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The NBA Draft, 2012 Olympics And Intangibles

Two things stuck out to me when watching the 2012 NBA Draft.

1.) This draft was a high school scout’s dream.

The RSCI Rankings are a composite index of various high school rankings. And the 2012 NBA Draft will go down as the year the high school scouts accurately predicted the future. Twenty-two of the players drafted in the first round were former RSCI Top 40 recruits. Since the NBA instituted its age limit, there have never been this many former elite high school prospects taken in the first round:

Draft Year

Top 40 High School Recruits

2006

11

2007

12

2008

17

2009

14

2010

16

2011

11

2012

22

Dion Waiters was mislabeled as a sixth man for Syracuse because he played starters minutes. And Thomas Robinson was an underutilized freshman two years ago at Kansas. But while these players may have been late-risers, the high school scouts still gave them a strong grade. Coming out of high school both were ranked near 30th in most high school rankings.

Damian Lillard counts as the rare player that the high school scouts missed in this year’s draft. It isn’t that rare for a point guard to develop into a dominant player at the mid-major level, but what makes Lillard a real gem is that he has the size to play point guard at the NBA level. Lillard and a handful of other players did come out of nowhere, but for the most part, this was a draft full of players that have long been on scout’s radar screens:

Player

College

Class

RSCI Rank

Pick

Anthony Davis

Kentucky

Fr

1

1

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Kentucky

Fr

3

2

Bradley Beal

Florida

Fr

4

3

Dion Waiters

Syracuse

So

31

4

Thomas Robinson

Kansas

Jr

28

5

Damian Lillard

Weber St.

Jr

 

6

Harrison Barnes

North Carolina

So

1

7

Terrence Ross

Washington

So

33

8

Andre Drummond

Connecticut

Fr

2*

9

Austin Rivers

Duke

Fr

2

10

Meyers Leonard

Illinois

So

29

11

Jeremy Lamb

Connecticut

So

78

12

Kendall Marshall

North Carolina

So

25

13

John Henson

North Carolina

Jr

5

14

Maurice Harkless

St. John's

Fr

38

15

Royce White

Iowa St.

So

31

16

Tyler Zeller

North Carolina

Sr

18

17

Terrence Jones

Kentucky

So

11

18

Andrew Nicholson

St. Bonaventure

Sr

 

19

Evan Fournier

N/A

   

20

Jared Sullinger

Ohio St.

So

2

21

Fab Melo

Syracuse

So

14

22

John Jenkins

Vanderbilt

Jr

29

23

Jared Cunningham

Oregon St.

Jr

 

24

Tony Wroten

Washington

Fr

18

25

Miles Plumlee

Duke

Sr

81

26

Arnett Moultrie

Mississippi St.

Jr

 

27

Perry Jones III

Baylor

So

8

28

Marquis Teague

Kentucky

Fr

7

29

Festus Ezeli

Vanderbilt

Sr

 

30

*Andre Drummond reclassified after last year’s final spring rankings were released, but he was clearly a consensus Top 10 recruit, and probably the equivalent of the No. 2 recruit last summer.

I don’t necessarily think this is a permanent trend. There was only one international player selected in the first round this year, and this probably reflected the pendulum swinging back after so many international players were drafted early in 2011. I suspect that after the Olympics a few international players will shock the world and the NBA will fall back in love with the international talent pool.

Also, several elite prospects returned to school last spring resulting in more former high school stars being available in this year’s draft. But after Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones came back to school and saw their draft stock fall, it is hard to argue that staying in school was the right decision. The truth is that if you are a projected lottery pick, the right financial decision is clearly to declare for the draft.

Bradley Beal struggled immensely with the decision to declare for the draft this spring because he wants to have a professional career after basketball and an education is very important to him. But Beal made the wise decision to leave while he was the third pick in the draft. If he waited a couple of years, NBA scouts would no longer be in love with his potential.

2) Sometimes the dream is better than the reality.

Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers were the two top prospects coming out of high school last spring. And there is something magical about imagining them maturing together on the same NBA team. The odds are long that they can match the accomplishments of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. But draft day isn’t about having realistic expectations. Draft day is about the dream of what may be.

It is also a time to embrace change. Certainly in sports, there is a lot to love about roster stability. For casual fans, when rosters are constantly changing, it is hard to become attached to a team. Casual Yankees’ fans love to be able to know that every year Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodgriguez are going to be in the lineup. Casual Lakers’ fans know that Kobe Bryant is the face of the franchise no matter what. And to some extent, continuity can lead to better play. Fans love to see players work together for years and develop unbelievable chemistry with one another.

But continuity has drawbacks. It means we don’t get to evaluate players in different environments. Did Derek Jeter really have a ton of intangibles back when the Yankees were playing in the World Series every year? Or was he just surrounded by an ultra-talented group of players around him? Did LeBron James really lack championship heart and grit in Cleveland, or was he just surrounded by less talented players?

Rarely in sports do we get to see star players in different environments, and the draft is one of the few times when we get to see a player’s environment change. Anthony Davis was absolutely a star in high school where his physical gifts were unmatched. And he was a star at Kentucky where he was surrounded by championship caliber college players who didn’t need him to take a lot of shots. But now we get to see how Davis will perform on a team where the talent around him is lacking and he is absolutely expected to be one of the team’s leaders.

This is also why Olympic basketball is so fascinating. It isn’t necessarily a chance to see competitive basketball. Barring multiple players withdrawing from the US team, the US should be the prohibitive favorites once again. But we long to see players in new environments. Who would have thought that on a Spanish team with Pau Gasol and Rudy Fernandez and many other established veterans, that a youngster named Ricky Rubio would have shined in 2008? What other players that project as a niche NBA contributors will blossom in a new setting and raise our expectations?

And on the US team, who will be the star of stars? Last week, Sports Illustrated had a fantastic article on the original Dream Team and how Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson battled in practice. As that article clearly portrayed, Michael Jordan imposed his will on any team that he played for.

Two years ago when the United States’ backup team qualified for the Olympics, Kevin Durant imposed his will as the best player on the floor and the leader for the Americans. But now how will Durant fit in when playing with the NBA’s first team? Will Durant still be the leader on the floor? Or will he be happy to go back to being a role player? The beauty of the Olympics is that we get to see players like Durant in a new environment and answer some of those questions. We wonder whether Durant’s willingness to defer to Russell Westbrook is a product of building Oklahoma City’s team chemistry, or a permanent character trait for Durant. And right or wrong, the Olympics will help us to learn about Durant’s ultimate penchant for leadership.

Intangibles are almost certainly overrated. Talent matters, and that is why the high school scouting mentioned at the start of this column is so critical. Execution matters, which is why we write endless columns arguing about the merit of different statistical player grades. But ultimately, when we tell the final story of different players, we still care about intangibles. As the SI article on the dream team noted, we care that David Robinson didn’t have the same passion as Michael Jordan. And we want to know more about Kevin Durant’s future legacy.

Maybe in the final analysis, the US will win convincingly. But much like the draft, the dream is part of the fun. We imagine what would happen if Kevin Durant and LeBron James were on the court at the same time in a close game with the clock winding down. We imagine what it will be like to see Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers mature together in New Orleans. And in sports, sometimes that dream is more fun than the reality.

 

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