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Guest Post: The Year of Sour Vintage

sourgrapes

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Miles Wray writes a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called “Reviews of Self-Help Books by Professional Athletes” and is a staff writer at Ian Levy’s Hickory-High. He lives in Seattle but just moved there so no hard feelings about the Sonics.

Oh, I heard all of the pundits’ peals of angst, all of the pessimistic divinations foretelling the calamity and chaos that the NBA’s Draft Class of 2013 would heap upon this league. I heard these cries and, even though this was a rare happenstance of conventional basketball wisdom gelling into unanimous lockstep, I still did not believe in the grim prognostications.

I didn’t believe the draft punditry because, for all of its accurate peers into the crystal ball, they have nonetheless in the very recent past declared the likes of Jan Vesely, Wesley Johnson, Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, and (lest we forget) Joe Alexander to be fit for lottery investments. Sure, with the gift of hindsight we can see with precision that any number of the league’s current transcendent young lights remained on the board while these bench-dwelling schlubs were snatched up. But on that day of selection, few haggled with these decisions: and if their soon-to-be-regretful teams hadn’t taken these players, the next franchise on the clock probably would have, or the one after that.

These eventual sunken costs had all once been evaluated as worthwhile expenditures–by the same voices that declared the 2013 class a toxic portfolio. I refused to believe that exclusively bad seeds had been planted the whole world ‘round from 1992-94, as if by cosmic (mis)alignment.

We’ve advanced far beyond that stage in the season where every claim comes with an accompanying disclaimer about small sample size. The rookies of 2013-14 remain unpolished products, sure, the pace of the NBA game undoubtedly still wildly rapid for their psyches to handle. But since some first-rounders have already deposited a million dollars of NBA paycheck into their radically transformed bank accounts, it’s not premature to levy a clear-eyed, sober evaluation of their play. It’s fair to say that we’ve seen glimmers of their true, regressed-to-the-mean abilities.

And, well, glimmers is the wrong word. Hardly anything unearthed from this class glimmers–almost all of it is dull and dusty. I was wrong. The pundits were right.

Go down to the NBA’s wine cellars and you will see some bottles that can only be handled with white gloves. It will cost you in the high triple figures to uncork a bottle of 2003. If you have to ask how much a glass of 1984 costs, well, duh, you can’t afford it.

The 2013 draft will be sold for four bucks, in a box, at Safeway. This is the year of sour vintage.

The Withered Harvest

19. Sergey Karasev, Cleveland Cavaliers

Adjective of Best Fit: Inert.

Statistical Harbinger of Doom: Hailed as a deep threat, Karasev has made only 4 of his 18 shots from downtown.   

Signature Move: Planted anxiously in the corner, forever waiting for a kick-out pass that will never come.

Assessment: Under normal circumstances, it’s an epoch-defining moment for one team to have two first-round draft picks in the same year. It’s practically a youth movement unto itself, an influx of new talents pushing out the old. It’s easy to forget that the Cavaliers had not one but two first-round picks last June, as Karasev has approached the invisible, racking up a string of DNP-CDs, and averaging a scant 8.1 MPG on the rare days he is allowed to take the warm-ups off. Whether the cause is lack of imagination or lack of trust in his player, Mike Brown has Karasev doing little else in Cleveland’s offensive sets outside of standing at the ready for a corner-3, a perpetual clear-out. Two massive whiffs in the same draft–both of whom step onto the court with deer-eyed bewilderment–means that the Cavs have to scrap and toss all of the skeletons of sketches that dotted their drawing board.

5. Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

Adjective of Best Fit: Nonexistent.  

Statistical Harbinger of Doom: Has appeared in 17 games–and has scored more than three points in four of those games.

Signature Move: A stoic, if not meditative, observation of the game from the row behind the bench in a suit.

Assessment: So far the highlight of Len’s season was early January’s shove-and-ejection against/with Nick Young. The confrontation was ultimately too awkward to fire up the troops, but it at least had the potential to inspire his cohorts–it’s hard to inspire in other ways when you’re averaging 2.5 points per game. Len has been blessed with the physique of a Renaissance sculpture, toned and agile and imposing in all the right ways. However, at a mere 20 years of age, Len is rapidly compiling an injury history akin to the clunkiest and creakiest big men to ever sit in street clothes next to their uniformed teammates. Greg Oden managed 61 games in his rookie year. Bill Walton only lasted 35, but played 32.9 minutes in each of those games. Halfway through the year, Len’s total of 137 minutes played indicates that, if we want to see a reality where Len is free to fulfill all of his potential, we’d have to access an alternate universe.

1. Anthony Bennett, Cleveland Cavaliers

Adjective of Best Fit: Self-conscious.

Statistical Harbingers of Doom: Compiled here.

Signature Move: Biting the collar of his jersey in fraught shame as the Ohio boobirds sing.

Assessment: Barring a dramatic plot twist, Bennett will leave a footprint on the game that looks very, very different from any other in history. Kwame Brown at least started for a playoff team, Michael Olowokandi very nearly averaged a double-double once or twice. While these and other busts have merely produced at a rate that’s underwhelming compared to their high investment, Bennett is blazing new trails by not just being a disappointment but by actively being one of the very worst players to receive NBA playing time. While being picked first will likely be a taunt that will shadow him for the rest of his professional life, right now being #1 is Bennett’s steadfast lifeline: no way that a second-rounder or ten-day contract guy remains employed by his team while posting such desolate percentages. I take no joy in joining the maelstrom of negativity that daily rains down on Bennett–but the appalling box scores do not lie. To see a player on an NBA court so entirely devoid of self-esteem and confidence is, from my view, harrowing.

Fruitful Vines

The best way to approach the 2013 NBA draft, in retrospect and maybe always, was to trade away all the picks you could for whatever flotsam your slot would yield. It’s not just that the first-round elite have dramatically underperformed: the undrafted players who have entered the league this year have met if not exceeded the production of their coddled draftee peers, and for a fraction of the cost and commitment. (Look no further than the Cavs’ depth chart, where Matthew Dellavedova–15.5 MPG, 41.4 3P%–has comfortably nestled into Cleveland’s rotation at backup PG while Karasev and Bennett remain bench-bound.) Initially disregarded for their unsightly bruises or insufficient ripeness, these players are but a sample of the undrafted class who will threaten to nab some spare RoY votes come April.

Pero Antic, Atlanta Hawks

Adjective of Best Fit: Genre-busting.

Statistical Harbinger of Bloom: After exclusively coming off the bench in 2013, Antic has started eight games for Atlanta in 2014, nailing a guard-like 43.2% from downtown.

Signature Move: Making your team’s center look like a goofus as he meekly flails at Antic’s marksmen 3-balls.  

Assessment: What if a player were gifted with the height and range of Dirk Nowitzki–and also, on the defensive end, the imposing immovability of a monolith like Nikola Pekovic? Antic is that player, simultaneously a rookie and a veteran at age 31, has capitalized on the injury to Al Horford to earn his way into the starting rotation of an honest playoff team. For two years and $2.4M, the Hawks have found themselves an instant contributor who needs none of the wildly oscillating development time required of all those drafted rookies. The optimal destination for Antic’s NBA career is a seventh- or eighth-man on a rugged championship bench squad–no, not the loftiest of ceilings, but lifelong fortunes have been earned on much less. (Also, as the NBA’s first Macedonian player, Antic has been constantly harboring good karma amongst his countrymen across the whole league.)

Phil Pressey, Boston Celtics

Adjective of Best Fit: Visionary.

Statistical Harbinger of Bloom: Has dished 115 assists up against only 41 turnovers, a most veteran of ratios.

Signature Move: A perfectly weighted full-court outlet pass, destined to land softly in the hands of Pressey’s sprinting teammate.

Assessment: The specialist is basically destined to become a fan favorite. They’re facing such long odds: never mind what the opponent knows, everybody on up to the rafters knows that Kyle Korver is looking to shoot from deep or that Reggie Evans prowls around for rebounds. They’re not liable to try to do much else. And still the specialist manages to come through, to revel in that one forbidden zone that the opponent swore to themselves they’d keep on lock. Pressey carries a specialization so ubiquitous to the game that nobody else in recent memory has really even bothered to specialize in it: the pass. Pressey’s passes are so artfully handcrafted that passes from other show-running point guards quickly feel like replaceable parts smashed together by a factory machine. Pressey is almost exclusively looking to pass–he is shooting 27.3% so far, which, admittedly, is a problem–and still he always manages to put the ball in the open teammate’s hand (even if they weren’t open when Pressey released the ball). The end result is a series of box-score lines that approach the avant-garde. For example: 10 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 block, 0 turnovers, 0 points. Or: 8 assists, 3 steals, 0 turnovers, 2 points. Or: 13 minutes, 5 assists, 1 steal, 0 turnovers, 0 shot attempts. If Boston’s recent patience with imaginative point guards who have an inability to shoot is any indication, perhaps Pressey will be around to dish long enough for everybody to recognize the artistry.

Miroslav Raduljica, Milwaukee Bucks

Adjective of Best Fit: Mountainous.

Statistical Harbinger of Bloom: A PER of 17.75, putting him in the neighborhood of Kawhi Leonard, Deron Williams, and Zach Randolph.

Signature Move: A wrecking-ball shoulder leveled into the defender’s solar plexus; the opposition felled, Raduljica finishes with the deftest of lay-ins.

Assessment: In what should be an encouraging development for Bucks fans, who are presently salivating over the wonders of the Draft Class of 2014 (I myself have no choice but to take the hype to heart), the Bucks showed a keen eye for spotting young players in 2013. Giannis Antetokounmpo has, of course, already taken up residence in all of our hearts, and second-round pick Nate Wolters has, at least, not looked out of place on the NBA floor–a backhanded compliment that can’t be truthfully given to every first-rounder. And then there is Raduljica, a hulking menace who will be pushed off a spot by nobody; it is not an optical illusion that makes Raduljica appear to dwarf the other true-5’s he bodies up against. Miroslav is at the apex of NBA size and strength; he’ll also be at the apex of the NBA payscale soon enough if his magnificent rates stay the same while his minutes go up.

Miles Wray