The rarest players are the ones whose transition to the NBA is a sure thing. Shaquille O’Neal was a sure thing. Tim Duncan was a sure thing. LeBron James was a sure thing. The overwhelming majority of most basketball players are not sure things.
This is part of what makes basketball such an incredible sport. Players who excelled at previous levels can flame out spectacularly at the game’s highest level; players who merely whelmed at previous levels can become literal phoenixes. Within the last week, we have received two remarkable reminders of this second phenomenon.
Does Green famously kick his opponents in the testicles? Yes. Is Green arguably the most important piece in Golden State’s juggernaut? Also, yes.
But unlike Kevin Durant (2nd overall pick), Steph Curry (7th overall pick), and Klay Thompson (11th overall pick), Green was selected 35th overall. Scouting didn’t see his rise, arguing that he compared favorably to players like Jared Dudley and Luke Harangody. Look at this evaluation of the man:
Weaknesses: One of those great college basketball players that doesn’t excel in any one particular area … Tweener, undersized for a physical forward yet lacks the athleticism of a wing … Lacks explosiveness, agility, elusiveness and quickness off the bounce … Under the rim finisher, which is troublesome when you consider his size … Not a threat to shake his defender off the dribble … Minimal upside … Vulnerable defending quicker guards on the perimeter … Could stand to drop some weight …
Are scouts dumb? No. But they were limited in their ability to imagine what Green might be able to accomplish which, to this point, is an NBA Championship, two All-Star teams, and two runner-ups for the NBA’s Defensive Player Of The Year.
Part of what those scouts were unable to imagine is just how effective a player willing to minimize scoring can actually believe. Green proved the point Friday night, posting the NBA’s first ever triple-double that didn’t involve points. His line – a staggering 4pts/12rbs/10ast/10stl/5blk – is simply unheard of and, to boot, it was one point shy of a 5×5, one of those odd statistical anomalies that only the most multi-tooled players are capable of achieving.
If Green’s triple-double underwhelms, perhaps the only other thing worth noting is this: only one other player has ever gotten double-digits in rebounds and assists and steals, and that player was in the process of producing a quadruple-double. Needless to say, Green’s achievement was exceedingly rare.
Jokic was drafted even later than Green – he was taken 41st overall. Draft experts talked predictably about the Serbian:
Weaknesses: An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability … Foot speed is a big liability. He may struggle to stay in front of NBA athletes at the center position … Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength and develop a repertoire of back to the basket moves … Defense is a real weakness at this point due to lack of lateral speed and lack of strength. His length is a big plus, but he’ll need to continue to work on becoming stronger and learn to anticipate in order to overcome his lack of quickness … Despite being a younger guy, his upside appears limited by his lack of explosiveness and foot speed …
And again, the issue here is imagination, because Jokic achieved his own unheard of triple-double the other night. In an absolute evisceration of, oddly, Green’s Golden State Warriors, Jokic posted 17pts, 21rbs/12ast, making him the only guy who has managed do that. (If you ignore the points, his achievement is still worth celebrating, as he is also the only guy to get 12 or more assists and grab 21 or more rebounds in a single game.) To look more closely at what Jokic achieved, a broadening of the search terms to players who achieved 10pt/20reb/10ast triple-doubles reveals a predictable who’s who of great players: Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnet, Pau Gasol, Dennis Rodman and (website favorite) Fat Lever.
In both cases, scouts and their teams failed to imagine a player’s maximal possibilities. This is understandable of course, especially considering how many players fail to achieve even a quarter of what Green and Jokic both have. But if their drafts were redone today, and given perfect vision, it seems quite likely that both of these players would have been top-five picks at the minimum, as both of them have proven value well beyond what was originally imagined. They have also each achieved a little bit of something that this post’s first three players never did.