Scouts and fans salivated over the thought that the 2012 NBA Draft class might include Jared Sullinger, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Harrison Barnes, Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis, among others. Sullinger and Barnes probably would have been lottery picks last year, and by staying in college for a second year, they would join a field full of fabulous freshmen.
A lot of that enthusiasm has dissipated. Beyond Davis, few teams have expressed immense excitement over the players available in this draft. Sullinger may have fallen out of the lottery after his balky back was red-flagged by the NBA, yet he probably already had fallen out of the top 10 due to perceived athletic limitations. Barnes remains a compelling talent, but his ability to create his own shot is a persistent question mark. Rivers has been called cocky, sometimes admiringly, sometimes not.
It has gotten to the point that Thomas Robinson, a relatively unknown power forward last year for Kansas, could go No. 2 overall on Thursday in Newark, N.J.
The less-than-zealous praise for picks two through 60 therefore has led to the perception that the draft of 2012 may end up being a forgettable group — other than Davis, of course. Dave Babcock, director of player personnel for the Milwaukee Bucks, who are scheduled to pick 12th on Thursday, did not go quite that far in his assessment.
"My feeling is that there's a large group of really good players, just not surefire star players," Babcock said. "Anyone in that group could end up being a star, they're just not surefire."
David Falk, the one-time superagent, has pared down his list of clients since he represented Michael Jordan during His Airness' playing career. Falk represents Rivers and Sullinger in this year's draft, but he attracted some attention in May when he said there was "not a lot of difference" between many of the top players beyond Davis.
"This is a one-player draft," Falk told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer in May. "Picks two through eight, there's not a lot of separation. There's just not a lot of difference between [Michael Kidd-] Gilchrist, [Andre] Drummond or Barnes. A lot of teams will be looking to trade down because the difference from two through eight is miniscule."
Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson hopes that is not the case — "if so, our chances of getting somebody at 17 just went way down," he said — but he understands the sentiment. Robinson's fine junior year was his only strong collegiate season. Bradley Beal is a bit undersized as a 6-foot-3 shooting guard slated to go in the top three picks. Kidd-Gilchrist may be too nice. Drummond may be a franchise-altering centerpiece, or he could be another Sam Bowie or Hasheem Thabeet.
But if the quality of talent in this draft is uncertain, it is because the quality of talent in every draft is uncertain. Without risk, there would never be any busts or any steals. As several former surefire prospects sow doubt, smaller-school standouts like Damian Lillard and Andrew Nicholson have steadily risen up draft boards.
"There are always those guys, whether they were at schools that weren't in major conferences or were late bloomers or sleepers or whatever, there's always those guys out there," Nelson said. "I can't sit here and tell you it's one of the richest drafts in history, but I can tell you that we've got a middle first-round pick and we feel pretty good about getting someone that's going to have an impact down there."
Still, there is widespread agreement that the strength of this class will be in its depth, particularly at power forward and shooting guard, rather than the presence of ample superstar-caliber talent. That could lead to an unusual amount of movement on draft day, as teams with higher picks try to trade back to get comparable talent later on, or teams exchange proven veterans for unproven (yet cheap) draft picks.
The potential for activity is so pronounced, the Charlotte Bobcats reportedly are shopping their second overall choice. There has also been speculation the Celtics could try to exchange their two first-round picks to move up, but it is far from certain that the one player they get in the top 15 would be as good as the two they could get at Nos. 21 and 22.
In the days — or in some cases, hours — following the draft, the Internet will be flooded with pundits "grading" each team's draft performance. Before Davis ever plays a game, the New Orleans Hornets will be declared "winners" while some other team might be labeled "losers."
Nelson, like most executives, will make some of the same judgments. The difference is, he will do it in two or three years.
"I think the only way you can truly assess a draft is through time," Nelson said. "You've got to see it pan out. It seems like every draft has its surprises. If history holds true, there's going to be some impact players at the end of the first [round]. There's going to be a couple second-round picks that have an impact. You just hope you do all your homework and make all your projections so you come away with one of those guys."