By Andy Barks
We break down the 2013 NBA Draft, S&F-style.
The cricticisms of Noel come as easily as those of his veggie kin. He’s raw. He’s awkward and fragile. His offensive game is totally unrefined. He played only 24 college games and averaged a modest 10.5 points for a Kentucky team that underachieved. That high-tope fade looks ridiculous. He’s become Exhibit A for Why The 2013 Draft Class Is Weak Sauce. If celery is the best thing available, let’s wait for the next tray to come around.
But rather than dwelling on what Nerlens isn’t, let’s take a look at what he can be: at just 19, he can certainly develop into a more reliable offensive player. He did shoot 59 percent from the floor in his lone college campaign, often deferring to teammates more concerned with getting theirs. He’s also, lest we forget, one of the most dynamic defensive players the college game has ever seen. Suceeding a transcendant talent like Anthony Davis at Kentucky, Noel had impossible shoes to fill. But, manning the back line of a considerably younger and less polished Wildcats defense, he still posted a relatively ridiculous 4.4 blocked shots and 2.1 steals per game. Those numbers compare favorably to what Davis managed a year ago, but we’re hung up on the fact that Davis won POY and a National Championship, while Nerlens watched from the pine as his UK crew bowed out of the NIT in embarrassing fashion, losing to some dude named Bob Morris.
The expectations are never fair for freshmen under John Calipari. The precedents were unprecedented. The bar has been set impossibly high by the likes of Davis, and before him, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose. For Noel in particular, the idea of being The Guy never suited his game. Lanky and elastic, his skills are best utilized when he’s another integral piece, just like celery is way tastier if you throw it in a stew or salad or add some peanut butter and raisins for that sometimes-slept-on favorite of young bulls everywhere, Ants On a Log.
Delicate he may be – Noel isn’t expected to return from his February ACL tear until mid-season — but healthy, the Celery is an easily assimilated, nutritious addition to any recipe. Noel can be the ultimate complementary player, a defensive revelation who sees things in advance through his Ner-lens (sorry), who hustles his ass off, doesn’t need the ball to affect the game, and whose offensive repertoire is given time to blossom around all the other ants supported by his log.
Salt of the Earth. Rurally grown. Goofy name, very little flash, but wow, it sure does a lot of things. Otto Porter, meet Potato. You two are one in the same.
When screenwriters drafted the character of Bubba in Forrest Gump, somewhere along the way they determined he would be obsessed with shrimp and its many derivations. This likely had something to do with Bubba’s backstory – his upbringing or environment surrounded him with shrimp, and thus his expertise was inherent and destined. But they could have just as easily made Bubba a strapping Idahoan tater afficianado (not saying it would have been as exciting or memorable) given the list that could have been rattled off: chips, fries, hashbrowns, pancakes, salads, mashings, starches, pies … even vodka. The potato has its hand in seemingly everything. Shit, an entire nation’s economy and livelihood went in the tank due to one particularly notable spud shortage.
Otto Porter, if you haven’t heard, is the most versatile NBA prospect since Kawhi Leonard in 2011 – the potato to Kawhi’s onion, if you will. Rapidly improving, multi-skilled and sneaky-long (7’2” wingspan, 8’10” reach), the Georgetown soph had scouts salivating about the multitude of ways he can influence a game. Perhaps even more impressive than his 2013 Big East POY campaign (16.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1 SPG) was his freshman season (9.7 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG), when Porter showed the ability to blend, often deferring to upperclassmen Jason Clark, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson, yet still exhibiting an extremely mature game and grasp for John Thompson III’s nuanced system.
The knock could be that Porter’s teams weren’t winners, but even that’s a stretch. G’town was toppled in the Round of 32 by 11-seed NC State his freshman year, and 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast in the Round of 64 this past March. OP was hardly a no-show in either contest, and regardless, those Hoyas teams went 24-9 and 25-7, respectively. You can’t say the Potato didn’t win enough games. And if you want to make the case that his shooting could improve, or that he’ll get bullied unless he thickens his frame, that’s fine, but remember the same were said about Leonard two years ago. In case you were cave-dwelling during the NBA Finals, that “gamble” turned out pretty well for the San Antonio Spurs. Onions, potatoes – those babies go well with everything.
He’s the reigning National Player of the Year, honored with both the Wooden and Naismith awards. He led his team in scoring, assists and steals, hitting more than a couple big shots during a title game run that restored pride and credibility to a Michigan program still rehabilitating from the Fab Five/Ed Martin era. So why does Trey Burke still seem under-appreciated?
To some extent, it’s simple prejudice. Burke just doesn’t totally look the part. He’s average size, at best, for a point guard, and he doesn’t necessarily excel in any one facet of the game. He’s also had the fortune – or misfortune, depending on your perspective – of being surrounded by talented, more ballyhooed, higher-ceilinged teammates for his entire career. He grew up, played AAU ball with and ceded the stage to current Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger, who was always the center of attention on their Northland High squads in Columbus and made folks proud by staying home and leading Ohio State to a Final Four in 2012. Burke, as is his chip-on-shoulder tendency, defiantly chose archrival Michigan.
In Ann Arbor he joined a team with another, more reputable hoops name (Tim Hardaway, Jr.) and two senior anchors (Zack Novak, Stu Douglass), curtailing expectations for him as a freshman point guard. But Burke balled as he always had, treating the Big Ten like he’d always treated the summer AAU circuit, or biddy ball before that, averaging nearly 15 points and five assists and, despite a first-round tourney upset at the hands of Ohio, made Michigan relevant again. Year Two exceeded already-lofty expectations, as Burke swept the POY laurels, navigated a brutal Big Ten, resuscitated a seemingly dead Michigan team several times (like this) and carried them to within six points of a National Championship. He was arguably the best player on the floor against Louisville in the title game, dropping 24 despite foul trouble and a persistent physical beating to his slightly-bulkier-than-Iverson’s frame. But he still isn’t seen as a surefire NBA regular.
Skeptical Jazz fans need to go to their local market, b-line for the produce section, and grab a six-bag of fresh, crisp Pink Ladies. Run home, rinse one off, take a loud chomp and watch some Trey Burke highlights. It hits like a post-meal Granny Smith, cleaning your teeth and appeasing their taste for something sweet simultaneously. Apples are the shit. We overlook them because they’re a staple, consistent and subtle and been around long enough to be misjudged as bores. There’s other talent around them like that juicy watermelon or that big boy cantaloupe, or the mangoes that make you feel exotic. But get you some Trey Burke – who, by the way, is quite clearly fueled by all the people who prefer the mangoes – and remind yourself of just how cool consistent, clean and clutch can be.
Ignore the origins and instead focus on the incorporation. In other words, get rid of that picture of the field wheat that it’s grown in (in McCollum’s case, the Patriot League) and think in terms of commodities. Gluten-free dieteers aside, everyone seems to want whole wheats, wheat beers, and wheat cereals that make them feel better about the donut that follows. McCollum is a prospect whose future may be sold just as high.
The 21-year-old combo guard earned national love when his 15th-seeded Lehigh squad knocked off 2-seed Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. McCollum scored 30 on a relatively off shooting night, toyed with Seth Curry and Austin Rivers and prompted Charles Barkley to call him the best player on the floor. He returned for his senior season hoping for a repeat run, only to miss all but 12 games due to injury. The Mountain Hawks missed the tourney and McCollum was all but forgotten, until now, when his performances in pre-draft workouts and maturity in interviews and evaluations combined to vault his stock back up.
He may never earn an All-Star appearance or lead a team in scoring, but it’s not all that far-fetched to imagine McCollum making an initial impact similar to that of Damian Lillard, 2013’s Rookie of the Year — and McCollum’s new teammate. Lillard caused evaluators to pause for the same reasons: smaller school, weaker competition, and a foot injury that sidelined him much of his final college season. McCollum is another scoring threat for Portland. But in the Rose City, he can relish the role of being the fourth of fifth focus for opposing defenses, as opposed to the recipient of stifling double teams he saw from ferocious future D.A.s and day-traders in the Patriot.
This is not an indictment of all hot dogs. This is much more specific. This is about the $7.50 jumbo frank being served at every MLB stadium and NBA arena that emerges in the same bun and box as whatever other regular dogs it was back there kicking it with. This goes out to the overpriced, the oversaturated and the overhyped.
Muhammad brings plenty of physical gifts to the proverbial counter, but in the year and change since he finished his senior season at Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, there have been enough red flags to wonder whether he’s more packaging than pork. First there was an eligibility issue, one that was dragged out by the NCAA and caused him to miss UCLA’s first three games. There was a subsequent adjustment period, as Shabazz emerged from his hibernation at a higher-than-expected 235 pounds, struggled to initially grasp Ben Howland’s system and generally didn’t assimilate. He and his trumpeted freshmen teammates stumbled to a 5-3 start, the low point coming in a Pauley Pavilion loss to Cal Poly. They got their shit together – enough to win a Pac-12 regular season title and for Muhammad to average 18 PPG – but were bounced in the tourney’s first round by a Minnesota team that may have been the only outfit in the country accused of more egregious underachievement.
It’s all relish and mustard. The age thing is really whatever – it won’t sway any NBA GM who likes Muhammad’s herky-jerky, Harden-eqsue, lefty game – but the fact is, despite claiming ingornace, Shabazz was complicit to some extent and, added all up, it’s not a great look. For someone who just a year ago was considered one of the top two prep seniors in the country, it’s been a relatively precipitous fall. Even if he was drafted at No. 14.
To the Timberwolves, who are perhaps drunk on UCLA game film of Shabazz dominating the ball and bullying undersized defenders, we remind you to take a second and think about whether The Jumbo is worth it. Is this a healthy choice? Do we really know what it’s made of? These questions are legitimate if you’re thinking about paying lottery money.
Always seems like a good idea at the time. It’s Sunday evening. You’re tired, hungover and maybe a little depressed about the impending Monday duties. What will make you better? Chinese!
General Tso’s Chicken. Pu-pu Platters. Crab Rangoon, eggrolls, something artificially lemon — or orange-flavored! All sounds good — bring on that MSG!
Two hours later, after you’ve picked through countless carboard water chestnuts and rubbery meats, and you feel swollen from all the salt, you realized you’ve been duped again. Fooled by the allure, you’ve fallen victim to what we all expect from the fickle feeding frenzy that is takeout. And to be fair, we got what we asked for. Heaping portions, reasonable prices, extra-fast delivery buls who seem happy and grateful even with a $1 tip … it’s not as if the pull is hard to grasp. It just wasn’t that great.
Zeller may be similarly misleading. He’s a 6-11 face-up power forward with a great attitude, work ethic and attractive pedigree (older brothers Luke and Tyler reached the NBA before him). He performed on the college level, going for better than 16 and 8 as a sophomore for an Indiana team that dealt admirably with heavy preseason expectations and often looked like the best in the nation. He’s only 20 years old, theoretically leaving plenty of room for growth.
Is it possible, though, that this clean-cut, seemingly can’t-miss Indiana kid straight out of a Hoosiers casting call, might look better on the menu than on your plate? Against NBA athletes, there’s a sneaking suspicion that Zeller may be exposed as spectacularly unspecial. And as was glaringly obvious in his final college outing, a 10-point clunker in a Sweet 16 loss to swarming Syracuse, the Takeout can make you really, really slow.
Poor prunes. They never asked for it, never hurt anybody, but they’re always being judged based on appearance and origin.
“Prunes?” you ask. “Aren’t they just shriveled-up plums? They help you poop, right?” And you’d be correct, technically. It’s unfortunate, because prunes are actually tasty, and a healthy element of a well balanced diet.
Wolters and his draft stock suffered from similar cynicism concerning stuff neither he nor the prunes can control. Wolters can’t help the fact that he’s a quiet, unassuming blonde dude from Central Minnesota, much more a hockey haven than a hoops hotbed, or that he was only lightly recruited and thus relegated to the obscurity of playing at South Dakota State in the ambitiously named Summit League. It doesn’t help that SDSU’s nickname is the Jackrabbits, much like the prune doesn’t appreciate being homonym-ed into meaning “what happens to your fingers from too much time in the hot tub.” It’s damn sure not the prune’s fault you were in there so long.
But check the game. Wolters won back-to-back Summit POY awards, becoming the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points, five assists and five boards in consecutive seasons while jackrabbiting SDSU to the NCAA Tournament two years in a row. They lost to Baylor in 2012 and Michigan in 2013 – both teams that ended up winning multiple games – and Wolters acquitted himself respectably against the likes of Pierre Jackson, Perry Jones, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. He fell to the second round, which is fair considering his supposed lack of explosiveness and uncertainty surrounding whether he’s a true point or an undersized two. Just don’t be surprised to see the Prune hanging around on NBA rosters and making strong contributions off the bench for years to come, enhancing the vitality of teams enlightened enough to overlook his looks and dry derivation.
Ask a little kid whether they want chicken cordon bleu and they’ll invariably tell you ‘no.’ Ask if they’d like some chicken with ham and cheese inside it and they’ll probably make a face, then briefly consider it. Just give it to them, and they’ll grub it – and like it.
Cordon bleu doesn’t fit the mold of an American culinary staple. It requires ample time, preparation and, in its truest form, oddball ingredients. It was devised by the Swiss, which makes us skeptical to begin with, and originally included veal, schnitzel and prosciutto. It’s a relative unknown, dismissed based on stubborn biases and unfamiliarity. Plus it boasts a name that rings of elitism and grandiosity, not unlike our boy Kentavious Tannell Caldwell-Pope.
If you dug a little deeper this past college hoops season – i.e., watched Georgia games, an admittedly difficult task – you saw a long, lean scorer who didn’t do it with volume or abrasiveness. KCP dropped 18.5 points per game as a sophomore because he had to. UGA didn’t have another player crack 8 PPGs. He grabbed seven boards and added two assists and two steals per because that was the only way the Dawgs were going to compete, and he willed a wholly overmatched squad to a 9-9 SEC mark. KCP peaked with consecutive early-March wins over Tennessee, when he had 25 and 9, and Kentucky, with 24 and 10. Along the way he cemented his status as an all-conference player and, outside of Nerlens Noel, the league’s likeliest long-term NBA prospect. His willingness to carry the load without bitching about a totally inadequate (by SEC standards) supporting cast also earned him the label of “good teammate.” In a science as inexact as the NBA Draft, that’s never a bad rep to carry. It’s also part of the reason KCP the CCB is suddenly a strong third option, behind only Ben McLemore and Victor Oladipo, to plug the league’s most common hole: the shooting guard position.
The Pistons need not poll their fans about whether they want some Caldwell-Pope. Just feed it to them.
Americans are constantly on alert for whatever is “next.” Fabs, trends, crazes – call ‘em what you want. We got ‘em. We’re keenly in sync with the transitioning world and all its changing guards, and perhaps our greatest attribute as a nation is our willingness and ability to selectively incorporate said changes into our own ever-evolving stew of a culture. We want Alex Len to be the man in the NBA for the same reasons we decided to make quinoa, of all things, renownedly popular. We like being able to say, ‘Check us out, world. We took your foreign shit, we tweaked it a little and made it better, and now it’s our shit. You’re welcome.’
Alex Len was born in a hamlet of about 70,000 in the former Soviet Union. He paricipated in gymnastics for much of his childhood, only picking up basketball as an adolescent. He cut his teeth in club ball and was recruited by Gary Williams, and then Mark Turgeon, to come stateside to Maryland. No one really noticed. Two years later, the Suns made him a top-5 pick.
Don’t get it twisted – Len is a legit 7-footer, a true center with an intriguing array of skills and enormous potential. He averaged 12 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the ACC, and outplayed both Nerlens Noel and Mason Plumlee two months apart. And he’s only getting better.
But Len, with so much still to learn, may still be that franchise player. He’s healthy, flexible and willing to take all necessary forms, just as the quinoa will as cheerfully become a salad as it will be stuffed into a pepper. He’s a pick Suns fans can feel good about, given his lack of character issues and immediately grabbing backstory (he taught himself English in less than two years at Maryland; his girlfriend also balls for the Terps and bangs on fools).
The most talented freshman – and quite possibly the best player – in the country this past college basketball season was a quiet, unassuming 6’5” shooting guard for the Kansas Jayhawks. Few coaches or players around the country would have disputed this, yet if you watched KU on a given night – say, during a late-February double-OT loss to Iowa State when he managed seven points on 2-of-6 shooting in 38 minutes – you may not have even noticed Ben McLemore.
The lone underclassman starting alongside four seniors, McLemore willingly deferred to established Jayhawks leaders Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young. They’d been to the title game in 2012 while McLemore watched from the sidelines as a non-qualifier. Once on the court, his scoring prowess and natural sense for the game were immediately evident. He dropped 25 on Chattanooga in his third college game, and 22 in a late-December win at Ohio State that served as his What Up, World moment.
Yet like every other route in Ben McLemore’s life, his path to the NBA lottery has been circuitous. He grew up the fourth of five children in a struggling St. Louis family, bounced around from The Lou’s Wellston High School to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, eventually completing his prep career at Christian Life Center in Texas. He came to KU rated among the top five shooting guards in his class, but never got on the floor after transcript issues and discrepancies from his multiple high school stops caused the requisite NCAA pause. He was cleared to practice by the second semester, and by Fall of 2012 the whispers had begun that the best player on this upcoming, senior-laden Hawks team might be a quiet redshirt freshman.
At times, though, McLemore seemed to be the only one who didn’t know it. He mysteriously disappeared or became passive at inopportune times while Johnson and Withey assumed the roles of hot dog and bratwurst in the Jayhawks’ five-man sausage fest. Johnson was forced to score more than he ever should, while Withey wandered uncomfortably from his rim protection. Releford and Young, the Italian and Polish sidekicks, never offered more than sporadic scoring help, leaving everyone in Allen Fieldhouse anxious for the Chorizo’s breakout.
It never really came. Sure, McLemore scored 30 in a thrashing of rival K-State, and he had 36 in a home blowout of West Virginia. But, like a humble chorizo laying off to the side of the meat and produce section, McLemore was deferential down the stretch, appearing almost disinterested in a 5-point performance in the Big 12 title game and no-showing (2 points, 0-for-9 shooting) in a Round-of-32 tourney victory against North Carolina. He rebounded with 20 against Michigan in the Sweet 16, but the Hawks were done in via a furious comeback led by Trey Burke, a player who seemed to carry that edge McLemore apparently lacked.
The resulting suspicion may have caused McLemore to “slide” to No. 7. Many are already forecasting his future as a bust. His eligibility issues and shy, soft-spoken nature are said to be red flags. He doesn’t have that killer instinct, supposedly.
Or, perhaps, we’re just looking at a 20-year-old kid who’s battled – and overcome – more adversity than most of us face in a lifetime. He’s humble, grateful, and hungrier than he’s credited for being. He doesn’t demand the rock or promote himself, but he possesses an undeniably smooth game and demeanor to match. There’s something to be said for an even keel, after all. McLemore may not put them right in your face, but he’s bringing plenty of spice, flavor and punch to the NBA table, and should be among the league’s most consistent 2-guards for years to come. Given what dude has gone through, rooting for that should be relatively easy.