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Losing Season Puts Wizards At Epicenter Of Player Development Debate

The long and painful Wizards season came to an end in Boston with youngsters playing big minutes and major roles.  This frustrated Wizards fans, many of whom griped through the accumulating losses that the team wasn?t developing its younger players by giving them significant playing time.

Particularly vexing to some has been the plight of rookie center Javale McGee.  McGee is a beanpole 7-footer who will run the floor like a guard, leap like a small forward, and hammer home a jaw-dropping dunk as he gazes down on the rim.  On the other end, he?ll soar for a spectacular block or extend a long arm to snag a rebound from an opponent more obedient to the laws of gravity.

Plays like these convinced fans that McGee can be a future star and a team mainstay for the next decade.  But then Wizards coach Ed Tapscott would pull McGee from the game, and the youngster would sit and watch.

What was the problem?  Why couldn?t Tapscott and the Wizards coaches recognize the ability?  Why wasn?t McGee playing big minutes, especially in a lost season?

?The typical fan sees the good stuff, but wouldn?t even know where to look to see the bad,? says one Eastern Conference scout.  ?Nice dunk.  Great block.  Great athlete.  What they don?t notice is the missed rotation on defense.  Does he talk on defense?  Does he make contact on a screen?  When he sets up on the wrong side of the lane.  Turns left when he should go right.  Coaches see that stuff.?

Injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood ? and the resultant heap of losses ? placed the Wizards at the epicenter of a critical NBA question: How do youngsters develop into quality NBA players?  It?s a question frequently asked in whichever cities have a bad NBA team that year, but it?s one that?s growing in importance for every NBA team as fewer players apprentice in college.  As the league harvests an increasingly younger player crop, the need for good player development only grows.

For fans, the process is often maddening.  For many, ?development? is a simple matter ? get the young players on the floor and let?s see what they can do.  After all, the team can?t possibly do any worse by playing the youngsters, some think.

Yet coaches ? even those like Tapscott, a player development executive before he replaced Eddie Jordan ? resist the call to give young players a set number of minutes.

?The young guys are going to get their opportunities," Tapscott told the Washington Post recently.  ?But they are going to earn their opportunities. Anything that's worth doing is worth doing well and is worth working hard to do. You've got to earn this.?

Who?s right?  Well, it?s more than a long range debate between coaches and fans; it?s also a matter of considerable debate within the NBA.

?The number one thing you can do to develop a young player is to give him playing time,? says a former Eastern Conference player development executive.  ?Youngsters need to play.?

According to this former executive, who also played nearly a decade in the NBA, the only reason to leave a developing player on the bench is because the team is in playoff contention.  Several other executives pointed to the example of Jermaine O?Neal, who leaped from high school to the NBA, but couldn?t crack Portland?s title-contending veteran rotation.  Ultimately, the Blazers dealt him to Indiana for Dale Davis.

?If you have a talent who figures into your future, you have to get him minutes,? says the former executive.  ?If he can?t get in the rotation, then send him to the D League so he can play.  If you?re out of contention, bring ?em up and turn ?em loose [in the NBA].?

And what if a player just isn?t ready to compete at the NBA level?

?First you need to take a look at your talent evaluation,? says a Western Conference personnel executive.  ?Second, if the coach sees things in practice that warrant limited playing time, then the kid needs to be in the D League.  There?s no substitute for getting out on the floor in a real game.?

The ?D League? is the Developmental League, the NBA?s minor league farm system.  Several NBA executives said that teams across the league should do a better job of using the D League to develop players.  In many cases, though, the needs of the moment ? such as healthy bodies for practice ? become more important than player development.  Some teams simply prefer to keep players with the NBA team so that coaches can better monitor their progress.

?The biggest disservice in the NBA family is what we do with these kids,? says an Eastern Conference executive.  ?We draft them so young, but then we?re afraid to hurt their egos by sending them to the minor leagues.  Baseball does it all the time.  So does hockey.  We need to send them down and let them play.?

To that end, several executives suggested that the NBA change its rules to allow teams to replace players on their 15-man roster if they decide to send a youngster to the D League.  Current rules don?t allow it, which could leave a team shorthanded for practices in the event of injuries.

The Wizards, according to team sources, wanted to send youngsters to the D League this season, but couldn?t do it because of rampant injuries.  The decimated roster would have been short-handed for practice and games.  Plus, second year players like Dominic McGuire and Nick Young were playing significant minutes already ? in McGuire?s case, as a starter.

Executives are divided about whether the league should permit teams to send players to the D League who have been on an NBA contract for more than two seasons.  Some think it would extend the clock on player development.  Others say that if a guy hasn?t shown he deserves NBA minutes after two years, it?s time to give up on him.

Several individuals pointed to the Spurs as a team that makes excellent use of the D League.

?The Spurs do a great job ? it?s truly a farm team for them,? says the former development expert.  ?They teach their system down there.  They?re not developing stars, but they do such a good job of growing that 12th or 13th guy ? someone who can contribute.?

Player development questions about the Wizards naturally gravitated toward McGee.

?I love Javale,? says the former Eastern Conference player development executive.  ?He will be an All-Star.  He?s someone who?s going to lead you deep into the playoffs, maybe to a title.  So when I see Javale getting 10-15 minutes and someone like [Darius] Songaila getting 28-30, I don?t know what that is.  Their roles should be reversed.  Javale should be getting 30 minutes a night, minimum.?

But for other NBA executives, the player development formula isn?t as simple.

?You can?t just turn a guy loose on the court if he?s not ready to play,? says an Eastern Conference executive.  ?It can ruin his confidence, and once a guy gets robbed of his confidence, he gets run out of the league.?

One executive points to Nikoloz ?Skita? Tskitishvili, the 7-foot forward whom the Denver Nuggets took with the fifth pick of the 2002 draft.

?They [Denver?s front office] kept telling [Denver coach] Jeff [Bzdelik] ?Keep putting him out there, keep giving him minutes,?? says the executive.  ?And the whole time, Skita?s getting ripped and hit and shoved around.  He had skills, but he wasn?t ready for the league.  His confidence gets blown to hell, he shoots 29 percent, and guess what? Talented kid, but a wasted pick.?

What young players need, according to one executive, is not necessarily to work on skills, but to develop knowledge of the league.

?If a guy?s in the NBA, he has talent,? says the exec.  ?He was the best player on his college team, or on his pro team overseas.  What young players have to do is to learn terminology, spacing and personnel.?

One critical factor of player development, according to several executives is knowing when to give up.

?Take [Wizards big man] Andray Blatche,? says a Western Conference executive.  ?He?s a four-year veteran, but he?s still just 22.  Yes, he?s inconsistent, but you can see the talent.  If you?re the Wizards do you cut bait, or do you give him some more time??

More than one executive identified Detroit as a team that does a good job of ?taking a swing? on a promising young player, but knowing when to let him go.  

Properly defining progress is a critical aspect of player development.  Teams can?t necessarily look to statistical analysis ? even advanced stats ? to measure a player?s development, according to one Western Conference executive.

?With a young team or a young player, you almost have to put aside the outcomes of a play or a game,? says the executive.  ?You want them to run the play properly, to execute the defense right.  You want to win.  If the shot doesn?t go in, or if the other team still scores, you worry less about that.  You have to figure out a way to evaluate process.?

An Eastern Conference executive says that his team looks at ?production in minutes given.?

?We want to know what a guy does with whatever playing time he gets,? says the executive.  ?If it?s only a few minutes, is he producing?  Is he prepared to play, or is he coasting and not doing very much??

One executive emphasized that the player development conversation should not be restricted to young players.

?Every player needs brutal, honest, personal attention,? he says.  ?Most guys want to improve, and know their flaws.  Our job is to attack the areas where a guy isn?t as good and to maintain strengths.  And that goes for guys who?ve been in the league twelve years as much as it does for a guy who?s been in the league twelve games.?

Who?s right and who?s wrong?  Probably the answer changes with each individual player.  Some youngsters have confidence to burn and will be unaffected by getting knocked around while they?re figuring out the league.  Others have a more fragile psyche and need a different approach.

Whether the Wizards got their player development efforts right this season will be readily apparent when the games start next season.  Will youngsters like McGee, Blatche, Young and McGuire be ready to play major roles?  Or was this truly a wasted season?  Only time will tell.

What?s In The Number 13?

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13.  There?s time enough to be afraid, today I?m not in the fear business ? I deal in hope, frivolity, and abundant trivia.  So on this Friday the 13th, let?s take a tour of the number 13, NBA style.

According to Basketball-Reference, 139 players have worn the number 13 in NBA history.  The best of this group is easily Wilt Chamberlain ? the guy who once scored 100 points in a game, averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire season, who never fouled out of a pro game, won two NBA titles, and received four MVPs.

Other notable 13s include Steve Nash (two-time MVP), Moses Malone (he wore the number in the ABA, and was more famous for wearing number 2, but still), Doug Christie, Mark Jackson, Sarunas Marciulionis, Glenn Robinson, and Dave Twardzik (who won a title in Portland).  Fifteen players have worn 13 this season, which somehow seems wrong.

The draft history of the 13th pick is mixed at best ? mistakes, often big ones, get made regularly at number 13.  The best 13th picks jump out immediately.  The cream of the crop is Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, both of whom are guaranteed Hall of Famers.

Bryant was a semi-excusable miss for many teams because he came straight from high school and there was not an established track record for prep-to-pro players.  Still, Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko went ahead of Bryant.

Passing on Malone turned out to be a colossal mistake for NBA GMs.  The Mailman would play 19 seasons in the NBA, keeping Utah among the league?s elite teams for most of the years.  He played 54,852 minutes, scored 36,928 points, and grabbed 14,968 rebounds.  During his career, he collected 231.6 Win Shares, according to basketball-reference.com.

Who did NBA GMs take ahead of him?  Benoit Benjamin, Jon Koncak, Joe Klein, Ed Pinckney, Keith Lee and Kenny Green.  The Green pick (by my team, the Washington Bullets) was particularly egregious.  Green got cut in training camp, because (as the coach said), ?He can?t play.?

Here?s the sum total of other good picks at 13

1982 ? Sleepy Floyd (behind Bill Garnett, Trent Tucker and Quintin Dailey)
1991 ? Dale Davis (Doug Smith, Mark Macon)
1994 ? Jalen Rose (Sharone Wright, Eric Montross, Carlos Rogers, Khalid Reeves)
1995 ? Corliss Williamson (Shawn Respert, Ed O?Bannon, Gary Trent, Cherokee Parks)

That?s it.

Other selections yielded a decent player, but look bad in retrospect because of who went later.  For example, in 1984 Phoenix took Jay Humphries at 13.  Humphries played 11 seasons as a sometimes starter and acceptable reserve.  A solid pick until you realize that Phoenix passed on Michael Cage (14), John Stockton (16), Vern Fleming (18), and Jerome Kersey (second round pick).

Similarly, Danny Schayes played 18 seasons, mostly as a reserve center, after being picked 13th in 1981.  A decent rotation center is a good get at 13, until you consider that Utah passed on Larry Nance (20), and second round picks Eddie Johnson and Danny Ainge.

Other picks were mixed bags.  Less productive players went earlier, but more productive players went later.  In 1990, Loy Vaught went behind Bo Kimble, Rumeal Robinson and Alec Kessler, but ahead of Elden Campbell and Toni Kukoc.

In 1992, Bryant Stith went after Todd Day, Adam Keefe and Harold Miner, but before Latrell Sprewell.

In 1999, Corey Maggette was chosen behind Jonathan Bender, Trajan Langdon and someone named Alek Redojevic, but went ahead of Ron Artest and Andrei Kirilenko.

In 2001, Richard Jefferson was picked after Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Eddie Griffin, Desagana Diop, Rodney White, Kedrick Brown and Vladamir Radmanovic, but before Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace, Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas.

Some picks ? in fact, most of them ? were just plain bad.

1970 ? Jim McMillian ahead of Calvin Murphy, Tiny Archibald and Gar Heard

1972 ? Nick Weatherspoon ahead of Swen Nater, George McGinnis and Larry Kenon

1974 ? Len Elmore ahead of Maurice Lucas and George Gervin

1975 ? Bob Bigelow before Ricky Sobers, Kevin Grevey, Gus Williams, Lloyd (later World B.) Free, Dan Roundfield

1976 ? Mitch Kupchak before Alex English and Dennis Johnson

1977 ? Tate Armstrong before Tree Rollins, Brad Davis, Norm Nixon and Eddie Jordan

1978 ? Winford Boynes before Dave Corzine, John Long, Mo Cheeks, Michael Cooper and Gerald Henderson

1980 ? Rickey Brown before Larry Drew, Bill Hanzlik, Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn and Kurt Rambis

1983 ? Ennis Whatley before Clyde Drexler, John Paxson, Roy Hinson and Sedale Threatt

1987 ? Joe Wolf before Mark Jackson and Reggie Lewis

1988 ? Jeff Grayer before Dan Majerle and Rod Strickland

1989 ? Michael Smith before Tim Hardaway, Shawn Kemp, and Vlade Divac

1993 ? Terry Dehere before Sam Cassell, Nick Van Exel, Bryon Russell and Chris Whitney

1998 ? Keon Clark before Matt Harpring, Ricky Davis, Brian Skinner, Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis, Rafer Alston and Cuttino Mobley

2000 ? Courtney Alexander before Hedo Turkoglu, Quentin Richardson, Jamaal Magloire, Deshawn Stevenson, Eddie House, Eduardo Najera, and Michael Redd

2002 ? Marcus Haislip before Tayshaun Prince, Carlos Boozer and Luis Scola

2003 ? Marcus Banks before Luke Ridnour, David West, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Josh Howard, Jason Kapono, Luke Walton, Steve Blake, Zaza Pachulia, Keith Bogans, Matt Bonner, Mo Williams and Kyle Korver.

I think the lesson here is clear.  Upon being awarded the 13th pick in the draft, the smart NBA GM should immediately pick up his phone and trade it.

Wizards Deal For Present And Future

The Washington Wizards' recent three-way trade with the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets is in equal parts about the team?s future and its present.  Washington parted with veteran guard Antonio Daniels and a conditional draft pick GM Ernie Grunfeld finagled for Juan Navarro,and received veteran guard Mike James and youngster Javaris Crittenton.

For the Wizards, the trade was not a referendum on Daniels.  A team source says Daniels was, ?nothing but a prince here? ? a great pro who exceeded their expectations.  But injuries forced him to play far more minutes than they had anticipated, and the feeling within the franchise is that Daniels has worn down to the point that he could not carry the heavy load anymore.

The trade will give James ? at age 33 ? a steady diet of minutes.  The team desperately needs backcourt scoring until Arenas is able to return to the lineup, and James will have the opportunity to fill that role.

The team is acutely aware of the fact that James has underwhelmed in his last two stops in Houston and New Orleans.  They also know that players typically don?t abruptly improve from age 33.  But, for the Wiz, this is a low-risk, high-reward move.  They know what Daniels would be able to give the team going forward, and it doesn?t fit the franchise?s current needs.

Washington?s braintrust is hoping that the downturn in James? performance was caused not by a lack of ability but rather by being a poor fit in Houston, and then getting on Byron Scott?s bad side in New Orleans.  A league source points out that other residents of Scott?s doghouse include J.R. Smith and Brandon Bass ? guys who have proved to be solid NBA performers when they changed teams.  Ultimately, it was a bet worth making because James and Daniels have nearly identical contracts, which makes swapping the two cap neutral.

Acquiring Crittenton is decidedly about the future.  Dee Brown, whom the team released to make room on the roster, was a good guy who did everything the team asked of him.  Unfortunately, he lacked the skills and physical attributes to be a quality NBA player.  The Wizards know that Crittenton must learn how to play the NBA game ? something he hasn?t done yet.

Crittenton is viewed as an elite athlete who can penetrate and finish in traffic.  His size and strength suggests he has the ability to be a tough defender, but he is a work in progress.  Still, he has the size and physical abilities for the team to envision him on the floor in combos with Arenas, Nick Young, DeShawn Stevenson, or Caron Butler when Butler is getting minutes in the backcourt.  

This is not a transformative deal for the team, but if James can return to the kind of production he offered from 2005 through 2007, he will help the team immediately.  It?s worth noting that outside the top three teams in the East, no one is running away from the pack.  The Wizards sport the conference?s worst record but sit just five games out of the playoffs.  A small boost from James or Crittenton could keep the team within striking distance of the postseason until Arenas can return.

In addition, head coach Ed Tapscott is viewed as a player development specialist and will now manage a roster that has six players 23-years old or younger.  Each of these players has unique skills, and it will be a challenge for Tapscott to simultaneously develop their games, blend their talents, and win games.

The front office believes it has a good foundation for the future, and for today, but I?m not so convinced.  My feeling is that the Wiz won?t get the kind of play from James that he provided Houston, Toronto, and Minnesota a few years ago.  At age 33, I suspect those days of fairly efficient scoring are behind him.  And, I think they?ll miss Daniels? leadership and steadiness.

I?m more hopeful about Crittenton, who has a world of potential.  He?s making better decisions with the ball as evidenced by improved assist and turnover numbers.  His shot remains an adventure, and he still hasn?t figured out the nuances of NBA defense, but there?s hope.

Most of all, this deal is about hope.  The team hopes that James can give them an immediate lift ? that he can be a kind of Arenas-lite ? and get the back in the playoff race.  And they hope that Crittenton can develop into a contributor over time.  Wizards' fans hope they?re right.

Wizards Rearrange Deck Chairs

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'Improved' Wizards Defense Is A Fallacy

Read a mainstream media account about the Wizards, and you would think they were a significantly improved defensive team. The numbers tell a very different story.

Finding The True MVP

This MVP column looks strictly at what advanced stats can tell us about which player actually has the most value to his team, with the strong emphasis being on ?his team.?

Are The Wizards Better Without Gilbert Arenas?

If the Wizards are demonstrably worse on the offensive end, how are they 17-12 without Gilbert Arenas? The answer is simple ? improved defense.

Wizards vs. Bulls -- True Defensive Stars

If you want to know the offensive value of Gilbert Arenas or Tyson Chandler, take a look in the box score published in any newspaper. If you want to know their defensive contributions, enter the Twilight Zone of opinion and guesswork. That is, until now.

Evaluating the Wizards Defense

Evaluating individual defense has long been one of the more difficult tasks for basketball coaches, team decision-makers, and fans.

Winning At The Margins

The Phoenix Suns have the best cost per win rate in the entire NBA.

Diamonds In The Rough

Recent break out stars have included players such as Michael Redd and Zach Randolph.

International Players Are Closing The Gap

International players like Dirk Nowitzki are beginning to be a threat to Team USA.

Pistons Interrupt Coronation With A Palace Coup

I use three key measures to determine a team?s relative team strength. The first of these is average scoring margin. The Pistons had the league?s second best mark (+5.84) ? nearly two points better than the Lakers?.

David Stern?s Random Conspiracy

The lottery results are amusing because they give several teams precisely what they want ? high picks ? but little of what they truly need.

2003-2004: Season In Review

With the NBA playoffs winding into the second round, it?s a good time to look back at the regular season. By nearly any measure, this was Kevin Garnett?s season.

Opus In Leagues Minor

Torraye Braggs, who was recently released by the Wizards to make space on the roster for Gilbert Arenas, is one of those players trying to make the league.

What Lies Beneath

Jason Kidd's poor relationship with Byron Scott led to his dismissal.

Assembly Required

Since being the first pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, Kwame Brown has been a disappointment.

How Good Are The Wizards?

Five games into the season, the same question has been asked repeatedly ? Are the Wizards really this good?

What?s He Worth?

Kevin Garnett is the most valuable player in the league based off Kevin Broom's formula for judging performance.

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