Some of the NBA’s greatest players struggled out of the gate, and their lessons can be valuable to this year’s draft class
|Jun 22||Public post|
Within hours of the NBA Draft Thursday night, the first-round picks were being debated and graded – instantly adding to the pressure for players who are too young and inexperienced to have any idea of what they’re getting themselves into.
The surest thing is that very few of these highly-rated rookies will develop along a steadily-rising curve. There will be problems along the way, and some of them may be dismissed as busts a year or two from now. But if the early signs are poor, they should not despair. The NBA is a league of second chances, which is why some of the biggest stars appeared to be doomed – just before they experienced their success.
Deandre Ayton, meet Robert Parish. Ayton, an intimidating big man from the University of Arizona, is joining a franchise that hasn’t experienced the playoffs in eight years. If he fails to end the playoff drought by, say, year two, Ayton may very well face criticism that he isn’t the franchise star he was made out to be when the Suns picked him number 1 Thursday.
This is why Ayton should be introduced to the story of Parish, the number 8 pick in 1976, who was dismissed as an underachieving center during his first four years with the slumping Warriors. They were coming off a 58-loss season when they gave up on him. It turned out that Parish had been in the wrong environment with Golden State. When he was moved to Boston, where the Celtics surrounded him with winning players, Parish went on to earn three championships and a place in the Hall of Fame. The lesson? Don’t automatically blame Ayton if the Suns continue to struggle.
Luka Doncic, meet Drazen Petrovic. Petrovic, a Croatian legend who died at age 28 in a car accident in Germany, was already a star for Real Madrid when he became one of the pioneering Europeans to move to the NBA. His first two years were a humbling disappointment as he averaged 14 minutes per game with the Trail Blazers and Nets. His breakthrough was dramatic: Petrovic scored 20.6 points per game in 1991-92 for New Jersey, then made All-NBA for generating 22.3 points in his final season. In 2002 Petrovic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, based on what he would have accomplished if not for his death nine years earlier.
Like Petrovic, Doncic arrives to the NBA as the star shooting guard of Real Madrid and Europe’s most acclaimed player. As the number 3 pick of the draft, he is certain to be granted more minutes by the Mavericks than Petrovic was forced to earn in his rookie year with Portland. But how will Doncic react if he has a hard time transitioning to the more athletic pace of the NBA? In that case he should refer to the example of Petrovic, who was known for tirelessly working on his game until he became a star.
Trae Young, meet Victor Oladipo. Young at 6-2 is unlikely to contribute in as many areas as 6-4 Oladipo, who emerged this season as Indiana’s leading defender and scorer (23.1 points) while adding 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists. But Young should take heart in the journey of Oladipo, the number 2 pick in 2013. For three years Oladipo failed to live up to expectations in Orlando, convincing the Magic to surrender him in a 2016 trade with Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka. One year later, when Oladipo was packaged in a deal with Indiana for Paul George, the Pacers were ridiculed for accepting an apparent role player in exchange for an All-Star.
Oladipo turned those negative assessments upside down with an All-NBA season that was entirely unexpected. He took the long five-year route to stardom, and Young should keep that journey in mind. As the number 5 pick, Young will be asked to score as well as create for the Hawks in the early stages of their reconstruction. They will be counting on Young to define them at a time when he will be trying to grasp what he can and cannot do at the NBA level. The Hawks should learn from Orlando’s mistake: Don’t give up on Young prematurely.
Mohammed Bamba, meet Tyson Chandler. As the number 2 pick in 2001, Chandler was expected to lead the Chicago Bulls back into contention three years after the Michael Jordan era. But Chandler was a slim 19-year-old center with no offensive game. After five uninspiring years in Chicago, he was traded to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets – and only then, in the company of Chris Paul and David West, did Chandler’s career take off. By the time the Mavericks acquired him in 2010, Chandler was ready to provide the defensive leadership that resulted in their surprising 2011 NBA Finals victory.
The original plan in Chicago had been to pair Chandler with another young big man, Eddy Curry. Seventeen years later, Orlando spent the number 6 pick on Bamba, a skinny shot-blocking center, in hope that he and last year’s rookie Jonathan Isaac can dominate the paint defensively. The vision of two switchable and explosive giants combining to protect the rim must be exciting for the Magic’s fans. In their early years together, however, the experiment promises to be frustrating. A structured system will have to be created for them, and then they’ll need to learn how to play team defense within that structure. If Bamba appears to be bombing at times, it will be important to recall the early difficulties of Chandler – and the ultimate payoff he delivered.
Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, meet Chauncey Billups and Ricky Rubio. Sexton and Gilgeous-Alexander are bracing to take over for playmaking legends. Sexton was the number 8 pick of the Cavaliers, who are bracing for the potential departure of LeBron James. The Clippers traded up to number 11 for Gilgeous-Alexander, in hope that he may fill the void left by Chris Paul’s move last year to the Rockets.
The two new point guards have different skills. Sexton is bullish physically, but will need time to learn the nuances of tactical leadership. He should consider the legend of Billups, the number 3 pick in 1997, who played for five teams before finally turning the corner in his sixth NBA season. Billups matured to lead the Pistons to the NBA championship amid a run of six straight conference finals.
Gilgeous-Alexander has a more sophisticated grasp of the position, and in that sense he compares with Rubio, the number 5 pick in 2009, who for six seasons with Minnesota was criticized for his failings as a shooter and athlete. Only this season, while leading the surprising Jazz into the playoffs, was Rubio’s glass viewed as a half-full rather than half-empty. So best wishes to the new point guards: May your skin be thick, because the standards in Cleveland and L.A. are exceedingly high.
Michael Porter Jr., meet Joel Embiid. Embiid would have been the number 1 pick in 2014 if not for the foot surgery he had undergone one week earlier. He fell to number 3 and did not play a minute during the first two years of his contract with the 76ers.
Porter could have gone number 1 as well; the lower-back issues that sidelined him for most of his freshman year at the University of Missouri resulted in him sliding to number 14, where he was chosen, ambivalently, by the Nuggets. They celebrated his acquisition even though they can’t be certain that he will ever fulfill his potential.
Even now, after Embiid broke out as an All-Star and two-way All-NBA performer who led Philadelphia to 52 wins, there is little certainty for his long-term future. The Sixers continue to be grateful for every day that Embiid gives them, with no certainty for tomorrow. The same anxious future awaits Porter. He could join with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap to push Denver deep into the playoffs. Or the physical problems of this past season could repeat themselves for year after year after year.
Robert Williams, meet Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside was one of the most physically talented prospects in the 2010 draft, but fears of his attitude and commitment resulted in his plunge to the second round as the number 33 pick overall. Then there was a knee surgery. There were D-League assignments. He was waived by Sacramento, won a D-League championship, moved to China, then onto Lebanon and back to China. Eventually he was reclaimed by the Miami Heat, who transformed him into a league-leading shot-blocker and double-double center worthy of a four-year, $98 million contract in 2016. Recently, however, Whiteside’s contributions have slipped, and his public criticisms of coach Erik Spoelstra have multiplied.
Williams, like Whiteside, is an explosive shot-blocker who should have been picked in the lottery. But questions of attitude and commitment led to his slide to number 27, where he was rescued by Boston. The Celtics need an athletic rim protector badly. But Williams will be of little help to their championship dreams if he turns out to be unreliable. All in all, it’s a gamble worth taking.
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