Why NBA teams are already preparing for a 'generational' 2022 draft

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Hopeless in Oklahoma City? Anxious in Cleveland? Impatient in Charlotte?

To those geographically forlorn and financially restricted NBA franchises, hope is coming. In the wake of the major-market magnetism that unfolded in the NBA’s summer of 2019, the brightest beacon for those jilted NBA franchises comes from the 2022 NBA draft.

The ballyhooed “Double Draft” should arrive in 2022 because of a confluence of high-end players from two talented high school classes. That’s expected to be the first season when the NBA rule change goes into effect that will pare down the NBA age minimum from 19 to 18. That means all of the country’s best one-and-done players from 2021 and prep-to-pro prospects from 2022 will combine for a blockbuster draft that, in theory, will have double the high-end talent.

“I think it’s going to be a monumental draft class, potentially a generational class,” recruiting analyst Corey Evans said. “The infiltration of the one-and-done class from 2021 and the potential of the straight-to-the-pros group makes it a tsunami of talent, like two draft classes in one.”

NBA franchises are already positioning themselves for the chance to cash in on all the talent. The sweetener for the 2022 draft is the allure of expected No. 1 overall pick Emoni Bates. He’s a rising sophomore in Michigan who is already considered the country’s best NBA prospect, regardless of age. Expect Bates to become the face of the newest prep-to-pro age, just like Kevin Garnett was a generation ago. “From a talent perspective,” Evans said, “Emoni is one of the best freshmen the industry has seen in the last decade.”

The NBA scouting set, replete with their Gucci sneakers, jaded eyes and unimpressed scowls, are adjusting to the expected new world. According to the NBA, scouts are typically allowed into five high school events each calendar year. (The McDonald’s All American Game and practices, for example, are staples.) This season, the NBA added the Nike Top 100 in St. Louis, which featured the best players in 2021 and 2022.

There’s also been increased access to USA Basketball, as NBA personnel will also be flooding Colorado Springs this weekend – sitting alongside the country’s top college coaches – to peek at nearly 70 of the country’s best high school players invited to the USA Men’s Junior National Mini-Camp.

In this Oct. 8, 2017, photo, Emoni Bates pulls down a rebound against Howell High School during a fall league basketball game in Saline, Mich. The 13-year-old, 6-foot-7 basketball player is one of the most coveted young players in hoops. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Emoni Bates pulls down a rebound during a late 2017 game. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

According to the NBA, it’s allowed only one additional event this season for scouts and front-office members to attend. But those around the grassroots world have seen and felt a significant uptick of NBA scouting presence the past two years. Essentially, it would be unwise from a negotiating standpoint for the league to make any assumptions about 2022 being the year the draft rule changes until an agreement with the players’ association. (The looming issue holding things up involves players’ medical records.)

The NBA initially came to 2022 as the first year for prep players to return to the pros, in part, because before this offseason no first-round picks had been traded. So it’s the widespread assumption that’s the year high school players will be going pro.

“I think it makes you shift some of the focus and put a little more manpower down on the grassroots part of it,” a veteran NBA executive said. “So you can kind of stay ahead of it, so now people can try and really cover events.”

All of that is expected to coalesce with the 2022 draft, as savvy NBA teams have already positioned their franchises to exploit a draft with unprecedented depth. Atlanta, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans and Oklahoma City are positioned for multiple first-round picks, pending the complications from pick protections. (Oklahoma City could have as many as three first-round picks, provided they stay in the lottery and depending where Denver finishes.)

“I’ve been telling NBA teams for two years: Get as many 2022 picks as you can,” said an industry source plugged into the grassroots level. “You have two classes worth of guys who are going to be in there. If you get the 25th pick in the draft, you get a kid who would have been a lottery pick the following year.”

It would be a surprise if Bates didn’t end up as the No. 1 overall pick. Bates, 15, is a 6-foot-8 forward who blew up nationally by leading Ypsilanti Lincoln High School to the state title this year and dropping 43 in a grassroots game against LeBron James Jr. this spring. (Yahoo’s Pat Forde left that game impressed.)

One certainty is that high-end players like Bates aren’t going to give much time or thought to college basketball, as that sport is bracing for a talent drain in 2022. Bates’ father’s quotes from the Peach Jam in South Carolina about his son possibly reclassifying to play in college were laughed off. “If the goal is to get paid and drafted, why go to college and get any holes exposed?” a source told Yahoo Sports.

A safe estimate, according to an NBA executive, is that 20 to 25 high school kids will declare for the draft every year once high school players are allowed to go. The nuances of how agents will guide players through the process and whether undrafted players can still go to school need to be worked out. Those details are critical to the future of college basketball and will potentially muddle recruiting boards across the country.

It’s clear that the NBA is much better positioned to nurture and develop players than the pre-2005 era, when high school players were last allowed to go to the NBA. “Pretty much every NBA team has a G League franchise now, they have a developmental team in house,” said an NBA executive.

Who will be at the forefront of the 2022 draft after Bates? Let’s start with the best players from the 2021 class, as No. 1 Jonathan Kuminga, No. 2 Terrence Clark and No. 3 Patrick Baldwin Jr. can be considered the top of a better-than average class. Those players will either have to go to college for a year, go overseas or reclassify to avoid exposure. (Expect the reclassify option to be heavily explored.)

The talented 2021 class will join a high-end 2022 class for the Double Draft. After Bates in 2022 are two stellar prospects: 6-foot-9 Jalen Duren (New Castle, Delaware) and 6-5 Chris Livingston (Akron, Ohio).

By then, NBA executives will be going to small-town gyms, AAU events and arenas that look vastly different than what scouts saw the past 15 years. “It’s a different ballgame than evaluating players at those schools in the ACC and SEC,” said former Suns GM Ryan McDonough, who scouted for the Celtics early in his career.

On Saturday in Colorado Springs, the NBA scouting glitterati will be on hand, a harbinger of the future of the sport. A paradigm shift for evaluating top prospects is underway, as is the hype for the 2022 draft.

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