A little more than a year ago, Markelle Fultz had just finished dancing at his senior prom at DeMatha High. Now he’s dancing his way to a million-dollar contract as the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
That’s life in the NBA in the 21st Century – it’s the one-and-done era, and the fates of billion-dollar companies are in the hands of a bunch of teenagers who played just one year of college basketball. And no team represents that youth movement more than the 76ers, whose wheeling and dealing put them into position to draft the 19-year-old Fultz – whom most people had never even heard of at this time last year – with the first overall pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
How much have the times changed? Well, the first four picks in last year’s draft played just one year of college basketball, including the Sixers’ Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick. Another perspective – the last time a senior was selected No. 1 overall was in 2000, when the New Jersey Nets drafted Kenyon Martin out of Cincinnati.
No team is younger or has greater potential than the Sixers, but nobody knows how this will work out in the end. The core of the Sixers – Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafer, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and now Fultz – has an average age of 21.5 years.
I don’t know about you, but when I was 21.5 I was still trying to figure out the best way to chug a beer, and now a bunch of 21.5s will determine the fate of a billion-dollar entity, which, according to Forbes magazine, is about the average value of an NBA franchise. And that’s why it’s so hard to project how the Sixers will do in the next couple of years.
The hope-for-the-best scenario would have all of that young talent maturing and developing and making the Sixers one of the elite teams in the league. And if you’re a Sixers fan, why not be optimistic? You might as well assume that everything will fall into place and Embiid will stay healthy and dominant and Simmons will be the brilliant passer he was in college and Saric will improve his shot and be the kind of invaluable role player that every NBA champions needs and, of course, Fultz will be the superstar that the Sixers and most of the basketball-loving world think he will be.
By now, we all know that this is part of The Process, the long and often tortuous road the Sixers have followed the past five years that led them to this point. All of that losing has put them in a position to add what should be a critical part of their new look, a multi-talented point guard. But, once again, we’re assuming that Fultz and all of these other young players will as good as they’re supposed to be, and nobody knows if these boys will ever be able to compete against the men of the NBA. There have been thousands of great college players who couldn’t cut it at the next level and, after just one year of college competition, there’s no way to know if the Sixers’ kids will be in that group of not.
Of course, watching somebody play four years in college doesn’t guarantee that an NBA team will know for sure what it is getting on draft night. Kenyon Martin ended up having a long and productive career and he played 15 seasons in the NBA. But he was never a big star – Martin played in just one All-Star game in his career and he never won an NBA championship.
But maybe the most important thing is this – win or lose, the Sixers are going to be a lot of fun to watch in the next few years. In fact, anticipation is so high among Sixers fans that the team has already sold 14,000 season tickets, which is the most in franchise history – more than they sold in the Julius Erving era or the Charles Barkley era or the Allen Iverson era. And it’s a given that the television ratings will be through the roof this season.
It was just a couple of years ago that the Sixers were playing to home crowds of just a few thousand people. So, the process has already paid off at the box office. In the next couple of years we’ll find out whether it will also pay off with championship banners.