Despite the length of the NBA regular season and the thrills of the playoffs, this time of year has its own unique appeal. Prospects in the collegiate ranks are getting done with a series of showcase tournaments and vying for their spots on draft boards across the league. In the NBA, we are getting the first glimpses of what the newest batch of youngsters we’ve spent a year or more analyzing can actually do on the big stage.
Whether you saw Kyle Kuzma coming or knew that DJ Wilson would struggle to crack an NBA rotation right out of the gate, it was a prediction rooted in a complex web of past experiences and observations. It’s a process that former front office executive, Ben Falk, explored this fall in a candid piece about how NBA teams handle missing on players in the draft.
In the article, Falk examines his own experience with then-prospect Archie Goodwin while touching on former Cleveland GM David Griffin’s involvement with notorious draft bust Anthony Bennett. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth the time to see the retrospective view Falk and Griffin take on their evaluation process for two young players that are currently failing to live up to expectations.
Yet any examination of a player's career is lacking if it doesn’t take into account a factor that has a huge influence on how we view a player’s ultimate success or failure: context.
When it comes to their talent and dispositions, most NBA players exist on a bell curve. On one end, there are players destined for success no matter how many obstacles will come into their path (see James, LeBron). A player like James entered the league with a combination of physical skill and mental makeup that would have made it practically impossible for him to bomb out of the league. On the other, there are the anti-James types, whose overvalued skillets and haphazard approach nearly ensure their failure no matter what spots they luck into. The vast majority of players, however, lie in the middle of the curve, where their stories are a result of the violent collision between their natural predispositions and the circumstances of their environments.
Since it’s almost too easy to point out how outside circumstances can negatively impact a young player’s future, let’s look at through the lens of success. A player who has been getting some attention lately for his impressive journey from obscure to established is Philadelphia’s TJ McConnell. McConnell’s story, if you haven’t paid much attention to it already, is pretty amazing.
Despite racking up a crazy amount of wins during his two-season run at Arizona, McConnell started the draft process pretty far down the prospect list. In fact, in both years at Arizona he was overshadowed on NBA draft boards by multiple teammates. McConnell’s odds to make an NBA roster were so long that even when he received to the Chicago predraft camp, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla commented that McConnell would be a great Summer League player…..because he’d make the real prospects look good (Seriously. It was like the beginning of a cheesy inspirational sports movie).
From this point, it’s easy to figure out what happened. McConnell played well in Summer League with the Sixers. Then made the roster out of camp and is now, in his third year, a key rotation member on an up-and-coming Eastern Conference team. Not bad for a guy who started out his college career at Duquesne University.
For those that didn’t see it coming, it’s not nearly as hard with the benefit of hindsight to see what everyone missed about McConnell. As Falk infers in his piece, it’s the reason you should pour over old scouting reports and tweak college-to-pro data formulas to help better identify the things you miss when it comes to the NBA-worthy attributes of players like McConnell.
But the fact that McConnell gives people a chance to review their evaluation process only exists because he had a little help. That’s because McConnell, while clearly taking advantage of it, caught some breaks to have a great opportunity to begin with.
At the time McConnell was offered his deal with the team, Philadelphia was in the midst of a grand losing experiment the likes of which the NBA had never seen. The franchise was quite content with letting an 18-win team from the year before get even worse. Sam Hinkie, the team’s GM at the time, had the team in a position where he could take fliers on undrafted guys like McConnell to see if he could add another Robert Covington to an upcoming stable of high first round picks.
So McConnell, before his career even started, caught a break completely out of his control. He was offered a chance to compete for a job on a team in the midst of the most audacious bottoming out plan in league history. That meant roster spots were up for grabs and proven veterans with big, guaranteed contracts were nowhere to be found.
Now before pointing out that bad teams exist every year, remember not all of them are created equal. Just take a look at three of the worst teams in the league this season: Dallas, Sacramento and Chicago. The Bulls have three point guards selected in the first round of the draft on their roster still locked into guaranteed rookie deals. The Mavericks have veterans JJ Barea, Seth Curry and Devin Harris in their backcourt mix along with 2017 lottery pick, Dennis Smith Jr., plus last year’s undrafted sensation, Yogi Ferrell. The Kings have their own 2017 lottery pick De’Aaron Fox, a big money free agent (George Hill) and this year’s second round pick (Frank Mason III) manning McConnell’s position.
For a young player to crack the point guard position on those rosters would take a Herculean effort. McConnell, even for as valuable as he’s proving to be, would need to be substantially better to force a team like Sacramento, Chicago or Dallas to waive a proven veteran or former draft pick for an undrafted rookie. Just by virtue of being born two years earlier, McConnell avoided a season in which the worst teams in the league (thus one with the best opportunities for young players to catch on) stockpiled bodies at his position.
Compare that to the Sixers roster the year McConnell actually came into the league. Philadelphia’s intended starter at point guard, Kendall Marshall, was signed with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be ready to start the season due to an ACL tear. Scottie Wilbekin and Pierre Jackson (also coming back from a serious injury) were signed to guaranteed deals, but nothing near the equivalent of the commitment most teams have with first round picks. All this added up to McConnell finding a great spot to showcase his overlooked skill set.
To be clear, this isn’t saying McConnell is in the NBA because he got lucky. It’s more pointing out that for players taking McConnell’s path, there has to be marriage between their ability to earn the job and the opening for one to exist. And as I’ve written about years ago, there are NBA-caliber players who never get the right circumstances to make a financially sound decision to break into the world’s best league.
With a nice break and his outstanding work to capitalize on it, we will never know if McConnell would have been one of those guys. That’s because McConnell not only made the team, but wound up playing in 81 games his rookie season while seeing action for 1,606 total minutes. It was invaluable experience and enough time that by the end of the season, no one could argue that McConnell was just a novelty act on a bad team. Applying the butterfly effect is a slippery slope in situations like this, but had McConnell been born a couple years later, there’s no telling how that would have altered his path to the NBA -- not to mention his chance to prove he belonged once he got there.
Now let’s compare that to what went on with Goodwin -- the focal point of Falk’s piece -- during the early part of his career. Goodwin was drafted in the first round to a Phoenix franchise expected to be one of the league’s worst teams. The team also had no clear-cut options when it came to the backup point guard spot. It seemed like it’d be a great spot for a young player to get minutes to develop.
But then, shockingly, that Suns team won 48 games and barely missed out on one of the most competitive playoff races in this century. On top of that, another unheralded, undrafted guard, Ish Smith, emerged to have a breakout year for the team. Between the surprising playoff race and the coaching staff’s reliance on a more experienced Smith, Goodwin’s minutes were sparse.
The next year was Phoenix’s famous point guard debacle. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic were joined by Isaiah Thomas as the Suns front office tripled down on point guards in order to take the next step. It didn’t work and eventually two of those three point guards were dealt that season. But after two seasons in the league, Goodwin had accrued just 1,068 minutes -- almost 600 less than McConnell received in his rookie year alone.
In his third season, Goodwin finally saw some playing time and responded with so-so production but considering he was still just 21, it should have been enough to build on. Yet that season saw the end of head coach Jeff Hornacek’s tenure in Phoenix and the start of the ill-fated Earl Watson era. In a weird twist for an interim coach taking over for a lottery-bound team, Watson jerked around a young, former first round pick’s playing time during the last two months of the season -- sometimes outright benching Goodwin. Whether it was related to Goodwin’s attitude or not, Goodwin saw precious on-court developmental time taken away.
Eventually the saga with the Suns ended with Goodwin’s departure. After Phoenix, he bounced to New Orleans and then Brooklyn before (for simplicity's sake) losing out on a roster spot to Spencer Dinwiddie -- now the Nets starting point guard. As of now, Goodwin is without a job and his future prospects are looking bleak. It’s why Falk used him as a vehicle for his own self-reflection on the draft.
But it’s hard to look at Goodwin’s situation and think that the sole reason he’s a “bust” is due to a poorly weight formula or poor film analysis. If you are really looking to reflect on where Goodwin went wrong, it’s important to take note of what happened to him after he got drafted.
That story is just as crucial as the one crafted during your pre-draft arguments. Most draft picks are oversized teenagers entering a competitive industry filled with egos, money and lots of people with less than noble intentions. For someone as young as Goodwin was entering the NBA, the people who got around him in combination with his developing individual identity might tell you more about what happened to him or players like him than what carried over from a college scouting report.
On top of that, Goodwin’s story isn’t finished. He’s basically the same age now as a lot of seniors who will get drafted this summer. There’s a chance, depending on his approach, that Goodwin could even spend a few years overseas, come back to the NBA and still outperform most players picked at his draft slot. So the notion that an pre-draft evaluation of Goodwin isn’t holding up is a premature. Everything that happened from the minute he got drafted until Goodwin finally calls it a career will eventually be a part of what you actually learn in an examination of your pre-draft analysis.
That is why Falk’s take is so interesting. In another universe, perhaps one where he lands with the Portland team employing him at the time, Falk’s take on Goodwin could have come to fruition. A better organization with better management and opportunities for a young player to get minutes and develop the right skills could have changed Goodwin’s career outcome to this point. Falk’s vision of the future player Goodwin might become could have been exactly right, then outside factors screwed it up.
And a large part of what has happened to this point and what will happen to Goodwin going forward will come down to the nebulous concept of character. If the way Goodwin operates isn’t within the parameters of what it takes to handle the rigors of the NBA, then the real lesson has more to do with his psychological makeup than a misdiagnosis of his physical tools. It’s something that Falk sort of touches on his piece when he quotes Griffin.
“Last week The Athletic published an excerpt from Jason Lloyd’s book The Blueprint, that discussed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ decision to select Anthony Bennett with the #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. It included this fantastic quote from David Griffin, who was the VP of Basketball Operations for the Cavs at the time:
“The issue with Anthony was, and we had no way of knowing it at the time, the kid had no desire to overcome adversity whatsoever. As soon as it was hard, he was out,” (David) Griffin said. “His whole life, he rolled out of bed bigger, better, and more talented than everybody else. As soon as it was hard, it was over. And I was the one on campus at UNLV. I’m the one who got sold the bill of goods and I bought it hook, line, and sinker. You f*** up sometimes.”
This is a fascinating inclusion for a number of reasons. For starters, while Griffin is attempting to take responsibility for a draft mistake, he essentially does so while still laying blame on Bennett for not having what it takes to succeed. In a lot of ways it’s not really self-reflection as much as it a weird way of creating closure on a high profile mistake that clearly bothers the highly respected executive.
It would be more interesting instead -- and maybe this comes out in Lloyd’s book -- if Griffin’s self-assessment didn’t stop at where he was misled, but on the things that created a false sense of belief in Bennett. Did Griffin get background from the wrong people? Were there signs in practices, games, interactions of his family history that suggest Bennett had this default setting to begin with? Finally, as with Goodwin, how were those traits impacted by the fact Bennett, through no fault of his own, was handed massive expectations with his surprising selection as the first overall pick in his draft?
It’s also hard not to wonder that if you’re in the process of examining all the aspects that lead to Bennett failing, that the discussion doesn’t turn to mental health -- something that’s still severely underappreciated in the NBA. Instead of talking about Bennett’s response to adversity as an unknowable and inoperable cancer to his career, were there things Griffin’s club (or NBA teams in general) could have in place that would have made a difference? The answer could very well be “no”, but if you’re really looking to learn from past mistakes, it's certainly something that should be included in a reflective appraisal.
Overall, it’s good that Falk and others like him don’t just reflexively blame outside circumstances. Healthy introspection over the multimillion dollar decisions that NBA teams make is obviously crucial. But a failing to account for all the outside factors across the entire timeline makes it an incomplete review.
Most players are not immutable characters completely resistant to the endless onslaught of pressures they face once their NBA career starts. So the best way to learn from past mistakes isn’t just a willingness to embrace cautionary tales. As Griffin says, “You f*** up sometimes.” Other times, however, things just get f***** up.