NEWARK, N.J. – Perry Jones III somehow folded his 6-foot-11 frame into one of the Prudential Center's cramped arena seats, leaving him little room to stretch his long legs as he watched Thursday's NBA draft. The squeeze was all the more uncomfortable for the Baylor forward given that he had to nearly wait until the entire first round was over before leaving his seat.
One NBA executive said Jones has the athleticism, skills and versatility to challenge Kentucky's Anthony Davis as the most talented player in this year’s draft. But NBA teams grade prospects on more than talent, and that's why Davis was taken first overall by the New Orleans Hornets and Jones – once considered a top-five candidate – fell all the way to the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 28.
No player suffered a more disappointing drop in the 2012 draft, and scouts point to two big reasons why: Jones' inconsistent play during his sophomore season and a reported knee condition that might have scared teams. Some talent evaluators also think Jones did himself a disservice by working out for teams primarily as a small forward instead of showing his strength at his more natural power forward position.
Jones might have been one of the top picks had he left Baylor after his freshman season. Instead, the NBA didn't bother to invite him this year to its draft green room, a distinction usually reserved for the top 14 prospects. Even still, it was a surprise to see Jones nearly fall out of the first round. Though the wait was tortuous – both emotionally and physically – Jones sat patiently in the stands until NBA commissioner David Stern called his name. Somehow, he remained positive enough to smile once he was picked.
"I just wanted the opportunity to play in the NBA," Jones said. "Didn’t really matter what pick I got, just wanted the chance to play for somebody."
Jones' drop in standing coupled with his potential upside gave him a unique distinction: While he was the draft's biggest hard-luck loser, the team that picked him was one of the biggest winners. Few players with that kind of talent ever drop to No. 28, potentially giving the Thunder – who are already loaded with young, athletic players – a draft-night steal.
Jones averaged 13.5 points and 7.6 rebounds last season while shooting 30.3 from 3-point range. More importantly, the Thunder selected a 20-year-old player with a 7-foot-2 wingspan.
Kevin Durant just led the Thunder to the NBA Finals, and the young team has a strong work ethic, which should help Jones grow. Shot-blocking forward Serge Ibaka is eligible for a contract extension this offseason. If the Thunder can't sign him, Jones could develop into a potential replacement.
"I’m more than happy to play for Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant,” Jones said. "[Durant is] somebody I look at on film. He’s my favorite player. So, therefore, for me to be under his wing is going to be wonders for me."
Here's a look at the rest of the draft's winners and losers:
Winner: Kentucky basketball
Coming off their national championship season, John Calipari's Wildcats had six players taken in the two-round draft. Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Charlotte Bobcats) became the first players from the same school to be selected 1-2 in NBA history. Terrence Jones (No. 18, Houston Rockets) and Marquis Teague (No. 29, Chicago Bulls) went in the latter half of the first round while Doron Lamb (No. 42, Milwaukee Bucks) and Darius Miller (No. 46, Hornets) were taken in the second round.
"Kentucky really helped me a lot," Davis said. "Coach Cal is a great coach. He coached in the pros so it helped me as well to become pro-ready."
Loser: Houston Rockets
The Rockets entered the week with big dreams of landing Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. Howard, however, doesn't want to play for Houston and probably wouldn’t re-sign with the team after this season even if was traded there. That didn't stop the Rockets from acquiring the 18th pick and swapping their No. 14 pick for No. 12. Given that they already owned No. 16, they had three picks total in the first round.
Still, that wasn't enough to land Howard or convince the Sacramento Kings to trade them No. 5 so they could take Connecticut center Andre Drummond. Instead, the Rockets were left to take three rookies in Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones. Houston now has seven players on its roster from the past two drafts. All but Lamb are forwards.
[Related: 2012 NBA draft pick-by-pick analysis]
The two trades also cost the Rockets center Samuel Dalembert and forward Chase Budinger.
Winner: Dion Waiters
Syracuse guard Dion Waiters didn't work out for a single team prior to the draft. And agent Rob Pelinka's plan worked.
While there was speculation after the draft lottery that Waiters already had promises from the Toronto Raptors (No. 8) and the Phoenix Suns (No. 13), it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who took him at No. 4. Waiters has been compared to Dwyane Wade, and luckily for Waiters, the Cavs weren’t able to make a trade with the Bobcats that would have moved them up to No. 2 and allowed them to take Florida guard Bradley Beal.
"I just tried to stay as stress-free as I could," Waiters said. "And you know what, I was just letting [Pelinka] take care of everything. I’m blessed to be in this situation. I can’t wait to go to Cleveland."
North Carolina sophomore forward Harrison Barnes could have been a candidate for the No. 1 pick for the draft had he came out last year. Instead, he was selected seventh by Golden State. Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger could have been selected in the top five had he entered the draft last year. Instead, the Boston Celtics took him 21st. Baylor's Jones, of course, suffered the biggest fall.
College basketball’s heralded sophomores were punished after last summer's NBA lockout helped persuade them to stay in school for one more year.
"Just the fact that someone says they are better than you and they are drafted higher than you, that’s always going to be motivation," Barnes said.
[Related: Slideshow: 2012 NBA draft]
The Hornets began last season in an embarrassing predicament: Chris Paul had forced them to trade him, and the league office – which owned them – vetoed one deal that would have sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers. It seemed like only a matter of time before the franchise would be forced to relocate.
What a difference six months make. The Hornets have new owner in New Orleans Saints patriarch Tom Benson, they landed a franchise big man in Davis with the top pick and picked up one of the draft's top guards (Duke's Austin Rivers) at No. 10, as well as a potential second-round steal in Miller.
The Hornets' next challenge is to re-sign restricted free-agent guard Eric Gordon, which would give them a talented, young core. Rivers' father, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, also is good friends with Hornets coach Monty Williams.
"I love New Orleans more than anything right now," Rivers said. "This is the greatest feeling of my life."
Loser: International players
Ten international players were selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. This year? Four – and three of them attended American colleges: St. Bonaventure forward Andrew Nicholson, a Toronto native selected 19th by the Orlando Magic; Syracuse center Fab Melo, a Brazilian who went No. 22 to the Boston Celtics and Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli, who was taken No. 30 by the Warriors.
Frenchman Evan Fournier went 20th to the Denver Nuggets.
"I’m happy to represent my country," said Fournier, the only one of the four who didn’t play for an American college.
Winner: The unibrow
It’s not easy having a unibrow. But Davis just might make it cool – and profitable. He wears his proudly, and his agents have even trademarked "Fear The Brow" and "Raise The Brow."
"My parents and agent came up to me with the trademark and I thought it was a great idea," Davis said. "Seems there’s no point of the other guys making money off what’s yours."
Loser: New Jersey
Pro basketball bid farewell to New Jersey with the draft. Starting with the ABA New Jersey Americans, pro hoops had been played here since 1967, but the Nets’ days in Jersey ended this past season. Starting next season they will play in Brooklyn.
And Thursday wasn't all that interesting for local NBA fans. The Nets and New York Knicks didn't own a pick until midway through the second round.
New Jersey can at least say this: Seton Hall's basketball team will continue to call the Prudential Center home.
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