It begins the way a fire does—with a match, or some quick stroke of heat that pulls the eyes of surrounding onlookers, first from nearby, then those much farther away. In the sports world, this happens with an electric performance, or better yet, a whole string of them. Fans pay increased attention, then that attention grows and grows until the athlete(s) is supposed to live up to some media-set standard he or she had zero part in determining.
And who sets the Hype Guidelines, anyway? Who's to say when we've gone overboard? What happens if we miss the boat entirely, dishing zero hype when so much would've been appropriate? What if we bestow it simply because we haven't in a while, and we're, for lack of a better term, bored as shit?
A publication must have a code, right?
Here's the thing: We don't. There's no Constitution of Hype, no hype instruction manual, no law and no order to this nonsense. We do what we want, because we can, and because we think we can do so better than anybody else.
So now we've put (with a couple schedule-conflict-caused exceptions) the entire 2014 NBA Lottery on the cover of SLAM, and we've done so in the exact manner that we did with the Class of 1996, a storied group that boasted the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Stephon Marbury. (And Allen Iverson, though he ditched the photo shoot.)
You're welcome, rooks! Or, um, our apologies.
See what we mean about this stuff being kinda difficult?
This collection of upstarts already needed to become one of the best classes in NBA history to validate this senseless buildup handed down to them by the general public, and here we come to make things that much worse. But this is what they signed up for, no? Isn't this why we pay attention? And isn't this why our readers even exist? To know whom they need to pay attention to, and when they really need to pay attention?
Well, here you go: Time to pay some motherfucking attention to some rookies, amigos. The next great class of professional basketball players is finally here to play professional basketball.
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Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins are the most familiar here, naturally. They're not new to any of this. You know their stories; Wiggins, the Canadian who went to West Virginia for high school then displayed flashes of greatness at Kansas before (eventually) landing in Minnesota, and Parker, the Chicagoan who hooped at Simeon HS then displayed flashes of greatness at Duke before landing in Milwaukee. We've already featured both of them on our cover, as have Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.
Wiggins, in fact, is so comfortable with his status, so embedded in and mentally removed from the hype cycle, that he skipped out on a SLAM cover shoot during his only year of college. No love lost, though—all it did was give us the opportunity to highlight his deserving Kansas teammate Joel Embiid more prominently. We won't know how good Philly's top pick will be in the NBA for at least a few months—he's sidelined for the foreseeable future with a broken foot—but his Twitter account is already a Hall of Fame candidate, so he's got that going for him, which is nice. A 7-footer with an absurd 7-5 wingspan and NBA-ready body to match out of Cameroon, Embiid didn't start hooping until he hit his mid-teens, making the signs of a potentially Olajuwon-esque post game doubly impressive.
Posing on the cover a couple spots down from Embiid, ball in hand to evoke a teenage Kobe, is the Mamba's youngest teammate, power forward Julius Randle. Randle's a strong, left-handed big man who draws comparisons to Zach Randolph, though the Dallas-raised JR—whose 2012 Ballislife.com mixtape was entitled "Julius Randle Is The Most DOMINANT Player In High School!"—is equipped with bounce Z-Bo never had. Which, speaking of athleticism, brings us to the Magic's Aaron Gordon, a jump-out-of-the-gym forward with a Cali-bred, laid-back demeanor. Gordon's BallisLife mixtape was entitled "NASTIEST Player in High School DOMINATES All Season" … and it was perfectly accurate. That's what happened.
Then there's the Celtics' Marcus Smart, a tough point guard out of Oklahoma State who probably could've helped last year's crop of rookies make a little bit more of a dent in 2013-14 had he thrown his name into the 2013 Draft. Instead, he returned to school for his sophomore year, a season marred with controversy after he shoved a loudmouthed fan who, as a middle-aged man heckling teenagers from the first row of a collegiate sporting event, probably had it coming.
The other point guard of the bunch—not including one notably missing human; more on him in a bit—is Elfrid Payton, Gordon’s new teammate in Orlando. Payton, who has a game reminiscent of a retired Hall of Famer with the same last name (no relation) and who, perhaps more importantly than anything ever, has a very serious affinity for Sour Patch Kids, hails from Gretna, LA—word to the fleur-de-lis inked on his right bicep. The 6-3 PG is one of the few exceptions to the all-hype-everything theme surrounding this class, as he was under-recruited out of high school and wound up at Louisiana-Lafayette, where he broke out as both an electrifying scorer (19.1 ppg) and reliable defender (winning the Sun Belt’s DPOY award).
Then there's the new Bull, Doug McDermott, a sharpshooting forward out of Creighton with a record-setting college career under his belt. McDermott has already knocked out the remade-iconic-magazine-cover thing before, posing in early 2014 for Sports Illustrated alongside two cheerleaders just as Larry Bird did back in 1977.
While it isn't fair to McDermott to disregard his athletic prowess—there's still a pretty ridiculous base athleticism required just to earn a roster spot in the League these days—what DM lacks in that department is more than made up for by the high-soaring Zach LaVine. Many got their first real glimpse of LaVine via an expletive—milliseconds after Adam Silver announced the UCLA swingman had been picked 13th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, LaVine mouthed a "Fuck me" that was Vined and Re-Vined around the world before the kid even made his way to the post-selection interview. Looked like the Washington-bred kid who attended school in sunny California was miserable at the thought of moving his life to the frigid north. But we were deceived. That "Fuck me" had nothing to do with LaVine's new home; at the moment of F-bomb detonation, dude had barely registered where he was headed whatsoever. The reaction was merely the result of hearing his name called by the Commissioner of the NBA on Draft night, the result of the realization that a kid who once watched Space Jam over and over had become an NBA player and multi-millionaire at the preposterously ripe age of 19.
To LaVine's left on our cover is Sacramento's Nik Stauskas, the slick-shooting wing from Ontario, Canada (by way of Michigan) who was impressing NBA players long before anyone else on this list. As a 10 year old, he attended a Toronto Raptors open practice and was hand-picked to shoot around with the one and only Vince Carter—he then proceeded to hit a free throw, followed by a high school three-pointer, followed by his first-ever NBA three-pointer, prompting VC to tackle the youngster to the ground in celebration.
What Stauskas lacks amidst an uncertain Kings franchise is the one thing former Hoosiers big man Noah Vonleh has: a clear-cut role and opportunity to flourish on a squad in need of exactly what he offers. Though Al Jefferson will get his minutes, Vonleh—a 6-10 forward who, with huge hands, a long wingspan and all of the physical tools a GM could pray for, previously reclassified from the high school Class of '14 to the Class of '13 to become a Hoosier—could flourish alongside Big Al, as names like Biyombo and Zeller shouldn't be too difficult to bypass on the depth chart. Stats like the 11 and 9 he averaged at IU could and should be on the horizon, assuming the Massachusetts native makes a full recovery from the hernia surgery he recently underwent.
And in case you thought all of this hype was based on pre-Draft, high school and NCAA-play speculation, we bring you TJ Warren, who may have been the most impressive rookie at Summer League. Warren's a 6-8 small forward out of NC State who can score in bunches, as evidenced by the 17.8 points per game he dropped in Las Vegas this past July. (And his 22.2 ppg average in '13-14 as a member of the Wolfpack, too.) The Suns selected Warren at No. 14, and though their roster is a bit congested, he should contribute as an off-the-bench scorer until a bigger opening comes along.
Worth noting: Not featured on the front of our new issue are the Jazz's Dante Exum (a guard out of Australia whose lack of experience against top competition raises both skepticism and intrigue) and the 76ers' Dario Saric (a Croatian forward who's navigated slightly mysteriously through a few European basketball teams and who will continue to play in Turkey for the time being). Next time, fellas.
The NBA's veterans—guys like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki—are still very much present, hoping to take advantage of every last on-court minute they have, while the current crop of superstars—LeBron, KD, CP3 and an impossibly long list of others—not only run the League but may surpass any generation that preceded them. Yet now we have a new group, one filled with names that have somehow been hyped since well before they were taking turns throwing down monster dunks during high school All-American games—and then hyped while they were doing just that, and then hyped while they were in college for a time so short it made Jim Boeheim tear his remaining hair right out.
These guys have had next for a minute. And now they have now.
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They didn't know what we were planning—not at first, anyway. The group gathered for a flick at the Knicks training facility in Tarrytown, NY—a quick session amidst a packed media day filled with photo shoots, interviews and whatever other content the League could scrounge up while it had its entire rookie class together in one room—having no idea that we were recreating a picture taken 18 years ago, shot by the very same photographer. (What up, Nat!)
We weren't gonna tell 'em, either. We were going to let them learn the same way you did, let them see the image and get excited that we dare compare them to such a legendary crew of up-and-comers or let them cringe at the existence of such a lofty comparison. But they looked confused, wondering why a couple of scrawny editors were moving them around with such specificity—why the highly touted point guard would need to be second from the left with a towel around his neck, or why one of the Canadian kids had to stand tall toward the right side of the pack.
So we showed them. Gave them a look at the SLAM 15 cover (pictured right) and admitted that we were remaking it, the faces of this new class replacing those of some of the most elite players of the past two decades. And what do you know; they absolutely loved it.
"That's so cold," were the first words we heard, coming from some unknown voice within the group.
"Oh yeah, you're Canada," LaVine instantly told Stauskas, whose shoulders popped up in immediate excitement.
"Who's that in the Grizzlies jersey where I'm standing?" Gordon asked. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, of course. "Oh, hell yeah," he said, nodding in approval.
On it went. Eventually we configured them properly, got the flick needed and sent the group of up-and-comers on their way, off to answer fan questions on Reddit and pose for @NBA selfies.
And the hype machine kept churning onward. The thing about hype is that it matters—it shifts perspectives, keeps eyeballs fixated in one direction, crushes those unable to handle it and propels those who can—until it doesn't. We worry about hyping the wrong prospects, about setting too-lofty expectations … and then those we do so to shrug off all this fuss and go play basketball. Maybe that's the result of these kids being thrown headfirst into the hype machine before they can legally drive a car, or maybe we just overestimate the power of said hype machine in the first place.
Because for some people, it's just noise—we can hype as we please, compare one generation to the next, set the bar wherever we'd like. Put the weight of one of the strongest rookie classes in basketball history onto a brand new one, and tell the members of that class that they have to live up to this arbitrary measurement or … else. But it's just noise. These dudes are either going to handle what comes next well or they're going to handle it terribly. And it says here that it's going to be the former. They've been preparing for this for a long, long time. They're ready.