The NBA Draft’s Men of Mystery: A Survey and Hypothesis

On the xenophobic tinges of June NBA narratives

what will your shooting percentage be, and how could your nationality have told us this earlier

Secret workouts. Handshake promises. Disinformation wars. Woj exercising the player option on his contract with Satan. The ides of June!

The lurid uncertainty of the NBA Draft is its greatest appeal. With reams of mock drafts, a planetary circumference’s worth of footage, and enough Jay Bilas to make your unborn great-grandchildren hate Duke, fans and experts alike attempt to solve the draft’s annual riddle with the brute force of their obsession. But information is a mighty wedge between knowledge and knowing; anyone who claims to know the best players in the draft is either lying or working for The Scoop. Everyone else is just having fun guessing.

Amid this forecasting frenzy the trope of the NBA Draft’s Mystery Man has flourished. The Mystery Man—sometimes referred to as the Man of Mystery—first appeared around the turn of the century, when an influx of high school and overseas talent in the draft pool created a need for handy narrative shells that ESPN could use to package the unfamiliar faces. The Mystery Man designation filled in where half-assed player comps could not.

And so it was that Yao Ming, the basketball-playing sequoia, was first referred to as an “International Man of Mystery” on the Houston Rockets’ team website shortly after being drafted first overall out of China in 2002. There wasn’t too much mysterious about Yao, considering that he was among the most recognizable athletes on Earth at the time. (They recognized him, of course, from the Apple commercial he starred in alongside Verne Troyer — who played the evil sidekick in, holy shit, the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery!) In retrospect, it’s conceivable that the first Mystery Man emerged from a century-old American stereotype of East Asians…

…especially when you consider that the trope did not appear again until Yao’s countryman, Yi Jianlian, declared for the draft in 2007. But Yi’s obscurity was more fully conceived, with an age controversy following him across the Atlantic and a lack of clearly defined hobbies. And whereas his predecessor enjoyed a brilliant and broadly influential NBA career, Yi was forever haunted by the irresistibly fictionalized account of a pre-draft workout on ESPN’s Page 2 that scuttled his professional reputation before he even debuted. If Yi’s mystery is why fate selected him as the protagonist of a bewildering, nightmarish tragicomedy, again, the answer appears to be latent xenophobia.

The Spanish prodigy Ricky Rubio’s 2009 entry into Mystery Manhood — which came with transparently ethnocentric doubts about his toughness — reinforced the undermining nature of the term.

Only in 2011, beginning with Enes Kanter, a Swiss-Turkish national who would one day navigate geopolitical intrigue with the requisite gallantry and goofiness of an actual International Man Of Mystery, did the Mystery Man become an annual coronation. Since then, while an overseas player still tends to get it, the jingoistic connotations of the Mystery Man title have softened:

2012: Dion Waiters

2013: Giannis Antetokounmpo

2014: Dante Exum

2015: Kristaps Porzingis, Emmanuel Mudiay

2016: Dragan Bender, Thon Maker, Zhou Qi

2017: Frank Ntilikina, Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo

A few hits and a few misses, but who cares. For some of these guys, like Dragan Bender, securing that year’s Man of Mystery was an important marketing strategy. It’s unlikely that Bender, a basketball player of breathtaking inability, would have gone in the high lottery without the mystique conferred by his title. Similarly, Thon Maker, projected late in the first round that year, shot up to 10th, as a year-old highlight reel in which he appeared to be dominating middle-schoolers and Reddit-sourced questions about his true age proved too compelling for the Milwaukee Bucks to pass up.

Dion Waiters is on the list because sometimes the media gets it right.

Likewise, we should see the year-after-year transmission of the title as a byproduct of a different kind of marketing: search-engine optimization. Each draft needs a Mystery Man because the content overlords demand it now and you don’t question the content overlords. Anyway they’re right: People love mysteries, and people love men. And people really love the draft.

Allow me to draw your attention back to the list of recent Men of Mystery, which indicates a clear proliferation in so-called MOMs in recent years.

You can only guess what 2018’s roster looks like:

-Luka Doncic

-Mitchell Robinson

-Anfernee Simons

-Jevon Carter

-Michael Porter Jr.

-Abudushalamu Abudurexiti

Enough names to fill a Mancave of Mystery, despite the most accessible and fine-grained source material for studying prospects there’s ever been. There isn’t a guy in the draft whose two-factor ID security questions you couldn’t Google the answer to; even the guy from Macedonia has a ten-minute YouTube breakdown of his body language complete with ominous hip-hop instrumentals. But somehow there are six guys in one draft that could pass for Mystery Men?

But this is why we’re here. Mystery Bloat isn’t just content bloat. It’s a feature of the NBA Draft industry, a natural reflex to the crush of draft-mocking and preview shows and posturing and everything else that tries to demystify the guesswork. Indeed, the vastness of the biological, personal, and statistical dirt on each player in the draft only enhances the anxiety of needing more to make the right call. It is the essential, irresistible paradox of the draft.

The show goes on. Tall young men in new suits. Chad Ford’s predictions ironclad in pencil. A commissioner, jeered. The ides of June.