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Beverley, Lin And The Rockets' Meritocracy

Like Dahntay Jones before him, Patrick Beverley became a household name for all the wrong reasons this season. Unfortunately, his role in knocking Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs overshadowed his breakout performance over the last week. Six months ago, he was playing in Europe, a second round pick who had been unable to crack an NBA roster. Now, at the age of 24, he’s a key member of a playoff team. When the Houston Rockets went small and inserted him into the starting lineup before Game 2, it changed the dynamic of their first-round series with the Thunder.

They still might be swept, but Beverley’s emergence is why any playoff series is valuable for a young team. In the playoffs, the cream rises. Jeremy Lin, in contrast, has struggled to stay on the floor, even before his chest injury. Beverley is a far better fit with Harden in the backcourt, and when adjusted for minutes played, their regular season stats were fairly similar. He could be the Rockets' point guard of the future, a tremendous coup considering how they acquired him. He’s the new poster boy for the benefits of mining Europe for talent as well as a walking embarrassment for every point guard-hungry team in the league.

While few NBA fans could have named him at the beginning of the season, Beverley didn’t come out of nowhere. He was a four-star recruit in high school, the No. 65 player in the class of 2006. In his freshman season at Arkansas, he was the leading scorer on an NCAA Tournament team. Unfortunately, his collegiate career was cut short before his junior season, when an academic scandal forced him out of school and sent him to play in Ukraine as a 21-year-old. He was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and was one of the last cuts in Heat training camp in 2010.

At that point, Beverley became another basketball vagabond. Every year, the college game churns out dozens of NBA-caliber guards, far too many for the NBA to absorb. A 7’0 with NBA-caliber athleticism will get opportunities well into his 30’s, but a 6’0 with NBA-caliber athleticism can easily slip through the cracks. Unless a guard is an elite scorer or distributor, their chance to stick often comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Beverley already had his chance; there was no guarantee he would ever get another. At the age of 22, he was yesterday’s news.

That rejection can ruin a young player’s psyche. Most never make it back from the NBDL or Europe, where they quickly become out of sight, out of mind. Beverley wound up playing with Josh Childress and Linas Kleiza on Olympiacos, one of the top teams in Greece. In 2011, he moved to a feature role for Spartak St. Petersburg. In 2012, he was named MVP of the Eurocup, a year-round competition between the top mid-tier teams on the continent. Beverley filled up his team's stat sheet -- first in points and steals, second in rebounds and assists -- and lead Spartak to the Eurocup Finals.

His time overseas served him well, both on and off the court. Due to his combination of length (6’6 wingspan) and footspeed, he was always an extremely intriguing prospect defensively. However, as a 6’1 combo guard coming out of Arkansas, he was a marginal NBA prospect. In Europe, he improved as a decision-maker and passer, almost doubling his assist-to-turnover ratio from his college days. Just as important, he was forced to mature, as unprofessional players have a hard time surviving the grind overseas. It can be a humbling experience, especially for guys who have been pampered in AAU and college.

Any team in the NBA could have had him at the start of the season, but only the Rockets pulled the trigger. Beverley is one of 20 different players they’ve used, as they’ve churned the bottom of their roster to find the right pieces around Harden. It’s a credit to both Daryl Morey, who has left no stone unturned to find talent, and Kevin McHale, whose been uncommonly willing to give unknowns a chance. McHale is the rare coach who will play rookies, D-League players and European free agents. He’s running a legitimate meritocracy in Houston, as opposed to the tenure-system used by many.

As a result, Lin’s job could be in jeopardy headed into next season. He has the brand name and the bigger contract, but Beverley is a better complement to Harden. A guard who plays next to the Rockets star has to be a good shooter and defensive player, two of Lin’s weaknesses and Beverley’s strengths. Per-36 minutes, Beverley averaged more rebounds, steals and blocks than Lin. He had a better assist-to-turnover ratio as well as higher shooting percentages. There’s room for both in Houston, but Lin would be most effective as a sixth man with the freedom to dominate the ball on their second unit.

Even if Beverley stays on the bench, his signing will have been a huge win for the Rockets. They found a quality 24-year old PG in the middle of the season while teams like the Mavericks brought in Derek Fisher and Mike James. Similarly, the Lakers have struggled for years with their lack of perimeter athleticism, but instead of actively searching for a solution overseas, they were content to use guys (Steve Blake, Darius Morris, Chris Duhon) they knew weren’t good enough. How much better would Dallas and L.A. have been this season with Beverley in the backcourt?

Far too many organizations are blinded by NBA experience. There are thousands of professional basketball players in the world; it’s hard to believe Fisher, Duhon and James are among the 450 best. Just as importantly, a player with five years of experience in the European leagues will be far cheaper than a five-year NBA veteran with similar ability. NBA teams are the same as any other company in modern America: why not take advantage of a globalized work force to cut labor costs? With the crippling luxury tax penalties in the new CBA, most won’t have a choice.

A decade from now, Beverley’s journey to the NBA may be closer to the norm. From Beverley to Alan Anderson, James Copeland, Gerald Green, Gary Neal and Pablo Prigioni, European free agents have proven they can hang with the best in the world. The European leagues are the perfect place for role players to develop: why take a chance on a 22-year old coming out of college or a 32-year old on the downside of his career when you can sign a 27-year old at his physical peak? There are a lot more Patrick Beverley’s out there, if only teams will open their eyes to find them.

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