Sunday, March 9, 2008

The State of the NBA Rookie

While living up the old days last night playing some pickup ball (I'm the Zoran Planinic of pickup basketball: tall, white, and plays the point by default because all I can do is pass and dribble), me and a few buddies of mine were discussing U of A's basketball team. Granted, I'm not a Cats fan, only really following the couple of guys on the team that will likely have an impact on the professional stage. However, my buddy Sean brought up the fact that the Cats, in his opinion, are likely to be among the favorites to win it all next year should both Bayless and Budinger spurn guaranteed money and come back. That's a fair point, but I responded by saying that the rumblings that Bayless is going to return for another season at U of A were about the stupidest thing he could do - why would you risk a guaranteed $3 million-or-so salary for the change to win an NCAA tourney? It's a lock that he's not going to stay there for four years and actually earn a degree, and he shouldn't, degrees are designed to allow someone to earn as much money as possible, and Bayless is going to make his living with something that requires no education whatsoever. So what is the point of wasting a year of salary when the most likely outcome is that he gets picked lower next year than he would have this year, due to the fact that NBA teams prefer players who are younger and can be coached at the highest level and play at the highest level for the longest periods of time? The response I got back was, "he's not ready for the NBA." This, naturally, got me thinking. When has a player ever been "ready" for the NBA, and how have those players' careers played out in the NBA as opposed to those who were deemed to be similarly "unready?" I've always said it's a huge mistake to make the "safe" pick, but do the numbers back me up? Thus, it's time to look at a few of the most recent drafts, assess who would have most likely been deemed "ready" for the NBA, who would have been deemed "not ready" for the NBA, and how they have all fared. Keep in mind this is all subjective, and I, with my extremely limited sports knowledge, am the one determining all of these distinctions. I have tried to do so in a manner that takes into account year in college ball, success on teams in college, physical build, presumed ability to handle 82-game schedule, etc.



Greg Oden
Al Horford
Jeff Green
Yi Jianlian
Corey Brewer
Joakim Noah
Acie Law
Rodney Stuckey
Marco Belinelli

"Not Ready:"

Kevin Durant
Mike Conley
Brandan Wright
Thaddeus Young
Al Thornton
Sean Williams

Obviously, it's really early to try to make any huge distinctions about the 2007 draft class, but there are a few things worth noting already. First, the rookies playing the best this season are, predominantly, those who were expected to do so - the "ready" ones. This includes Al Horford, statistically having the best season among all rookies (yes, better than Durant - the shooting percentages don't lie), and a few rookies who were not among those drafted, such as Luis Scola, Jamario Moon, and Juan Carlos Navarro. However, one must also realize that there are a few rookies who seem slated to amount to very little in their careers who were chosen high because of the fact that they were expected to immediately contribute as polished players. What has happened is that they have thus far been unable to crack their team's rotation, and given the fact that they have really never seemed to have a great deal of potential, it seems that these players will amount to little more than role players. Who now envisions Acie Law as becoming a potential starting point guard? If Corey Brewer can't average more than 5 points per game on the hapless Timberwolves, does he have a legitimate future? After such a dazzling preseason, can Marco Belinelli perform at a high level when he isn't more experienced and clearly more talented than everybody else on the court? This is the danger of drafting "ready" players, the upside is limited, and if they don't pan out immediately, it's hard to envision them being long-run mainstays on a good team. You might call me an idiot for predetermining the careers of guys no more than six years older than myself, and I may well look like an idiot for this column in a few years, but I simply don't see it happening.



Andrea Bargnani
Adam Morrison
Shelden Williams
Brandon Roy
Randy Foye
J.J. Redick
Hilton Armstrong
Thabo Sefolosha
Oleksiy Pecherov
Quincy Douby
Maurice Ager
Mardy Collins

"Not Ready:"

LaMarcus Aldridge
Tyrus Thomas
Rudy Gay
Cedric Simmons
Shawne Williams
Rajon Rondo
Kyle Lowry
Jordan Farmar

After just a year and a half, the comparison between those players who were "ready" and "not ready" is staggering. Andrea Bargnani's ceiling continues to be about as low as his vertical, Morrison looks to be a bust in Charlotte, the Hawks already gave up on Shelden Williams, Foye is stuck on the bench behind Marko Jaric, Redick has become Orlando's Token White Guy, Armstrong is a role player in New Orleans, Sefolosha's inability to perform forced Chicago to bring in Larry Hughes' terrible contract, Pecherov is a bust as a rookie this year having finally come to the states, and Douby, Ager, and Collins have all become quite irrelevant. Only Roy has been immensely successful in Portland out of that group. Meanwhile, Aldridge is a key piece of Portland's rebulding process, Ty Thomas has, between trade rumors, played well enough to allow Chicago to dump Ben Wallace, Gay is a star, Rondo is the point guard on the best team in the East, Lowry is stuck on a team with two other guys picked higher and more recently than him, and Farmar is L.A.'s point-guard-in-training behind Derek Fisher. If you had to choose between starting your team with the first or second groups, the choice is obvious. Having only one guy turn out to be a potential star as opposed to having only two guys (Simmons and Williams) not be important pieces to a team is a position that does not make GM's successful.



Andrew Bogut
Deron Williams
Raymond Felton
Channing Frye
Ike Diogu
Fran Vazquez
Sean May
Rashad McCants
Antoine Wright
Joey Graham
Danny Granger
Hakim Warrick
Julius Hodge
Nate Robinson
Jarrett Jack
Francisco Garcia
Luther Head
Jason Maxiell
Wayne Simien
David Lee

"Not Ready:"

Marvin Williams
Chris Paul
Martell Webster
Charlie Villanueva
Andrew Bynum
Yaroslav Korolev
Gerald Green
Linas Kleiza

Now things get interesting as we go back into the high school era. For starters, yes, I know, that is a whole lot of "Ready" guys. But this draft happened to be filled with guys who came out as either juniors or seniors in college. And looking at that group of guys, how well did it turn out for the teams that picked them? Larry Harris is about to be fired in Milwaukee, and Bogut is a big reason why. Sure, Deron Williams has turned out well, but I'd be willing to bet Jerry Sloan would rather be coming out of that tunnel with Chris Paul. The two guys picked before Andrew Bynum were Channing Frye and Ike Diogu... gulp. May has become irrelevant - partially because of injuries and partially because he didn't even perform when he wasn't hurt. Antoine Wright almost just got traded for a second-round pick before he had to be included in the Jason Kidd deal for salary cap purposes. Graham is unheard of. Hell, the only guys out of this group who seem to have exceeded expectations came in the back part of the round, when the expectations were so low. Even so, among overachievers like Danny Granger, Nate Robinson, Luther Head, Jason Maxiell, and David Lee are busts like Julius Hodge, Francisco Garcia, and Wayne Simien. Now, are you ready for the "not ready" guys? Marvin Williams is 21 and already averaging over 15 points per game. Chris Paul is this year's MVP. Webster, despite being so far behind the curve when he came out of high school, has managed to work his way into Portland's starting lineup. Villanueva can score in bunches, as shown by his recent 32 point outing, as Milwaukee's sixth-man. Everyone knows about Bynum's ridiculous development into a potentially dominant big man. And Kleiza has developed so much that Denver was unwilling to part with him as a part of a deal to get Ron Artest. Out of this group, really the only two guys who have struggled are Green and Korolev. For being younger guys who were thought to be high-risk and high-reward, the risk seems to be pretty small, and reward really really high.



Emeka Okafor
Ben Gordon
Josh Childress
Rafael Araujo
Luke Jackson
Kirk Snyder
Jameer Nelson
Delonte West
Tony Allen

"Not Ready:"

Dwight Howard
Shaun Livingston
Luol Deng
Andre Iguodala
Andris Biedrins
Robert Swift
Sebastian Telfair
Al Jefferson
Josh Smith
J.R. Smith
Dorell Wright
Kevin Martin (Despite coming out after his junior year, when kept him at the bottom of the first round was the fact that he was physically undeveloped, and had a shot that was not seen as suited for the NBA. Looks like that didn't matter too much, did it?)

This draft's comparison begins right at the top of the list and goes right down the order. Orlando could have easily made the safe pick, Emeka Okafor, at the start of the draft, and nobody would have complained, and everyone's job security would have been untouched. However, they made the daring pick, the unproven and unready guy, and what do they have now to show for it? Possibly the most dominant force in the NBA today. Were it not for Shaun Livingston's devastating knee injury last season, do you really think he wouldn't be far and away better than Ben Gordon, whose inconsistencies have kept him on Chicago's bench? Who would you rather have on your team - Josh Childress or Luol Deng? Andre Iguodala or Rafael Araujo? Andris Biedrins or Luke Jackson? Al Jefferson or anyone taken picks 3-14? Josh Smith/J.R. Smith or Kirk Snyder? Tony Allen or Kevin Martin? In all of these situations, the player who was "not ready" was selected immediately after the player who was "ready," and in every one of these situations, the player who was "not ready" has turned out to be a better player. Sure, there are busts like the unproven Robert Swift's and Dorell Wright's, but there are just as many Rafael Araujo's and Luke Jackson's among those "ready" players to make it idiotic to choose a player because he's "ready" for the NBA and a supposed proven commodity.

Now, I won't continue going to keep proving my point, but if you feel the urge, keep going back, and you'll find that it has been going on for a long time that making the safe pick and taking someone who is "NBA ready" doesn't mean that player will have a successful career, and that often players who are deemed as being "not ready" for the NBA often become the most successful players in the league.

So, to get to the point of this column - Jerryd, get out of UA and make your money. The Knicks are waiting for you.

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