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We at Ball Don’t Lie have been knee deep in basketball since the 2016-17 NBA season’s start — previewing all 30 teams, tackling the top 25 storylines and covering everything else that’s happened since — but we understand casual fans don’t fully dive in until Christmas. That’s why we’re bringing you a series we’re calling NBA Season’s Greetings. Consider it a refresher course on the free agents, coaches, trades, rookies and potential award winners that have shaped the league thus far.
There will be no rookies to prattle on about this winter, as the previously uninterested hordes come in from the cold to see what they’ve been missing in the NBA world around Christmas. No obvious future Hall of Famer, as the too-ready Tim Duncan was in 1997-98, to feel comfortable with. No plucky would-be natural. No Jordan or Drexler type who seems altogether more fit for the NBA game, after too many years spent reined in by the NCAA. Not even an older first-year player to make life palatable, as Marc Jackson worked for us back in 2000-01.
No Joltin’ Joe Charboneaus, here. Just a folder full of assets. Prospects, to check back in on later.
Kids. In many cases, literal teenagers. Not in the NBA because they were among this year’s handful of life-changing preps-to-pros colts who dominated the high school and AAU scene, ready for their star turn. No, these youngsters are just in the NBA because, well, you can’t pass on drafting that.
Even if your team stinks. Even if you already have another 20-year-old vying for minutes in the same frontcourt. Even if the payoff won’t come for a while. Even if a payoff never comes. Even if that one-and-done stud, the lanky kid who seemingly could play at any position, turns into more of a Tim Thomas than Tim Duncan.
Both players were picked in 1997. Duncan came out of Wake Forest after four long years working at a second-tier ACC school in the shadow of brighter lights in Duke, North Carolina and even Maryland. Thomas spent a season at Villanova prior to winding up a 76er, and entered the NBA with seemingly every reason to become Allen Iverson’s do-everything version of Scottie Pippen.
Thomas isn’t exactly a cautionary tale. But he never truly checked in.
In 1999, the talented forward was dealt to Milwaukee as soon as Philadelphia coach Larry Brown realized that not only could he deal players who had never heard of Frank McGuire, but also after Brown realized that after coaching Tim from the ages of 20 through 22, he had effectively shepherded him through the years that saw Duncan (or Pippen, or probably Bobby Jones) work for free in college before emerging as a young star who hardly needed much attention.
When Tim Thomas the Wild Boy didn’t stand revealed as a can’t-miss All-Star at age 22, it was time for Larry to move on.
Brown moved Thomas on for Tyrone Hill, who would turn 31 just a week after the deal. It was a move that was mocked at the time by some, the irreverent types who saw through LB’s impatience. Today, the move would be absolutely torn to bits. Someone who had just turned 22, working on a rookie deal, in exchange for a 31-year-old veteran?
A player in Thomas whose skill set had yet to be refined, but one that harbored fantastic potential in all areas, dealt this early? For a guy in Tyrone Hill who was limited at best, on the downside of a solid career, working alongside too many other early-20 types (Iverson, Theo Ratliff) on a team that shouldn’t be pushed into expectation too soon?
Bad deal, it seemed. One almost without equal in modern times, because it is hard to find a comparison for a swap including Tim Thomas and Tyrone Hill. It would be akin to dealing for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who will turn 31 next year, in exchange for a 22-year-old prodigy. The issue, here, is that we can’t find the prodigy. Because few, amongst the modern cast of youngsters, carries as much promise as Tim Thomas did.
Would you compare Willie Cauley-Stein to him? The jury is still out on the Sacramento big man, who rose to fame due to his ability to be 7-feet tall and defend 6-foot guards at the same time, and WCS is already 23.
Bobby Portis? Not as accomplished as Thomas was. Justise Winslow? Not nearly as skilled. Kelly Oubre? Perhaps, but he isn’t a lottery talent and Thomas enjoyed a longer strain of potent play prior to the deal that dwarfed Oubre’s recent turnaround.
Sam Dekker? Justin Anderson? Kyle Anderson? Noah Vonleh?
Aaron Gordon, perhaps, comes close – and even Tim Thomas (that guy you remember at the end of some team’s bench, over a decade ago) outpaced him during his initial window in Philadelphia.
This is where we’re at now. We’re having a tough time finding parallels to Tim Thomas, when looking at drafts from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Don’t even include 2013 in that mess. And don’t even shoot to the top of Thomas’ 1997 NBA draft, in looking for some modern member of the New Breed to compare to Tim Duncan. Not with Karl-Anthony Towns still making Dino Radja-styled defensive mistakes on one end of the court. Not because Karl-Anthony Towns is the next Dino Radja, but because Karl-Anthony Towns was born in November of 1995, and he’s in his second year of playing pro basketball.
This is where the NBA is at, after a decade of outlawing preps-to-pros draft picks. The NBA draft hasn’t exactly become the MLB draft with better suits and nicer manners, far from it, but the collective hasn’t exactly produced a collection of bona fides of late.
You have to, as was the case with 2015-16 Rookie of the Year Towns, know where to look. Not just points and rebounds, but where KAT ranks among players who were his age (which already limits the scope; not many 20-year-olds get 32 minutes a game as a rookie) and where he ranks among them in terms of per-minute percentages, and other advanced stats. This isn’t as easy as spying someone with 17 home runs by the All-Star break, a guard who drops 39 on the first time he rolls through Madison Square Garden.
A fan has to know the on/off-court stats to understand why Jahlil Okafor (a-low post demon out of Duke, no less) is a massive mess at this level. He has to understand usage and birth dates in order to give Devin Booker a chance, and he has to mind the hellscape in Sacramento before judging Cauley-Stein too harshly.
Everyone comes with a caveat. Especially the 2016 NBA draft class.
There are no breakouts, yet, as should be the case when the entire process is filled with those who are not only too young to drink, but don’t even look (even at 6-foot-11) like they should know how to pronounce “Malort.”
Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers’ top overall pick, was lost to start the year and should be out for a stretch of 2017 with a foot fracture that could linger with him for the bulk of his career. Once healthy, he’ll be pressed into service as a 6-foot-10 point guard with limited high-end NCAA experience, working without a jump shot for the NBA’s worst team.
The No. 2 overall pick, Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram, has warmed us all merely by proving that he’s probably not the next DerMarr Johnson. That’s good enough news in itself, with the silliness of the whole modern enterprise amplified by the recognition that the “Los Angeles” in the lottery, these days, is the Lakers instead of the Clippers.
Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown looks solid, if not “ready,” hardly the sort of No. 3 pick payoff that C’s fans are used to. When Red Auerbach fleeced his colleagues in years past, the payoff showed up ready to contribute 20 and 10. When Danny Ainge does it, the payoff will have been born the same week that the Celtics began the 1996-97 tank job that, ultimately, failed to produce the lottery luck needed to grab Duncan. Educated times, these are.
Dragan Bender (Phoenix) shoots 35.9 percent. Kris Dunn (Minnesota) shoots 38 percent at age 22. Similarly-aged Buddy Hield (New Orleans) has us wondering (after spying far too many clips of Jimmer Fredette and Doug McDermott) if we should ban NBA front offices from watching the NCAA tournament, as he’s shooting 38.6 percent from the floor and looking clueless despite the fact that he’s just turned 23.
The entire list of 2016 NBA draftees looks like a complete and total miss, and this was supposed to be one of the good drafts. The 2015 NBA draft doesn’t look all that compelling or deep, and the 2014 collection feels like another grab bag.
And this, as signed off upon by the NBA and its players recently, will continue for a little while.
Technically, the discussions are still open, but the league and its players decided to sustain the much-loathed “one-and-done” rule for incoming prospects. The league will still not accept you right out of high school, but it does offer a minor league to play in for a year if you would like to, prior to achieving draft eligibility.
If the talent is in place, your options beyond a year-long minor league career include the chance to play overseas for a spell, or the path most have followed: a year spent working for free in the NCAA before jumping to the pros.
Most, understandably, take the last option. No pay, for a year at least, but you still receive the perks of small market stardom and the chance to play with the lights on. No new languages, no battles with washouts in the minors, few risks. Even Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, who suffered what could have been career-killing injuries while working for free in college, still found themselves as top-six picks, and they would have gone in that range even had the asset-obsessed 76ers not been calling the shots.
Embiid, the clear 2016-17 “Rookie” of the Year thus far, acts as both the sublime and the ridiculous in this instance.
A late-bloomer who never had any intentions of staying longer than he had to at Kansas, Embiid averaged just 11 points and eight rebounds as a Jayhawk, before fears over his wheels pushed him to third overall in the 2014 NBA draft. He sat out for two full seasons with the 76ers, who drafted him despite the presence of a center in Noel prior to later drafting yet another big man in Okafor (to great acclaim), and is now dominating his technical first-year class, averaging 18.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and two and a half blocks at age 22.
Of course, he does this in half a game. His minutes and actual contests are still limited as the 76ers mind the workload of their potential star, and there is some chance that after a dodgy streak of in-game action (this includes his work prior to Kansas, and that 23.1 minutes per game run during his freshman year) those stats ring a little hollow.
And yet, bless the man. He’s healthy, and he’s given us a Rookie of the Year who won’t embarrass us.
Of course, none of this should embarrass us.
Marquese Chriss (14 points, six rebounds in one year at Washington) is being paid $2.9 million this season, at age 19. Malachi Richardson (37 percent shooting in one year at Syracuse) is being paid $1.4 million in Sacramento right now. Raptor center Jakob Poeltl could have spent a third season at Utah, “refining” those post moves as the sportswriters see fit, but he decided to make $2.7 million and live in the great city of Toronto.
All while the kids from the 2014 and 2015 drafts look forward to the first New Year’s Eve that will see them (in many cases) able to drink from the champagne bottle legally for the first time. While still playing 13 minutes a game, still figuring the position out.
As a result, you have prospects. What were once young colts are, to some, a list of measurements and researched findings.
This is great for the players in ways that go beyond getting paid and, as a result, this is why the current setup (however unhappy it makes us) needs to sustain itself.
Find the most forward-thinking of NCAA basketball coaching staffs, and they couldn’t hold a candle to what a middling NBA staff can contribute to a prospect’s professional life in terms of training, discipline and expectation. This isn’t a shot at college basketball teams, but when you have actual, tangible examples to use in day-to-day training, the education acceleration is worth its weight in gold. If not rookie contracts.
It isn’t worth the wait, we submit. Not just for teams that have to supplement the incomes of these prospects while they figure it out, but more important for fans who also have to contribute financially to the development.
Booker will be a far better player at age 30 than his 1997-level counterpart, because the last few years of his teenage career and first few years of his 20s were spent doing Phoenix Suns stuff, instead of Kentucky Wildcat things. Even if the compensation for years spent in Phoenix or Lexington were the same, the on-the-job training players his age will take on in the pros is far too significant to pass up.
Toss in the actual money, and there is no real reason why any basketball prospect shouldn’t embrace the system that has, through various fulminations, bad guesses and outright mistakes, been laid out in front of them. Even the international route — as embraced by Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay — isn’t really paying off. Neither of those guys can shoot.
And to those who want to pay lip service to the Duncan Approach? Good luck with that.
Until Joe Smith’s emergence as Everybody’s All-American, Duncan was considered the likely top overall pick in the 1995 draft before he decided to come back for a junior season. He would have gone tops overall in 1996, ahead of Iverson and Marcus Camby, and it was posited even by us know-nothings back in 1997 that he would probably be the last four-year star to be taken at the top of the draft.
(That guesswork was rocked in 2000 when Kenyon Martin, a role player at Cincinnati his first two seasons, was taken atop what is now regarded as the worst NBA draft in the league’s history.)
Duncan wasn’t given the ball in 1997-98 by Gregg Popovich, who was entering his first full year as an NBA head coach. Tim and his iffy jumper were told to go to the top of the key, and the weak side, as an entry passer and broken play-finisher. In forcing Duncan to get in where he could fit in alongside a returning David Robinson, Popovich essentially punted his entire penny-foolish 1997-98 season in order to develop Duncan as he saw fit.
By the second season, when Popovich gave Duncan the keys offensively, the Spurs were champions. But not after going slow with things in ways that nearly cost Popovich his job.
Duncan’s on-the-job training gave the monster new moves. It altered his thinking and approach in ways that went beyond the sort of “you were a star there, here we have plenty of those”-hard promises with which young players in any realm are met. The idea of letting a young star work his way into the life while an established vet existed as normal wasn’t anything brand new; it was the idea of doing it on company time that shook things up.
NBA coaches, without knowing it, ape Popovich’s principle to this day. The idea isn’t as studied, nor is it nearly as admirable, as modern coaches have no choice but to stick their rookies in places all involved are uncomfortable with. It’s the only way to work, though, when handed a 19-year-old piece of clay who a year before couldn’t even start for a team that died on March 21 of his freshman season.
Typically his only season, we should remind, spent giving ceremonial service to the Wildcats or Bearcats. As the NBA and its players have agreed upon in making the best of a situation. Without doing a single favor for the NCAA, a billion-buck enterprise that has made thousands of non-players rich beyond their wildest dreams, all on the backs of a series of favors.
Nobody enjoys the one-and-done rule save for the most important individuals in the conversation – the players. The workers.
Some fans, the ones that will be in it for the long haul, also receive some benefit in knowing that Booker, Chriss and Tyler Ulis and being burned on a single play by Russell Westbrook in 2016 will help in ways that wouldn’t have been seen given the same scene in 1997, when burns like the one they took on happened on a college campus. Burns handed down by players who never went pro, in ways that wouldn’t pay off for anyone associated with the NBA.
After years of watching as the NCAA did their work for them, the NBA has to pay for its development now. The NBA will do a better job at readying the prospects, but the work won’t come for free, Trusted Roster Spots No. 12-through-15 will act as an in-person farm team, and the payoff for franchises and fans alike will take years. Partially as a result, each year’s cast of rookies will underwhelm until the NBA and its players decide to collectively bargain some attempt at a change to the system.
Which is just fine. These teenagers wouldn’t otherwise be downing milk and cookies prior to another Four Corners refresher at Big Name U. These players are in the right place: being compensated for their work, doing the absolute best thing for their professional careers in ways that go far, far beyond that paycheck.
So, yeah, this year’s cast of rookies mostly stinks so far.
More from our NBA Season’s Greetings series:
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