June 13, 2007

The Knowns and the Unknowns

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O.K., it’s official. The NBA Finals are about as exciting as watching The Sorrow and the Pity. For those of us who are fans of teams other than the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s time to start getting excited about who our team is going to draft. Unless you have been living under a rock or haven’t followed basketball since Eddie was released, you’ve probably heard of megastars Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah. If you are a college basketball fan, you probably know Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Jeff Green and Josh McRoberts. But how about Jason Smith? Tiago Splitter? Rodney Stuckey? Yi Jianlian? Well, you better start familiarizing yourself with these names because they all will most likely be top-20 picks in this month’s NBA draft. This balance between the knowns and the unknowns brings up an important question about draft strategy. Should teams only select players with established track records, or should they roll the dice on unknown players?
In defining known players, I am including guys that played in a major conference, or a big team in a non-major conference such as Gonzaga. Most of the players who are going to be drafted in the top-10 this year are definitely known players. The average basketball fan knows who Oden, Durant, Noah, Horford, Julian Wright, Brandan Wright and others are. The problem with known players is that sometimes they are over-critiqued by the media. Noah is a perfect example. After his sophomore campaign, he was the toast of the town. Everybody projected him as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft; he was supposed to have a great NBA career and he released a compilation CD of covers of Ratt songs (well maybe not the last part). After deciding to return to school, Noah went out and won the NCAA title for the second year in a row. However, despite his success, his draft stock dropped. Noah should still be in the top-10, but in the extra season, people pointed out flaws in his game. It became clear that he doesn’t have enough bulk to bang in the post, plays with emotion rather than skill and is a poor shooter without an ability to offensively take over games. Noah was also unfairly criticized for Florida’s midseason slump, in which they even lost one game at home to pitiful LSU. The media made it sound like Noah frequented strip clubs with Pacman Jones, was responsible for global warming and greenlighted the surefire flop Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. In reality, Noah’s game did not change that much from 2006 to 2007. The problem was that as a sophomore, the media did not pay attention to the ups and downs of the season. As a junior, the media paid too much attention and dissected every move. Therefore, this scrutiny exposed holes, albeit justifiable holes, in the forward’s game that less analyzed players do not have to deal with.
This problem is not solely reserved for Noah. I am sure Durant haters will point out his second-round loss to USC. Duke forward Josh McRoberts will undoubtedly be penalized for losing to VCU in the tournament. Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who led LSU to the Final Four in 2006 only to not make the tournament in 2007 will be penalized for not living up to expectations. Davis will be lucky to be drafted in the top half of the second round. This case is true in football as well. Matt Leinart would have been the top pick in the 2005 draft if he had declared. Instead, he lost the Rose Bowl to Texas, and probably on that one game alone, the Tennessee Titans passed on him and instead drafted Vince Young, while Leinart slid all the way to pick No. 10 (although that may be because of rumors of Leinart’s relationship with Paris Hilton, and I am not making that up).
To be fair, some of the criticism is justified. McRoberts underachieved this year. Davis proved he couldn’t lead a team without Tyrus Thomas by his side and that he really liked donuts. Young may have been more talented than Leinart. However, the problem is that the media is unable to point out the same holes in the unknowns. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at two unknowns, Yi Jianlian and Jason Smith. You may remember Jianlian for a Sportscenter feature last month in which he posted up against some trainer who probably would get schooled by Frankie Muniz. Jianlian is pretty much an unknown and is projected as a top-10 and possibly a top-5 pick. Scouts are salivating over him like he was Amanda Beard and say he could be the next Pau Gasol. Go to Youtube.com and you can watch videos of him dunking over Gasol in some international game. The dunk is mildly impressive, but the videomakers act like it was the dunk in the climatic scene in Space Jam. The truth is that Jianlian did not play against college-level competition in China. No matter how many videos are posted and how many workouts Jianlian conducts with NBA teams, no one will know how good he is until he actual plays in the NBA. Apparently he has a lot of trouble defensively and in the post, and if he had trouble on defense in China, he is going to have a lot of problems in the NBA. Plus, there are questions about his age. He is listed as being 19 years old, but he might be as old as 23 or 24. If he is ever cast in a remake of Cocoon, NBA teams might get worried.
There are a few players from very small American schools that are projected as top-20 picks. One of those players, Colorado State power forward Jason Smith, might be drafted by the New Jersey Nets, my favorite team, so I have a vested interest in learning about him. Unfortunately, trying to get accurate information about Smith is like deciphering the final scene of The Sopranos: almost impossible (contact me if you want to know my theory on the ending). Smith played in the Mountain West conference, so he played against teams such as the University of New Mexico and the University of Wyoming (Wyoming—Colorado State is always a barnburner). In addition, Colorado State was pretty bad, so Smith always had to face double and even triple teams when he had the ball. Apparently, his coaches had no clue what do with him, and he therefore did not develop properly. Hmm, a coach with no idea what to do with his players? Sounds like he’d be a perfect fit on Cleveland! Smith has enough upside and offensive moves that he can really be utilized in an offense by stretching out the defense. The problem is that nobody really knows because of the type of player he was in college.
So basically, there is too much knowledge about some players and not enough about others. Personally, I would feel a lot more comfortable drafting a player who has played against quality, college-level competition than someone who has not. So if the Nets draft Smith, giving the team the record for big men who have no rebounding skills whatsoever, I am going to be really angry. Because if the Nets actually had someone who could rebound, I would not be crying myself to sleep every night that they somehow lost to the Cavaliers, a team who would struggle if they were playing offense against The Golden Girls.