With the 2011 NBA Draft so very close, a fresh crop of budding basketball stars await their inclusion into what is arguably the most marketable sport in the United States.
Basketball, given its inherent tie to hip-hop culture, the familiarity with its players (who don't wear disguising helmets) and its overall popularity among multiple demographics, lends itself to creating instant stars both on and off the court.
So, which prospects will make the biggest marketing splash after Thursday night's festivities? Whose names will we hear over and over again, before the next NBA season even starts (whenever that is)?
Whose faces will we get sick of seeing on commercials and billboards within a matter of weeks?
Here are the 10 soon-to-be-NBA stars who you may not know now—though you probably do—and you're bound to get used to soon.
For this type of list, Kawhi Leonard is definitely the sleeper.
Leonard, the 6'7" forward out of San Diego State, is a quiet, laid-back figure. He won't give long, flowery interviews; in fact, you'd be lucky to get him to say more than a few words.
But, once in awhile, a guy comes around who isn't the loudest or the most boisterous. Sometimes the reserved players do garner the attention. Look at Randy Johnson or, for a more homogeneous comparison, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan.
Duncan is hardly a chatterbox, but he's built a career and image around his steady, even-keeled disposition on and off the court. Who says Leonard can't do the same?
Plus, the less you talk, the more mysterious you seem. And mystery can be marketable.
Alec Burks has a perfect game from a marketing perspective—fast, flashy and unpredictable. He could drive to the hoop or pull up for a smooth mid-range jumper. He's got a bounce to his step and could step into the point or shooting guard role for whatever team ends up drafting him.
Everyone loves some versatility.
The 6'6" sophomore out of Colorado plays with a lot of athleticism and energy and should be a high draft pick. If he can go to a team with a fast, up-tempo offense, he'll be exciting to watch.
Twins! Everybody knows that twins are marketable.
But Marcus and Markieff Morris do more than celebrate a shared womb. They are scrappy, productive forwards who should be able to handle the transition to the NBA.
Although Marcus has a greater offensive upside, Markieff is bigger and stronger. NBADraft.net says the twins "exhibit an aggressive, 'bullying' demeanor." There's no reason not to love that.
Best of all, the Morris twins won't have much immediate competition in the NBA Gemini department. They could be the updated version of Robin and Brook Lopez, only with (hopefully) less neck hair.
Keeping things all in the family, we move on to Klay Thompson.
Thompson's father is none other than Mychel Thompson, the 1978 No. 1 overall draft pick of the Portland Trail Blazers. Believe it or not, despite that ominous introduction into the league, Thompson went on to win three NBA titles—all with the Los Angeles Lakers, of course.
Klay Thompson won't be able to rely on genetics alone to make a name for himself. He'll have to do so with his game, which consists of a steady shooting stroke and an active defensive mindset. He isn't the best pure athlete of the draft class, but he has size and skill to make up for it.
It should be pointed out, however, that there isn't exactly a good precedent for sons of former Blazers No. 1 overall picks...
Well, coming out of Duke doesn't hurt. But Nolan Smith has a lot more to offer than a marquee alma mater.
He's a quick, smart player who has a strong overall game and a knowledge of winning. Between his experience at point guard and his role on the 2010 NCAA champion Blue Devils, he makes for a strong leader.
Nolan Smith also cherishes an NBA heritage; his father, Derek, was a starting forward for Louisville's 1980 NCAA championship team and later had a nine-year career in the pros.
Best of all, Nolan Smith likes to make people smile. And, really, there isn't a much more effective marketing tool than that.
Derrick Williams, the likely No. 2 overall pick, should be marketable based off of his game alone, which saw steady improvement over his two years at Arizona to the point that he's now drawing comparisons to Hornets forward David West.
But Williams will also be a likable figure because off his not-so-traditional route to the NBA. As described well in this Los Angeles Times article, Williams did not go to a "powerhouse" high school, he was overshadowed by bigger names on his AAU team and he only arrived at Arizona after former USC head coach Tim Floyd resigned amidst the O.J. Mayo scandal.
It's a fairly interesting backstory that should reap a fair amount of intrigue. Once Williams hits the NBA floor running, it will only enhance his image.
Brandon Knight plays with an intensity and passion that should make him a star off the court and, if he's put into the right system, a star on the court as well.
Knight is fast, strong and flashy, and he isn't shy about showing all three of these elements simultaneously as he runs up and down the court. Though he is also an intelligent player, his zealousness can get the best of him sometimes, leading to errant passes. But as he learns to properly channel his ambition, he will probably be able to cut down on the turnovers while he increases his popularity.
Coming from a college basketball powerhouse program like Kentucky, of course, never hurts, either.
Kemba Walker, in addition to having one of the coolest names in the entire draft class (which is saying something, with guys like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmer Fredette lurking), has a laundry list of qualities and achievements that make him a prime marketing candidate.
For one thing, he was the star of the Big East last year and one of the biggest names in all of college basketball. He helped lead UConn to the 2011 NCAA Championship and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Walker was also in the running for College Basketball Player of the Year (losing to Fredette) and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Finally, Walker is a hard-working player with an outstanding skill set who also happened to have appeared three times on the "Showtime at the Apollo" television program as part of a dance troupe.
There's a good chance he won't even be one of the top 10 draft picks on Thursday night, but Jimmer Fredette gets as much attention as (probably more than) pretty much any other prospect.
His sharp shooting and professional demeanor have garnered the admiration of many, as has his humility and graciousness off the court. As another B/R writer aptly put it, Fredette's disposition will likely appeal to middle America, which is not the prime audience for the NBA.
His name is already known by virtually everyone who knows anything about college basketball (though fewer likely know how to spell it correctly) and, assuming he gets drafted by a team in which he fits well, his popularity should only continue to soar.
Of course, in terms of marketing, the best landing spot for Fredette would be the Utah Jazz. After a historic career at BYU, Fredette could become a legend in Utah, especially seeing as the franchise is currently faceless. (No offense, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson.)
Let's see...point guard...Duke...explosiveness...19 years old...do you think this guy will be marketable?
I didn't even mention his biggest selling point—Kyrie is all but assured to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
The only thing that might work against him is, for those who are superstitious, the power of three. In the last nine drafts, the No. 1 overall picks have been big media hits or misses (relatively speaking) in sets of three:
2005-2007 (Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden): Granted, it's harder for international players to reap marketing success. But Bogut and Bargnani are still relatively obscure. And Greg Oden...well, nothing more needs to be said.
Can Kyrie Irving break the cycle? I suppose being drafted by Cleveland isn't the best omen, but we'll see.