Reality sets in: Dalton Knecht is a Laker, drafted 17th overall

Dalton Knecht, minutes removed from his wildest dreams coming true, walked off the Barclays Center floor and into the back corner of a room where his life as a Los Angeles Laker would begin.

“I’m doing my first TikTok,” Knecht said with a laugh before looking into the cellphone camera to say the words he’d end up saying nearly a hundred times Thursday night.

“It’s Dalton Knecht,” he said.

After the 6-foot-6 wing from Tennessee walked across the stage at Barclays Center and shook NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand during the first round of the NBA draft, he was whisked away from station to station, doing interviews, posing for photos and filming social media content.

If you watched him play this year for Tennessee, the only real surprise was that Knecht (pronounced “connect”) was available when the Lakers picked at No. 17.

He averaged 21.7 points per game last season at Tennessee, where he played after two years at Northern Colorado. Before that, he played two seasons at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo.

“It’s crazy,” he repeated over and over again as he popped through each interview and looked for a phone charger, the cell overrun with more than 1,300 texts at the end of a long day.

Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers were thrilled with the choice, the NBA draft breaking even better than they could’ve imagined. In the build to Wednesday’s first round, the team had interest in a group of players including Colorado’s Tristan Da Silva, Baylor’s Ja’Kobe Walter and Yves Missi, and Cal’s Jaylon Tyson.

Knecht, they figured, would be gone by the time they got on the clock.

But after Philadelphia took Duke guard Jared McCain, the Lakers had access to all of their top options — with one surprise. Knecht was there too.

The Lakers, who passed on a sliding Cam Whitmore a year ago in the first round, didn’t walk from good fortune again.

“Just in talking to him when we drafted him, I think, of course he was rated on a lot of the boards top 8, top 7. So I think already you could just feel that mentality of, ‘OK, some of these teams passed on me. I’m going to show them they were wrong,’” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “You could just get that sense from him, his aura, his vibe. So I just think he’s a really, really interesting tool for us to add to our other players. Really excited.”

Back in New York, Knecht acknowledged that doubt has driven him.

“I feel like I’ve been underrated my whole entire life, ever since I was coming out of high school, so, you know, I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” he said. “And to this day, I’ll always have that chip on my shoulder to go out there and prove people wrong.”

But that wasn’t where his mind was at during his first night in the NBA. It was more centered on the people who believed in him. Celebrating how all of the hard work and sacrifices made by the people closest to him had paid off.

He spoke about his parents, Corey and Carrie Knecht, waiting in parking lots while he got extra shots up in empty Colorado gyms. Corey would film his high school games and send the tapes to family in North Dakota and Minnesota. And back home, he’d dissect the games with his son.

“He was always hard, but it was like in a good way, ’cause you know, he just wanted to push me to be better,” Knecht told The Times. “When you have a guy like that, that you can go to on and off the court and that just wants you to be better, it’s great.”

But Knecht was short, not even cracking 6 feet tall until late in his high school career.

He thought he could play in the NBA, but first, he needed to audition to find a junior college in Colorado or Nebraska that would take him.

Then he kept growing and kept scoring, and by the time he left junior college, he was a Division I talent. After two years at Northern Colorado, he bet on himself and tested things at Tennessee, where he became one of the best scorers in the college game.

Now, he’s a pro.

“Historic,” Corey Knecht said after. “I mean they’re, they’re one of the greatest franchises in the NBA. And then you talk about the best, probably, basketball player ever that ever laced up a pair of sneakers, it’s a huge accomplishment for him to be able to go to the Lakers plus to play alongside of LeBron [James].”

James even spoke about Knecht after he scored 37 points in an Elite Eight loss to Purdue.

“I woke up and rolled out of bed and I thought it was fake because tons of people were texting me. I was just like, ‘There’s no way,’” Knecht said. “And when I watched that video, it just brought a smile to my face.”

He always figured out quickly that he belonged.

With the Lakers, the biggest challenges are going to be defensively, where he was regarded as one of the weaker players in the first round. But he tested well athletically at the NBA combine and has the size and work ethic that has the Lakers optimistic that he can improve on that end of the court.

Offensively, he’s ready to step right in and space the floor, already smiling at the thought of how open he’ll be alongside with James compared to a season at the top of scouting reports in the SEC.

“Kyrie Irving was one of the best point guards in the NBA, and even he got open looks [playing with James],” Knecht said.

As the night wound down and Knecht introduced himself to another camera, another interviewer, the reality started to settle in. He spoke about being excited for summer league, about the next steps, about getting into the Lakers gym for the first time.

He entered the final room and embraced his family, Rick Barnes, his coach at Tennessee, and his friends who made the trip with him.

“It’s crazy,” he said again.

His NBA dream was finally real.

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