to fulfill his ability by playing with an edge. He has a ruthlessness which -- along with his extended shooting range and feel for the game -- gives him a chance to compete with more explosive opponents.
The Cavs' No. 4 pick, Tristan Thompson, is a low-post scorer with an admirable work ethic, and the latter quality was abundant in this draft. The Jazz reinvested in their own hardworking tradition by using the No. 3 pick on Enes Kanter, who is given a chance to excel because his size and skills are empowered by his high-revving engine. Utah's No. 12 pick, Alec Burks, is another prospect with the relentless need to prove himself.
There weren't a lot of blue-ribbon stars to choose from, but there were many blue-collar workers. Burks and Derrick Williams -- the No. 2 pick of the Timberwolves -- both believed they had been ignored coming out of high school, and within two years of college each had surpassed more famous recruits to earn guaranteed first-round money. Neither is likely to ease back on the mistaken idea that he has achieved his goal: They, like everyone selected Thursday, will be constantly reminded that this was viewed as one of the weakest drafts in years. Everyone invited on stage to be greeted by Commissioner David Stern will need to continue the trend of overachieving (which is a term that should rarely be used, yet seems to identify many of the players in this lottery).
The Spurs must believe in the character of Kawhi Leonard, the No. 15 pick of Indiana. Otherwise they never would have sent George Hill to the Pacers in exchange for his rights. Leonard is a relentless, attacking small forward with potential to guard numerous positions, giving the Spurs hope that they've finally found a defensive replacement for Bruce Bowen, even though Leonard doesn't shoot threes like so many of the complementary Spurs. That trade also provided the Pacers with leadership from Hill, a local college star who had quickly improved to become one of Gregg Popovich's favorite players.
One reason scouts believe Bismack Biyombo is years older than he claims is because he has shown more maturity than the normal 19-year-old. During the Nike Hoop Summit in April, Biyombo was leading his international teammates through their warmup drills, and after they fell behind the U.S., he helped convince them to put up a fight by providing a triple-double that included 10 blocks. He will give the Bobcats a newfound presence defensively as they look forward to rebuilding under the next collective bargaining agreement.
The three point guards who were taken after Irving each have much to prove. Brandon Knight looked glum after having been made to wait until the eighth pick, when at last he was chosen by the Pistons. He had been rated to go as high as No. 3, and you could see him plotting revenge even as he hoisted himself up the stairs to shake Stern's hand. In fact he should have been flattered to have benefited from the faith of Pistons president Joe Dumars, after whom Knight should now model himself.
The two traits shared by Knight, Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette are that all three will be scoring point guards and all three are highly regarded as competitors. It was initially surprising that the Bobcats invested the No. 9 pick in another small guard like Walker after being frustrated at times by 6-foot incumbent D.J. Augustin. But they couldn't be more different: While Augustin undervalues his own talent and doesn't give himself enough credit, Walker flows over with confidence. He believes he should succeed because no one is better, and that's the first step to thriving in the NBA.
Then there is Fredette, who has shown no doubt whatsoever that he can learn a new position and stay on the court defensively despite the pessimism that has followed him into the draft. If Fredette is right, then he and Tyreke Evans have the makings of an explosive backcourt for Sacramento.
Klay Thompson, the son of former No. 1 pick Mychal Thompson, and the Morris twins -- Markieff and Marcus, picked within five minutes of each other -- were chosen at Nos. 11 (by the Warriors), 13 (Suns) and 14 (Rockets), respectively. Each one was sure to be introduced to fans in his new NBA city as a prospect who plays hard. Aggressiveness is going to be at issue.
This was a draft marked by the requisite trades and surprises, including the Knicks' fans who-is-he? reaction to Iman Shumpert at No. 17 (which may turn out to be an extremely efficient use of that pick, considering New York's need for defenders and Shumpert's innate ability to not only create but finish transition baskets). For one unusual night, however, a league that is defined by talent was infused with qualities that are more subtle and, sometimes, more important.
Will Norris Cole (acquired as the No. 28 pick) become Miami's version of the relentlessly penetrating J.J. Barea? Will Reggie Jackson (No. 24) become another self-effacing contributor to the Thunder? I was going to ask a similar question next about Kenneth Faried, but there is no question to be asked -- the best high-energy rebounder in the draft is surely going to excel in George Karl's all-out style with the Nuggets.
The best thing for most of these first-rounders is that fans are now going to forget all about them. An extended lockout appears to be on the way, which will give each of them months of inspiring thoughts along the lines of "nobody is thinking about me" and "nobody thinks I can play at this level." Their new teams should encourage that kind of thinking, because most of these prospects wouldn't be in the NBA without it.