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From the NBA to Hip-Hop, Draft Classes That Changed the Game

Lebron and Wade changed the NBA like Kendrick and Cole are changing rap.

Whether you're following rap music, basketball, Instagram models or international chess champions, there will always be the inevitable moment when those at the top begin to age past their prime and a new wave of talent comes to pick up the torch.

For the NBA and rap music, it seems as though these distinctive turnovers took place in 2003-04 and 2009-10 respectively. The '03 and '04 NBA drafts featured a who’s who of future superstars including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Likewise, '09 and '10 offered up a crop of hip-hop artists that have since paced the game including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Yelawolf and many more.

Each movement, although years apart, represented a true changing of the guard in both disciplines that would have a lasting impact on the next decade or so in each arena. While there has arguably been similar crops of great acts and players to come about in a short period time, each of these respective classes did much to move their individual disciplines forward into a new era while providing a new landscape and group of faces for fans to cheer for.

For the NBA, the turn of the millennium brought a desperate need for a new wave of superstar as the Kobe and Shaq era began to come to an inevitable close and the league experienced a post-Jordan dip in engagement. The '03 and '04 drafts, however, provided a nucleus of players that helped to shape the last 12 years of NBA ball. The drafts produced the players that made up the vaunted "Big 3" of the Miami Heat that would visit the Finals five times over the next decade, as well as six additional Finals appearances. The 2003-04 ensemble also became the first generation of superstars to deal with both mainstream and social media as journalism migrated from more traditional avenues into the hands of individuals.

While you can certainly debate the impact that this collection of alpha dogs, role players and occasional all-stars have had on the league as a whole, there's no denying the fact that this pair of drafts in particular produced the torchbearers that have carried the league into all-time best television ratings and worldwide popularity.

Similarly, the dawn of the internet in hip-hop and the prevalence of the mixtape made the years 2009 and 2010 a perfect period for invigorating new blood into the game. It was around this time that the XXL Freshman List and blogs became a big part of an artist’s come up and in turn produced a series of artists over the course of the next two calendar years that would both utilize the tools in front of them and challenge the status quo moving forward.

The 2010 magazine cover ran with the slogan "A New Breed," which was indicative of the years to come. For hip-hop and music as a whole the years that boasted all the contemporary talent also were a time of new acclimation to the music industry propped up by wires and keyboards. The classes of 2009 and '10 essentially provided fans with the first acts to come up through an online-based culture and have been at the forefront of such tactics since. Existing before being savvy on the blogs was a marketable skill, these were the artists that arrived just ahead of the current trends. 



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We were served a welcome reminder of the '90s with the prevalence of strong acts in L.A. and NYC in Cole and Kendrick, while the rest of the country boasted a wide-ranging variety of sounds that would lead us to the point where the distinction to between rapper and singer became blurred beyond recognition. More than anything, these two classes of "freshman" essentially laid the groundwork for everyone that has arrived in the months and years since. As time has shown, these acts have proven to be a similarly driving force across the board, breaking records along the way. 

A unifying force for both the new wave of rappers and athletes was the influx of internet-based mediums changing the way each interacted with the outside world. For ballplayers it was Twitter, a means to circumvent post-game interviews and tiresome Q+As, in turn ruining many sportscasters dreams and changing the way ESPN put together stories. The internet also brought rap and sports together more closely than ever before, a reality we see represented as Lil B grew into a thorn in the side of any NBA player who dared disrespect him. His curses have taken on a life of their own to the point ESPN regularly reports on them, with Based God as a semi-regular guest on ESPN. If there were any clearer link between the two new generations, it would have to be Lil B’s torture of James Harden and, subsequently, his Rockets teammate Dwight Howard. That no one on this list of ballplayers has been directly targeted by Based God might speak to the maturity of having come up in a world before Twitter and Instagram (J.R. Smith obviously not included.) 

The link between hip-hop and basketball has been obvious for as long as they've coexisted in the world and nowhere was that more obvious in the fashion of the early 2000s and the subsequent dress code from then-commissioner David Stern. It's interesting to note then that both ballplayers and artists have stepped things up when it comes to the fashion game, perhaps a nod to the changing landscapes in both realms. 

Regardless of the litany of comparisons and alternative sources you could start from, it's fun to look at specific points of turnover to see where the stars of today began. 

  • NBA 2003: Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Lebron James, Chris Bosh, David West, Josh Howard, Mo Williams, Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon
  • NBA 2004: Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Emeka Ofakor, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Luol Deng, JR Smith, Josh Smith
  • XXL Freshmen 2010: J. Cole, Pill, Nipsey Hu$$le, Wiz Khalifa, OJ Da Juiceman, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Jay Rock, Fashawn and Donnis
  • XXL Freshmen 2011: Meek Mill, Big K.R.I.T., Cyhi The Prynce, Lil Twist, Yelawolf, Fred The Godson, Mac Miller, YG, Lil B, Kendrick Lamar and Diggy Simmons

In sports and music every class will have its share of superstars, role players and what-happened-tos, but whether it's LeBron and Kendrick or Emeka Okafor and Lil Twist, every new face plays a part in changing the game.

Rookies become veterans replaced again by rookies, and looking at these lists, it seems like we're due for that next crop of game changers to truly emerge.

Who's got next? 

[By Jake Krez. You can follow him on Twitter. Image via.]


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