NEW YORK -- As Jordan "Len" Ross leaned over the long, oak-colored conference table, he had a big decision to make.
It had been bothering him all day: Which player should he pick with the No. 5 pick in the NBA 2K League draft? In what would be his first major act as head coach, Len wanted to make the right choice for the Gen.G Tigers of Shanghai, the 2K League's newest franchise. But the safe choice wasn't the right one, he knew that. But it still bothered him. It had to be a point guard, but which?
As he paced across the room inside of the Midtown startup accelerator office, the clock started winding down closer to the start of the NBA 2K League Season 3 draft. His boss, Gen.G CEO Chris Park, left the room to head to Terminal 5 to welcome the players Len, GM Nathan Stanz and Christopher "TURNUPDEFENSE" Anderson -- a player acquired in the fall expansion draft -- would agree to pick. Park's parting words were: "It's your decision."
The night before the draft, on Friday, one of the top prospects, point guard Dhwan "Kaii" White, messaged Stanz with a clear message: Don't draft me.
Kaii wanted to go to Miami and compete for Heat Check Gaming, or stay in New York, his hometown, and play for the Knicks. To make that happen, Kaii messaged Stanz and several other executives of the first seven teams in the draft order. The Heat held pick No. 8.
But Len was drawn to Kaii. He was talented, winning the Brooklyn Nets' offseason tournament as a point guard then playing his combine games in a completely different position. But Kaii had a large personality, something that both Len -- a former player himself who qualified for but didn't get drafted during the second season draft -- and TURNUP had experienced firsthand. Len and TURNUP both considered him the best available player, and the second player behind him on their board, Sten "SAV" Valge-Saar, had a similar reputation.
In the ensuing back-and-forth, Len, Stanz and TURNUP made their decision. They would take Kaii at No. 5.
"If we get him into the beautiful apartments here in Venice Beach, [California] he's not gonna burn the place down, is he?" Stanz asked Len and TURNUP via remote call.
"No, he's not like that," TURNUP responded quickly. TURNUP, who has competed in the 2K League since its inaugural season and won Season 2's championship, was confident once Kaii was in the system he'd be able to mentor him. He'd convince him that Gen.G was the right place to be.
"OK, we're locking it in," Stanz said. "We'll see how his face looks."
Within a minute, NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue would take to the stage to announce that the Gen.G Tigers selected Kaii. Park would meet him shortly thereafter, but before he could, Len received a message.
"I'm stunned," Kaii texted Len.
Len felt anxious and nervous but simultaneously at ease. He had made the right decision. Not just for the Tigers, he felt, but for the league as a whole. An analyst for 2K League beat website DIMER 2K for most of 2019, Len gained intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the system in which he now works. Letting a player dictate the draft seemed detrimental to the league as a whole. So, he wouldn't.
Saturday night for the NBA 2K League brought out mixed feelings. The draft of Jake "Legit 973" Knapp to Raptors Uprising GC, the team where his brother Jerry "Sick x 973" Knapp plays, was a happy moment. The snub of commentator-turned-player Jamie "DirK" Diaz Ruiz was a sad one.
But behind-the-scenes, the only NBA 2K League franchise not owned by an NBA team, the Tigers, set a precedent that will extend beyond just Saturday. The Tigers joined the league to expand the NBA's horizons both in and out of esports; they're the first NBA-affiliated franchise with regional rights in China, a major NBA media market. Yet their impact would now be felt in the game, too.
As Gen.G's draft night continued, Len and TURNUP tried to get ahold of Kaii, who after being drafted went through the media circus at Terminal 5. On broadcast, 2K digital marketing manager Ronnie "Ronnie 2K" Singh called the Kaii pick before it happened, as if it was inevitable. But many behind the scenes knew that tension existed.
T-Wolves Gaming's Mihad "Feast" Feratovic talked on a FaceTime call with TURNUP as he sat in the war room.
"Yooooo, good pick" Feast said.
"Best player available!" TURNUP quickly responded. He paused. "I'll talk to you later."
The next hour would prove even more difficult for Len and TURNUP. Shortly before the end of the first round, TURNUP received a message from Kaii. He wanted Gen.G to draft Brian "Killey" Diaz, a teammate of his who could easily flex to the point guard position. Kaii didn't want to play point guard, he told Len and TURNUP in several phone calls after they picked him.
In the wide release version of NBA 2K, point guard characters can be most any height. In the league version, though, most point guards average around 6-foot-2-inches. Kaii worried that his defense would be impacted by the lack of height on his character. So he hoped Killey would be able to move to the point guard spot and that Gen.G would let Kaii play shooting guard instead.
But after picking their center -- Mercedes "Deadeye" Williamson -- late in the first round, Len and TURNUP set their eyes on Wesley "Gen" McNair, another shooting guard. Gen impressed in his league interviews and later told ESPN that Gen.G was a top-two destination for him. He told Len he'd do anything to be on their team, and Len believed him; they had played together when Len was a player and TURNUP had been somewhat of a mentor to Gen.
So Len and TURNUP sat divided, pacing around the mostly empty Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator office in Midtown Manhattan, debating what to do. They were torn. They wanted to make Kaii happy, especially given the circumstance in which they drafted him. But they also wanted to be happy -- to build the team they had put on their whiteboard -- and to make the decisions they wanted, not what their new draft pick wanted.
ESPN Daily: Sign up here!
The one position missing would be power forward. Len and TURNUP really wanted Anthony "Wuan" Rivas. Of the power forward pool, he was the one who stood out the most.
"With the fourth pick in the second round of the NBA 2K League Season 3 draft, Raptors Uprising GC selects Wuan from Miami, Florida," Donohue announced.
Len and TURNUP paused to think. With Wuan off the board, who would be their third overall pick in the draft? They had 32 and 34 overall. Another power forward, Jahlil "Sleetys" McClure, made an impression on them during the interview process. But he wasn't a standout. So who then?
Then the thought came. Gen was versatile and his reassurance to Len of being a team player made Len and TURNUP both think that maybe he would switch positions if asked. After all, the best 2K players are flexible. What if they took Killey at 32 to placate Kaii and then Gen at 34? Then all parties would get what they want.
"[Gen] kind of came on to the scene and a lot of people took notice of him this year," Len told ESPN. "He's very team-forward and that's why I'm comfortable doing it. That's why I was kind of locked on in Gen. If I could still get Gen and make Kaii feel comfortable in the process, I think that's big, too."
"I may be a great sharp or outstanding sharp, I hit my shots, but at the end of the day and first of all, over everything, I'm a great 2K player," Gen said. "They knew what they were doing when they got me, and I'm more than happy to be here. I'm literally no more than full of joy right now, man."
It was a three-hour rush for the new coach. After tearing down the conference room, Len would finally get the opportunity to finally sit down with most of his players together at dinner. Kaii, Gen and Killey all attended the draft at Terminal 5 in New York; Deadeye and sixth-man pick Yi "Lucky" Hu remained home.
"For us to land on the one [Gen] that deep down we really wanted and to find out as the draft went on, he was able to get more comfortable with the situation, I'm just really satisfied overall with how it went," Len said. "We got a bunch of guys who can be really versatile for us at point guard, shooting guard and power forward.
"I like it chemistry-wise. It's a good mix of talent and chemistry, in a sense where we will be able to shock some people and get the results we desire."
The NBA 2K League season will tip off at the end of March, so moving forward, Len and TURNUP have about a month to move the team to California and figure out the dynamics of where each will play. And they hope they can do so -- to find the happy medium that can unlock Kaii, regarded as one of the best draft prospects, while also fulfilling their vision.
"The overall thought of [picking Kaii, in the context] really weighed on me for about a month now," Len said. "Just knowing that there is that precedent you want to set of, 'Hey, we want guys who want to be here. This is a luxury to be in the position you're in. You should want to play for any organization in this league that picks you.'
But then on top of it, if we kept letting it happen, it could be a chain effect. I think we kind of broke that today and it makes me really comfortable us initially picking him and him being very shocked, but then by the time we get to Round 2, for him to be really comfortable with it. It makes me very satisfied with the risk we took."