I’ve made the voyage to Portsmouth, Virginia on Masters Week four times now. To me, the idea of driving south to one of our country’s most historic Navy Yards is my basketball version of driving up Magnolia Lane in Augusta.
Who are the needles in the haystacks?
With NBA training camps opening, nothing excites me more than talking about little-known players and their chances to make their perspective teams. The time to put all other events aside for the next 9 months is about to begin, and I couldn’t be more excited. I have the bug so bad this time of year, I go to local college inter-squad scrimmages.
As it relates to the NBA, this is a tremendous time of year for everyone — but especially for young players looking for a shot to break through and get an NBA contract.
These young players have to make major financial decisions, deciding whether to head overseas or take different paths like the NBA Development League — and cash much smaller checks. Some of those who’ve followed the latter path have made camps and have the chance to make a roster.
The fact is, there have been more and more players rising from the NBA Development League over the past few years, and in camps this October are some veterans looking for one last shot at glory.
Here’s my list of players of 8 players I expect to make the opening night rosters after having been invited to camp. (Originally published Sept. 30; UPDATED on Oct. 22).
(This entry is another in a series of 30 guest columns that will run in October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)
I have often been labeled a Knicks optimist because that’s my personality by nature. Plus, it’s a combination of finding myself having to defend them against what I sometimes find to be unfair national media treatment.
What’s hard to defend is the organization’s decision not to match Houston’s offer for Jeremy Lin, a decision that not only shocked fans and media, but also some major people within the Knicks basketball operations, according to sources.
The Knicks are talking championship, a lofty goal for a team that struggles to simply win playoff games. In order for that to happen, they need to finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference and gain home court advantage.
With that said, having spent some time in training camp and reading accounts, here are my five reasons to feel positive about the upcoming Knicks season.
What the Knicks have lacked over the past few years are clear locker room leaders to hold teammates accountable. When the Knicks decided to remove the interim tag from coach Mike Woodson, the message was sent that it was going to be his job to manage this weakness.
But it is not Woodson’s job alone. Another part of the solution was to bring in veterans Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd to set the tone and support the core of Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. What I saw from Day 1 of training camp was a focus and a singular common goal vibe that I haven’t felt around the Knicks in the last four years.
2. Carmelo Anthony
The team’s franchise player is ready to assume a new role in his career – or so he is saying – and that is less focus on scoring and more focus on putting balance into his game. Perhaps his summer experience with Team USA, playing alongside fellow superstars who put aside their egos and considerable skills for the chance to win a gold medal, was somewhat enlightening.
I think Anthony is a wonderful player who should succeed at this concept if his surrounding pieces perform. If he can make Stoudemire a better player, the Knicks can win 50-plus games.
In the NBA draft, teams often default to selecting the “best player available.” They do that assuming the player will develop as projected and become an asset that allows for flexibility.
However, sometimes those “best players” end up languishing behind an established veteran and never live up to expectations.
It comes down to a simple truism: Players who land in the right situations often have the best chance to succeed.
For example, the New York Knicks needed an explosive athlete who could defend the perimeter, a role that Iman Shumpert filled for them rather quickly. The same can be said for Kawhi Leonard, who stepped into the rotation of the San Antonio Spurs through a draft-day deal with the Indiana Pacers and became an impact rookie this season.
Previous Rookies of the Year Amar’e Stoudemire and Brandon Roy also proved that finding the right situation on draft night can lead to early career success on and off the court.
Here are a few examples of players who I think would do well to land in certain situations when their names are called at Thursday’s draft.
We begin with the obvious:
Anthony Davis (Kentucky)/New Orleans Hornets: The consensus first pick may not be the once-in-a-generation franchise player he is being billed as, but he is just the thing to re-energize a fractured city and franchise. Casual fans love dunks and blocked shots, message-sending plays that make games must-see TV. Davis is this type of player and can take his time and grow with the fan base and young coach Monty Williams. There is no Kevin Durant/Greg Oden controversy at the top of this draft, so the move won’t be scrutinized. Plus expectation levels in New Orleans are already low.
Damian Lillard (Weber State)/ Portland Trail Blazers: With Raymond Felton’s return in doubt. there is a serious opening at point guard slot for a team with a solid core and money to spend this offseason. Lillard is ready to step in and contribute to a playoff contender. He is an exceptional scorer and passer who would make sure LaMarcus Aldridge got his touches without dominating the ball, a problem when Jamal Crawford ran the offense. It is this reason that Portland is thinking heavily about Lillard at No. 6 – even though Joe Kotoch has him falling to 10 in Mock draft 4.0.
John Henson (North Carolina)/ Detroit Pistons: The Pistons struggled in many ways last season, but you have to like what you see from Greg Monroe. With Jason Maxiell and Charlie Villanueva not filling the bill, the Pistons should be thinking big and no one has improved this season as Henson. He would give Detroit an added element off the bench and provide great defensive depth right way. He’s also a very sound around-the-rim finisher for Detroit’s guards, particularly the slashing Brandon Knight.
Austin Rivers (Duke)/ Phoenix Suns: With Steve Nash’s future in question, Rivers would be the perfect fit for two reasons. First, his game was built with space in mind, and Alvin Gentry’s modified Mike D’Antoni spread system is ideal for the Duke prospect. Second, he can be mentored by fellow Dukie Grant Hill about life in the NBA both on and off the court. This one seems like the ultimate no-brainer.
Perry Jones (Baylor)/ Boston Celtics: Can you imagine a guy predicted to go in the top five early last year falling to the veteran-heavy Celtics in the early 20s? That would be a dream for VP Danny Ainge – and one that could become a reality. Jones is an athletic freak who just needs some mentoring, and if the Celtics decide to keep around Kevin Garnett, that would be a great match. Add the tutelage of Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce, and the Celtics could rebuild on the fly with a player of Jones’ ability.
John Jenkins (Vanderbilt)/ Memphis Grizzlies: With restricted free agent O.J. Mayo possibly leaving, the Grizzlies desperately need shot-makers at guard, and Jenkins seems an ideal fit for them at 25. Jenkins, who played his college ball in nearby Nashville, knows the area of Memphis very well – although he knows the area surrounding the perimeter of the basketball court far, far better.
Scott Machado (Iona)/ San Antonio Spurs: Can you imaging a better backup point guard for Tony Parker than a player with incredibly similar skill sets? Machado led the nation in assists thanks to a spread, face-paced offense much like the system that the Spurs run. I don’t think Machado falls to 59, although as they did last year with Leonard, the Spurs are never afraid to be aggressive if they can get their man.
One week until the draft.
Time for a disaster refresher on the guys that didn’t quite pan out.
From a talent evaluating perspective, there are so many players who can fit in and perform at a high level if put in the right situations.
That is the real key when trying to add personnel, and it’s a challenge that every coach and executive faces come draft time.
I’m one of those people who try to see the good in a player and am certainly not going to be quick to call someone a “bust.”
When thinking of the worst selections over the past decade, there are some easy ones and some tougher ones, but in the end, a player’s performance defines this list.
I think we all understand that the draft process is an absolute crapshoot to some degree, but there are some decisions that cannot be excused.
Another caveat worth mentioning is that I don’t think players from the last two drafts should be included as the jury is still out on most. That’s why first-round picks are essentially guaranteed time to develop.
I did a lot of thinking about this and had fun with it, so here we go (Letterman drumroll). And don’t expect to see Kwame Brown. That was 11 years ago. (Feelin’ old after reading that?)
10. Charlie Villanueva, #7 pick, Toronto Raptors,2005- It was evident early that Charlie V. wasn’t a fit in Toronto, so much so that they traded him for T.J. Ford a year later. Smart move by the Raptors as his game is as maddening as any player in recent memory. He has all the tools and all the ability, except for that pesky desire thing – something a scout should have seen from him in college.
Player the Raptors could have taken – Andrew Bynum
9. Yi Jianlian, #6 pick, Milwaukee Bucks, 2007 – Yi made it pretty clear through his agent that he wanted to play in a big city, yet that didn’t stop Bucks GM Larry Harris from trying to create Yi-sanity in Wisconsin of all places. Yi frowned upon hearing his name called. “We look forward to a successful relationship for many years to come,” owner Herb Kohl said. That relationship lasted an entire year, then the Bucks shipped Yi to the swamp for Richard Jefferson.
Player the Bucks could have taken – Joakim Noah
8. DaJuan Wagner, #6 pick, Cleveland Cavs, 2002- If the Cavs picked Amar’e Stoudemire here instead of Wagner, maybe they don’t get the #1 pick the next year and select LeBron James. Maybe. What if they did select Amar’e and he didn’t play much, then he gets paired with James in 2003? James has his second star and is probably still in Cleveland. A stretch? Fair. But Wagner was still a rotten selection starting just 28 games into his brief 4-year NBA career.
Player the Cavs could have taken- Amar’e Stoudemire
7. Fran Vazquez #11 pick, Orlando Magic, 2005 - Just 4 slots after Charlie V., the Magic decided to draft the relative unknown Spanish big man. Truth be told the 2005 draft was pretty sparse of talent, but you’d think that a player taken #11 would eventually play for your franchise, if not somewhere in the NBA. I mean, they can’t even trade the guy. Who knows Magic fans, maybe this will be your year.
Player Magic could have taken – Danny Granger
6. Mike Sweetney, #9 pick, New York Knicks, 2003- Still reeling from the post-Ewing era, the Knicks need a post presence and thought Sweetney was a poor man’s Elton Brand, with a feathery touch and strong body on the block. They got sucked into the mystique of great Georgetown big men. Instead of becoming a poor man’s Brand, Sweetney pounded heavily on sweets and literally ate himself out of the league.
Player Knicks could have taken – David West
5. Adam Morrison, #3 pick, Charlotte Bobcats, 2006- People may think that Morrison should go higher on this list, but I’ll defend the selection by saying it was hard to pass on co-National College Player of the Year. That said, the results speak for themselves. One of Michael Jordan’s biggest fiascos, though some claim Bernie Bickerstaff made the choice.
Players the Bobcats could have taken – Brandon Roy, Tyrus Thomas, Rudy Gay
4. Joe Alexander, #8 pick, Milwaukee Bucks, 2008 - Here are the Bucks again taking another forward who didn’t pan out. This one was baffling to me as I heard the Knicks absolutely raved about his workout. A freak athlete with size and a nice shooting touch, Alexander immediately fell out of favor with Scott Skiles and eventually dropped out of the league faster than you can say “cheesehead.”
Players the Bucks could have taken – Brook Lopez, Jason Thompson
3. Greg Oden, #1 pick, Portland Trail Blazers, 2007 – I was at the draft lottery and Oden, after one year at Ohio State, was being called the next franchise big man. Portland just couldn’t pass on him, Kevin Durant or no Durant. No one in the room would have passed on Oden with a gun to their head. It’s a bad pick because Oden has had a myriad of injuries and Durant is Durant, but it isn’t the worst either.
Player the Blazers could have taken – Kevin Durant
2. Darko Milicic, #2 pick, Detroit Pistons, 2003- The top of the 2003 draft was amazing in terms of talent — with this exception. I spoke to Darko in Knicks’ training camp a few years ago and even he was surprised that he went that high. He knew he needed time to develop, but he never did on Detroit’s bench. During his time with the Knicks, he would eat cheeseburgers during Mike D’Antoni’s pre-game talks.
Players the Pistons could have taken – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade
1. Hasheem Thabeet, #2 pick, Memphis Grizzlies, 2009- You could make a case that based on who Detroit passed on, Darko should be number one, but I’m going Thabeet. I never thought this guy was an NBA player. He’s “played” on 3 teams in 3 years and has shown nothing. It will be interesting to see if Thabeet will ever develop into a starting NBA center and remove himself from these type of lists. So far, it doesn’t look that way.
Players the Grizzlies could have taken – Ricky Rubio, James Harden, Tyreke Evans