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College Basketball Isn’t Dead Yet

And five other takeaways from the 2017 NBA draft, including the czar of touchscreen technology, Coach Cal’s high-level game, and a plea for the media about LaVar Ball

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

The 2017 NBA draft is in the books and man, what a night it was. Heading into Thursday, draft buzz felt like it was at an all-time high, as all sorts of questions swirled. Who would the Celtics take at no. 3? How many blockbuster trades would there be? Which prospects would rise and which would fall? And who the hell at ESPN is allowing Michael Wilbon to sit at the desk for five hours to complain about the Bulls and pretend he knows anything about the guys being drafted when Jay Williams could do the job in his sleep?

In the end, the drama beforehand exceeded the drama of the event, as the Celtics drafted the player everyone expected them to, only one semi-decent trade happened, Malik Monk was the lone, notable steal of the night, and the consensus is that the 2017–18 season will still feature the Warriors kicking everyone’s ass.

I’ve always viewed the draft as more of a television event than an allocation of basketball talent, which is why I don’t get too wrapped up in what the night means for teams moving forward. (If you feel differently, check out The Ringer’s extensive and much more practical draft coverage here.) Yeah, it’s cool that the Process is coming to fruition and that a Boston sports team is FINALLY catching a break, but I watch the draft more for the extracurricular activity than anything else.

With that in mind, I need to get an uncomfortable truth off my chest: The draft isn’t as fun as it used to be. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, maybe it’s because Woj basically tweets the results of the entire draft before all the lottery picks are even announced, or maybe it’s because it’s difficult to get excited about 19-year-olds who are going to need at least a couple of years to develop. But the entertainment value of what was always one of my favorite nights in sports is definitely waning, and I hate that so much. Don’t get me wrong — the NBA draft is still the most entertaining offseason event in sports. I just think we, as a basketball community, need to figure out how to make it must-see TV again instead of just something to throw on as background noise while we scroll through Twitter.

Until then, here are my six takeaways from Thursday night:

1. Jay Bilas’s sorry excuse for a beard owes America answers.

Let’s start with the biggest travesty of the night. Here’s the backstory for those who aren’t aware: One of the best big men in college basketball last season was a Polish guy named Przemek Karnowski. He played for Gonzaga and started over Zach Collins (who was drafted 10th on Thursday) all year, but the most important thing about him is that he grew a phenomenal beard. Naturally, someone started a Twitter account dedicated to his beard, which eventually led to that account challenging Bilas to grow a beard of his own should the Zags make the Final Four. Bilas accepted the challenge, the Zags advanced all the way to the title game, and Bilas acknowledged that he now owed America a beard. He even promised to grow one that would make Karnowski jealous, telling Mike & Mike that he hoped to have a thick enough beard for animals to live in it. Three months later, Bilas showed up to the NBA draft with a beard that my grandma could grow in a week.

Now, there might be a perfectly valid reason Bilas dropped the ball on his promise, so I’m not getting too upset just yet. Maybe he’s waiting until the beginning of next season to start growing it out. Maybe there’s something in his personal life keeping him from growing it any longer than it currently is. I don’t know. All I’m saying is I want answers and I want them NOW.

2. The bow tie era is officially here.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I grew up during the enormous-suit era that started sometime around the turn of the millennium, reached its apex when Amar’e Stoudemire wore a damn trench coat to the 2002 draft, and then faded around 2007. And I gotta say: That was a bruuuuutal time to come of age. I distinctly remember thinking I looked like a doofus in the XXL shirts I wore in eighth grade (I wear L now), but there was nothing I could do about it because that’s how NBA players dressed, and dressing like an NBA player will forever be the coolest thing that any eighth-grade boy can ever do.

Thankfully, the dark days of NBA draft fashion are long over, as NBA draftees started wearing suits that fit in 2008, ushering in the pocket square era in 2009 (which peaked in 2011 and 2012), and then shifting into the colored suit/slim fit era from 2014 through 2016. And now, a year after the 2016 draft class dabbled in the bow tie game, the 2017 class has gone all in on bow ties, with at least eight of the draftees in attendance on Thursday night rocking one. I’m still holding out for the top hat and cane era, but I supposed bow ties will do just fine until then.

3. John Calipari is playing a completely different game than everyone else and remains undefeated.

There were three absolute guarantees before the draft: (1) Markelle Fultz was going to be the first name called, (2) the Hornets and/or the Pacers were going to use their first-round pick to draft a white guy, and (3) Calipari was going to find his way in front of an ESPN camera to talk about "MY GUYS."

Nobody else in college basketball — and honestly, maybe all of sports — has figured out how to keep the media in the palm of his hand quite like Calipari has, and at this point I have no choice but to tip my hat and respect the hustle. It is truly remarkable how he continues to be the ONLY coach who finds his way to a microphone time and again, which happens because he’s playing a completely different game than every other college basketball coach. Coach K’s goal is to get his players to win at the game of life. Roy Williams’s goal is to, um, graduate players. Tom Izzo’s goal is to establish a strong enough relationship with his star player that they put their arms around one another during a dead ball. Rick Pitino’s goal is to see how many sex scandals he can attach his name to before losing his job. Calipari’s goal is to bring five-star recruits to Kentucky, give them access to the UK practice gym for nine months, and then sit at their table on draft night before he goes on national TV to talk about how rewarding it is to help MY GUYS achieve their NBA dreams.

Cal is playing 7-D chess with his manipulation of the media, and even though anyone with half a brain can see right through his scheme, we’re all powerless to stop it because the dude is just charismatic as hell. As much as I try to fight it, he wins me over every time that I’m reminded that he clearly has a great relationship with his players, especially the ones who are good enough to secure him more air time. I have nothing but respect for what Calipari has been able to build at Kentucky and if he stays on his current trajectory, I truly have no doubt in my mind that he will one day win more national championships than Kevin Ollie.

4. Tom Penn is the touchscreen GOAT.

I’m the biggest Fran Fraschilla fan there is. His stories about European prospects that nobody in America knows or cares about are often hilarious, and his comment in the 2014 draft about Bruno Caboclo being "two years away from being two years away" was an all-time classic draft moment. So please understand that I mean no disrespect to Fraschilla when I say that Penn is the most underappreciated star of every NBA draft.

I don’t care what Penn actually says when he comes on camera (although I do enjoy his analysis). What makes him a legend is how he can use that touchscreen so perfectly without breaking his train of thought. Every PowerPoint presentation I’ve given in my life has had some sort of technical problem and/or resulted in me spewing unintelligible bullshit at some point. Yet this dude consistently goes on national TV and flawlessly rattles off contract information on every player in the league while using a technology that regularly gives ESPN’s on-air talent fits. That is nothing short of amazing. He’s gotten so good that I almost fell out of my chair when he had a slipup on Thursday night while talking about the Bulls’ new lineup. But Penn rolled with it like a goddamn professional, quickly fixed the error, never broke stride or lost his cadence, and restored order to the universe. It was like watching Bob Ross turn a thick black line that should have ruined his painting into a perfectly placed evergreen tree.

5. College basketball isn’t dead yet!

Caleb Swanigan (Getty Images)
Caleb Swanigan (Getty Images)

I knew that the odds were always slim to none, but I had nonetheless prepared myself to live in a world where Frank Mason III, Josh Hart, and Caleb Swanigan — three first-team All-Americans — all went undrafted. I just don’t trust the draft process anymore. Twenty-five years ago, the fact that these guys shredded college basketball all season would have been enough to make them each lottery picks. But all the predraft talk about prospects was dominated by freshmen, and I had a real fear that NBA teams would think these All-Americans were too old and would instead waste second-round picks on foreigners that they can stash in Europe. Having the three best players in college basketball all go undrafted would have been a death blow to the reputation of the sport.

Instead, Swanigan and Hart were each drafted in the first round! Meanwhile, Mason went no. 34 to Sacramento, second-team All-American and Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks (who was in jeopardy of going undrafted) went no. 45 overall, and NCAA tournament darlings Sindarius Thornwell and Nigel Williams-Goss also heard their names called. I’m not sure how much any of this ultimately matters. I just know that NBA fans aren’t going to rip college basketball apart quite as badly as they would have if these guys all went undrafted, and dammit, that’s enough for me.

6. Now that the draft is over, can we please get LaVar Ball off my television forever?

I know he has two more sons in the basketball pipeline and he’s going to do everything in his power to use them to wedge his way back into my life. I know that the Ball saga is far from over because every time Lonzo farts while wearing a Lakers uniform, somebody is going to shove a microphone in LaVar’s face. I know that writing this makes me part of the problem because talking about the Ball family even in a negative way is still giving him what he wants. But please, for the love of Jesus and Zeus, let this be the final chapter of all this bullshit. I can’t take it anymore. In the words of the greatest Mean Tweet of all time, GET THIS PENIS MAN OFF MY SCREEN.