Much Ado About A Worthless Pick In An Awful Draft

The pick that delivered Bronny James to the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night was the 55th of 58 selections made over the two days of the 2024 NBA Draft. It was announced by NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, doing his absolute best to convey enthusiasm and cheer in the weird little closet of a room in Brooklyn that’d been freed up for the occasion. By the time the pick was announced, everyone following the draft understood it to be inevitable: NBA super-agent Rich Paul, who represents both generations of the James family, had sent word around the league Thursday afternoon that Bronny was prepared to take his unimpressive talents to Australia should some dastardly team jump in line and yoink him out from under his all-powerful father.

The second round of any NBA Draft is grotesque sausage-making after about the 35th pick—16 of the 28 picks used Thursday were traded, and a handful of them have been traded two or three times—and often what determines whether a guy is drafted at all after about the 45th pick is whether he has stated a willingness to accept an overseas assignment. Almost none of the guys taken Thursday will have memorable NBA careers. A solid chunk of them will play zero non-garbage-time minutes in the NBA. The goal is usually (but not always) untapped upside: The guy drafted two spots after Bronny James, Ulrich Chomche, is a Cameroonian teenager who since the start of 2021 has played 19 total games in the Basketball Africa League, and who averaged four points on 29 percent shooting across the 2022–23 season. I will drink a glass of ranch dressing if Chomche ever scores 20 points in an NBA game.

It’s not just the second round where the long shots are distributed, not with a draft class as universally panned as the 2024 one. The Knicks used the 25th pick on a French 18-year-old who averaged fewer than seven points per game in Germany last season; the Bucks used the 23rd pick on an American teen who averaged fewer than three points in fewer than eight minutes per game last year, in freaking Australia. Something the Knicks, Bucks, and Lakers all have in common is sincere and not entirely unrealistic designs on competing for a championship next season; if all goes to plan, none of these teams will have room at all in their rotations for people who are still learning their way around the league. Bronny, in this regard, was at least picked in the right range: He’s a short (by NBA standards) 19-year-old non-starter from a crappy college team, he averaged 4.8 points on dismal shooting splits in his lone college season, oh and he had a heart attack last July. He’s got some athletic gifts and some basketball savvy, and he’s got an impressive pedigree, so an NBA team took a flier on him with a late pick that almost never produces a quality rotation player.

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Right-sizing your feelings about this pick can be challenging. For one thing, Paul and Klutch Sports Group did a lot more than is usual to manipulate this outcome, though Paul would have you believe otherwise. In the buildup to the draft, he severely limited Bronny’s exposure to teams that might’ve had interest in drafting him higher in the second round. Normally an agent might want a client to be drafted as high as possible, but in this case Paul was pursuing a mandate handed down from the most important and powerful player of this generation, to make it maximally possible for him to be on a team with his eldest son. “The goal is to find a team that values your guy and try to push him to get there,” said Paul, in mid-June, carefully and disingenuously, as teams started to gripe about being denied workouts with a potential draft target. “It’s important to understand the context and realize that this has always been the strategy with many of my clients throughout the years, especially those in need of development like Bronny. My stuff is by design.”

Square that with something else Paul said, in that same interview: “There are other teams that love Bronny. For example, Minnesota, Dallas, Toronto. If it’s not the Lakers, it will be someone else. Minnesota would love to get Bronny in, but I don’t know who their owner is going to be. Nico Harrison is like an uncle to Bronny—if the Lakers don’t take him at 55, Dallas would take him at 58 and give him a guaranteed deal. Masai [Ujiri] loves him. They could take him without even seeing him, at 31.” Here we have two fellow title contenders, plus one of the two or three best developmental teams in the NBA, two of whom had much higher selections in the second round. Paul claims workouts “aren’t everything for these teams,” and that’s probably true, and it probably worked as cover right up until Paul sent word around Thursday that he’d send his guy to a different hemisphere if any of those teams grabbed him up ahead of the Lakers.

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The silly part is not the expenditure. The Lakers have made their team’s best performer and the league’s most powerful player happy during a summer in which he can opt out of the remainder of his contract, and they’ve added the draft’s highest-profile player, and they’ve penciled in a handful of feel-good moments for however long LeBron James remains in the league, and all it cost them was a pick that would otherwise have been all but worthless. It’s a mild professional humiliation for Paul to work the scales in this way for the 55th pick, but then that is also his job. Lakers head honcho Rob Pelinka at least had the good sense Thursday not to pretend this maneuver had very much to do with the younger James’s basketball upside. Before he bothered to say anything about Bronny’s capabilities—the obligatory “high character” and commendable work ethic of a guy who may in fact be pretty bad at putting the ball into the hoop—he made sure to mention LeBron’s looming contract decision and the “magical” history-making potential of putting a father and son in the same uniform on the same floor at the same time:

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Where this whole production becomes absurd bordering on insulting is when ESPN has to make television out of it. Scoopster Adrian Wojnarowski—profoundly out of his depth when doing anything more complicated than ushering along chicken feed from agents and personnel honchos—and the dreaded Stephen A. Smith were handed the unenviable job of anticipating a public backlash and striking against it on live television.

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For Woj this meant gassing up Bronny’s intangibles—an observable lack of entitlement, the quality of his upbringing—and for Smith this meant working to frame Bronny’s conspicuously managed entry into the league within a long tradition of NBA nepotism. “You hear people mumbling about that in the weeks and the days leading up to the draft,” said Smith, in that moderated grumbling tone he takes before he’s about to start absolutely pounding on some poor unsuspecting strawman. “It is something that has permeated throughout the NBA for quite some time, OK, and on all levels, and no one has said anything. It’s never been an issue, that I can remember. I’ve been covering the NBA for a quarter of a century, this man has been around just as long if not longer, don’t talk to me about nepotism being something new. It’s been here. Nobody said anything before, shut the hell up now.”

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If the NBA is steeped in nepotism, as Woj and Smith are at pains to articulate, first of all that is probably something that two NBA reporters gloating on national television about 50 combined years of experience ought to have talked about before yesterday. But also: Certainly this is a new form! Which is why it is being described as magical and historic! An innocent casual sports fan might think the debasement of having to then turn around and act as if this was the result of everyone behaving normally—an agent did a normal thing and a player was normal and his son was normal and their team is normal as hell—would be more than a professional journalist could bear. Alas.

LeBron James now has for a head coach his podcast cohost and for a teammate his son. Pretty cool how this all came together without any of his influence, and without anyone behaving weirdly on his behalf. Truly there is nothing to see here. Also: History and magic! Tune in!

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