First, we were told about their talent. Then we heard their names, the comparisons, the expectations. Jabari Parker was Paul Pierce. Andrew Wiggins was Paul George. Julius Randle was Amare Stoudamire. Marcus Smart was Gary Payton. Dante Exum was Tony Parker. Joel Embid was Hakeem Olajuwon. Excessive in its generosity for players who last played in high school the hype machine was in full effect. All of this excessive aggrandizement was in August and in September as season tickets and television schedules were being negotiated and fans debated on who they wanted for their NBA team. Who was worthy to tank for.
A few months have passed since their initial offering, games have been played, the performances of these highly touted players have ranged from devastatingly brilliant to mediocre to stunningly immature. The dust has all settled, the bloom has fallen from the rose and the truth is they are eighteen and nineteen year olds. Sometimes they play that way. Sometimes they play as if the pressure is a huge boulder about to crush them. Sometimes they play extraordinarily gifted. Sometimes they play like they are freshman- which is what they are. And so it is. They are not the problem, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle and Marcus Smart and Dante Exum and Joel Embid. It is not their fault. It is ours. It is our expectations that want to turn one player into another, to expect that college is the breeding ground for NBA saviors when it is just the opposite. College is the breeding ground for NBA role players.
But of course, through the passage of time there are certain things we know. Jabari Parker is not athletic, not explosive. Andrew Wiggins needs more consistency on his jump shot plus 25 more pounds. Julius Randle needs to work harder off ball. Marcus Smart needs to rein in his frustrations. Dante Exum has no jump shot. Joel Embid has a penchant for collecting flagrant fouls.
Among them not a Lebron or a Kobe or a Durant in sight so you have to ask yourself: is anyone in this draft better than Kyrie Irving? Is anyone better than Harrison Barnes? Is anyone better than Eric Bledsoe? Kyrie is 22. Barnes is 21. Bledsoe is 24. Why not trade for a proven player, one you know can get into the lane against NBA defenders, finish at the rim and through contact, is athletic and explosive, understands the NBA grind and schedule and pressure and more importantly has proven himself in a certain capacity. No one expects Parker and Wiggins and Randle and Exum and Embid to follow the path of Anthony Bennett or Greg Oden but how can you really know, especially since injury issues befell both those #1 picks. There is no exact science here. Look at Hasheem Thabeet, #2 pick. Bust. Look at Brandon Roy, # 6 pick. Bad knees wrecked his career. Look at Wes Johnson #4 pick. Underachiever.
Young players develop over time, the ones who are special. They add something every year, they have to because the NBA game is stunningly different than the college game even though the insanely talented have success early. Consider this year’s All-Star starters for the Western Conference. Kevin Durant was the #2 pick in 2007. In his first year he averaged 20 points a game. In his second year he averaged 25 points a game. He did not make the playoffs either year. Blake Griffin was the #1 pick in 2009. His first year he was injured and missed the entire season. The next year he averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds. He did not make the playoffs. Steph Curry was the #7 pick in 2009. He averaged 18 points a game as a rookie, 19 points the next year, 15 points the next year, an injury year for him. He did not make the playoffs once in his first three years. Kevin Love was the 5th pick in the 2008 draft. He has averaged 19 points a game in his six year career. He has never made the playoffs. Of the known starters for the Western Conference one has never won a second round playoff game. One has never advanced to the second round. One has never been to the playoffs. One lost in the NBA Finals.
The purpose of a lottery pick is value and flexibility. But it is a long term proposition not a safe one. Four years after the Lakers drafted Kobe they were in the NBA Finals. Five years after the 76ers drafted Iverson they were in the NBA Finals. Three years after the Cavs drafted Lebron James they were in the Finals. Five years after the Thunder drafted Durant they were in the Finals. It is a waiting game if you have a special player. But if you thought Anthony Bennett was something he was not or Austin Rivers was something he was not or Jonny Flynn was something he was not or Terrence Williams was something he was not then it starts all over again. The losing. The suffering. The dream that a lottery pick will save you. It is no different than Vegas- you play against the house. At some point you show your hand. Too many times, though, the house wins. You go home broke.