On Tuesday night in Chicago, under the benevolent watch of NCAA men’s basketball and something called the State Farm Champions Classic, top-ranked Kentucky lost to second-ranked Michigan State and fifth-ranked Kansas beat fourth-ranked Duke. The games, both of which were excellent, felt like March come early for college hoops and June come early for the NBA, as the combined 80 minutes of basketball featured eight of the projected top 13 picks in next year’s draft, according to Draft Express. As LeBron James himself tweeted as Kansas was closing out its victory: “GM’s wish the draft was tomorrow.” (The NCAA has since banned James from postseason play, and stripped the nearly 10,000 people who’ve retweeted him of their scholarships.)
Of all the young men spending a typical college-student Tuesday night playing for free on national television, none drew more attention than a skinny 18-year-old Canadian named Andrew Wiggins. This soon-to-be-former resident of Lawrence, Kan., towers over one of the world’s most powerful sports leagues to such a degree that it’s easy to forget that the NBA has barred him from actually playing in it. The NBA’s age limit, which stipulates that draft-eligible players must be 19 years old and one year removed from their high school graduating class, has been in place since 2006. But never has its farcical nature been as exposed as in the case of next year’s draft, which boasts the deepest freshman class of the “one-and-done” era—four of the projected top five picks (Wiggins, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Duke's Jabari Parker, and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon) are freshmen, and the fifth, Australia’s Dante Exum, is younger than all but one of them.
In anticipation of this bumper crop, billions of dollars’ worth of NBA franchises have rewritten their business models to win by losing, in the hope of earning the top spot in the league’s draft lottery. Over the summer, the Boston Celtics, a franchise valued at more than $700 million and winner of the Atlantic Division in five of the last six seasons, jettisoned two Hall of Fame players and a legendary coach for a wheelbarrow’s worth of draft picks, some expensive detritus, and a 37-year-old Indianan with no NBA bench experience. The team’s fans, of which I am one, now nod along enthusiastically as we join (at least) a half-dozen other teams rushing to the bottom, visions of Wiggins dancing in our heads. The phrase “fantasy basketball” has never seemed more apt.
Wiggins is a mindboggling talent: skilled, long, explosive, and any number of other adjectives that draftniks mutter in their sleep. In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, he’s depicted alongside a ghostly image of Wilt Chamberlain—another player who enrolled at the University of Kansas with rather large expectations. Wiggins is an aesthetic experience unto himself, 200 pounds of lithe, fluid grace, a prodigy in the most breathless and romantic sense. The last 6-foot-8 phenom to so dazzle NBA imaginations was LeBron James, but Wiggins has none of James’ preternatural bulk; he resembles a real 18-year-old, just a tall and freakishly gifted one. The more apt comparison is Tracy McGrady, drafted by Wiggins’ hometown Toronto Raptors when Wiggins was 2, and who until his career was derailed by injuries seemed the evolutionary pinnacle of the NBA small forward.
The crucial difference between Wiggins and these predecessors is that he’s going to college: unjustly, probably reluctantly, and if he’s smart, exceedingly cautiously. Wiggins’ position as 2014’s top pick seems a foregone conclusion—he would have been the top pick in the 2013 draft, were he eligible. But sports don’t go in for foregone conclusions. Duke’s Parker has a more advanced build and a more advanced game. Julius Randle, Kentucky’s own super-freshman, could likewise have a more dominant season than Wiggins, and positional need could nudge the 250-pound power forward to the top of the draft. There’s also precedent for much-hyped wing players losing luster after high school: Rudy Gay and Harrison Barnes are recent examples of small forwards who spent time at or near the top of their prep classes but failed to end up atop their draft classes. And of course there’s the threat of serious injury, a possibility so cruel and so obvious that it sickens to even float it.