As the college basketball season hummed along, speculation of who would be the top pick in the NBA Draft shifted from Andrew Wiggins to Jabari Parker to Joel Embiid. On Thursday, as Adam Silver conducted his first draft as commissioner, things came full circle, and it was Wiggins who walked onto the Barclays Center stage sporting a Cleveland Cavaliers hat as the No. 1 overall pick.
A 6-foot-8 swingman out of Kansas, Wiggins and his potential to develop into a dominant two-way player won out over the flashy offensive game of Duke’s Parker and the many unknowns with Embiid, Wiggins’ teammate with the Jayhawks.
The others were right behind, with Parker going to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second pick, and Embiid going to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3.
Wiggins seemed happy if a bit scattered after the pick, saying, "It doesn’t even feel real right now."
He then settled in, declaring he would be comfortable playing shooting guard or small forward while providing a recruiting pitch for LeBron James, who will soon become a free agent.
"I want to win," Wiggins said. "If he wants to win, we’d be good together."
The bold declaration seemed appropriate coming from a player who brought to mind an older era of NBA drafts by wearing an ostentatious suit that made him easy to spot among his more conservatively dressed peers. His postdraft interview briefly turned into a red carpet setting, with Wiggins saying the black and white floral-pattern jacket was a Brandon Williams style customized by the fashion designer Waraire Boswell.
"We just wanted to do something really different to stand out," Wiggins said.
Wiggins will have competition for James’ affection: It was reported by multiple media outlets that the Miami Heat swapped two picks to acquire the rights to Shabazz Napier, who led Connecticut to the national championship and was taken at No. 24 by the Charlotte Hornets.
James has said emphatically that he believes Napier is the best point guard in the draft, and the trade was viewed by many as an enticement for James.
"It’s just something special to know that one of the best players in the world thinks about you and appreciates your talent," Napier said when asked about the attention he had received from James. "That’s something I’m so humble for."
With or without James, Wiggins, just 19, will join a Cavaliers team that has ended up with the No. 1 pick in three of the past four seasons as it struggles to rebuild after James’ departure. The team struck gold with Kyrie Irving in 2011, but last season a gamble on Anthony Bennett out of Nevada-Las Vegas appeared to be a total bust.
With Wiggins, the Cavaliers are making a safer pick but one with huge potential rewards. He and Parker have spent the last several years having the news media struggle to find new superlatives to describe their potential.
In 2012, while still in high school, Parker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated being called the greatest prep player since James. In 2013, it was Wiggins’ turn to be on the cover, with the bold statement that the torch of basketball greatness in Kansas had been passed down from Wilt Chamberlain to Danny Manning to Wiggins. He had yet to play a game for the university.
The sons of NBA players (Wiggins’ father, Mitchell, played six seasons for the Chicago Bulls, the Houston Rockets and the 76ers, and Parker’s father, Sonny, played six season with the Golden State Warriors), the similarly sized wings may find themselves inextricably linked in their careers.
"Great players will always be compared to each other," Wiggins said. "I never think of anything as a rivalry. I think that’s what the media portrays it to be."
For a short time, their competition for supremacy took a backseat as Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon and has played only three years of organized basketball, emerged for Kansas. His athleticism and 7-foot, 240-pound frame had teams still discussing him as viable No. 1 pick even after he suffered a stress fracture in his back and later had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
After all of the speculation as to who would go where, Wiggins, Parker and Embiid seemed happy for one another and eager to prove themselves.
"You got Doug McDermott scoring 3,000 points," Parker said of the Creighton star drafted 11th, pointing out that another prospect, Julius Randle, who was picked seventh, had led Kentucky to the national championship game. "Shabazz Napier won two national championships," Parker said. "I mean, we’re all good. We’re all great players."
The two main trades of the night were the Heat’s deal for Napier and the Chicago Bulls’ trade of the 16th and 19th picks for McDermott and Anthony Randolph.
The trades made for a hectic, and occasionally confusing night, but the highlight of the night came when Silver took the stage after the 15th pick to announce that the NBA was ceremonially drafting Isaiah Austin, a sophomore at Baylor who found out during predraft screening that he suffers from Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that will prevent him from playing professional sports. A tearful Austin took the stage wearing a blue NBA cap, and the normally cynical draft crowd, which relishes booing above all else, gave the 20-year-old an extended standing ovation.
Benjamin Hoffman, New York Times