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Reviewing The 2014 NBA Draft (From A College Perspective)

- I’m looking forward to seeing Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens try to properly use Marcus Smart and James Young. Both have serious flaws in their game. Smart is a terrible shooter, and Young is a terrible defender. (The later fact cannot be understated. Despite NBA size, Young blocked almost no shots, and had a terrible steal rate in college. He simply doesn’t have good defensive instincts.) But if put in a system to emphasize their strengths, both could outperform many of the players drafted ahead of them.

- I feel like Elfrid Payton’s stock shot up far too high. He put up great numbers, but you have to remember that he played in the 20th best conference in the country. He didn’t face a single Top 100 defense in his league. Moreover, in that relatively weak league, he couldn’t even lead his team to a dominating season. Louisiana-Lafayette finished just 11-7 in the Sun Belt. People always seem to be looking for the next Jeremy Lin. (Wait, people don’t seem to love him anymore.) People always seem to be looking for the next Damian Lillard, a small college guy with great college stats who translated well to the NBA. But there are lots of guys who have dominant stats in college and do not make it in the NBA. Perhaps Payton was a late bloomer and he really does have the athleticism to make it at the next level. But it is very hard to have watched a ton of college basketball and believe a player like Payton is better than Tyler Ennis or Shabazz Napier.

(Oh, and by the way, like Marcus Smart, Payton was a terrible shooter. Teams always seem to fall for the mistake that they can teach shooting. But while it is literally true that teams can’t teach athleticism or size, it is usually true that teams cannot teach shooting either. Kawhi Leonard might have learned to shoot in the NBA, but GMs are fired every year because they draft players who never learn to shoot.)

- I agree with everyone who felt Oklahoma City drafted Mitch McGary way too early. McGary was suspended this season because he used marijuana. I certainly understand the scouts that say that drug use happens in the NBA, and this isn’t a red flag. But the reason it bothers me is that McGary’s career effort appears to be so inconsistent. McGary was viewed as one of the top prospects as a junior in high school. But then he didn’t handle success well, and saw his stock plummet as a high school senior. Then, despite joining a team with a great PG and a great offensive mastermind at coach, McGary was invisible for four months of his freshman season. Suddenly, he had one great month in the NCAA tournament and was viewed as a lottery pick. Then he started the next season very slowly. He was injured, but I think we tend to forget that he struggled to be the center of Michigan’s offense. Had he continued to play, he was on pace for a very disappointing season. Basically, when you have a player who appears to have very inconsistent effort and performance, drug use should be a much bigger red flag.

- I agree with those who felt Kentucky’s Julius Randle fell too far in the draft. Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose may be right that experts picked him apart too much because they saw too much of him. But I hate the scouting reports that said that Randle depends too much on strength and overpowering people in the paint, and that won’t work in the NBA. Certainly, there will be older players in the NBA, and Randle won’t have the same size and strength advantage he did in college. But I don’t see how being the rare college player who is physically dominant counts as a major drawback. Randle was a true alpha-dog from the moment he stepped on the floor in November. The fact that six NBA franchises thought there were players better than Randle says a ton about the quality of this year’s draft.

Players Are Not One-Dimensional

NCAA fans face a key dilemma anytime they watch the draft. While they cheer for their former players to do well, the truth is that most fans are not happy to see their favorite players move on to the next level.

This was well-highlighted by John Calipari’s comments a few years ago that a draft with a large number of Kentucky players selected should be a great moment in Kentucky history. When we all step back and look at it, that has to be right. The purpose of a college is to prepare its students for their future careers. If Kentucky is doing that, the UK alumni should be proud, not angry. But as fans, that is a tough pill to swallow. On draft day, college fans are usually a little frustrated that we don’t get to see more from our favorite early entrants.

UCLA’s Jordan Adams is a great example of this. We spent the last two months talking about what a terrible decision he made to go pro. And now today, we were surprised when he was the 22nd pick in the first round. Perhaps the Memphis Grizzlies don’t know how to evaluate talent. Or perhaps we owe Adams an apology for questioning his decision.

But the truth is, we owe Jordan Adams that apology whether he was selected in the first round or not. Jordan Adams wasn’t playing college basketball to make us happy. He was playing college basketball while trying to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. Only a curmudgeon would nit-pick the decision-making of someone pursuing their dream.

And this is especially true since returning to school is never a guarantee of success. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned to school and was told he needed to improve his passing to have a chance as an NBA point-guard. He did, upping his assist rate from near 20% to near 30%. And yet, no one noticed. Returning to school and once again becoming one of the most dominant players in college basketball didn’t suddenly make him into a first round pick.

Many of us laugh at the hypocrisy of the NCAA. We watch the O’Bannon vs NCAA trial and chortle at the NCAA’s claims that amateurism means that individuals cannot be recognized and compensated. And yet we often fall into the same trap as fans. We don’t really view the NCAA athletes as individuals who we want to succeed in life. We view them as pieces of a roster for our favorite teams.

Perhaps that’s why I really respect the NBA. While the NFL tries to limit the exposure of its players, (i.e. no one can take their helmet off after a big play without a penalty), the NBA tries to put the players front and center.

The NFL believes that if a team sport focuses on individuals, that it destroys the purpose of teamwork. And certainly this is sometimes true. Focusing on players sometimes leads you to learn that some players are show-offs, ball-hogs, and spotlight stealers. But if knowing about the players makes fans less connected to a sport, that is only because the league’s marketing has failed. The NBA has allowed us to see that players have more depth and nuance than any single highlight clip will ever show.

NCAA fans all know the Lacey Holsworth story, and how Adreian Payne did his best to provide joy for a little girl who died from cancer. And you had better believe the NBA wasn’t going to let its audience miss that story. It was front and center on draft night.

And the Isaiah Austin moment was spot on too. No, I wasn’t talking about the spot where the Commissioner came out and put a spotlight on the Baylor player who has to retire due to a life-threatening medical condition. I’m talking about the fact that during his 30 second interview, Marcus Smart chose to say he was thinking of Austin, and it reminded Smart not to take life for granted.

Marcus Smart is a reminder that we shouldn’t just try to give players one-dimensional labels. I don’t quite believe in all the love the ESPN crew foisted upon him on Thursday. His intensity is not unambiguously good. It often caused him to try to take over games himself and win by himself. It exposed the fact that he was not a pure PG. He did not respond to competitive situations by making his teammates better and rallying in the moment. He reacted with physical aggression and bad shot selection on far too many occasions.

But at the same time, Marcus Smart is exactly why the NBA is so good at what they do. We got to see his interview and see that he is not just the hyper-aggressive competitor on the court. On draft day, he wasn’t thinking about himself, he was thinking about his former rival in the Big 12.

Marcus Smart is a deep and complicated person, just like all of us. And that’s the reason we care about NBA players and teams, and not just our own local squad. Anyone who has watched the early chapters of Marcus Smart’s journey, absolutely wants to see how it ends up. Kudos to the NBA for putting the players front and center, and trying to present them as people, and not just jerseys.

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