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Rachel Nichols Is Ready For The Lottery To Be ‘The First Tremor’ In The NBA’s ‘Earthquake Summer’


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Tuesday night promises to be a potentially monumental evening in the NBA. No, it’s not because of what’s going to happen on the hardwood, although we will get to see Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers. But before the game tips off, the focus of the basketball-watching world will be on what happens with some ping pong balls.

The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery will take place on Tuesday, with teams hoping to secure the No. 1 selection and put themselves in a position to acquire the crown jewel of the upcoming Draft, Duke forward Zion Williamson. It’s the first shoe dropping in what is shaping up to be one of the most impactful summers in NBA history, the magnitude of which Rachel Nichols of ESPN appreciates.

“This is the tectonic plate that’s gonna start the earthquake in the NBA,” Nichols told Dime over the phone. “Someone’s gonna get Zion, whether they keep him and he changes their franchise forever, or they decide to trade him and pull off, if they do, one of the largest trades that we’ve seen in the league in the last decade or two. That’s huge. And whichever team gets him will likely effect which free agents decide to go where. This is going to be such an earthquake summer and the first tremor we’re gonna get is which team gets the rights to Zion Williamson.”

Nichols will be on-site in Chicago for this year’s Draft Lottery, but she’s doing more than being part of the event’s telecast for the Worldwide Leader. The Jump, the Emmy-nominated show hosted by Nichols, will kick things off at 8 p.m. and feature a live interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, followed by the Lottery and Game 1 between the Dubs and the Blazers. Before any of that happens, Nichols sat down with Dime to discuss the evening’s festivities, The Jump‘s impressive list of daily guests, and where the show is now compared to when it began three years ago.
What’s the idea behind doing a special edition of The Jump for the Lottery?

I think there’s just so much to talk about, and I think part of the idea was nobody would want to string out the actual Lottery in a terrible, painful way that drove everybody crazy. So I think it’s just about being really upfront and honest about, “Hey, if you want to hear people say smart, funny things that are insightful about what you’re about to see, this is our half hour preview.”

Whenever there is a special edition, it’s expected to have a certain twist to it, but how do you do something special and different while keeping it in the spirit of the show?

Part of it is just going to be we are on-site anytime we do a show on site, we are instead going to do something skillful and special and different. We’re going to have people on it with me that are really the best about talking about these things, so we are mostly a pro-basketball show. So typically for The Jump, we’ll have pro basketball players and some of the reporters who report on pro basketball. For the Lottery, obviously, we’re talking about college players, so we’re going to have players who made their mark in college. Jay Williams is going to be there, Jay Bilas, our college people, but also have me and Adrian Wojnarowski, who are pro basketball people, and meld both of those worlds altogether.

Then, of course, the players themselves coming out on the show who are going be what we are talking about in this Lottery, and there is so much juice to this year’s Draft Lottery. I’m so excited about it and think there is so much to talk about, because I kinda think it’s the biggest event going outside of the NBA Finals before we get to July 1.

This is the first shoe drop. This is the tectonic plate that’s gonna start the earthquake in the NBA. Someone’s gonna get Zion, whether they keep him and he changes their franchise forever, or they decide to trade him and pull off, if they do, one of the largest trades that we’ve seen in the league in the last decade or two. That’s huge. And whichever team gets him will likely effect which free agents decide to go where.

This is going to be such an earthquake summer and the first tremor we’re gonna get is which team gets the rights to Zion Williamson. Sometimes when you have a Draft where you don’t quite know who the first pick is, or maybe we have an idea who the first pick is but they’re not expected to be such a game changer, then the Lottery isn’t as big of a deal. But, to me the Lottery is where it’s at this year, the Lottery’s huge.

Yeah, plus with the new way that the ping pong balls are all sorted, that just kinda adds to the intrigue.

Sure, we don’t know who it’s gonna be. There’s pretty much an equal chance of getting it, which wasn’t the case before, so I think that changes the equation too and the drama and sort of what’s happening. To me, just the stakes are so much higher than they’ve been in a very long time, and that makes it exciting.

One thing that I really think a lot of people enjoy about The Jump is that its good at diving into topics and having discussions no matter the subject, but is there a challenge in finding ways to do that with something as volatile as a draft lottery would? There are millions of possible outcomes for what can end up happening and that’s before we even can get the trades and all that.

What’s better than the NBA at dissecting minutiae? This league runs on “hey, let me tell you about the six possibilities that could happen here,” and “here’s the four guys it could involve,” and “this is what happens with this guy behind the scenes.” I just think it’s fascinating, it’s the reason that people love NBA podcasts and can listen to an hour of Zach Lowe deep diving on the sixth thing, and the fourth thing, and the third arm of it. I think the NBA is perfect for that, so its something that we love doing.

ESPN

You mentioned this a second ago, there’s this gigantic list of analysts and reporters and all that on this episode, so you’re the show’s point guard, how do you keep the machine chugging along when its going so many directions, whether its Jay Bilas talking college basketball, Zach Lowe doing NBA, Mike Schmitz doing NBA Draft, that sort of thing?

We have it as organized as we can by topic, so that’s always helpful, but for me, the biggest thing is, I want the people around who can answer the questions that I legitimately have. We on The Jump to try not to do setup questions. So my big thing that the producer and I always work together on is I shouldn’t be asking someone a question I already know the answer to, because then the fan already knows the answer too, probably.

I think we have a really educated NBA fan base, so instead, let’s not waste time asking the questions that everyone already knows the answer to, let’s ask the questions that we really don’t know and that somebody like Jay Williams, who has been in the position of sitting in the Draft … Jay Williams was telling us a good story on one of our pre-Draft Lottery meetings on how if he had gone first, the system and the teaming drafting first overall was so much more better suited to his play vs. going number two overall and having to work into that system. That’s something I had never experienced. Most people have never been drafted by the Bulls No. 2 overall, so its asking the right person the right question at the right time and I think we’re really lucky at ESPN that we have so many people who think they’d give you the right answer and often from their personal experience. How great is that?

I’m glad you mentioned that because something really unique about The Jump is there’s always so many different people providing analysis and insight, and those little glimpses into the basketball world that you might not get anywhere else. Is having a constantly rotating guest list of point of pride and emphasis for the show?

We like having lots of different people who can bring their perspectives, and the NBA is different. I’ve covered the NFL and the NFL has so many players that just getting everyone’s story is a big part of the coverage, whereas in the NBA, it’s just a smaller rotation, the players that you’re talking about, the teams in the mix at certain times.

Having everybody being able to give their different experience, that’s where the variance comes in. Scottie Pippen has had a very different experience in the NBA from Steven Jackson or Tracy McGrady, so having Tracy McGrady talk about the Warriors is completely different from Scottie Pippen talking about the Warriors, is completely different from Steven Jackson talk about the Warriors. I feel really lucky that I get to get all three of those guys that on different days, telling me something that I didn’t know.

There’s going to be a conversation with the commissioner on there, has that happened yet or is gonna happen live?

Yep, it’s gonna happen live so you’ll see it as I see it. So it’ll be fun.

Awesome so let me ask you this, he’s a bit of an open book, how do you come up with something new and get him answering questions he’s never had before? Is it basically just checking the zeitgeist of the NBA and going off of that?

I think one of the main focuses will, again, be this incredible thing that’s going to be happening live in front of us. There’s going to be a big shift in the NBA that when we wake up on Tuesday morning, it’ll be very different from when we wake up on the Wednesday morning, so I think the guy who’s in charge of the ship that is about to take a pretty big turn either right or left, we don’t know. Being able to sort of capture what its like in that moment with him is gonna be really cool so its less about “oh my gosh, let me uncover this 12th branch or something that no one’s asked him before,” and more just getting the big picture perspective of what its like to be in the middle of this huge change that’s about to happen.
The Jump has been on for three years now. Looking back on that, where is the show compared to the expectations that you had going into it?

On the one hand, we’ve been able to really grow and be able to do all kinds of things that nobody thought … it wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye when we started the show, so we’ve had wealth and change and all sorts of things that are exciting and big, but also at the same time, we’ve been able to stay really tight and true to the core of what the show is supposed to be. I have great producers that have been with us from the very beginning and having the show be a … that feeling of what it is like to actually sit around and talk about basketball with your friends, but have your friends be some of the best experts in the business, many of whom played the game, and have that feel of the show has been a real joy for me. So its a cool combination of getting to have this awesome project that’s going to stay true to itself the whole time, but then you get to drive it places and take it places that people never expected, that’s a pretty cool combo.

One thing that I love about the show is it seems like everybody is super comfortable with one another, and inspired by the internet having some fun at Paul Pierce’s expense over the last days, is there anything more fun on the show than when the script goes out the window and everyone starts smack talking one another?

We don’t script most of the show. Obviously we script the monologue I do at the top of the show, which is something cool because that means we get to really produce it and I have a partner and doing that, producer Michael Bodmer, who I think the visuals he brings sort of gives whole extra layers to what I’m saying and has a really fun part of the show. Other than that, most of the show is completely, again like sitting around talking with your friends, and it is nice that we know each other so well, I’ve covered the NBA for more than 20 years now. Every single guy who’s a player on our show, I covered them and had a working relationship with them long before the show, and the reporters who are on our show, I have worked along side of and had a longtime friendship and relationship with long before the show.

I’m going backward here, my pitch line for the show when I was going around to ESPN execs before we started was “it should be like sitting around talking basketball with your friends, but what if one of your friends was Tracy McGrady?”And that actually is what I get to do on TV all day, and you know what its like sitting around talking basketball with your friends, sometimes you get into passionate arguments about something that happened on the court, sometimes you all agree with each other — we don’t have a show where we must have two different sides of each topic, sometimes we all agree, because sometimes when you’re talking with your friends about basketball, everyone’s like “my god, did you see this?” So we have those moments too.

We have people telling stories or make fun of each other but there is a genuine respect and friendship there which I think comes across too as it’s not people yelling at each other, it’s not people ripping on each other and that sort of almost mean way, its really the exact conversations that you would have with the people who you like the most, who are the most interested in the thing you’re interested in, and that’s I think ESPN has given us the freedom to do that and that people seem to like it enough, it’s just so cool, it’s so much fun to come to work everyday, and I credit, again, our producers and the group around us for just keeping that whole train going.

Is there gonna be a monologue on Tuesday?

I don’t think so, we don’t do monologues as much when we do the special roadshows just so the moment doesn’t lend itself to it as much. We kinda spin forward a little bit, a lot of monologues are about what happened sort of the night before, the day off kind of thing so I wouldn’t expect that but that’s okay. That’s in keeping with what we do on the road.

I’m sure there’ll still be plenty to talk about.

I was gonna say, we’ll have plenty there.

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