From Tattoos to Malcolm X T-shirts, NBA Hopefuls Talk Style

Paolo Banchero lifted the right sleeve of his black hooded sweatshirt to point out the green tattoo ink on his forearm. His long arms make up most of the 7-foot-1 wingspan that positioned him as one of the top prospects in the NBA draft on Thursday, but they also tell a story.

His right arm is packed with tattoos that depict crucial parts of his upbringing and make statements about his style: the Space Needle and the rest of the skyline of his hometown, Seattle, sit on his right shoulder; “19th and Spruce” is written on his inner biceps as a nod to the Boys and Girls Club where he began playing basketball; and on his inner forearm is the logo for his friend’s Seattle-based Skyblue Collective clothing brand, which he sports often and says is “a part of him.”

Banchero, 19, who led the Duke men’s basketball team to the Final Four this year, uses his tattoos and outfits as a form of self-expression, a subtle way of sending messages. At a pre-draft style event at a Brooklyn barbershop on Tuesday, he wore an all-black luxury designer outfit, which he said was tame compared to what he would put together on draft night.

Banchero and many of the top players in the 2022 draft class already have a public persona, but it will be boosted immensely if an NBA team signs them. While playing well and winning championships are paramount in how an NBA player is perceived, style and image are a close second. After all, this is the league in which Los Angeles Lakers forward/center Anthony Davis made his unibrow a celebrity in his own right, even trademarking the phrase “Fear The Brow” in 2012.

NBA athletes have made it easy for fans to appreciate their fashion sense, turning their pregame entrances into their own version of the Met Gala. Fans on social media quickly share photos and videos from players’ 30-second walks to the locker rooms from cars or team buses at NBA arenas. GQ magazine crowned Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the NBA’s most stylish player of 2022, over Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, because “the guy cares about getting dressed.”

Jalen Williams, a forward from Santa Clara University and a potential first-round pick in the draft, is looking forward to the pregame catwalk. On his cellphone, he has multiple search tabs open for different clothing brands. He laughed and pointed at Jaden Hardy from the G League Ignite, another potential 2022 draft pick, when he saw that they were wearing the same black sweatpants from the brand MNML at the event on Tuesday.

Williams said he tried to balance being conscious about what he wore while having fun with his style, because he knew that he would be judged by his outfits and appearance. He incorporates clothing from less popular brands into his wardrobe to encourage those who may look up to him to be “comfortable in their own skin.”

“I think that’s the biggest thing that gets misunderstood in fashion,” Williams, 21, said. “You feel like you have to please whoever or look a certain way, but whatever you like is what you like.”

Williams said he also tried to support small brands and promote social-justice issues through his clothing. He sported a jacket from Tattoo’d Cloth, which made custom embroidered jackets for some draft prospects, and tagged the brand in an Instagram story. On Juneteenth, he wore a shirt featuring Malcolm X, and he frequently wears different kinds of apparel supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think as athletes, it’s important to inspire people and kind of spark a change and use our platform,” Williams said. “Sometimes, not even saying anything but wearing the clothes is really important.”

Williams’s style goes beyond his outfits, too. As a high school sophomore, he decided to don a single braid while keeping the rest of his hair unbraided, hanging the braid at eye level. That has become a popular style in the NBA

“I’m not going to say I started it, but I might’ve started it,” he said jokingly.

Fashion has long played a significant role in Williams’s life, back to his childhood when he began using the My Player mode in the NBA 2K video game, in which users create players and can style them for hanging out in a virtual park. He is serious about the fashion choices of his My Player.

“You can’t pull up to the park in brown and gray,” Williams said, mocking the generic outfit given to the created players. “No brown shirts!”

For the seven-foot center Chet Holmgren, who played at Gonzaga and was expected to be a top-three pick on Thursday, being fashionable was a challenge growing up. He could never find clothes that fit his long and lanky frame, and he could not afford the custom-fitted outfits he adored. He ridiculed his most impressive childhood outfit: Nike socks, basic T-shirts, basketball shorts and basketball shoes. In high school, Holmgren said, his style skyrocketed as he turned to resale websites and brands that had clothes in the large-and-tall sizing. Now, he is confident that he is the most fashionable prospect in this draft class.

“In my opinion, I’m the swaggiest dude beyond just what I am wearing,” Holmgren said. He further explained that fashion was about more than just the pieces a person was wearing.

“You could spend $10,000 on an outfit, but you might have a trash outfit on,” he said. “You might have the right pieces, but if you can’t put them together, the outfit’s not going to be great.”

Like Williams, Holmgren is looking forward to the NBA’s pregame runway, and he isn’t apprehensive about his style choices.

“I feel like I don’t really miss when I put fits on,” Holmgren said. “So whatever I’m wearing, I’ll be all right.”