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The NBA's Last High School Class

By the middle of the 2000’s, the enthusiasm for drafting high school players had all but evaporated. A sure-fire star like LeBron James or Dwight Howard would still go No. 1 overall, but teams were becoming increasingly unwilling to invest a lot of money in younger guys who wouldn’t be able to contribute right away. If a teenager would need several years to develop physically, the team that drafted them was essentially paying to develop a guy for someone else.

The 2005 draft was the last one to allow high school players and it didn’t feature anyone like Dwight or LeBron. The eight guys from the high school class of 2005 who were drafted that season became the final group of prep-to-pros for at least a generation. In many ways, they were a lost generation, caught between two eras. They were lost in the shuffle as soon as they came into the league, not ready to play right away and not drafted high enough to build around.

No. 6 - Martell Webster

No. 10 - Andrew Bynum

No. 18 - Gerald Green

No. 34 - CJ Miles

No. 40 - Monta Ellis

No. 45 - Lou Williams

No. 49 - Andray Blatche

No. 56 - Amir Johnson

Talent was never the issue for any of these guys. Ten years later, six of the eight are still in the NBA, playing big roles on their teams. However, none are still on the team that drafted them and most had to bounce around the league for awhile before finding a home. Gerald Green ended up spending a few years overseas while Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche, probably the two most talented players, aren’t even in the league during what should be their prime.

It wasn’t obvious right away, as none got much playing time as rookies. Chris Paul, who spent two seasons at Wake Forest, ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award and most of the guys on the All-Rookie teams had played a few years in college. The high school guys were essentially taking a redshirt year, building up their bodies and watching from the sidelines. Since they went later in the draft, they were going to teams who didn’t have much available playing time.

In their second season, three guys - Monta, Bynum and Green - moved into the starting line-up. For the most part, an under-20 player who starts in the NBA has a lot of talent and those three are no exception. Monta is one of the fastest players in the league, Bynum is one of the biggest and Green is one of the most athletic. All three were capable of taking over a game and all three had the potential to be perennial All-Stars, if things had worked out differently.

Green was the most glaring example of a guy who wasn’t ready to play in the NBA. He had spent his whole career dunking on people whenever he felt like it, so he had no real idea how to operate within a team concept on either offense or defense. An NBA coach was just not going to put up with that from a young player, no matter how talented. Green played on four teams in his first four seasons in the NBA and was out of the league by the age of 24.

The same thing happened to Blatche, although it was slower because he was a big man. He never learned how to become a professional, either on or off the court. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the league - he’s coming off a season where he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds on 47% shooting in only 22 minutes. In the last two seasons, he had PER’s of 21.9 and 18.8. The fact that no one has given him a job says it all about his reputation around the league.

Monta was way too good a player to fall out of the league, but there wasn’t a ton of interest when he entered the market last season, at the age of 28. He took a lot of bad shots for a lot of bad teams, which may or may not have been a coincidence. He sat out there for a few weeks before winding up with the Dallas Mavericks, who have been able to resurrect his career. Even in Dallas, though, his inability to defend or run point limits the line-up options around him.

Lou Williams was available for practically nothing last summer, when the Raptors acquired him and Lucas Noguiera for the price of John Salmons. After tearing his ACL in 2013, a slow recovery had made Williams expendable. He had never developed into anything beyond a scorer, so he had a hard time impacting the game without his typical burst. He has been reborn in Toronto, where he has a chance to be 6th man of the year, if they win enough games.

Amir Johnson is the longest-tenured member of the Raptors, one of the leaders of the team with the best record in the East. He wound up in Toronto after spending four years as an understudy to Ben and Rasheed Wallace in Detroit, a situation similar to what happened to Jermaine O’Neal in Portland. Johnson isn’t on that level, but he’s just now coming into his own, a 27-year old two-way big man who should be able to start well into the foreseeable future.

That might be the biggest benefit of coming into the league at such a young age - time is on your side. If a college senior needs some time before he gets comfortable with the NBA game, he could be coming up at 30 real fast. Amir Johnson has been in the league 10 seasons and is 27. Taj Gibson, in contrast, has played 6 seasons and is 29. So while Amir will be an unrestricted free agent at 28, Gibson won’t hit the market until 32, when he will already be in decline.

Miles, on his third team in the last four seasons, is getting the biggest chance of his career in his 10th season in the league. He was signed to be one of the guys to replace Lance Stephenson, but the Pacers ended up having to replace Paul George too, opening up a ton of playing time for Miles. Indiana, like Chicago over the last few seasons, still has good big men and a culture of winning, so there’s a chance for Miles to carve out a role as a starter on a playoff team.

Green, who had to spend three seasons in Russia and the D-League in his mid 20’s, is finally getting a chance to shine in the NBA at the age of 28. He is the perfect fit for the Phoenix Suns uptempo system, capable of scoring points in bunches and single-handedly taking over games. In the last few weeks alone, Green has had 24 points in 26 minutes against the Nuggets, 23 points in 22 minutes against the Pacers and 26 points in 28 minutes against the Clippers.

Over the next few seasons, the six remaining guys from the class of 2005 - Monta, Green, Williams, Amir, Miles and Webster - all have a chance to have big roles on playoff teams. With the exception of Webster, who hasn’t played all season due to injury, they are in the best situation of their careers. It took them a long time to get where they were going, but they ended up in good places. How many 10-year NBA veterans can say their best days are ahead of them?

Russell Westbrook Unleashed

The Oklahoma City Thunder ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, but the first game of the Russell Westbrook experience was everything people hoped it would be. Without Kevin Durant, Westbrook got the chance to dominate the ball the entire game and he did not disappoint, with 38 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds on 11-26 shooting. One of the most explosive guards in the NBA has been unleashed - there is no one to steal shots from on this team.

Westbrook has been one of the most polarizing players in the league for years, the embodiment of the debate about the importance of having a “true PG” on a contending team. A combo guard in college, he still has the instincts of a scorer, although he has slowly turned himself into more of a floor general. When he is at his best, though, he looks a lot like what he did on Opening Night against the Portland Trail Blazers - putting his head down and hunting for his own shot.

At 6’3 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, he is one of the biggest and most athletic PG’s in the NBA. His combination of size and speed means it is impossible for defenders to stay in front of him and he has a lethal pull-up jumper when they play off him. Like his former backcourt partner James Harden, Westbrook is also an expert on drawing contact around the rim. He has averaged over 6 FTA’s a game in his career and he went 15-16 from the charity stripe against Portland. 

Westbrook dominated his individual match-up against Damian Lillard, who had only 10 points on 3-10 shooting on Wednesday. Lillard had absolutely no chance of guarding him - Westbrook took him down to the post, he blew right by him and got to the rim and he rained in jumpers from the perimeter. While Lillard isn’t exactly known for his individual defense, he didn’t have a prayer against Westbrook, who could do whatever he wanted against him.

His play on the other side of the floor was just as impressive, as he stymied Lillard and prevented him from getting into the lane. Westbrook doesn’t have a rep of a great defensive player, but tell it to the guys he goes up against. On a recent AMA chat on Reddit, Ty Lawson called him the toughest player he faces in the NBA. The numbers back it up, as Westbrook has a history of holding guys like Lillard, Lawson and Chris Paul below their season averages.

The problem for Westbrook is that he isn’t totally locked in on defense, particularly off the ball. Like most elite athletes who can turn it on at any time, he has a tendency to cut corners on that side of the floor over the course of an 82-game regular season. He’s a fairly unrefined player, which isn’t all that surprising for a guy whose only 25 years old. Maybe the scariest thing about Westbrook is how much room he still has to grow as he moves deeper into his 20’s.

Like the rest of the Thunder, Westbrook has been around for so long that people forget how young he is. He is in his 7th season in the NBA and Lillard is in his 3rd, yet he’s only a year and a half older. Westbrook has been playing at an elite level for a really long time - he was competing in the Western Conference Finals at 22. As a result, he has had to grow up under the national eye, with everything he does on and off the court micro-analyzed to death.

No one has any patience anymore, particularly for younger players. They are supposed to be basketball playing robots as soon as they come into the league - we have all this data that tells us why they don’t play like 10-year NBA veterans, which can skew our perception of what they can be. Everyone wants to put them in a box and judge them on their statistics, rather than looking at the big picture and accepting that they will make mistakes as they figure things out.

Westbrook is the prime example of that, as there were people ready to give up on him 3-4 years ago because of his tendency to dominate the ball and freeze out his teammates. Nevermind that Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring in four of the last five seasons, so he clearly isn’t hurting for touches in Oklahoma City. It’s a tough line to walk for a scoring PG, especially for a guy with the talent to be a primary option for the vast majority of teams in the NBA.

And for all the stats that Westbrook has racked up with the Thunder, he has hardly been playing in advantageous situations on offense. Teams straight up didn’t have to guard Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, sending multiple defenders at Westbrook and Durant with complete impunity. OKC ran a really stagnant offense and they didn’t spread the floor, so Westbrook had to bail out a lot of possessions going 1-on-3 at the end of the clock.

That’s what could be the most interesting angle of this next two months for Westbrook - not just playing without Durant, but without Perkins and Sefolosha too. If the Thunder have Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson in their spots, Westbrook will have a lot more room to operate in the halfcourt. He’s not a guy the defense wants to guard in space - imagine the type of numbers he could put up if he was playing in Jeff Hornacek’s system in Phoenix.

Westbrook is going to mount a full-fledged assault on the rest of the league and there’s no player more fun to watch in that scenario. He’s a guy you want to see live to appreciate just how fast he is - he has 2-3 more gears than most NBA players and he’s the rare 6’4 guard who can play at 11+ feet in the air with absolute ease. The Thunder might struggle on the road without Durant, but Westbrook unleashed in front of their home crowd should be something.

Durant took his game to a whole different level when Westbrook was out last season and now it’s time for Westbrook to return the favor. This experience should help him grow a lot as a player, as he will no longer have Durant around to bail him out of bad possessions. Everyone on the floor is going to depend on Westbrook to spoon feed them open shots, so he almost has no choice but to play under control as much as possible. It’s all part of the maturation process.

The knocks on Westbrook are all the stuff you would expect from an elite athlete in his early 20’s. He has always been able to get by on his athleticism, so he never had to develop the mental side of the game. As he matures on and off the court and develops the ability to think the game at a high level, he is going to be a serious problem. The intersection of the mental and physical elevators is when an athlete is at his peak and that’s still years in his future.

These next few weeks are going to be a learning experience for Westbrook. Portland was able to slow him down in the second half because they switched the 6’8 Nic Batum onto him. That’s something he hasn’t seen very often in his NBA career, since Durant commands so much defensive attention. When you tower over everyone who guards you, you can get away with taking a lot of circus shots and forcing the action, even when the defense sends help.

What makes Oklahoma City so dangerous in a seven-game series is there isn’t a team in the league who can guard Durant AND Westbrook. They are two of the five best players in the NBA and either one of them can take over a game at anytime. Everyone wants to talk about where Durant will go in free agency in 2016, but where is he going to go to find a better sidekick than Westbrook? As those two continue to improve, the Thunder only get scarier.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southeast Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA concludes with a look at the Southeast Division, which features a number of young teams on the rise. While the Miami Heat have run roughshod over the division for the last four seasons, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks have been patiently growing rosters who could now be in a position to take advantage of the departure of LeBron James.

It wasn’t a pretty process, particularly for Washington and Charlotte, which featured some of the worst teams in the NBA for years. After swinging and missing on several lottery picks, they didn’t have the talent base to attract many free agents and they had to spent a lot of time chewing their medicine, bleeding fans as they racked up huge loss totals. The Wizards eventually lucked out in the lottery while the Hornets made a few shrewd free agent moves.

They both appear on the right track, but the leap from good to great is the hardest one to make in the NBA, as the Atlanta Hawks can attest. They have made seven consecutive trips to the playoffs without cracking the Conference Finals and they don’t appear any closer to getting there, beyond hand-waving about cap space and flexibility. Just because a team is on an upward track doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in behind them and jump them in line.

Atlanta was forever haunted by passing up Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 and a lot of the upside in Washington and Charlotte will depend on what happens to the final lottery picks they made before becoming playoff teams - Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. Unless you have a transcendent superstar like LeBron, you need to have everything else in place and all the pieces have to be lined up in order to be an elite team in the NBA.

- Miami Heat: Norris Cole

If you want to know why LeBron James is back in Cleveland, you can start with the dearth of young talent in Miami. After years of ignoring the draft, there were not many young players on the Heat roster that LeBron could look at with confidence as he tried to figure out where the team would be in 2-3 seasons. The only real candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is a guy who is going to have to fight to earn a contract extension.

Cole has played a valuable role as a backup PG on two championship teams, but he’s still an inconsistent offensive player whose never had a PER above 9 playing at one of the most fungible positions in the league. For all that he does as a defensive spark-plug and energy guy off the bench, a 6’2 guard who can’t create a lot of offense is only so valuable in the NBA. Once Miami drafted Shabazz Napier in the first round, the clock started ticking for Cole.

- Washington Wizards: Otto Porter

Porter’s rookie season didn’t go exactly as planned, as an early injury and the Wizards emergence in the playoff picture relegated him to the end of the bench. Nevertheless, he’s still only 21 years old and he still has a very intriguing skill-set for a 6’9 forward. The key for Porter is developing his jumper, as the threat of the three-pointer should open up the rest of his game and allow him to thrive on offense without spending too much time in the paint.

With Trevor Ariza in Houston, there should be more minutes for him this season, especially since Washington is going to want to carefully monitor Paul Pierce’s playing time. The Wizards' second-unit is still in flux and Porter could carve out a nice role for himself as a secondary playmaker and versatile defender. If all goes according to plan, a strong sophomore campaign could propel him towards a spot in the starting line-up in 2015.

- Charlotte Hornets: Cozy Zeller

The transition to the NBA wasn’t easy for Zeller, who went from being one of the biggest players on the floor in college to average-sized for his position. After spending most of his life playing inside-out, he had to learn to play outside-in. He started to pick up steam as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, taking on a bigger role in the rotation and averaging much better numbers after the All-Star break.

Still only 22, Zeller should have a much bigger role for Charlotte this season and he could really benefit from playing with Lance Stephenson. His NBA ceiling will still depend on his perimeter jumper, but his ability to run the floor, crash the glass and play with the ball in his hands at 7’0 240 will make him an effective weapon against second-unit big men. Going forward, the Indiana big man combination of Zeller and Noah Vonleh should be fun to watch.

- Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroeder

After dazzling observers at Summer League, Schroeder came back to Earth as his rookie season progressed and NBA teams began daring him to shoot from the perimeter. Hawks fans can only hope that Schroeder spent most of the summer in the gym working on his jumper, because that’s the main thing holding back from being an excellent NBA player. For the most part, a player who plays a lot with the ball in his hands has to be a threat to score it.

While only 6’1 170, Schroeder is an excellent athlete with long arms which allow him to play bigger than his size. If he could handle a bigger role on offense, it would allow Atlanta to play more two-PG line-ups and free up Jeff Teague to hunt for his own shot, ala Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap opening up the lane, there should be plenty of driving lanes on the floor for explosive guards like Teague and Schroeder.

- Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris

You could put a number of different guys in Orlando in this spot, as the Magic have young players trying to establish themselves in the NBA at almost every position on the floor. The three lottery picks taken by the new regime - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon - will be given every chance to show what they can do, but everyone else on the roster is fighting for a spot in the pecking order and a place in the long-term plans of the franchise.

Harris is a prime example of that, as minutes at the two forward spots in Orlando are suddenly in short supply. Like most combo forwards, he is probably most effective as a small-ball PF, but you could say the same thing about Gordon and the Magic didn’t give Channing Frye $32 million to ride the bench. Harris can score and rebound the ball, but he will have to expand his game to hold down a starting job and secure a contract extension in Orlando.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Central Division

Andre Drummond, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dion Waiters, Tony Snell and Solomon Hill are young players of the Central Division that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

Wesley Johnson, Ben McLemore, Draymond Green, Alex Len and Reggie Bullock are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

While Mark Jackson had a lot of success, he was far from a perfect coach, so thereís nothing wrong with replacing him with Steve Kerr. But if David Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, the Warriors have been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than Xís and Oís.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

As players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. Jacksonís current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

The scariest part about the United States' performance is that this wasnít even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain, yet they still haven't lost a game since 2006.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

Boris Diaw served as Franceís primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spainís rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Buying Low On Meyers Leonard

The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.

Re-Signing Kyle Lowry As The Final Piece For Toronto

With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.

Team-By-Team Analysis Of The 2014 NBA Draft

With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.

2014 NBA Draft: The Underrated

The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.

2014 NBA Draft: The Overrated

Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.

Top-13 Of The 2014 NBA Draft

The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.

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