Last Thursday, the sports world turned on ESPN to watch the crowning of a once in a generation talent. To the surprise of no one, Zion Williamson was the number one pick in the NBA Draft.
The official coronation was almost immediate. It ended in a television heartbeat. After a year at Duke, the rugged forward is headed to the New Orleans Pelicans where he’ll likely begin his rise to professional stardom.
But for ESPN, the question then was, now what? After the Zion pick, the list of draftees became increasingly less familiar to viewers. Meanwhile, the draft and ESPN’s coverage would linger for hours.
Not many sporting events that take place off the playing surface offer the raw emotion and live twists that drafts do. There’s uncertainty, occasional shock factors and feel-good stories. Immersed fans want to learn more about the fresh playing faces from those with microphones.
To maintain their audience, ESPN’s commentators, interviewers and reporters had to be in tiptop form. On draft night, there are backroom deals and quick decisions that can alter the direction of franchises for many seasons.
How did ESPN do?
These are my observations of what worked and what didn’t on ESPN’s 2019 NBA Draft broadcast.
- Finding a good balance between analysis and entertainment was generally solid throughout the night.
- Maria Taylor, emerging as one of the best on-field reporters and interviewers, was excellent all night. Her post-selection interaction with picks was terrific, beginning with Williamson. And it continued as such through the night. Taylor wasn’t scripted. Her interaction was natural and free flowing. She posed questions based on answers, often letting players’ emotions and excitement take center stage………. Taylor also let the game come to her, so to speak. She gave the picks the runway they merited. Doing so, Zion, for instance, demonstrated why he is so likable. Lesser known lottery picks too, like Darius Garland and Jarret Culver, complemented their elite on-court talent with an off-the-court appeal; showing strong character and respect.
- ESPN’s camera work cooperated nicely. When draftees’ eyes welled up, the network’s closeups accentuated precious moments.
- The star of the night was Jay Bilas. Often critiqued for having a Duke bias and an aggressive tone, the ex-Blue Devil turned attorney and broadcaster was superb profiling players. He expertly dissected draft picks in a concise and unbiased manner. His passion, knowledge, thorough player research and quick assessments through the fluid draft were evident. ESPN researchers likely deserve credit too…..Supported by a solid ESPN production team, Jay cogently pointed out players’ strengths and weaknesses; e.g. Jaxson Hayes, rim protector; Coby White, ball handling; Tyler Herro, arm length; RJ Barrett, shooting and Ignas Brazdeikis, lack of lateral quickness.
- Chauncey Billups was the only analyst seated alongside Jay the entire night. Frankly, his contribution was limited and he came off as somewhat ill-prepared. The former NBAer also provided little in entertainment and engagement value. He was given too much responsibility and too big a role as a main analyst behind Bilas.
- Although Chauncey struggled, his player comparisons, seen though a good portion of the first round, were viewer-friendly and informative. Comparing top picks with names recognized by casual fans, namely former NBA players, was an effective practice. It was engaging and instructional. For example, comparing Zion to Charles Barkley in body build and nimbleness was telling.
- The broadcast could have benefited from one or two more seasoned analysts. ESPN could have used Mike Schmitz and Bobby Marks more. Both were used only sparingly. P.J. Carlesimo would have brought tangible energy. The knowledgeable Tim Legler would have brought a Louis Riddick like personality to form a balanced mix, taking the spotlight off Billups. But ESPN should have continued the comparisons through the entire first round.
- ESPN did a good job with its Team Needs graphic, which was visible to viewers during the minutes when a team was on the clock. Unlike focusing on positional needs as ESPN does for the NFL draft, the network delved into team needs. But the arcane acronyms that were on the screen were certainly not familiar to many viewers . Plain English would suffice. For instance, instead of Cavs need a small forward or Suns need a shooting guard, viewers saw lingo like “3 and D wing.”
- While ESPN posted a Best available, viewers would have been better served with a nuanced feature, Best available and best fit for the team on the clock. Live draft trackers online do so. Should ESPN have done the same, it would have heightened an already good production even more.
- Mike Schmitz and Bobby Marks were excellent and as mentioned, underused. Marks broke down the Lakers and Celtics situations and Schmitz provided in depth analysis of players not on the radar. Not using these two guys more was a missed opportunity.
- Rece Davis was strong through the multifaceted, sometimes confusing trades that were seen all night. Rece provided clarity.
- Fighting the clock between picks didn’t always give the analysts ample time to evaluate players after they were selected. Because of interviews and commercial breaks any such conversation was short.
- By including parents and family in interviews between picks, viewers felt a heartwarming touch. Zion and his mom were fantastic and other players such as Barrett, Culver, Garland, and Morant all had special interactions with their fathers on live television.
Morsels from the editor:
- Despite the hype, Sports Media Watch says that ESPN did a 2.5 rating, down a fraction from last year’s 2.6. The draft’s telecast outlasted last year’s. It went 45 minutes longer. The extended hour meant that the draft ran into bedtime for many easterners.
- As we all know, international stars have become increasingly growing contributors to the NBA. As such, ESPN should have used Fran Fraschilla, an analyst in its stable, who keeps his finger on the international pulse.
- ESPN added a late carefree account, detailing the process of how Commissioner Adam Silver is given the pick-by-pick information backstage and then makes his way to the podium. Networks never lose when they personalize practices and processes. Good stuff.