NEW YORK — A season in which several teams viewed losing games as winning in the long term will culminate Thursday night.
Organizations swapped some miserable nights of basketball for a chance to snag a franchise changer in the NBA draft, but the top prospect won’t be in attendance as he recovers from foot surgery. Another player who has been in the discussion to go first overall in 2014 since he was in high school is angling to go second — to Milwaukee of all places.
The NBA draft is usually full of suspense and speculation, but the first year that players will shake hands with new Commissioner Adam Silver is set up to be especially interesting because of all of the maneuvering to prepare for this moment and all of the uncertainty that still exists. For the third time in four years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the No. 1 overall pick, and the rest of the league will be guessing.
Except for those rare years when LeBron James or Anthony Davis is the obvious top selection, the day before the draft features prospects making cases for why they should go first. But Jabari Parker of Duke made a surprisingly different pitch for why he is destined to go No. 2 to the Bucks — usually not the draft position or the organization where prospects hope to land.
“I’ve got some comfort level with them, especially with them just telling me ‘We want you.’ I didn’t get really any answers from the Cavs, so I’m just going with what I’m certain with,” Parker said. “I got just that answer, that fair assessment. They sat with me and said, ‘We’re going to go with you.’ ”
Parker is the latest basketball prodigy from Chicago, which has produced two of the past six top picks in Davis and Derrick Rose, and Parker would be closer to his family if he landed in Milwaukee. But he said that proximity to his home wouldn’t matter when it comes to his career, while denying a report he “tanked” his workout with Cleveland by showing up overweight and lethargic.
“I have too much pride to just waste other people’s time,” Parker said. “I come from Duke. And most important, I come from a family with good values.”
Cleveland has been the most unpredictable team in the three previous drafts, connecting with Kyrie Irving in 2011 and whiffing on others, most notably with Anthony Bennett last June.
The Cavaliers continue to be a franchise that is difficult to decipher. On Wednesday alone, Cleveland was rumored to be split on Parker and Kansas swingman Andrew Wiggins until owner Dan Gilbert responded to a report of the dissension on Twitter by stating the organization is “united.”
Later in the afternoon, Yahoo reported the Cavaliers attempted to make the franchise more attractive for a reunion with James by using the top pick in a trade to lure Kevin Love from Minnesota, but it fell apart because of Love’s refusal to sign an extension before becoming a free agent next summer.
Then ESPN reported that Cleveland was desperately scrambling to bring in Australian prospect Dante Exum on a private jet for a workout in a move that could signal the team is willing to trade down — or stun the league again by passing on Wiggins or Parker.
Cleveland was reportedly leaning toward taking Kansas big man Joel Embiid with the top choice before he broke the navicular bone in his right foot and had two screws inserted last week. With Embiid no longer an option, the franchise cannot afford another mistake.
While Wiggins and Parker denied there is a rivalry between them, Wiggins wasn’t ready to concede the top spot to anyone.
“I still want to go No. 1,” Wiggins said. “I think that’s more of the competitive side for me. Just wanting to be better than everyone else, not wanting anyone above me. It’d be a dream come true. That is one of the reasons. To be the best and to conquer.”
Tim Duncan, the top choice in 1997, is the last player to be drafted first overall and lead the team that selected him to a championship. And before Duncan, the previous No. 1 pick to do the same was David Robinson, the top choice in 1989 who finally claimed his first title with Duncan on the Spurs.
Though Parker appears to be conceding the top spot, Wiggins said the Cavaliers have given him no indication about where they are leaning.
The 6-foot-7 Wiggins would become the second player from Canada in as many years to go first overall, joining his friend Bennett. NBA scouts and executives rave about Wiggins’s athleticism and incredible “bounce” but have expressed concern about his passivity on the floor and failure to consistently dominate.
“That’s just people talking,” Wiggins said. “If the person says that and I don’t know them or I don’t have a relationship with them or anything like that, it just goes through one ear and out the other.”
With so many teams tanking games for a chance to earn his services, Wiggins is bound to join a struggling franchise, but he is not intimidated by the challenge. “I’m prepared. No matter what team I go to, I want to win. That’s my goal. No one wants to be on the losing side. I’m willing to do anything for the team in that situation.”
The 6-foot-9 Parker is viewed as the more polished and NBA-ready prospect among the two, but his defensive limitations and physical conditioning are concerns. “I’ve been dealing with it my entire life, people giving me negative approaches about my weight, but I don’t have any problem about the way that I am, because at the end of the day, I’ve got to play basketball,” Parker said. “I’m not no couch potato. I’m not going to flip the channels. I love to play basketball, and you can find me playing that almost every day.”
And soon, he will find out where his NBA career will start. “This is a really good draft,” Parker said. “I wouldn’t feel no pain to go No. 2 or to go No. 1. Anywhere that I’m going, I’m going there for a reason. If [the Cavaliers are] going to pick me, then I’m probably going to go on that stage and accept that hat.”