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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.

David West Plays Vital Role In Helping T.J. Warren Realize NBA Dream

History was made on Thursday night when the Phoenix Suns selected T.J. Warren with the 14th overall pick. Warren, a 6-foot-8 forward out of N.C. State, is the first player drafted that worked directly with David West through his AAU Garner Road Basketball Club program.

Warren, who was invited by the NBA to sit in the green room, had the support of his mentor on the special night. West lends a hand, and ear, to players in the family program during the season while his older brother, Dwayne, runs the AAU club.

During the summer, West instills strong values -- in basketball and life -- in the youngsters enrolled in the program. If you go to the Garner Road website, the first thing you are greeted by is the motto: “No Books, No Ball.”

Warren declared for the draft after a sophomore season in which he was named the ACC Player of the Year and a Second Team Associated Press All-American. He has been lauded as having one of the most polished offensive games in a very deep draft class.

The Suns were one of the teams that worked Warren out and he felt as though he performed well in front of the team’s decision-makers. He couldn’t be sure where he’d go, but Phoenix was a logical landing spot.

“I felt like I had strong workouts. The Phoenix Suns were one of my best workouts,” Warren said after being drafted. “I did a lot of great things there, and it showed today. I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”

Warren has West to thank for helping him realize his dream. West has been a part of Warren’s life for nearly half of it.

“David has been a mentor to me since a very young age,” the 20-year-old said. “Since I was 10 years old, just learning from him, from his game. It means a lot to me.”

The importance of the moment wasn’t lost on West, who was drafted 18th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in 2003. Warren spent several summers away from his family and in the care of West’s as he worked towards his basketball goals.

“It’s a pretty special moment. We’ve had T.J. since he was 11, his parents trusted us with him,” West told RealGM on Thursday night. “They trusted us during the summer to stay on him. They gave us a lot of leeway with him in terms of pushing him. This is something he’s talked about since he was a little kid. Something he’s worked his butt off for; it’s great that it happen for him.”

Not only has Warren achieved his goal, but Phoenix’s system also suits his game extremely well. The Suns like to score and Warren can do that in bunches.

“I think my style of play fits very well,” Warren said. “I like to get up in transition for easy baskets, running the floor very hard. Their style of play matches my style of play. So it’s a perfect fit.”

West agreed.

“Perfect,” he said of the match. “They’re an open, run-and-gun system. Very good offensively, one of the highest scoring teams in the league. He’s the best scorer in this draft, so he’s going to fit in perfectly with what they do.”

Warren was one of the first players West was able to take under his wing early on. The two have maintained a close relationship as Warren has grown up and West has moved through what is now an 11-year professional career.

“Everyday I’m there for him, even now,” West said. “I stay in his ear everyday, keeping his mind in the right direction in terms of making sure he remains focused. Early on with him, I was with the Hornets and we weren’t making the playoffs so I was with him from April all the way through to the end of September. We had three or four years like that and they paid off for him.

“Just his hard work, him being a basketball guy. He’s a basketball junkie. He doesn’t have a whole lot of things going on outside. He’s got his family, a very small circle. He’s going to make the transition well. This is something we’ve been talking about since he was a young, young kid.”

The Suns drafted Warren in large part because of his work on the court, but West believes that success will come at the next level because of how strong he is mentally. It’s not surprising given the tenacity the mentor as brought to floor since he was Warren’s age.

“He has it up here,” West said, pointing to his head. “He’s constantly grinding, pushing himself. He pushed himself all the way to this level.”

In many ways, Thursday night could be a stepping-stone for the AAU Garner Road Basketball Club, but the program’s guiding influence insists that he won’t use Warren as a promotional tool. Still, guiding a player from his pre-pubescent years through to high school, college and ultimately the NBA is bound to get the attention of young players and those around them.

“We don’t really look at it like that. We are basically looking at it as just the beginning. We are invested in terms of these young people,” West vowed. “That’s my passion. That’s just what we do, my brother, we ultimately want to guide these kids and give them whatever we can in terms of what we’ve learned. Basketball is just a tool; it’s just a vehicle to reach these young people. T.J. is one of those guys that bought in right away; he’s a listener. Once he gets comfortable and opens up, anything that I would tell him when he was younger he took it to heart because I was where he eventually wanted to be.”

It seems likely that we’ll see West at future NBA drafts, supporting more young talent he has helped guide.

Are there more T.J. Warrens in the Garner Road pipeline?

“Oh yeah,” West said with a smile.

Grading The Deal: Pelicans Trade For Ömer Aşık

The Houston Rockets receive a first round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Ömer Aşık. The pick protection reported by Brian Windhorst is that Houston receives the pick if it falls anywhere from 4th to 19th. Subsequent year protection is unknown at present.

The trade for New Orleans

Aşık is a very good player and a true difference-maker on the defensive end. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, he has two huge downsides that make the trade incredibly short sighted: Aşık only has one year left before becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent and his contract calls for a substantially higher salary in the final year than his cap number.

The first fact substantially worsens the trade for New Orleans because they have no meaningful advantages to keep him beyond this season, making Aşık a rental. Beyond the small benefits in percentage raises (not a big financial difference on a non-max contract) and a fifth year the Pelicans should never offer, the best retention tool New Orleans has at their disposal is a successful season. Considering the fact that many teams are looking to clear their books for 2015 and some teams are not going to get the top targets, it stands to reason that Aşık will get overpaid on his next contract anyway.

With that combination of factors, it makes sense to evaluate the Aşık acquisition as a one year investment. He certainly makes New Orleans better for the 2014-15 season but the timing makes little sense because of how strong the top of the Western Conference will be. New Orleans finished 12th in the conference and I fully expect most if not all of those teams to be good enough to make the 50-win mark a reasonable line to even make the playoffs. In fact, the Rockets themselves likely are using this transaction to set up adding a major piece. Even if New Orleans has their dream scenario, they land somewhere in the 5-8 range in the West and likely get some positive attention and two playoff home games. Is that really worth giving up another first round pick?

That is where the balloon payment comes in. By having a cap number of $8.37 million and actually getting paid $14.9 million, the market for Aşık narrows substantially. We saw at the trade deadline that many owners simply have little interest in that kind of financial outlay and that was with at least some of the cheaper part of his contract. A thinner market means that there were less teams competing for the Rockets' center. Even then, the Pelicans gave up a likely lottery pick for one season plus zero team control of a player who will help them win but not likely enough to make any long-term difference for the franchise.

The crazy thing is that I really like the fit of Aşık on the Pelicans for this one glorious season. He can play with either Anthony Davis or Ryan Anderson and can provide the team a defensive identity even with some flawed defenders on the team. Rim protectors are pivotal in today’s NBA and there are not many better than Aşık. Unfortunately, the timing and cost of acquiring him make it the second straight year the Pelicans sacrificed future assets in an attempt to contend before they are ready for prime time.

Grade for New Orleans: D

The trade for Houston 

While Daryl Morey may have asked for the moon for Aşık in February, he got a pretty solid return for him in June with even less leverage. We can expect New Orleans to be good enough to avoid the 1-3 part of the pick protection but out of the playoffs, meaning the Rockets likely picked up a late lottery pick for one year of a player they were seemingly inevitably going to lose anyway.

Despite the fact that I will continue to think that a Dwight Howard / Ömer Aşık pairing at the two big man positions could have worked dangerously well for stretches, the Rockets now have the pieces in place to make one last major upgrade and enhance their core. Since Aşık is owed so much money this season in actual dollars, I would have been surprised if one of the teams with a desirable free agent would have been happy taking him in a sign-and-trade. Since both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would require their current team’s active involvement to acquire without cap space, that becomes a relevant consideration in terms of whether Houston would need to create cap space to bring in the final piece. As such, moving Aşık was fundamental to those hopes even though it appears no agreement with a bigger fish is clearly in the offing.

Not having Aşık this season absolutely weakens the Rockets some, especially if Dwight Howard misses time due to injury. Even if his sole value came as a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” big (which it did not), Ömer had plenty of usefulness to a Houston team gunning for a top seed in a stacked conference in a race with zero room for an extended stumble. That said, if the choice had to be made between him and any of the Rockets’ other expensive non-Lin pieces, it makes complete sense. While Morey did not get two picks for his hyped trade piece, I would rather have a pick in the late lottery than two deep firsts, especially with an owner potentially willing to spend to acquire a pick in the twenties anyway.

Trading Aşık now clears one major hurdle that would have gotten higher a week from now as teams use up their cap space on other players through free agency (particularly with his balloon payment) and getting a likely late lottery pick for it makes the move even better.

Grade for Houston: A-

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