I always get a kick at this time of year when a team when a deadbolt lock lottery pick is bounced early in the NCAA Tournament.
We already saw Duke (Jabari Parker) upset in the first round. And yes, it was the first round, despite what the NCAA wants you to believe.
Kansas (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid) went down in the second round. Duke and Kansas had been both expected to play into this weekend. Neither did.
So, the breathless question after those early and surprising exits was: ‘Did they affect the draft statuses of the aforementioned young fellows?”
The Celtics general manager Danny Ainge got asked that question more than once. He could have said, ‘Do you see the words ‘Born Yesterday’ on my forehead?’ Or, he could have been even snippier and said, ‘and I should care because … ?’’
Instead, Ainge took the high road and said, ‘no.’ Only a moron would have said the opposite.
Why on earth would one NCAA Tournament game (Parker), two tournament games (Wiggins) or, um, no tournament games (Embiid) have any impact on how those players are judged by a prospective employer?
There’s a whole season’s body of work for all of them. There’s a back issue to deal with in evaluating Embiid’s stickability (a Stu Inman word.) There are pre-draft camps and interviews still to come.
That may not be a lot to go by, but it is a lot more than one game on a neutral court in a one-and-done tournament. Seriously, does anyone think Parker is going to drop in the draft because of Duke’s loss to Mercer?
That will be ancient history by the time of the draft three months from now. If Embiid drops, it’ll because of concerns about his back.
Wiggins pretty much defines the term “upside.” Right now, he’s a clueless hunk as far as the NBA is concerned.
Of far more concern is the average player who rises during the tournament and leaves general managers salivating. That is the real draft-danger of the NCAA Tournament. It isn’t that the potentially great ones who go early and lose their appeal or luster. It’s that the mediocre ones who pick this stretch as a coming-out party and suddenly become the flavor of the month.
For any GM who is in the process of falling in love with any such individual, I offer two words: Caveat emptor. That’s Latin for Tyrus Thomas.
In 2005-2006, Thomas was a redshirt freshman at Louisiana State University. He hadn’t even been a top 100 recruit in high school and only received a scholarship to LSU after another player was kicked off the team. He wasn’t even the best player on his team – Big Baby Davis was the marquee name – but he played well enough to become the SEC Freshman of the Year.
But it was in the NCAA Tournament that Thomas shined, mesmerizing scouts and personnel guys with his athleticism, laying the foundation for a career that would earn him in excess of $50 million. LSU made a stunning run to the Final Four. Thomas earned MVP honors in the Atlanta Regionals with big games against Duke and Texas.
He was surely a star in the making. The Portland Trail Blazers made him the No. 4 overall pick in 2006 in an arranged draft deal with Chicago, who had taken LaMarcus Aldridge at No. 2. The two were swapped. The Bulls also got Victor Khryapa in the trade (what were they thinking?)
Maybe Chicago thought it was getting the rebounding, shot-blocking machine from the NCAA Tournament. If the Bulls did, they were sorely mistaken. Thomas lasted three-plus seasons in Chicago – basically playing out his rookie deal – until he was traded to Charlotte for Acie Law, Flip Murray and a No. 1 pick.
The Bobcats, for reasons known only to them, promptly signed Thomas to a five-year, $40 million deal that summer. Thomas lost his job to Josh McRoberts in his third year in Charlotte, fell out of favor with management, and was amnestied last July with around $18 million left on his deal. He has not played a minute in the NBA this season.
That 2006 draft, by the way, may go down as one of the worst in recent memory. The best player to come out of it? Rajon Rondo, who went 21st. Andrea Bargnani, Aldridge, Adam Morrison, Thomas and Shelden Williams were the first five picks.
Of the entire first round, only Rondo, Aldridge and the retired Brandon Roy played in an NBA All-Star Game. Big Baby Davis, still a solid rotation player, went in the second round to the Celtics.
Does this NCAA Tournament have a Tyrus Thomas?
It’s hard to tell. The draft is such an inexact science – some might say even a crapshoot – that almost every pick can be a hold-your-nose-and-swallow routine. As we head into the Final Four, the player bearing the closest resemblance is Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin.
Ainge said every time he wants a chuckle he just goes to all the mock drafts at this time of year. But it’s a lot safer to base your decision on a full year’s body of work (or, in some cases, more than one year!) than on a one-month stretch in March when the whole basketball world is paying attention.
Tyrus Thomas shone like a Supernova in March 2006. Eight years later, he’s out of the NBA without ever doing anything of note except cashing a big check.
Peter May is the only writer who covered the final NBA games played by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has covered the league for three decades for The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe and has written three books on the Boston Celtics. His work also appears in The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.
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