Potential will get your #$! fired if you’re a coach. – John Thompson, numerous times on his radio show.
Do not worship at the altar of potential. – Me, a bunch of times on the internet.
OK, I’m not John Thompson. We both have deep voices and both black, but that’s about it. I’m not a 6-foot-10, Hall of Fame basketball coach with his own radio show everyday. I can’t claim to have taught Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and countless others how to be All-Star NBA centers and stonewall the media in postgame interviews (I kid, I kid). But we do share one view about basketball players: that you should only employ those who can play, and not just guys who look the part but don’t know anything. Every year, between the NCAA tournament and the NBA drat we get bombarded with opinions from all flavor of draftniks, from website guys to print people to TV talking heads about who should come out for the draft and when they would (or should) get picked. And every year I want to chuck my remote control at the TV or throw my computer across the room when I read or hear some moron go on and on about how some guy who had an pretty decent year in school should come out RIGHT NOW because of his upside and athletic ability, even though he clearly has deficiencies when it comes to actually playing in games. And then if the guy listens and comes out for the draft, there’s a better than average chance he won’t reach that potential of his.
This weekend’s playoff games got me back on what may be one of my all time favorite topics to discuss. Why? Here are two stat lines to check out:
Chris Paul: 33 points on 11 of 18 shooting, 14 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 turnovers in 41 minutes.
Marvin Williams: 6 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 2 steals in 16 minutes off the bench.
Why am I highlighting these two stat lines? Well, back in the 2005 NBA draft, Williams was drafted second as a freshman out of North Carolina while Paul went two picks later. According to many of the self-proclaimed draft experts, Williams was the best prospect on the team, blessed with superior athletic ability and tremendous upside. Now he didn’t even start for the Tar Heels that season, but no matter. 22 minutes a game per night in 36 games while surrounded by three NBA lottery picks and a few other guys who were drafted later were enough to convince people that he was the next big thing and should leave school RIGHT AWAY, before his draft stock was endangered by people getting to see him for more than one year and getting bored with him out of familiarity. GMs were also told that they must draft this guy because his upside and athletic ability were off the charts; once he learns how to play the sky would be the limit. And as we know now, that didn’t quite happen. Paul (and Deron Williams, who picked third) are on their way to Hall of Fame-level careers (provided they stay healthy) while Williams has been relegated to bench minutes in playoff games.
I harp on this because those of us who watched the actual games saw that Paul and Williams could play; they dominated games and stood out amongst their college competition. Williams made highlight reel-worthy athletic plays, but was often sitting during important parts of games that year. Yet when it came to draft the Atlanta Hawks, a team that was in desperate need of a point guard passed up two top notch ones (and another good one in Williams’ teammate Raymond Felton) to pick Mr. Potential. Now, six years later the Hawks still are looking for a permanent starter at that position while they’ve decided that Williams, who started for a few years and got 30-plus minutes on average while the team waited for him to turn to do what was predicted of him, just isn’t a guy to pin your playoff hopes on. He’s not a total bust, but he’s just a guy. There are probably a dozen or more guys you can plug into his space and get similar results. The league is littered with guys like this; they were pegged to do big things based on size, athletic ability, and some highlight reel plays and were drafted ahead of guys with more skill but less flash. And once the team that picked no longer feels obligated to keep them they are off to go from team to team, having a good game here or there but mostly filling in minutes and not distinguishing themselves in any way.
So with that, I’m glad that Harrison Barnes is staying at UNC; all he has to do is look at Williams and another recent UNC wing player, Brandan Wright, to see what could lie ahead should he choose to leave after one year. Wright has yet to average double figures in three seasons, and has already been dealt from the team he started with. He can also look at a Corey Magette, former Duke one year wonder who turned a freshman year of exciting plays off the bench into a very unremarkable NBA career. Like everyone I’ve talked about here, Maggette isn’t a bum of a player, but he sure as heck hasn’t been a valuable commodity in the ten-plus years (has it really been that long?) he’s been a pro. As a fan of basketball, I don’t need to see any more of those guys in the league right now. We got plenty already. Remember GMs, if they can’t play right now they shouldn’t be in the draft and you shouldn’t draft them.
Oh, and Kyrie Irving is making a mistake by leaving. Just in case you were wondering.