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NBA Draft delays among factors forcing Panini to adjust on the fly to make 2020-21 basketball cards

In non-pandemic years, Panini traditionally releases its first basketball cards for the upcoming season, NBA Hoops, in October and that’s followed closely by the release of the NBA Prizm product. The highlights of those sets — aside from numbered autographs, relics and parallels, of course — are the rookies. Everybody loves rookies. 

Panini has held the exclusive license to produce NBA cards since 2009, and in that decade the company found a nice rhythm for the production and release of its sets, especially when it comes to handling each year’s crop of eagerly anticipated and much-hyped draft picks. 

“There was a certain cadence to the end of the season,” said Jason Howarth, a vice president for Panini, “that started with the NBA Draft in June, then going into Summer League and August came along and we had our rookie photoshoot, where the players were in their NBA team uniforms to capture content and get photography to start producing our NBA products for the upcoming season.” 

As you know, almost nothing has been normal in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every level of life in the United States and across the globe. Some of the impacts have been life-threatening, and some have been merely logistical — and to be clear, the timing of the production and release of trading cards lands in the latter category. 

MORE: “Absolutely insane”: How COVID has fueled a trading card boom

The NBA Draft was originally scheduled for June 25 but was pushed back to Oct. 16 once the reality of just how much the pandemic would actually impact everyday life became clear. It was then pushed back again, to a final Nov. 18 date. 

But it’s hard to produce a set of basketball cards for the 2020-21 season with a release date of sometime in October when the NBA Draft isn’t even being held until November, so Panini has had to adjust. Now, the target for NBA Hoops is mid-January, Howarth said, with NBA Prizm to follow soon after. 

Panini’s two collegiate basketball products — Contenders Draft Picks and Prizm Draft Picks — this year still were released in the same windows as always (October), but this was the first time in the history of those products that the players were pictured without the connection to the actual NBA team for which they’ll play. Last year, Zion Williamson had cards in his New Orleans uniform and Ja Morant was wearing his Grizzlies gear. 

This year, though? Anthony Edwards is wearing his Georgia college uniform and international prospects such as LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes are wearing airbrushed uniforms. 

The interruption of the typical draft-pick cadence has led to a little scrambling and more adjusting on the fly than normal years. Normally, the NBA Combine is one of the first touch-points for Panini reps and the potential draft picks. And then the NBA Summer League provides a perfect extended opportunity to get to know the players and find time for extended autograph sessions. 

Without those in 2020?  

“We have been working closely with these kids, with the guys in this draft class, to get them to sign autographs, to get them to sign elements that we can incorporate into our trading cards,” Howarth said. “So while the NBA Draft has been delayed, the other elements of the process that we can control — like getting player signatures — has been up and running since April or May, so we can get those initial products out in January as opposed to playing catchup on the autograph side of it.”

The biggest disruption from Panini’s perspective, though, was the cancellation of the annual August rookie photoshoot, when the company would bring up to 40 of the top draft picks to New York for three days of photoshoots — for cards and marketing materials — and autograph signings. When that normally would have been happening, the NBA bubble was still going strong in Orlando. So this year, instead of bringing the players to Panini, Panini had to go to the players.

“We’ve done a couple of different things,” Howarth said. “We’ve had signing sessions with players, in a socially-distanced, safe way. We have people in markets who helped us on that front if we were not in the market. That was a key piece.”

MORE: SN’s 2020 NBA mock draft: What’s going to happen?

Even though there are plenty of future stars in this draft class, some of the players might not be quite as well-known nationally because of the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. That March Madness boost — think about Ja Morant’s triple-double in Murray State’s upset of Marquette in the opening round of the 2019 tournament — is hard to quantify. 

And the lack of a Summer League made an impact, too. 

“Last year we knew, from a marketing perspective, after Summer League that we needed to find a way to incorporate Tyler Herro,” Howarth said. “Obviously he played well in college, but when most people are talking about guys like Zion and Ja and Cobi White and Rui Hachimura, some of those other guys you wait for Summer League before deciding who to put in the group of players we’re going to focus our attention on from a marketing perspective.”

But now the 2020 NBA Draft has finally arrived. Panini won’t be backstage with the draft picks because, well, there is no backstage. That will be different. But the company will be with these players on Wednesday night, in a way: LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Deni Avdija, Obi Toppin, Killian Hayes, Isaac Okoro, Tyrese Maxey, Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams, Jalen Smith, Precious Achiuwa, Aaron Nesmith, RJ Hampton, Saddiq Bey, Kira Lewis Jaden McDaneils, Josh Green, Cole Anthony, Theo Maledon, Malachi Flynn, Cassius Winston, Aleksej Pokusevski, Desmond Bane, Nico Mannion, Tyrell Terry, Markus Howard, Jahmi’us Ramsey, Vernon Carey, Tre Jones, Payton Pritchard, Tyler Bey and Jordan Nwora 

“Madison Prewett, from ‘The Bachelor,’ she’s doing Zoom Q&As with players, and we’ll push out that content post-draft,” Howarth said. “In the virtual world, we have to evolve and adapt, and since we’re not going to be backstage, we’re going to be engaged with these guys in real time at their draft parties, through the Zoom Q&A and the Panini Instant Draft Night cards.”

And after the Nov. 18 draft? Soon, and very soon, is the target start date of the 2020-21 season: Dec. 22. 

“After a summer of waiting,” Howarth said, “in the span of a month, they’ll be drafted, be at their NBA training camp, then the season’s going to start within 30 days of them being drafted, which is crazy.”

Crazy seems to be the word for 2020. 

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