NBA finds top picks in the stands with the fans
Several first-round draft choices weren’t invited to wait by the stage
Thon Maker squeezed his 7-foot-1 frame into Seat 1 in section 125, row 4 at the Barclays Center Thursday night while the supposed 19 best NBA prospects sat comfortably in a “green room” section by the stage. Oblivious fans carrying sodas and nachos walked up and down the stairs by the Sudanese-born big man. That all changed, however, when the Milwaukee Bucks surprised everyone by taking Maker with the 10th pick in the 2016 NBA draft as he sat among the people in Brooklyn, New York.
While Maker made the slow trek from his seat at half court to the stage behind the basket, 10 green room prospects were still waiting to have their names called.
“It’s actually a good seat because you are already building relationships with the fans,” Maker told The Undefeated. “Other people look at it as a negative. Some of [the green room prospects] were looking at me sideways. Other guys were happy for me.”
Eighteen of the NBA’s most daring draft prospects were sitting in sections 124 and 125 of the Barclays Center, all without green room invitations. (The NBA came close to including Maker in the green room seats, but made a late decision to exclude him, a source told The Undefeated.)
While no statistics are kept on this phenomenon, it’s likely that this draft included the most prospects hoping to get selected while sitting in the stands with the fans. Maker, Baylor forward Taurean Prince, Greek center Georgios Papagiannis, French forward Guerschon Yabusele, Michigan guard Caris LeVert, Croatian center Ante Zizic, and North Carolina forward Brice Johnson were all first-round picks coming from the stands. Several others were taken in the second round.
“I was rushed a little bit from the stands,” Maker said. “I wanted to acknowledge my people there, my brother. It was really special.”
There have been instances in the past when sitting in the stands has turned out badly. One former Big East Conference star fell to the floor in tears by a Barclays Center concession stand after going undrafted in 2014 and was consoled by his sister. French center Mouhammadou Jaiteh went undrafted after sitting in the stands last year and fired his agent afterward, a source said.
So why were Maker, Prince, Papagiannis, Johnson and the others confident enough to sit there? They explained why before the draft started:
“I put in the countless hours. I put in the hard work. I trust my game,” said Maker.
Prince was taken with the 12th pick by the Utah Jazz and will move to the Atlanta Hawks in a trade. “I saw the opportunity, so I took it regardless to whether I was at the table or the stands,” he said. “I’m receiving the same opportunity the other guys are getting. I knew I was coming. Regardless, you only get to walk across the stage one time.”
Papagiannis, who was taken with the 13th pick by the Phoenix Suns and traded to the Sacramento Kings, said: “It’s my dream to shake [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver’s hand and I’m going to remember that memory for life. I’m excited, but nervous, too.”
Johnson, one of the few college seniors taken in the first round, went to the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 25. “I wanted to be in the green room,” he said. “Since I’m not going to be there, the next best thing is to sit in the stands. I still want to walk across the stage and shake Adam Silver’s hand at the end of the day.”
At Baylor, Prince was a teammate of former center Isaiah Austin, whose NBA dream ended before it started two years ago when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome days before the draft. After Prince was picked, he got up from his seat in row six of section 125 and headed to the stage. Eventually, a crying Austin located him backstage and the two had a lengthy and emotional hug.
“I got tears of joy for that man,” Austin said. “He deserves it, for real. He’s humble. Doesn’t get more humble than sitting in the stands. A lot of guys in the draft, if they’re not invited to the green room, they decide not to come.”
Said Prince: “I felt as if I was in the green room. I was just in a different spot. Now I’m able to share this experience and these memories with my family.”
The prospect who may have had the hardest time sitting in the stands was the 7-foot-2-inch, 275-pound Papagiannis.
The Greek giant felt much better after being drafted by the Kings. When it happened, his father, Kanelos Papagiannis, who is almost as large as his son, jumped to his feet wearing a hat that read, “Big George.” Nearly 30 of Big George’s family and friends were in the stands, including one who proudly waved a Greek flag.
“Right now I’m hiding my feelings, but I’m so excited,” Papagiannis said. “I’m proud of myself that I did it right now at the age of 18. It’s a dream. I loved coming from the stands. I’m going to do the best I can for Sacramento.”
But the night didn’t have a dream ending for all 18 hopefuls in the stands. Gracin Bakumanya, a Congo native playing in France, Obi Emegano, from Oral Roberts University, and Cat Barber of North Carolina State left undrafted.
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, who announces the second-round picks, said he loves the stories from the stands.
“I love to see their enthusiasm and their dream come true,” Tatum said. “Walking down from the stands, they are usually surrounded by friends and family. Everyone gets up. Everyone cheers. The other people in the audience see it and they get excited, too. It’s an amazing night to see dreams come true.”