Could there be a Malcolm Brogdon effect in this year’s NBA Draft?
When Malcolm Brogdon torched the Celtics with three buckets in the final 2:25 to lead the Bucks to victory at TD Garden on Wednesday, it was difficult to believe that the best player on the floor in the fourth quarter was a rookie.
Brogdon is a rookie, although he is 24. That’s one of the reasons teams passed on the swingman from the University of Virginia in the draft. Brogdon went 36th overall, meaning nearly every team passed on him, including the Celtics, who had two second-round picks prior to 36 and worked out Brogdon prior to the draft.
There could be a Brogdon effect in this year’s draft with NBA-ready seniors who may be available, such as South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, who will be 23 by the first month of next season.
Of course, several one-and-done players are beginning to declare for the draft, but one good college season does not equate to NBA readiness, an example being Celtics third-year forward James Young, who is still fighting for minutes and whose contract wasn’t picked up for next season.
Brogdon is the lone rookie from the 2016 draft averaging better than 10 points per game (10.3). Two Rookie of the Year candidates who are likely to get a majority of the votes are Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, both of whom were selected in 2014.
“I have a lot of respect for Brogdon,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the Bucks’ win on Wednesday night. “He’s tough. He did a great job with that. Brogdon made some great plays.”
Said Celtics forward Jae Crowder, “He’s a good player. He has great size on him. He’s very smart. I think he’s a good player for them.”
Being a senior and turning 24 early in the season hurt Brogdon’s draft status, but the Bucks have benefited from a player who was prepared to contribute immediately. The same can’t be said for several one-and-dones.
The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray have probably contributed the most to their teams of the freshmen who entered last year’s draft. They have carved out roles for teams competing for the playoffs. Marquese Chriss has become a starter in Phoenix, but the Suns are again lottery-bound.
Marquette’s Henry Ellenson was touted as NBA-ready, but he has played just 57 minutes this season for the Pistons, spending most of his time in the D-League, while the Nuggets’ Malik Beasley has played just 90 minutes and scored 50 points.
Most of the expected top 20 players in the 2017 draft are freshmen, and several — including UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, N.C. State’s Dennis Smith, and Washington’s Markelle Fultz — already have declared.
But what history has shown is there is no guarantee these players will be successful, let alone All-Stars. Jahlil Okafor was the No. 1 player in his draft class and the projected first overall pick entering his freshman season at Duke, but he fell to third and is now considered an afterthought with the 76ers because of his inability to defend and stretch the floor.
D’Angelo Russell, taken second overall in 2015 by the Lakers, is another head-scratching player because of his talent but wild inconsistency. The Lakers, if they receive their top-three protected pick in June, are almost certainly going to draft Ball if available, and then attempt to move Russell to shooting guard. And there is no guarantee he will flourish there.
According to draftexpress.com, the top 10 players in the upcoming draft are freshmen, but the journey for many of those freshmen to produce, let alone flourish, will be a long one.
The 2013 draft is an example. The one-and-dones taken in the first round that year were Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad, and Archie Goodwin. Two (Bennett and Goodwin) are out of the league or have been waived at least once. Noel already has been traded, while Adams is a staple at center for the Thunder. Muhammad has become a solid bench player for the Timberwolves.
The Celtics will draft high in the lottery because they own the rights to the Nets’ pick, and they will likely have their choice of talented freshmen. But there is no guarantee. Perhaps the success of Brogdon will aid veteran college players such as Thornwell and Kansas’s Frank Mason III.
STAYING THE COURSE
Spoelstra never got discouraged
Three months ago, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra shook his head in disgust at his team’s struggles. Miami began the season 11-30 with a patchwork roster littered with injuries.
The Heat are still littered with injuries, but Spoelstra has helped pull off a resurrection of grand proportions, with Miami not only heading for the postseason but cruising toward a winning record. Spoelstra has never been named Coach of the Year in his nine seasons in Miami, despite reaching the Finals four consecutive years with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, but this may be his best coaching job yet.
The understated Spoelstra, however, refuses to acknowledge that.
“You build that [relentless working] habit every single day during the season,” he said. “You build the habit when you’re 11-30. We weren’t talking about the record or big-picture result or goals, we were talking about getting better. Our mentality is not changing. We’re all of a sudden not talking about the standings. We’re trying to improve and play better.”
One question Spoelstra does not have an answer for is the moment he saw the turnaround.
“Everybody wants an a-ha moment; there hasn’t been,” he said. “What it is is boring, methodical, incremental, and not even straight-line improvement. It’s what nobody wants to hear nowadays in this millennial generation. It’s not overnight. It was two steps forward one step back. Our guys stayed with it, showed persistence, had an opportunity to develop persistence, but there was not an aha moment.”
Said James Johnson, who has developed into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his first season in Miami: “Our locker room was great through all the losses. We handled that well and from then on out just getting our details right, learning how to play together. We were playing some great teams and just couldn’t get over the hump. It wasn’t like we were getting blown out every game. We were right there. Guys just got more confident and people put in a lot of work.”
Johnson is averaging a career high 12.5 points off the bench for his fifth team in eight NBA seasons. Johnson was considered a draft bust before a training camp in Miami helped to reshape his body.
“In this league, there’s a coach for every guy,” Johnson said. “And I didn’t find a coach to fit me, or someone fit me as well, or I could look up to or respect as a leader and mentor. I get that out of Spo, but not just him, his whole coaching staff. It just fits me, I guess.”
Johnson, 30, was a burly swingman and made it work somewhat in previous stops. But losing weight this season increased his flexibility and made him more difficult to cover defensively.
“[Losing weight] was a career choice,” he said. “Coming in, [the other players] knew what the culture was like. I had no idea and I kind of went into a body shock. My whole body cramped up the first week and a half with the conditioning. It was wanting to be better and having the right guys around me to get better.”
The difference after losing 30 pounds has been dramatic.
“I’m able to give more, put more effort out there,” he said. “All together, to be able to talk on defense, just a lot of benefits of being in prime shape compared to not being in prime shape. You’re never really real with yourself in [terms of conditioning], if you’re still playing in the league and getting minutes, you don’t feel like you are losing [sharpness] until you lose all the weight and realize you could have helped a lot more in previous situations.”
Billups excels at transition game
The decision of when to retire can be an agonizing one, especially when a player feels he has something left for another season.
Former All-Star Chauncey Billups tried to push himself for one final full season but retired after a return to the Pistons netted just 19 games.
“It’s painful and a little emotional because it’s like a part of you dies,” said Billups, now an analyst for ESPN. “You’ve been playing ball since 10 years old and it’s like a part of your life is over with. A wise man once told me an athlete is going to die two times, when he retires and when he naturally dies, because that’s a part of your life that’s literally over and you have to reinvent yourself.
“Even the greats who set a lot of records have to prepare because those records are going to be broken. You have to reinvent yourself and find something that you like to do with your time.”
Life after basketball has been difficult for many former players. There could be coaching opportunities, but some of those begin in the D-League with bus rides to 5,000-seat arenas.
“[Finding a profession after basketball] is where a lot of guys struggle,” Billups said. “I was always on it. It hasn’t been difficult for me. I still haven’t decided if I want to coach, if I want to go into the front office. I know I can be very, very helpful at both of those, in my opinion. I haven’t decided that but I knew I wanted to succeed in business.”
Billups has ventured into the fast-food industry in addition to broadcasting. He has passed on some opportunities in NBA management but could be a top candidate for open general manager positions.
“There’s some personal things and personal goals you have to go about the same way you did as a player,” he said. “You’ve got to put the time in, you’ve got to do some ancillary things you might not like doing. You’ve really got to attack life if you want to be good at whatever it is in the same way that you became great as a player.”
The challenge for many former players is approaching the thrills they experienced as player.
“You can’t match that, and if that’s something that you thrived off of, those are the guys who are going to really struggle,” Billups said. “For me, it was never really about that. Having the fanfare is good but if that’s what you hang your hat on and that’s the reason why you do it, it’s going to be tough because truth is, nothing else that we do is going to bring that out.
“And I don’t believe there will be nothing else in the world I’ll be as passionate about as basketball and becoming a great basketball player. So you have to settle for what’s next and put the same effort into that. I’m in the fast-food business. I own 31 Wendy’s restaurants and it’s going well, but that’s fine. That doesn’t give me that same satisfaction as being an NBA champion or winning a tough series in the second round. I can’t chase that. If I chase that I’m never going to be satisfied.”
How should former accomplished athletes find peace when the games are over?
“One day I want people to see me as a successful human being, period, whatever I touch, whatever I put my hands on, period,” Billups said. “I want them to say, ‘That dude’s a winner, man. He’s going to win at whatever he’s doing.’ Winning to me is everything. I want to be known as a winner, period. That right there is what fuels me. That is how I get through.”
Time wasn’t on Iverson’s side
In many ways, Isaiah Thomas’s season compares to Allen Iverson at his best. But if folks wonder why Iverson couldn’t be productive into his mid-30s, it was perhaps the minutes he logged during his prime.
Iverson led the league in minutes played per game seven times, including 41.8 at age 32 with the Nuggets. Over his 12 seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson logged 41.4 minutes per game.
Thomas has averaged 30 minutes per game in his career, and during this, his finest season, is averaging 34.1. His career high was 34.7 in 2013-14 with Sacramento.
Thomas always wants to play more, and he was asked if he could envision his numbers if he played Iverson-like minutes.
“I can imagine my numbers, yeah,” Thomas said. “I would be averaging about 38, 39. Yeah, but that says a lot about him. For him to be able to play that many minutes every single night, that says a lot. I wish I could play that many minutes.”
Teams are now reluctant to use players for heavy minutes. While Iverson led the league in average minutes nine years ago at 41.8, the current league leader is Toronto’s Kyle Lowry at 37.7. LeBron James, at age 32, is second at 37.5.
Thomas is tied for 27th in average minutes played and he constantly says he wants more, he also but trusts Celtics coach Brad Stevens to rest him for the long term.
The return of Lance Stephenson to the Pacers may be what both sides needed after his time away from Indiana was an abject failure. Stephenson left the Pacers for a three-year, $27 million deal with the Hornets. He lasted in Charlotte for one season before he was traded to the Clippers, and then the Grizzlies, before being out of the league entirely prior to this season. Stephenson then caught on with the Pelicans before getting hurt, and then the Timberwolves before getting hurt again. He is guaranteed money in Indiana, but at $4 million it’s an amount the Pacers can easily discard with the increased salary cap . . . The Suns benefited from Steve Alford staying at UCLA. There was wide speculation that Alford would take the Indiana University coaching job, opening an opportunity at UCLA. Suns coach Earl Watson, a former UCLA guard, would have been one of the top candidates for that position. But Alford committed to staying at UCLA and Indiana hired Dayton coach Archie Miller, meaning Watson will be staying in Phoenix . . . Florida A&M reportedly has offered its coaching position to former NBA point guard Rod Strickland, who has been an assistant at South Florida the past two years. Strickland, who got into his share of trouble as an NBA player, also has been a quality assistant for several years with Kentucky and Memphis. More Division 1 colleges are calling on NBA assistants to fill coaching positions, such as Dayton, which hired former player Anthony Grant away from Oklahoma City. Grant is expected to leave the Thunder this weekend, leaving Billy Donovan with an opening on his staff as the playoffs approach.
The Suns’ Devin Booker exploded for 70 points against the Celtics on March 24. The second-year guard is just the fourth player since the 1963-64 season to reach that mark.