A few weeks after being moved to tears when he slipped out of the first round of the 1998 NBA draft,Rashard Lewis seriously began to ponder if he had made the right decision. The NBA locked out the players a week after the Seattle SuperSonics drafted him and Lewis hardly felt as if he was living his dream.
Not only did he have to deal with the uncertainty of being a second-round pick who wasn’t going to get a guaranteed contract, but Lewis was also still living in his mother’s house, still having the same routine and chores — he had to make his bed every morning, vacuum the house, and continue being part of a dishwashing rotation with his younger siblings.
“She was still the one putting money in my pocket and food in my stomach,” Lewis said with a laugh about his mother, Juanita Brown. “I’m in the NBA, but it felt like I wasn’t in the NBA, because it was a lockout. I wasn’t getting paid. I was like, ‘Did I get drafted?’ Felt like I was still in high school. Nothing changed back home — until I left home.”
Lewis, the Washington Wizards forward who entered the league straight out of high school, was part of the last draft class to feel the impact of a prolonged work stoppage. The lessons of that 1998 class could again come to the fore with a work stoppage expected to greet this draft class when the current NBA collective bargaining agreement expires July 1.
NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said last week that the league would meet with representatives from the players’ union during the NBA Finals and hope to “avoid at all costs” a situation similar to the NFL, where a lockout has been in place since March.
The June 23 draft is considered to be one of the weakest in recent memory, especially with college stars such as Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger, North Carolina swingman Harrison Barnes and Baylor forward Perry Jones opting to return to school. The threat of the lockout was considered a reason why several players elected to stay in college, but the numbers don’t necessarily back that up — 44 college players declared early for the NBA draft this year, just one fewer than last season. There also are 20 international players available in the upcoming draft, the combined total from the past three seasons.
Many prospects in Chicago, where the pre-draft combine took place this past week, said that the possibility of a lockout was a consideration, but not enough of a deterrent to keep them from entering the league.
“It had nothing to do with my decision,” Arizona forward Derrick Williams, who entered the draft after his sophomore season and is expected to be selected first or second, said of the possibility of a lockout. “I’m just trying to work out and be in the best shape for whenever, if there is a lockout or whatever, so I can be ready whenever the season starts.”
If there is a lockout, players would be prohibited from making contact with coaches and team executives and would likely have to prepare for the NBA without the benefit of a summer league. Lewis described the experience of preparing for his rookie season as “almost like you was on your own.”
“You always look at the lockout as a big deal. It’s all over the papers. That’s something you definitely have to put into account, and it was definitely a part of the process that I went through,” Texas freshman Tristan Thompson said. “I feel that if there is a lockout, there is a possibility it doesn’t last that long. It might be just a summer.”
Thompson and Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight both said they would return to school to work out with their former teams and pursue their degrees if there were an extended lockout. Knight wasn’t worried about the risk when he discovered that he could be a top-10 draft pick.
“It didn’t really waver me from not wanting to go,” Knight said of a possible lockout. “My thoughts going in was just, I had a lot of credits in college. I could go back, with it potentially being a lockout, could go back and get more credits. And at the same time, as a top draft pick, I could inch a little bit closer to both dreams and I thought it was a good opportunity.”
Ten players from the 1998 draft class were still around this season, including former Wizard and current Cleveland Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison, who said that he never gave consideration to a lockout when he decided to leave North Carolina after his junior year because it “had never occurred in the NBA. I was thinking: ‘They'll figure something out. It can’t happen now.’ Unfortunately, it did.”
Unlike Lewis, Jamison knew that he would likely be a top-five pick and received a sizable advance from his agent. Jamison said he stayed in shape during the lockout by working out with a trainer hired by his agent in Chapel Hill, N.C., but felt his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors was forgettable because the league crammed a 50-game schedule into a short window.
After playing twice a week in college, Jamison had to adjust to playing three nights in a row.
“It set me back a lot,” Jamison said of the lockout. “It's tough making the adjustment [to the NBA], period. But to do it while there’s a lockout is definitely tough. For these young guys [coming out] hopefully it doesn’t happen but if they don't experience that, it definitely prevents them from really getting the opportunity to be the best they can possibly be.”
Lewis, though, actually credits the lockout for helping him make it in the NBA. Since he lived in Houston, Lewis was able to scrimmage regularly and hold his own against NBA players in the area, such as Cuttino Mobley, Maurice Taylor and Sam Cassell.
“Playing with those other guys that was in the NBA, it built my confidence every day, and I was ready to go the minute I got to the NBA,” Lewis said. “If it wasn’t for the lockout, I don’t feel like I’d be in the NBA today. Because I had the confidence to make that team.”
But Lewis said he hopes that the current draft class doesn’t have go through a similar experience. “That’s what makes it tough on a lot of young guys getting drafted, because you don’t know where you’re going to go. You can’t go back to school. Those guys have no clue about the business side of the NBA. I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was scary for me. It was very scary.”