When a player is drafted, he becomes linked with those taken before and after him. However, early in an NBA career, the more relevant comparisons are players from their high school class. The top prospects in an individual class have been rated against each other since they were 12. They played together in All-Star tournaments and were recruited by the same colleges. They have a lot more in common than a 20-year old and a 23-year old taken in consecutive picks.
Once players leave AAU basketball and enter college, their careers diverge quickly, even those with similar amounts of talent. Some declare too early, others too late. A lot depends on the strength of their respective draft and how many who play their position are taken. None of that, of course, has much to do with what type of player they end up being. These things take a few years to shake out. At 25, it is pretty obvious who the best players in each class are.
At 22, the jury is still out. This year’s group of 21 and 22 years old, the high school class of 2010, have already been picked clean by NBA teams. Seven were drafted in 2011, 13 in 2012 and 12 in 2013. A few stragglers will be taken in 2014, but for the most part, the NBA knows who it wants from the class of 2010. However, where those players rank within that group is more fluid than you might think. Victor Oladipo and Jeremy Lamb are a good example of that.
Surprisingly enough, while Lamb and Oladipo became lottery picks, neither was rated all that highly in high school. Lamb was a 4-star who just missed the Top 75 and Oladipo was a 3-star who snuck into the Top 150. Jeremy wasn’t even the highest-rated Lamb in the class, checking in behind Doron (Kentucky) and Tyler (UCLA). Both wound up at elite college programs, but that was no guarantee they would ever play in the NBA.
As a freshman, Lamb walked into a huge role at UConn. He was the only player besides Kemba Walker in double digits. The Huskies, who started three freshmen and a sophomore next to Walker, struggled with inexperience but caught fire in March. Lamb emerged as a legitimate second option, averaging 16 points a game in the NCAA Tournament. UConn won a national title and Walker left for the pros, leaving a huge void for Lamb to fill as a sophomore.
At Indiana, Oladipo was part of a recruiting class that helped turned the program around. As freshmen, though, they mostly struggled. The Hoosiers went 12-20, including a dreadful 3-15 mark in Big 10 play. Oladipo established himself as a legitimate player but was far from a star, averaging seven points and four rebounds a game. Most of the optimism in Bloomington centered around Cody Zeller, the highly-touted local big man a year behind Oladipo.
As sophomores, Lamb and Oladipo grew into bigger roles. Lamb was the primary option at UConn, averaging 18 points, five rebounds and two assists per game on 48 percent shooting. Oladipo moved into the starting lineup, becoming a key two-way player for Indiana. He was still only the third or fourth option, averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds a game, but the athleticism was there. The big concern was his jumper, since he shot 21 percent from three in 2012.
At the same time, the fortunes of Indiana and UConn switched. A perfect storm of off-the-court issues hit the Huskies program, forcing Jim Calhoun out at the end of the season. Lamb, as well as freshman center Andre Drummond, took a lot of blame for things that were out of their control. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, made a dramatic emergence on the national stage, stunning Kentucky in the regular season before losing to them in the Sweet 16.
At the end of the season, Lamb declared for the NBA. He didn’t have much left to prove at the college level and UConn was ineligible for the postseason in 2013, resulting in an exodus out of Storrs. Lamb wound up being taken at No. 12, behind three SG’s - Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Terrence Ross -- in what was a loaded draft. Oladipo, if he had declared, would have been a second round prospect with a chance of sneaking into the late first.
Everyone knows the story from there. Lamb became the key piece in one of the most controversial trades in recent history, a lightning rod for those who blamed Oklahoma City for dealing James Harden. He was a rookie on the bench of a 60-win team, shuttling back and forth to the D-League and never getting a chance to get consistent minutes. Back in college, Oladipo emerged as a two-way star, electrifying fans with aerial displays and an improved all-around game.
In what was regarded as a weak draft, Oladipo shot all the way up to No. 2. Orlando had been linked to Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, but his surprising decision to stay in school opened up a spot on their board. Kelly Olynyk, the only other junior taken in the lottery, was also a notable late-bloomer. No one is expecting the other juniors taken in the first round -- Tony Snell, Gorgui Dieng, Reggie Bullock and Andre Roberson -- to become stars.
What would have happened if Lamb had stayed for his junior season and been in the 2013 NBA Draft? Against older and more experienced competition in the D-League, he averaged 21 points, five rebounds and three assists on 49 percent shooting. Translate those stats over to the Big East and you’re looking at a Wooden Award candidate scoring nearly 25 points a night. The SG crop was weaker too; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and CJ McCollum would not have been Top 10 picks in 2012.
When you look at the totality of their basketball careers, it’s hard to say Oladipo is more talented than Lamb, despite the difference in where they were drafted. Lamb isn’t as versatile, but he is the better shooter and ball-handler. And while Oladipo was more efficient in college, he benefitted from being a secondary option. Even last season, Indiana’s offense ran through Zeller and Yogi Ferrell. The jump to being a point guard in the NBA will not be easy for him.
This season, both will be the first guard off the bench in the NBA. Oladipo will have a longer leash on a rebuilding team, but he’s hardly in a better position to succeed, at least initially. Lamb has a year’s worth of experience at the next level under his belt, even if it comes mainly from practice, where he went up against Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin and Russell Westbrook. At this time last year, Oladipo was hounding future dentists like Aaron Craft around the floor.
According to #NBARank, Oladipo is the 114th best player in the league while Lamb is all the way down at 263. That could be right; after all, neither has proven anything at the highest level. If it’s wrong, though, don’t be too surprised. Projecting young basketball players isn’t easy. Who knows? Maybe Will Barton ends up being the best of all of them. Three years ago, he was the No. 11 player in the class of 2010, a five-star guard rated far above Lamb and Oladipo.