Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Opinion: In NBA, drafting smaller smarter


When in doubt, it seems, NBA executives tend to reach for the athletes with the longest reach at draft time. So often, the execs (many of them by then ex-execs) cringe for years watching the perimeter players they should have taken jet down the court in All-Star and playoff games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, holders of the No. 1 selection in Thursday’s draft in much the same way the Chiefs had the top choice in the NFL during a year without an obvious top guy, have a wide array of options. Centers Alex Len of Maryland and Nerlens Noel of Kentucky are under consideration. So are shooting guards Ben McLemore of Kansas and Victor Oladipo of Indiana. Georgetown small forward Otto Porter and UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett also reportedly have been on the Cavs’ radar.

To center, or not to center, that is the question. History says the guy with his finger on the button will press center. History also teaches that to do so is to take a risk not worthwhile.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 1983 decision to bypass Michael Jordan to take talented but brittle Kentucky center Sam Bowie remains the best argument for choosing human flight over extraordinary height, but it’s far from the only example.

In 1977, Indiana’s plodding center Kent Benson was the No. 1 player chosen in a draft that included, among others, forwards Bernard King, Cedric Maxwell, Marques Johnson and Walter Davis and guards Norm Nixon and Otis Birdsong.

In the same draft that Bowie was selected ahead of Jordan and Charles Barkley, centers Melvin Turpin and Tim McCormick were chosen ahead of John Stockton.

In 1984, the irrational run on post players continued at an even faster, panic-driven pace. Benoit Benjamin went third, Jon Koncak fifth and Joe Kleine sixth. Combined, the centers did not appear in an All-Star game. Nos. 7 (Chris Mullin), 8 (Detlef Schrempf) and 13 (Karl Malone) played in 22 glitzy mid-season exhibitions. In 1998, the Los Angeles Clippers had a sneaking suspicion they were taking the next Hakeem Olajuwon with the top selection in Michael Olowokandi, even though all the centers had in common was they were born in Nigeria. Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, who have combined for 21 All-Star selections, were taken ninth and 10th.

In 2003, the Detroit Pistons chose center Darko Milicic with the second pick and then watched Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade drop off the board with the next three. Len, 20, and Noel, 19, do have intriguing qualities, but remember this: Big men tend to break down physically much quicker than guards. The general managers who selected Bowie, Ralph Sampson and Greg Oden ahead of Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Kevin Durant need no reminder of that. Noel has had two serious injuries in the past four years to the same knee. Len, bugged by stress fractures, had foot surgery.

Noel runs the floor well and is a terrific shot blocker, but at 210 pounds, will he ever fill out enough to hold his low-block position in a league that allows so much to go uncalled? McLemore calls to mind Ray Allen. Noel seems on a path to become another Marcus Camby, which isn’t bad in some ways, except when compared to Allen. Naturally, since Camby is so much taller, he went three spots ahead of Allen in 1996.

Those in the Len camp point to his big games against Noel and Duke’s Mason Plumlee. Careful. Loyola of Chicago’s LaRue Martin was selected first overall in 1972 based largely on having big games against UCLA’s Bill Walton and Marquette’s Jim Chones. Martin lasted four years in the NBA. Len likely will have a much better career than that. He might develop into a solid starting center, a la Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall selection in 2005. Perennial All-Star point guards Deron Williams and Chris Paul went third and fourth that year.

The smart play lies in passing on the two pivot men. In favor of what perimeter player? A question for another day, same space. Thursday.


Joe Joseph 9 years, 5 months ago

Nerlens Noel will go down as one of the biggest top-pick busts of all time.

Alex Peekeaton 9 years, 5 months ago

Not a chance! Once he grows into his body the next couple of years and gets his weight up to ~250 lbs., he will be a force. Nerlens is a better defender than Anthony Davis and plays as hard as anyone I've seen. Obviously a work in progress on the offensive side, but he is only 18 years old and has plenty of time to learn.

Dirk Medema 9 years, 5 months ago

Noel is 19, and will he still be effective at 250? Will his knees even last that long? His back?

How effective has he been against NBA talent? Skip the comparison to overmatched pre-season and SEC fodder.

Alex Peekeaton 9 years, 5 months ago

The doctors to 3 NBA teams just said Noel's knee is "perfect"...
“The doctor said everything was perfect,” Noel said. “All three teams I’ve been to said it looks 100 percent fine and I’m definitely ahead of schedule. It’s all been positive feedback.”

Back??? Who said he has any back issues??? Since you have a medical degree and are an expert in knee & back injuries, you should contact each of those 3 doctors!

Jeff Suther 9 years, 5 months ago

You act like putting on 40 lbs of muscle is nothing ha. Noel is a big project with potential at best. Personally I would never take any player, especially a big man, who struggles offensively. I think scoring is something that just comes naturally to some people. There are always people you can pick up to help with D

Alex Peekeaton 9 years, 5 months ago

40 lbs. of muscle? Noel weighed 228 lbs. before he went down with the injury. His doctor told him to lose weight before the surgery to have a faster recovery of which he did and is already well ahead of schedule. Every team knows that is the reason why he weighed only ~206 at the combine. Nobody I've seen plays defense like Noel and I watched Anthony Davis for a full year.

Alex Peekeaton 9 years, 5 months ago

Noel is back up to 220 lbs. as of 2 days ago and will be at his original playing weight of 228 in no time. I will bet he will be closer to 235 lbs. when he steps on a NBA court for the first time.

Jim Erickson 9 years, 5 months ago

I hope McLemore goes number 1 overall, and think he has a decent case for it.

I also think you go for the center if there is a dominant one available. Greg Oden's injuries and the fact that the Heat don't have a legitimate 7-foot monster may cloud the reality that basketball games are much easier to win with a genuine big man.

Jim Erickson 9 years, 5 months ago

Another point on Oden... Drafting him ahead of Durant wasn't a "mistake" as much as it was terrible luck. It could have very easily been Durant's legs going awry with Oden becoming Dwight Howard, or better.

Kevin Studer 9 years, 5 months ago

Oden was already having leg problems before the draft. Durant wasn't. That is what makes taking Oden first a huge mistake.

Tom Keegan 9 years, 5 months ago

Oden was healthy and seemed like such a low risk, but still, I had a feeling back then that Durant would be the right guy to pick:

David Brown 9 years, 5 months ago

Nice history on some selected past NBA drafts. Crystal ball anyone?
Interesting how superior college talent doesn't always translate to the NBA. I tend to think that the players will, mindset/attitude, how they approach the travel/length-of-season/business aspects of the NBA can mean almost as much as their jump shot to their ultimate success. Being a "professional" means much more than simply drawing a paycheck. Virtually every player in the league can run, jump, and shoot. What can you bring beyond that?

JakeBarnes 9 years, 5 months ago

Good comment. Also agree with Cairo-Jayhawk, except I think all the choices, Ben included, are a gamble and risk.

I've noticed that lately Tom is writing some good columns and getting some outstanding comments. Mine excluded.

Lonnie Snow 9 years, 5 months ago

I really like this article, in light of it I agree BMac, Trey B. and victor O. All played well this year and I think can contribute right away if drafted to the right team and given a shot. No way would Oden ever be a Kevin Durant. Guys like Kevin just don't come around but like every 3-5 years

kellerman411 9 years, 5 months ago

I wouldn't take Ben in the top 3. If he can't get in shape for the biggest job interview of his life why would I invest millions in him? Should we blame it on his agent? Ben chose to hire him. Stop making excuses for him. He is a man now and needs to learn how to be a professional. That means you get your butt in bed early, eat right and work as hard as you can for as long as you can. I hope he turns it around but with this type of focus, he is the next Xavier. Hope he gets it together.

Cameron Cederlind 9 years, 5 months ago

If only they had taken a smaller option like Dirk Nowitzki or Carl Malone . . . who are 7' and 6'9 respectively. Good on you for keeping with the title.

Steven Mathew 9 years, 5 months ago

Yes the title is misleading. But it seems the main point the article is trying to make is avoid using the number 1 overall pick on centers, the tallest position on the court.

rockchalk_dpu 9 years, 5 months ago

I don't pretend to know how the draft will unfold because I don't follow the NBA close enough to know the needs of each of the teams. What shocks me though when I read these draft articles and projections is how high Victor Oladipo is on most people's mock boards. In the Indiana games I watched (which were many because I used to live there), he never wowed me with anything more than his defensive pressure and his ability to finish around the rim. He doesn't have a great shot and in fact rarely attempts anything further than a midrange jumper because of this. The closest comparison I can make is that he's a more athletic Releford minus the outside shooting ability, which is not something you magically develop after years and years of playing the game. He'll have time to sort things out when he's not in class and this is his job, but I can't see how he'll be able to revamp his shooting motion to turn it into something even close to Ben's.

I know that these GMs don't want to miss out on the next big thing, and he's drawn comparisons to D Wade and a young Jordan by Dookie V and Magic which I'm sure are feeding into this hype that he must be drafted high. Based on his current skill set though, I just don't see how Victor is anything better than a role player that comes in as a defensive stopper. This is not to say that he is stuck at his current talent level and will never get better, just that I don't believe this is the type of player you throw a lottery pick at. This is the guy you get as a steal in the second round that could maybe become a big star, not the one you bet the franchise on.

Sorry for the rant, I just continue to be perplexed how people have Oladipo going ahead of Ben and wanted to see what others thought.

kellerman411 9 years, 5 months ago

His motor is 3 times hotter than Ben's and his maturity level is on another level. I agree about the shooting motion, you can't teach what Ben has which makes me think that Ben really scared these GMs by showing up to workouts out of shape and having bad interviews.

rockchalk_dpu 9 years, 5 months ago

Totally agree about the higher motor, he definitely played his games all out all the time. I just don't see how that is considered an advantage in the NBA considering they play more than double the games over the course of a season. The rookies learn to dial back their effort to sustain a certain level over the course of a season or else they burn out and their play/production goes in the toilet. There's no way Oladipo can be play the way he did in college and not fall apart after the all-star break.

Marcia Parsons 9 years, 5 months ago

You keep saying these things about Ben's conditioning, etc. I've never seen anything except for one article which also said he looked "pudgy". That was so far from the truth that I discounted the whole article. Sounds a lot like the rumors about Arthur's kidney condition.

justanotherfan 9 years, 5 months ago

The problem with this article (and many like it) is that guards and small forwards bust at a decent clip as well.

Anybody remember Bo Kimble. Injuries wrecked his pro career. He averaged less than 6 points per game for his career. He was drafted 8th in 1990. In that same draft Rumeal Robinson went 10th. In between those two, Willie Burton went 9th. Future all stars Tyrone Hill (11), Jayson Williams (21), Antonio Davis (45) and Cedric Ceballos (48) all went later.

How about 1995? Shawn Respert went 8th. Ed O'Bannon went 9th. Neither ever played in an all star game (or was even much of a contributor on a team).

2000? That draft was so bad, there's really nothing notable in it.

2005? Yeah, Deron Williams and Chris Paul are better than Andrew Bogut, but Bogut is no slouch. The biggest disappointments in this draft have to be forwards Marvin Williams (2), Charlie Villanueva (7) and Ike Diogu (9).

2010? Wesley Johnson (4) is probably the biggest disappointment in the top 10, with Al-Farouq Aminu (8) second.

Take any random year, and you will probably find a guard or wing player that is a big disappointment. In 1993 picks 5-7 were Isaiah Rider, Calbert Cheaney and Bobby Hurley. None of those guys were anything special in the NBA. The jump from college to the pros is not an easy one, and some guys wash out.

The instinct of NBA GMs used to be if a guy wasn't skilled and was big, he could hang on in the league. If a guard isn't skilled enough, or quick enough, or athletic enough, or can't shoot, he's just going to wash out. There's not really a way to redeem a perimeter guy if he can't play at that level.

Tyler Fox 9 years, 5 months ago

I think the unintentional moral of this article is that for every center prospect in the draft, there are several guards and forwards. GMs are four times as likely to find a good prospect at another position because there are 4 other positions.

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