Since the 2004 Draft, NBA lottery picks as a whole, have not provided the value they once did. The lottery traditionally was where stars and superior starters were found. In the past, a top ten pick that underperformed was able to still stay in the league as a supporting player.
With the improved level of play in Europe and the NBADL, numerous overlooked players like Gary Neal have found niches in the NBA as role players. Those years on the fringes of professional basketball taught players like him the value of having an identity as a player, knowing one’s limitations, and subsequently playing to their strengths. Additionally and most importantly, these players usually come cheap.
Former lottery picks are quickly finding themselves out of the NBA before they even reach their prime.
In many cases, shot selection and the inability to consistently make outside shots prove to be their undoing. Being drafted high also comes with the problem of being sent to bad teams. Bad teams are generally run poorly and young players can get lost in a chaotic franchise. Still other players have difficulty finding their place on perpetually young rosters with no mentoring.
Rafael Arajuo (8th, 2004), Adam Morrison (3rd, 2005), Shelden Williams (5th,2005), Yi (6th,2007), Joe Alexander (8th,2008) and Johnny Flynn (5th,2009) are all out of the league. Numerous other top picks like Hasheem Thabeet (2nd, 2009), Terrence Williams (11th,2009), and Anthony Randolph (14th, 2009) are barely holding on to roster spots, teams still feeling they might be able to find contributions from these still young players.
Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry enter the 2013-2014 season facing their NBA mortality head on.
Both players were lottery picks in the 2010 draft and were brought into difficult situations. Johnson was drafted into 5 man glut at the wing positions with the Minnesota Timberwolves, having to share minutes with recent lottery picks Michael Beasley, Corey Brewer, and Martell Webster.
While Johnson was given the starting position, he was forced into the role of weakside spot up shooter and primary perimeter defender. On a roster full of young lottery picks, he never got the opportunity find his true role. As the fourth pick it was easy to call him a bust.
The following season, the introduction of Ricky Rubio and the lockout made Johnson’s development an afterthought. The chaos of Minnesota gave way to the ineptitude of the Phoenix Suns. Johnson was traded to a Suns’ team transitioning from the Steve Nash era.
Phoenix was a mess, constantly tinkering with its roster and caught up in the drama associated with an unhappy Shannon Brown and a disappointing Michael Beasley. Johnson a quiet, humble Texan was thrust in the most inhospitable of circumstances yet again. His contract was not renewed and suddenly his career is in jeopardy.
Xavier Henry was picked by the Memphis Grizzlies and was in the rotation to start the season behind Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, and Tony Allen. He generally played well when he got significant minutes but as the Grizzlies made a playoff push, the 19 year old Henry was replaced by the more experienced Sam Young in the rotation.
The following season, an injured Henry was traded to the New Orleans Hornets where he immediately was behind Trevor Ariza and fellow 2009 lottery pick, the recently acquired Al Farouq Aminu. He had some moments, but Aminu was picked over him as the small forward of the future. The drafting of Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, the acquisitions of Eric Gordon, Greivis Vasquez, Ryan Anderson, and Aminu made Henry the odd man out. His contract wasn’t renewed and a reputation of an injury prone, out of shape player took root.
Front offices in disarray, coaches of bad teams with no job security, and rosters full of young lottery picks trying to establish themselves, is a recipe for a young player to have his career ruined.
Both players signing with the Lakers is a blessing both for them and the team. They will get the opportunity show what they can do for a team that needs youth and athleticism.
Can they play?
Honestly no one knows.
But for the first time in their careers they will have a stable organization, a real opportunity to play, and a mentor they can learn from. Corey Brewer, Randy Foye, Channing Frye, and Jerryd Bayless were able to reconfigure their careers after disastrous starts.
Johnson and Henry are both young enough to go on to have productive careers. Sometimes its the organization not a player’s ability that’s the problem. The Lakers have salvaged the careers of Shannon Brown, Trevor Ariza, Earl Clark, and Jordan Hill in the past. If they are right about these two, maybe this “lost” season will be brighter than expected.