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.