Summer is the time for projects.
The lack of overbearing schoolwork and beautiful absolution of academic deadlines leaves one wanting for a new and passionate pursuit — one that, perhaps, won’t be given a letter grade, or require agonization the night before. The sun’s out and looking gorgeous, the fruit is succulent, and hopeful motivation fills the air.
Maintaining self-sufficiency and doing things only for oneself are two of the very best things for the soul, after all. And the best part about summer projects is how much they can vary from person to person.
I’m making pickles in a bucket from the dollar store inside a cooler I stole from a party long ago. Meanwhile, many NBA front offices are are making draft decisions that will greatly affect their multibillion dollar franchises for the next decade plus. Some projects are, obviously, more stressful than others.
But these totally different endeavors — fermenting some extra-spicy kosher dills and picking the next NBA superstar — are actually more similar than they seem. And it all has to do with that indefinable crunch.
Everybody (okay, maybe just me) celebrates pickling as some divine art — the practice of bringing life where previously there was only death, bringing deliciousness where previously there was only cucumber — but my experience hasn’t been that at all. I’ve mostly spent the last week staring stupefied at a bucket of murky water, skimming what I hope isn’t botulism off the top with a spoon I just licked clean of hummus because the only thing that smells worse than this lacto-fermentation is the kitchen sink in my sublet. Yegh.
There’s really no heroism in pickle cultivation; no honor in waiting and watching, and that’s perfectly exemplified by the final test. There’s only one way to tell if you’re done. Yank that sucker out of the bath, check for anything on the skin that looks exceptionally deadly, and take a chomp. If it tastes good, you’re done, and if not, it needs more time.
You can sniff, you can poke and tap and shake, but taking a bite is the only way to tell if the pickles are any good. And that’s what got me thinking about the NBA draft.
College basketball is a fluky sport, dominated by fluky players, culminating in a bit of a fluky champion. The short three-point line and tall talent disparity clouds the true skill of the best players — a bit like my cloudy brine.
The single-elimination style of March Madness is exciting, sure, but when NBA teams must determine how well a player does in crunchtime based entirely on a couple of games played at random neutral sites, the science of drafting quickly devolves into gut-feel. Last year’s first overall pick, as well as the player likely to go number one next month, didn’t even make the tournament in the first place. They couldn’t make their teams one of the 64 best in the country, yet Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are virtually can’t-miss prospects?
And speaking of top picks, since the star-studded 2003 LeBron draft class, only thrice has the player taken first overall turned out indisputably the best in the class (2004, 2012 and 2015: Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns). Hell, Anthony Bennett, Andrea Bargnani and Greg Oden were first picks in that span. Imagine biting into that pickle.
So you’re telling me that I’m as likely to get a Bennett, Oden or Bargnani than I am to get the best player in the class with the first pick? Sounds a whole lot like staring into murky water to me.
The fact is, a lot of pickling, and drafting, is left to chance. You measure your salt right, and you call Lonzo Ball’s college coach to ask about his dad. You try your very best to keep the brine around 70 degrees, and you see how many open threes Fultz can make out of 100. You keep the cucumbers submerged, and you watch endless college tape of De’Aaron Fox’s broken jumpshot.
But in the end, you’re still left with that oh-so-imperative crunch — you only know what you have after you take a bite and draft a kid, and all you can do is hope they’re more promise than project.
Good thing it’s summertime.