It's sink or swim time for draft prospects
On Twitter last weekend, I mixed it up with my arch-nemesis Chad Ford on the following topic: "How much should March Madness affect our feelings about NBA prospects?"
I always like riling Chad up because he's a conflict-resolution professor. Ticking him off is like getting Tim Tebow to swear. Anyway, he tweeted that tournament performance affects evaluations by NBA teams, for better and worse, although he didn't think it was necessarily fair. I responded that it was fair. What better time to determine someone's intestinal/testicular/mental fortitude than March Madness? It's the ultimate "sink or swim" stage. Chad disagreed with my disagreement and it was on. Twitter fight!
Here's my case in a nutshell: Let's say I owned Marquis Jet and wanted to find new pilots to fly my 12-seat airplanes. Let's say I narrowed it down to 30 candidates and had a chance to fly cross-country with them in inclement weather. Let's say 20 of them did fine, five were amazing and five completely melted down, to the degree that I had to grab the controls or we would have crashed.
Should this matter?
(Hold on, I'll give you an extra second to think about it.)
OF COURSE! OF COURSE IT MATTERS! I just looked into their souls. I just tested them in the most intense way possible. That doesn't matter?
Sink or swim. That's March Madness. Should opinions on pro potential (or, as reader Shaun Fagan cleverly calls it, "protential") be formed entirely on tournament performance? Of course not. That's ridiculous. But in a perfect world, Madness accentuates opinions we're already thinking and feeling. What are those things? I narrowed them down to 10 questions. I don't need all of them answered, or even most of them but if I can get three or four protential answers, I am delighted.
Question No. 1: Does Player X pass the Foxhole Test?
In other words, would you want him as a teammate if you were playing a pickup game to 11 with the following stakes: Losers spend the weekend in a movie theater watching a 48-hour marathon of "The Backup Plan"? Kansas State's Jacob Pullen passed this test Saturday: gamer, warrior, tough as nails, totally unafraid, bounces off bigger guys, carried KSU all game (eight 3s). Scouts are dubious because, basically, he's a 6-foot-tall 2-guard. Or so they think. Because I see him evolving into a goofy hybrid of Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks: a shoot-first point guard with 3-point range who battles on every play. You could do worse in the second round, that's for sure. At least we know he's a fighter.
(Important note: I swear on my son's life that I first wrote the previous paragraph Wednesday afternoon, a day and a half before Pullen donned the hero's cape in Thursday night's epic double-overtime victory over Xavier. See? The Foxhole Test never fails!!!!)
One other Foxhole guy I love: John Wall. It's his single best quality; he detests losing and consistently ratchets up his game in big moments. During the SEC title game, with Kentucky trailing by two and needing to rebound an intentional free throw-miss, I watched him as the free throw was in the air, thinking "I bet John Wall finds a way to get this rebound." And you know what? He did. That's what I want from my Foxhole Guys: Find a way to win.
Question No. 2: If he's an elite guy, can he have at least one "By the way, in case you didn't know, I AM AN ELITE GUY!" game?
Circumstances may intervene if Player X's teammates and/or coach aren't up to the challenge (see: Kevin Durant's 2007 Longhorns). Still, it's always nice to know a kick-ass statement game was lurking. Heading into the tournament, I thought Wesley Johnson was the safest lottery bet of anyone not named "Wall" or "Turner." But if you're an elite prospect on a loaded team, you need to leave a trail of asses at least once, right? So when he slapped 31 points and 14 rebounds on Gonzaga last Saturday, I felt relieved. Best guy on the floor. Owned it. That made me feel better about Wesley Johnson, Future NBA Star And One-Man Corporation. Again, we're all about accentuating previously conceived feelings.
Question No. 3: If Player X is a perimeter scorer or scoring point guard, can he get to any spot he wants?
Put it this way: If he can't make the executive decision a few times per game of "I'm going to beat my guy, get into the paint and get a good shot" or "I'm getting to the rim and either scoring or they'll have to foul me," then it's not happening in the pros. Did you watch Oklahoma State play Georgia Tech? Poor James Anderson's stock fell through the floor. At least for me. He couldn't get anywhere he wanted to go. That means four words: "Welcome to the D-League."
On the flip side, Xavier's Jordan Crawford didn't just score 55 points in the first two rounds or make a variety of clutch plays. He got to his spots. Those were 55 relatively easy points. Crawford had been pigeonholed as a "talented with a crummy attitude" second-round prospect, but those two games changed everything. He certainly didn't hurt his cause Thursday night, pouring in 32 points and making a game-saving 3 in the first overtime. I guarantee every Kansas State fan was petrified of him. So why couldn't he sneak into the top 20 of this year's draft? How many NBA 2-guards make 40 percent of their 3s AND get to their spots? Trust me, it's not a long list. Of course
Question No. 4: If there are personality "concerns" about the player, can you see those concerns manifesting themselves during games?
It's the "Blink" test. Trust your first instinct. If you don't like the look on someone's face, the way they carry themselves and/or the way they interact with teammates and coaches, then trust that initial red flag. I remember seeing Eddy Curry in person for the first time (Bulls-Celtics in 2001), watching him in warm-ups and checking out of the Eddy Curry Era right then and there. Hated the look on his face. Part entitled, part angry, part crazy, part "I hate warming up, I wish we were eating right now." I was done with Eddy in three seconds. Nobody in NBA history had ever succeeded with that specific look on his face.
Another good example: Phoenix rookie Earl Clark (a lottery pick for Phoenix). Saw him in person last month and happened to be sitting courtside. They brought him in with about six minutes to play in a blowout. There are three types of garbage-time rookies: the ones who think "I can't believe I don't play more; as soon as I get in there, I'm gonna kick ass and make Coach regret not playing me more" (love these guys); the ones who act like the entire garbage-time experience is beneath their talents (hate these guys); and the ones who seem like they've been zoned out for the past two hours and totally forgot there was a chance they might be playing in this game (have no use for these guys). The last version was Earl Clark. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but he carried himself like someone who had been randomly selected from the stands to shoot a half-court shot. What? You're bringing me out there? Right now? That was it for me and Earl Clark.
Back to Crawford. By all accounts, it sounds like he had trouble suppressing his inner a-hole this season. Maybe dunking on LeBron last summer (and the subsequent Internet firestorm) was detrimental to him. But that's a defensible character flaw. And a fixable one. These are young kids. They are easily influenced. They have no experience handling adversity or prosperity. Heck, on my podcast this week, Ohio State's Mark Titus discussed how much Evan Turner changed since his freshman year, when he played with a chip on his shoulder and clashed with teammates and coaches. Now he doesn't. What happened? He got older. He matured. He learned how to deal with other people.
What's the difference between being a fixable head case and an unfixable head case? It's simple, actually. You can't become un-lazy. You can't go from being clueless to having a clue. You can't go from crazy to sane. You can't go from selfish to selfless. You can't go from soft to tough. You can't go from being a knucklehead to being savvy. You can't go from ADD to totally zoned in. You can't go from being a DEFCON 1 hothead to a soothing presence. But you can absolutely mature from "being an a-hole" to "not being an a-hole." Crawford may have had issues earlier in the season, but all we saw in the tournament was heart and swagger. That has to count for something.
Question No. 5: Does Player X have a meal ticket?
Saint Mary's Omar Samhan intrigues me for one reason: If you feed him the ball within seven feet of the basket, he's scoring unless Dwight Howard is defending him. That's his meal ticket. I don't care that he's slow, that he can't jump, that he runs like someone removed his kneecaps. Doesn't matter. If Aaron Gray can play for 8-10 years in the NBA (and he will), so can Samhan. He has to be one of the best 30-35 guys in this draft. Has to. You can count the number of effective low-post scorers in the NBA on two hands. Still, we needed to see him do it on national TV with the Madness lights shining on him. And he did.
That brings me to something I call the Gerald Green Corollary: You can't make it in the NBA unless you can do at least one thing exceedingly well. Green was an incredible athlete, but he wasn't good at anything. Throw in a Gump-like basketball IQ and he never had a chance. Meanwhile, Ty Lawson was lightning-fast in college; nobody could stay in front of him. Guess what? He's lightning-fast in the pros. Eric Maynor had real command of the point guard position; he owned it, for lack of a better word. Nobody ran a team better last season. Guess what? He's a valuable backup for a 50-win team. J.J. Redick shot the living crap out of the basketball in college. Guess what? He's making 39 percent of his 3s on a contender.
My favorite example: In college, Brandon Roy felt like a lottery pick to me just because of his tricky hesitation move. Everyone fell for it. He'd dribble into the paint, stutter-step, do something imperceptibly weird with his dribble, wait for the defenders to lose their balance, then either pull up for an open jumper, attack the rim or draw a foul. You know what that told me? He was going to score 20 points a game in the pros. Minimum. Still, I wanted to see it from him in the tournament. He dropped 28 points in 32 minutes on Utah State. Good sign. In Round 2, he brought Washington back from an 11-point second-half deficit to beat Illinois. Our big-stage questions were answered. He became a can't-miss for me. Same for Ben Gordon two years earlier, an electric scorer who couldn't be stopped when he got going. In the regional finals, he destroyed Alabama: 36 points in 39 minutes, 11-of-19 shooting, four 3s, 10-of-11 from the line. Done. He had to be a top-five pick after that. Always look for that meal ticket.
(A great example from last year's draft that I blew at the time: Memphis' Tyreke Evans could get to any spot he wanted. This was obvious in college, and it's painfully obvious now. I got caught up in dueling issues with him -- "Is he a point guard or a shooting guard?" and "Why was he the driver in the getaway car of a shooting?" -- and missed the basic reality of the Tyreke Evans Era. Namely, that none of the other crap mattered. The dude gets to the rim whenever he wants. I am still kicking myself.)
Question No. 6: Should we overreact because Prospect X missed the tournament or was quickly eliminated?
No! I'm convinced that this was why everyone (including me) blew Darren Collison's situation last spring. Since UCLA didn't do much in the tournament (lost by 20 in the second round to Villanova) and Collison didn't seem to get any better from his junior year to his senior year, he lost a little luster. Looking back, he DID have a meal ticket: His shooting percentages were outrageous.
Sophomore year: 48% FG, 81% FT, 45% 3FG
Junior year: 48% FG, 87% FT, 53% 3FG
Senior year: 51% FG, 90% FT, 39% 3FG
Egads! How did we overlook him? Like it was his fault that he went from playing with two 2008 top-five lottery picks (Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) and another guy starting right now (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to a crew of nobodies. Which reminds me
Question No. 7: How much are Player X's teammates making/breaking his success in the tournament?
Five years ago, Deron Williams jumped Chris Paul on some lists (and ended up getting drafted ahead of him) because Illinois made the title game and Wake Forest got bounced in Round 2. I never thought this was fair. Paul was so superior to his teammates that I remember feeling bad for him; they just weren't on the same plane. (Can you name one player Paul played with that season? I bet you can't.) I thought Paul would thrive as a pro with better teammates and in this case, I was right.
(Note: I wrote "in this case" because I have been wrong many, many, MANY times. See: Morrison, Adam. Actually, don't see it. I'm trying to unsee it.)
This month's ultimate "better than his teammates" example: Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors. For all we know, he might be the next Kevin Garnett. (Not saying he is; just saying that there's no way of knowing.) His guards were gawd-awful and couldn't get him the ball. His coach seemed uninterested in running plays through him (although to be fair, Paul Hewitt might just be in a coma). And if that wasn't enough, his only good teammate played the exact same position and had his own first-round ideas. We learned nothing from his two March Madness games. Favors may as well have played in the 2010 Kazakhstan Cup.
Question No. 8: If Player X had a chance to assert himself in a giant tournament game and didn't, what were the reasons?
Look, the degrees of either "coming through" or "not coming through" are so complex, and so variable-dependent, that it's asking a lot for the moment to mean SOMETHING. But you never know. That's why we watch. So this one gets tricky.
For instance, Kansas' Xavier Henry disappeared in the Northern Iowa loss when -- if you were thinking about him as a sleeper for the top 10 -- that would have been an ideal time for him to announce, "Hey guys, I got this, get on my back." He didn't. Did it mean anything? In my opinion, not really. Sherron Collins had such a stranglehold on the 2010 Jayhawks -- they deferred to him constantly, especially in big moments -- that it was like watching a cocksure 12th-grader playing with wide-eyed ninth- and 10th-graders. Get out of my way, I got this. If Henry disappeared in a similarly big game as Kansas' best player next year, I would hold it against him. Not this year.
A different example: Cole Aldrich in that same game. He had been playing with Collins for the past three years. He's a lottery pick. He should have been able to dominate Northern Iowa down low, Samhan-style. But it wasn't in him. Not his style. He finished with typically solid numbers (13 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, 6-for-8 shooting) and never once made you say, "This guy REFUSES to let Kansas die!" I didn't hold it against him. In the words of Denny Green, Cole Aldrich was who we thought he was: a complementary center who challenges shots, rebounds and scores if he gets good position. He's Joel Przybilla 2.0. And you wouldn't want Joel Przybilla trying to save you from the biggest upset in 16 years right?
Along those same lines: UNC's Marvin Williams couldn't start for the 2005 national champs, but some experts wrote it off as "That's all right, those guys were loaded!" and maintained that he was a top-three talent. Really? HE COULDN'T START FOR HIS COLLEGE TEAM! When we watched him play six straight games at the highest level, never -- not at any point -- did I feel like I was watching the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft. I thought I was watching a complementary player. Like Aldrich, actually. If alpha-dog tendencies don't creep out during March Madness, they aren't creeping out at the next level. Sorry.
Question No. 9: If Player X self-destructed, crapped the bed, melted down or disappeared, what were the reasons?
Behind Door No. 1: Chris Webber's timeout and Adam Morrison's breakdown. In retrospect, didn't those count as window-into-the-soul moments? C-Webb routinely shrunk from The Moment starting with the 1993 title game, which we initially wrote off as a fluke mistake. Maybe not. As for Morrison, there were worries about his emotional fragility in college; if you remember, Gonzaga's basketball staff protected him and limited his media exposure. When the meltdown happened, we had fun with it over the next few days -- I even defended him in a magazine column -- but nobody ever took a step back and said, "Wait a second, that was kind of weird." Have you watched the clip lately? Not even jilted "Bachelor" contestants lose their s**t like that. Should we really have been shocked that Morrison had trouble handling adversity in the pros?
(We'll be back on "Hindsight is 20/20 With Bill Simmons" right after this! Uh-oh, I think I just gave ESPN an idea for another talking-head show. Let's move on. Quickly.)
Behind Door No. 2: Sherron Collins' stink bomb in the Northern Iowa game. Collins wasn't the only reason Kansas lost -- I still blame Bill Self for allowing an underdog to control the tempo and not pressuring them with a superior crew of athletes -- but his "I live for the big moments!" résumé was basically tossed in the garbage. He kept chucking up bricks and refusing to defer to his teammates, making him the worst kind of bad: stubbornly bad. That one game cemented my already forming (and dissenting) opinion on him. If you're trying to find a complementary player -- which is what Collins would be in the pros -- it can't be a limited guy with an inflated view of his own talents. Remember in last night's Xavier-Kansas State game when Pullen wasn't feeling it in the second half and turned the scoring burden over to Denis Clemente for a few minutes? That's what winners do. They don't keep chucking it up.
Behind Door No. 3: J.J. Redick's stinker against LSU (2006, Sweet 16). Remember him missing 15 of 18 shots, bricking his way out of the top 10 and single-handedly knocking Duke out of the tournament? I know wasn't pretty. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that LSU geared its whole game plan around stopping him. Would that ever happen at the NBA level? Redick was always destined to be a complementary guy, a dead-eye shooter who spreads the floor and maybe even carries your second string if you run enough picks for him. Unlike someone like Stephen Curry, you could never gear an NBA offense around him. So ultimately, what was the big whoopee about that LSU game? We learned that J.J. Redick wasn't Ray Allen or Reggie Miller? Didn't we already know that?
Behind Door No. 4: Wes Johnson's "disappearance" during the Butler upset. If you studied the play-by-play sheet only, you'd say to yourself, "Wow, Johnson went MIA! No shots in the last six minutes? What a choke job!" Not exactly. He was playing for a coach who made a career out of burying his No. 1 scoring option in big games (note: Syracuse fans are nodding grimly right now), and with skittish guards who lost their minds down the stretch (Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine combined for eight shots and three turnovers in the final six minutes). As I tweeted after the game, it was like Boeheim told his team at the five-minute mark, "Guys, I want you to go out there and take the most rushed, horrible shots you possibly can." Johnson couldn't have done anything except clothesline Rautins and Jardine to get the ball. Which, actually, might not have been a bad idea.
Question No. 10: Is Player X thriving during a talent-heavy season or a talent-light season?
Should we name this the Chris Wilcox Corollary or the Jared Jeffries Corollary? You decide. I don't care. But let's travel back to one of the lamest college seasons ever: 2002, when high schoolers and one-and-done guys were flooding the NBA draft, and the talent dipped so dramatically that our 2002 All-Tournament Team was
(Hold on, you're not gonna believe this )
Wilcox. Juan Dixon. Dane Fife. Lonny Baxter. And the one, the only, Kyle Hornsby.
(You blocked it out of your mind, didn't you? I knew it.)
Fast-forward to that June's draft: Wilcox goes eighth (just ahead of Amare Stoudemire and Caron Butler), Jeffries (a starter on the Indiana team that played Maryland in the championship game) goes 11th, and Dixon goes 17th (six spots ahead of Tayshaun Prince). None of them made it. And not to film a second episode of "Hindsight is 20/20 With Bill Simmons," but maybe it wasn't a great idea to overrate those title-game guys in what was clearly a septic tank of a tournament?
Four years later, Ty Thomas boosted his lottery stock after LSU's Final Four run in 2006 you know, the same year Morrison and Redick were the best two college players and George Mason made the Final Four. He ended up jumping Roy and getting picked fourth. Even better, Portland swapped his rights for No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge, that year's version of Favors (a textbook "his teammates suck, so we have no idea how good he is" guy). At the time, I fell for this one hook, line and sinker. That's a great trade! Ty Thomas came through during Madness! What the hell did Aldridge do? Wrong. Lesson learned. They call it a "talent pool" for a reason. And that year's pool went about two feet deep.
Special Bonus Question: How reliably do March Madness heroics translate to NBA heroics?
One thing we definitely know: There isn't an algebra formula that applies across the board. There will always be can't-miss heroes who thrive in the pros (Carmelo Anthony, Mike Bibby, Rip Hamilton, Dwyane Wade, Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Shane Battier), just like there will be heroes who never match that success (Trajan Langdon, Ed O'Bannon, Mateen Cleaves, Miles Simon) or find the right NBA team (Christian Laettner). In a best-case scenario, Madness heroics serve as a tipping point for the way you were already leaning. You thought they would swim instead of sink but still, it's nice to know for sure.
You know, like with Thursday night's Kansas State/Xavier game. I already believed in Crawford and Pullen. I already thought their protential was severely undervalued. I even left the ending of this column open for them. Just in case. So watching them trade haymakers in the signature game of a historically entertaining tournament -- a game so electric it made "Gus Johnson" the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter -- was too good for words. They transcended the ending I had written for them in my head.
Forget about swimming those dudes were doing the breaststroke and the butterfly. I saw everything I needed to see. Jordan Crawford is an NBA player. So is Jacob Pullen. You will never convince me otherwise. March Madness, baby.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.