“OK, I’ve seen enough,” said Jerry West halfway through Kobe Bryant’s predraft workout with the Lakers in 1996. “Best workout I’ve ever seen. He’s better than anybody we have on the team right now. Let’s go.”
West wanted to make sure trading for an 18-year-old high school kid was worth it. He left the gym feeling as confident as ever that the Lakers are about to get an all-time great in the making.
Probably the easiest player that I’ve ever seen to identify with. When you see someone at 18 years of age work out against men and he’s so superior to them, and forget the physical part because you’re probably talking about someone older in their career, the mental part was especially noticeable.Jerry West, Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. & Hatch
The mental part wasn’t the fearlessness Kobe later became known for but more about the basketball mind he possessed at such an early age. That’s the main indicator of one’s potential as an NBA player, and based on what West had seen in LA that day, Bryant’s was through the roof.
Who are the greatest players to ever play? The ones who could think. The ones who could pass, the ones who could anticipate. You can see that and these guys who are these famous names, they just have some unique part of them. They are a play ahead. They think the game differently and they see the game differently.Jerry West, Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. & Hatch
Players like Kobe are so rare; it seems impossible for someone involved with the game to pass on him. But 12 NBA teams did just that. That’s why, instead of praising him for trading for a kid from Lower Marion High School, West feels everyone else deserves to be criticized. “Everyone wants to credit me — they don’t need to credit me,” he said. “The other people in the league, I cannot believe to this day they would pass a talent like that. And we still see it happen.”
Luka Dončić, what was he the fifth player in the draft? Oh my God. I can’t believe that someone let him go. I can’t. He was a unique kid at 15 years of age, he was competing against men in Europe, but not competing — excelling.Jerry West, Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. & Hatch
Despite his performance overseas, Dončić’s success was diminished by many NBA individuals before the Draft. And most of them drew the same conclusion: there’s no way Luka would be able to do those things against the best of the best. So both the Suns and the Kings decided to pass on him — Doncic not working out with Phoenix only made their decision easier.
Four years into his NBA career, it’s clear they were wrong. And 25 years after the 1996 NBA draft class entered the league; it’s clear all those 12 NBA teams were also wrong. The question is, how did it happen? And even the better question is, why will it keep happening?
The Draft in and of itself is a form of lottery. But the least teams can do is maximize their chances of getting their pick right. And no matter the context, other than serious injury problems, the best way to do it is by taking the most talented guy on the board.
Everything we saw from Kobe, and everything we’re seeing from Luka, points to them being the most talented guys of their respective draft classes. It’s easy to be wise after the event, but both are such standouts; it feels crazy that anyone was taken before them. Then again, it’s easy for me to say that sitting in my office chair and writing this. I’m sure it’s a different story when you have to make a decision that will potentially turn your franchise around.
That may be the only valid explanation, that the question marks about Kobe and Dončić forced the front office guys to “play it safe” and go with the low-risk options. The other one is that they simply lacked the competence to recognize basketball talent.
Whatever the case may be, the Jerry Wests of the world deserve credit for having the ability to know the talent when they see it and being ready to take the necessary risks to make sure they wind up on their teams. It may sound easy, but it’s obviously not.