How does an NBA prospect become a star? With all of the information made available today from scouting film to limitless statistical data, NBA teams would seem to show a better rate of selecting talented players and developing them. Despite all of this information, the bust and success rates of players has not changed much over time.
When I was asked to write my opinions about draft prospects a couple of months ago, I decided to take an in depth look at players I had been wrong about to see what I could learn. Why were Desmond Mason and John Wallace unable to translate their games to the NBA? I was sure they were future stars. Why has it been so difficult for Derrick Williams to find a place in the league? Likewise, some prospects I loved in recent drafts like Paul George, Kenneth Faried, and Arron Afflalo were passed up by teams who took players who seemed completely inferior. The search to solidify who will be a star is an impossible one, but it is what every scout and front office team is charged with each year. Who might be a sleeper that can carry a franchise or complement another star in winning a title? Based on years of errors and recent reflection, these STAR attributes are what most separates the players who have become stars from those who never lived up to the hype:
- Skill: Does the prospect have an elite skill that clearly translates to the NBA? This should be a visible basketball gift easy to name and which would cause little disagreement among the average fan: Kevin Durant can shoot, Lebron James can pass, Paul George can defend the perimeter. Plenty of players possess an elite skill but are not stars. In reviewing players who became stars, they all possessed an elite skill as a prospect. This does not include physical abilities like jumping or running nor does it include other intangibles such as leadership or competitive character. A basketball skill is something clearly seen and learned. Above all things, this may be what most was missed on Marvin Williams. In fact, Marvin probably fits in a group of players who could have been better without the pressure of becoming a star. He simply did not have an elite skill to translate to the NBA. Likewise, Marcus Smart does not currently have an elite skill. He does plenty of things well and is an elite competitor, but I cannot name an elite skill beyond (insert fan confrontation joke here). I dropped him from elite status completely independent of recent events because I simply cannot identify and elite skill that will translate to the league.
- Toughness: Is the player able to keep his mind when everything is going wrong? This is where the college game most helps prospect evaluation in my view. We can see the physical gifts in drills, but what do those skills look like under pressure? At some point, a player will encounter stress and have an opportunity to react. If a player cannot handle it in a protected college environment, they are in a lot of trouble when empowered with money and freedom. Plenty of players can make the league without being mentally tough, but the best in the league are able to rise up under pressure with few exceptions. Josh Childress may not have had the skill and talent to become a star independent of toughness, but in college he disappeared many times under pressure and notably in the NCAA tournament in his final college season. When he left for Europe, it only sealed my view of him shrinking under stress and seeking excuses for his limitations. I do not see anything blatantly wrong with Zach LaVine's mentality on the basketball floor, but when he struggles he just seems to disappear. While some are concerned by his lack of playing time, it is his disappearing in that time which prevents me from seeing him as a star.
- Ability Does the prospect have the physical gifts required to play a position in the NBA? There are players who can play several positions capably, but are great at none. Acie Law was a mentally tough college player with a great skill set, but he simply was not a good enough athlete to make it in the NBA. Derrick Williams has all sorts of physical abilities and basketball skills that communicate being a star, but he does not have a position. He does not defend well at either forward position and the promise shown in his shooting skills at Arizona has not transferred to the NBA. That could change in the future but for now, Williams remains trapped in Tweenerville. Current Wildcat Aaron Gordon may be joining him in Tweenerville. Gordon cannot shoot or handle the ball well enough to be a small forward and has not shown the physical tools necessary to survive as a starting power forward. He is clearly a phenomenal athlete--better than Williams--but his physical gifts may not fit at the next level. That leaves him as a lottery pick, but short of being placed among prospects who have a clear position.
- Resiliency Does the prospect have the capacity to improve his game year-to-year? If a player has obvious physical gifts, this attribute is the most important quality to becoming a star and most importantly--a champion. Unfortunately, it has to be the most difficult to assess for anyone not directly connected with a player. Statistically and physically, you have to assess whether improvement is because a player got better or simply got older. Thomas Robinson is the player I most think of in this regard. His life story is filled with personal resilience and he statistically improved each college season, yet his weaknesses never improved. He just got older. The Hawks have had a polarizing player for nearly a decade who lacked this same trait and now that his physical abilities have leveled off, his game has as well. Star players relentlessly work to improve their skills rather than relying on physical gifts. Kevin Durant turned his worst area shooting on the floor in 2012-13 to his best spot in 2013-14 and Paul George learned to dribble in 4 months this summer. I really like Elfrid Payton as a point guard and I could check him off on all of the other three attributes listed above, but the college junior has not improved his shot or turnover rate in his three season at Louisiana-Lafayette. Maybe that is a physical issue, but it makes me think his improvement is attributed more to getting older than a commitment to improving his weaknesses.
The top 8 players listed on the Peachtree Hoops 2014 NBA Draft Big Board all possess the four STAR attributes. It does not mean all 8 will become stars, but they have the capacity to become great players. It takes being drafted by the right team, properly developed, and staying healthy. My hope is that one of the 8 will fall to the Hawks in the draft and be the player to lead Atlanta to an elusive NBA title. Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, and Elfrid Payton (Big Board prospects 9-12) exhibit tremendous physical gifts for the game of basketball, yet at this point each one lacks an attribute needed to be a potential star. The remaining players on the board are lacking one or more of these attributes, but all 22 prospects would be worthy of a lottery pick in most years.
There is still plenty of hope that Dennis Schroeder will develop into a star and he unquestionably has an elite skill (or two) and the physcial ability to play point guard. After his first encounter with adversity in the NBA, it is fair to question his toughness. The upcoming summer will tell us a lot more about his resiliency in improving his shooting and decision making. What qualities do you view as essential for a prospect to become a star? What prospects do you see as possessing the four STAR attributes and a potential candidate to be the next star in Atlanta?
[TOMORROW: Draft Profile 2014 on potential star K.J. McDaniels]