This year's NBA Draft coverage on ESPN brought a few interesting changes to the lineup. Out went Jeff Van Gundy and Chris Broussard. In came Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose to join Rece Davis and Jay Bilas. It was certainly a lineup that had potential, but how would it come off on live television for several hours? How would ESPN's other draft contributors fare on the evening? As we did in April for ESPN and NFL Network's NFL Draft coverage, the AA report card grades Bristol's 2013 NBA Draft coverage…
-The choice of Rece Davis was an easy one to make in hindsight. Right off the bat, he received high marks for noting the booing of David Stern and his playful banter back with the crowd, immediately separating himself from his colleagues who cover the NFL Draft. No, Rece Davis isn't Ernie Johnson, or even Chris Fowler. But, Davis was the epitome of what a studio host should be. He gave the critical information needed by the viewers (even if it was well behind real time events), set up his analysts, then stayed out of their way. If only there was another NBA studio show that was missing a quality host… if only.
As good as Jay Bilas is, and he's largely considered one of the best analysts in college basketball, he is underrated in this realm of the NBA Draft. If Bilas weren't one of ESPN's main on air personalities, and just focused on the NBA Draft, is there any doubt he'd be as qualified or successful as a Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock? Bilas showed his preparation by giving pertinent stats and perspective on the majority of prospects, setting the table for Simmons and Rose to speculate on the fit of prospects in the league. As is the usual custom, he also cleverly acknowledged the Jay Bilas drinking game at the first mention of "wingspan" and gave a shoutout to his departing partner Bill Raftery as a bonus. His emerging chemistry with Simmons was also a highlight of the draft coverage.
-Jalen Rose was much like many of the players drafted, a serviceable contributor. From his experience with each of the members of the set, Rose clearly had good chemistry with the rest of ESPN's crew. However, there wasn't truly anything remarkable or memorable about Rose's analysis that was unique or would separate himself from any other ESPN NBA analyst. There were also a lot of weird sound effects and random yelling… like, a noticeable amount. Still, Rose was an upgrade over Jeff Van Gundy who wouldn't have known Jeff Withey if he walked on set carrying a sign saying, "Hi, I'm Jeff Withey, I played center for Kansas last year."
In our years of grading draft coverage, Simmons was perhaps the most difficult case to judge across NBA and NFL coverage from ESPN. Simmons started off strong with not only a Gary Bettman reference, but shrewd analysis surrounding the Cavs #1 pick, including his genuinely surprised reaction to said pick. Sure there were the parts of Simmons' personality that can be grating: his constant references to his inside lingo and the incessant pop culture references for starters. At times it seemed like Bill was a kid in a candy store, too eager to be a part of one of his favorite sporting events.
However, Simmons' night will be remembered for two moments. First, his unbridled reaction to the news that the Celtics had traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a poo poo platter special. At first, I felt his reaction was genuine and insightful. But, as the minutes went by and Simmons continued to sulk, his behavior put a damper on the actual draft taking place behind him.
Long into the evening though, viewers were given one of the more fascinating moments of the sports year as Shelley Smith (kudos to her by the way) asked Doc Rivers point blank about an earlier comment made by Simmons suggesting the coach "quit" on the Celtics. Rivers responded that he wanted to call Simmons an idiot and generally tried to put the Sports Guy in his place. All credit to Simmons though, he didn't back down when asked for his reaction, accusing Rivers of changing his story.
It was an authentic moment on ESPN's airwaves, which have become too contrived and manufactured in recent memory. Still though, it was a bit much to see an NBA Draft analyst reduced to a heartbroken/disgruntled fan during a national TV broadcast. It was the best and worst of the Sports Guy on display for all to see. Some loved it, others surely hated every second of it. Without the Celtics-related moping Simmons would have received close to an A. Without the Doc Rivers exchange, Simmons was heading towards a C+. In the end, his first draft has to be considered a success, just not an unmitigated success. Overall, his passion and knowledge for the NBA Draft made for a better product compared to previous years.
Sure, he could've done better… a lot better. Instead of asking probing questions, Battier stuck to the low-hanging fruit of parents, emotions, families, moms and dads, etc. He should've asked Nerlens Noel directly about his surprising slide during his interview. He could've asked Anthony Bennett one question about going to Cleveland as the #1 pick. At times his delivery was a little bit stiff and he seemed to run out of questions as the interviews wore on into the first round, hence the repeated question about what the draftees' parents meant to them.
But, as a current NBA player filling the job for the first time, Battier wasn't THAT bad. In fact, Battier wasn't even that bad compared to the likes of Mark Jones and Suzy Kolber who have performed the same role in past NBA and NFL Drafts, even though this telecast isn't exactly the proper setting for filming an audition tape. It's clear Battier will have a career in the media when his playing days are over. In the end, I'm more willing to give credit to Battier for trying to do something different than the regular jockocracy, instead of crushing him into tiny pieces. After all, that's what Twitter is for, right?
Finally! It only took until the 15th pick for ESPN to unveil their secret weapon. But then, Fran Fraschilla dropped knowledge on each international prospect in a concise manner that was easy to relate to for players that were a complete mystery to 99% of the viewing audience. It's odd when you think about it, but there is perhaps no analyst who performs as well in such a specific role as Fran Fraschilla analyzing international NBA Draft prospects. The only shame is that Fraschilla is pigeonholed into such a narrow focus when he clearly has a talent that could be maximized elsewhere at ESPN.
-Adrian Wojnarowski was the true MVP of the NBA Draft from a media perspective for yet another year. By the time David Stern announced the selection of Victor Oladipo by Orlando at #2, Woj had already tweeted the Wizards would select Otto Porter at #3. He was first (on my timeline) with news of Nerlens Noel being traded. To cap it all off, Woj broke the news of Kevin Garnett agreeing to the trade that would send him and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, sending the Sports Guy and ESPN's coverage into a tailspin. There's no reporter who is more ahead of the field in his sport than Woj and the NBA. At this point, Woj has just lapped Chris Broussard and his sources for the 308th time.
-Once again, the true unsung heroes were the production and graphics people behind the scenes. It amazes every year that ESPN has a substantial highlight package on punters from North Dakota State or shooting guards from Serbia.
-David Stern was in fine form at his 30th NBA Draft in his role as pantomime villain for the evening. In his final draft, Stern relished in playing to the crowd at the draft one last time. He bantered with fans, egged them on, even playfully announced the new name of the New Orleans Pelicans…. Pelicans. Stern also delivered the line of the night "We've had to explain to our international audience that the boo is an American sign of respect." The only shock was Stern not choosing to refer to the fans as fat, out-of-shape, inner-city sweat hogs in his parting shot.
At the end of the night, the eulogizing of Stern by the draft set might have been slight overkill, but all in all it was a memorable evening for one of the most influential figures in sports over the past three decades. The image of Stern with his first announced pick, Hakeem Olajuwon, to a rousing ovation by the crowd was a fitting send off for the retiring commissioner.
-The likes of on-site reporters Heather Cox and Josina Anderson added little of value, same with Tom Penn. Penn gave slightly more insight with more advanced metrics and salary cap information, but was given too little time to make an impact.
-Andy Katz and Chris Broussard might as well have been replaced by a live look at Wojnarowski's Twitter feed in real time. Enough said.
-Overall though, it was encouraging that ESPN even mentioned the word Yahoo in a couple of rare instances interspersed with the usual "sources" and new jargon of "media reports." Hey, we can't expect ESPN to be perfect when information is changing as quickly as it did during the draft and there was a genuine effort to improve their sourcing over previous years.
Still, Wojnarowski being ahead of ESPN all night was vivid in the most awkward moment of ESPN's coverage. Bill Simmons credited Yahoo for the news of the Trey Burke trade, and in a humorous display, this immediately was followed by a Chris Broussard report with the identical information just mentioned by Simmons. Somewhere an ESPN suit did a spit take when Simmons stole the thunder of Chris Broussard and gave it to Yahoo, even as Rece Davis tried to credit Chad Ford! It was a bizarre moment that displayed ESPN's still present sourcing conflicts, Simmons' unpredictability, and the superiority of Wojnarowski in one sound bite.
-From one perspective, it's hard to blame ESPN for seeming to be caught behind the crazy action of the first round. With the NFL Draft, the NFL and its network partners do everything they can to preserve its television event status. With last night's NBA Draft, it appeared at times that ESPN was outmaneuvered by an event that moved quicker than live television can allow. Does that take ESPN's grade down a couple notches? Maybe, although the nature of the draft and the television production of it makes it difficult to judge too harshly. Maybe Wojo and Twitter will always be ahead and there's nothing Bristol can do about it.
ESPN could have been clearer and crisper in their response to rapidly developing events, yes. But, the improved chemistry of the main set deserves to be lauded. Specifically, the pairing of Bilas and Simmons as two equally smart, funny, and aware analysts was an inspired choice. The team of Bilas, Rose, and Simmons with a pro's pro like Rece Davis produced a product that was downright enjoyable at times. And it was definitely light years ahead of previous drafts. There were enough hiccups that prevent an A grade; however, the performance was certainly above average with a lot of potential in the future if ESPN opts for continuity.
FINAL GRADE: B