by Ryan Jones

I don’t honestly have a lot to say about the cover story for SLAM 122 that didn’t make it into the cover story for SLAM 122. But I’ll try.

The idea for this cover was (I think) Ben Osborne’s, which is good, because that means it wasn’t mine. Were it mine, I’d no doubt be accused of jock-riding a group of players I’ve been covering (and promoting) for years. As it is, Kevin Love did NOT make the cover, which should excuse me from any misdirected claims of favoritism, since everyone knows I’m the founder and president of the Kevin Love Media Fan Club.*

This all goes back to when these guys were in high school—before that, even, if you count OJ Mayo’s earliest national notice, back when he was a seventh-grade phenom in West Virginia. By the time the eventual high school class of 2007 was actually in high school, we started hearing about some of the other cats, too: Chicago’s Derrick Rose; Mike Beasley and his man Nolan Smith from the DC-Murrlynd area; Eric Gordon, who was trying to give the Hoosier State its third straight best-in-class candidate after (ahem) Josh McRoberts and Greg Oden; and the small army of West Coast pale-faces led by Love, Kyle Singler and Taylor King. There were others, too, and from pretty early on, it was apparent that this class was really, really good.

Then came the imperfect but nonetheless well-timed storm that made a really, really good class into something more—a magnet for hype and controversy that was occasionally deserved and often misguided. Most prominent was the emerging soap opera of Mayo’s high school career—interstate transfers, delinquent behavior both real and rumored — and this was well before his non-recruiting by, and signing with, USC — whose official athletic department motto is absolutely not “It Ain’t Bragging if it’s True and It Ain’t Cheating if You Don’t Get Caught, So Don’t Be Jealous That Our Bragging-and-Cheating Budget is Deeper Than Yours.”**

Then there was Beasley’s Amare-esque high-school trekking; the budding Oregon rivalry between the differently dope Singler and Love; the hurt feelings left by Gordon’s flip-flopping recruitment; the very entertaining (you’re welcome) pseudo-saga of Patrick Patterson’s eventual signing with Kentucky; and Rose’s quiet dominance up in the Chi. All of which is not to mention the relatively sub-radar kids like Blake Griffin and James Harden, both of whom will be back in college this season, and both of whom are vying for top-dog status in the 2009 NBA Draft. Talent, really, was never an issue with this class.

But what made the class of 2007 so compelling is what happened in 2006—that’s the year the NBA decided that kids would no longer be allowed to make the same sort of horrible mistake that Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and so many others made before them by going directly from high school to the Draft. Actually, that’s the year the rule kicked into effect, but you see my point—and my point is, thank you, David Stern, for making sure there was enough room in the Lottery to ensure the inclusion of JJ Redick.

Anyway.

The NBA’s age minimum meant that all that ridiculous talent in the ’07 class was pretty much guaranteed to be funneled directly into the ’08 Draft. Sans age minimum, guys like Rose, Beasley and Mayo almost certainly would’ve gone straight to the L, but guys like JJ Hickson, Kosta Koufos, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Randolph and Donte Green (some of them, anyway) probably would’ve gone to school. Instead, they all went to school, because they figured they had no choice. This was great news for the NCAA as an organization (which I despise) and for college basketball as a sport (which I love). And however unfair it was to the players, it was great for fans: Unlike in high school, when only a handful of the top kids got any TV time or played each other in a meaningful game; or in the League, where half of them might get limited minutes as rookies, we got a chance to see all these players on roughly equal footing.

Generally speaking, it was pretty awesome.

So the season happened, most of these guys led their teams into the Tournament, and Rose and Love got their teams to the Final Four. Then came the Draft, which you know about. Then came late July, when I drove to the Knicks’ practice facility for the annual Rookie Photo Shoot. This meant a long but not unenjoyable day spent among a gym full of photographers and PR flacks and trading-card-company reps (what up Pitt!) and 30-some really tall and suddenly kinda rich guys, at least two of whom would make a supremely silly impression at the rookie orientation two months later. Knowing who and what I needed to get, I BS’d with NBA photographer and SLAM homie Jesse Garrabrant, who was set to shoot our cover subjects, and caught up with my man KLove, who once again confirmed the personality that will make him one of my favorite players for as long as he’s in the League (Myles, this is your cue to tell everyone about the phone call. You are the Palin to my McCain. Don’t let me down, sexy.)

Mostly, though, I shadowed OJ, Mike and Derrick, sneaking in a few minutes of interviews here and there while they were shuttled to 20 different photo stations and autograph signings and whatever other responsibilities the League had cooked up for them that day. The gym was dense with noise and the players were often distracted, but I think I got what I needed, which was these kids weighing in on the potential impact of their class. This group of guys, competitors who spent the past four or five or six years testing each other in AAU runs and summer camps and comparing rankings and magazine covers, has the chance to be great. I tried to get that out of them, and to a degree, they (especially Beasley) cooperated.

When it was finished, I worried a bit that I’d oversold my angle, and maybe I did. But I’m feeling OK about it. The fact is, the three players on this cover have the potential to be terrific NBA players, and it’s rare and a bit special (word to 442) that they came up together. Their personal rivalries have already been going longer than a lot of good NBA rivalries do, and they could be battling for All-Star spots, scoring titles and rings for the next 15 years. That’s crazy. Comparing to the last potentially transcendent NBA Draft, I looked back at the ’03 crop, from which LeBron, Carmelo, DWade and Chris Bosh have emerged as franchise players. Their histories are certainly connected (even before they were Redeem Teammates), but with the exception of Bron and Melo’s one high school matchup, their shared history didn’t really exist until they made the League. To a certain extent, Rose, Beasley and Mayo have that much history before they’ve played an NBA game.

Here’s hoping they don’t suck and make me look bad. Thank you.

*Technically not true, because the KLMFC does not exist. I don’t think.

**I don’t actually have any beef with USC, but I liked this line.

this is some text that I’m trying to test will it go around the actual image? I really hope it doesn’t because we have a nice group of covers which go on the site tomorrow and we can’t mess around.