“Jerry Sloan doesn’t play rookies or develop young talent.”
So says the conventional wisdom. And many fans of many teams.
This sentiment is so commonly lamented I decided it was high time to see if there was any truth to it. Fans see these flashes of brilliance from young, or inexperienced players and many times automatically assume that player is a candidate for starter minutes, or even February-break games, or more.
However, once I donned the beret and the killer ‘stache to dig deeper a different reality emerged. One that shows that the way Sloan develops his young, deserving talent may in fact be far more effective than other coaches and ball clubs. That, or those left out have been left out for good reason. Probably a little of both.
In order to uncover the truth of the matter I revisited the 2005 NBA draft to see who and where. As in which players have excelled since and which have not. The results were eyebrow-raising, to say the least, and yielded some interesting league-wide outcomes for players.
The catalyst for the control was C.J. Miles, a sixth-year, 6′ 6″ 230 pound swingman for the Utah Jazz that can play either the shooting guard (aka 2-spot) or small forward (aka 3-spot) positions. There was a total of 18 similar wing players taken in that ’05 draft, one of which, Cenk Akyol never played a single minute of NBA ball, leaving us with 17 players to compare.
Thanks to BasketballReference.com for the archival information. You can see the entire 2005 NBA draft here.
So, our target players are those from the ’05 draft with the capability to play the 2 or 3 spots in the NBA, meaning players approximately over 6′ 5″ in height and under about 235-240 lbs., as any under that height tend to play the 1 and/or 2, and over that weight tend to play the 3 and/or 4 spots.
Note: One player, Linas Kleiza, who has been in and out the league, is listed as a SG/SF for the Toronto Raptors by some accounts, but c’mon, he’s no shooting guard and we all know it.
Of those 17 wings taken, only nine have managed to have any steady staying power in every one of the subsequent NBA seasons into the current one, with the exception of one, Von Wafer, who left the league to play overseas last year, but is now back, and in fact flourishing in his role on the Boston Celtics this season under the tutelage of another coach who is among the best at bringing along young players, Doc Rivers (think Glen Davis).
I charted each players’ peak Minutes-Per-Game (in green), Points-Per-Game (orange-brown, y’know, like a Spalding?), and Total [career] Minutes (in red), as well as the season when they played their last NBA game, as you can see below.
Again, I staggered names slightly where applicable so you could see everyone.
Some of these players may work their way back into the league at some point, for instance Orien Greene, who has wildly exciting potential, but pulled some boneheaded maneuvers when his number was called previously by the Celtics. (Greene is doing some nice things at the moment for the Jazz’s D-League affiliate, the Utah Flash. Keep an eye on him!)
Right off the bat you’ll notice that only half of the originally drafted 18 players have had staying power in the NBA, as indicated by the nine players whose career Total Minutes are listed on the far right.
Most of those gone now are due to poor production, many despite getting more minutes early on than those who remain to this day, meaning the initial numbers indicate that minutes and reps do not automatically = development or efficient production. Despite the eyeball test many fans practice on their young favorites who ride pine more than they’d like, the proper and intelligent path of development for the majority of players is to be brought along at a sensible rate.
The above assertion is even more evident in the next chart, where the “noticeable nine” get a more in-depth examination, annually and linear.
The first thing you notice is obviously Danny Granger, who is indisputably the top wing talent taken in the ’05 draft. And right along side him, at least in minutes playes, is Ryan Gomes, who has played well over 11,000 career NBA minutes, yet is only the fifth-best scorer among the nine now, despite still playing the second-most minutes-per-game.
Note: All stat snapshots for these charts were taken over the New Year weekend, but the trends among these players are pretty firm, so a couple of games aren’t making much of a difference here
Also following roughly the same arc in minutes and points as Gomes, albeit it a few less of them, are Antoine Wright and Francisco Garcia. Garcia played the fourth-most minutes among all 17 in his rookie year and has remained in the top five in minutes played all the way through to this season after a steady decline from his peak in 2908-09, leaving him as the player who’s played the third-most career minutes in all.
Again, no correlation between simply getting reps and getting better. Indeed, in the cases of Gomes and Garcia the opposite has been true.
Joey Graham is another great example of this. He got the third-most minutes as a rookie in this study, and has been wildly inconsistent ever since, making his line look just like the roller coaster that his production as a pro has been.
Martell Webster’s line is similarly up and down, but in his case he was down for a year with the infamous Portland Trailblazer injury curse, and played in only a single game in 2008-09. As the top wing picked in the ’05 draft, and sixth overall, you’d expect him to be up there, as he now is, averaging a career high in points and second-highest scorer among our nine this season.
But that might not be now had he not gone down and essentially missed the 2008-09 season. Webster’s minutes were spiking in his third season at a rate consistent with Gomes, Garcia, and Grangers’. Now, unless you believe Webster is a first-option player along the lines of a Danny Granger, that injury saved his career, or at least kept it from trending the wrong direction like so many others.
There’s only four players currently headed in the right direction, up instead of down; Amir Johnson, who’s been very middle of the road in minutes played, the aforementioned Wafer, who has really come on in the last few games, Webster, who is now thriving at the most efficient rate of his career as a sixth-man for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and fellow sixth-man Miles, who is now the third-highest scoring wing from this draft, and shares something in common with only Webster and Granger.
There’s a certain threshold of efficiency that only these three latter players have achieved among the original 18 draftees.
Granger got there in his “junior” year in the NBA, but at his current rate will cross back over to the dark side by next season, potentially leaving only Webster and Miles as “graduates” currently headed in the right direction with a future as forces at the wing from that class at a level that’s most efficient per minutes played.
Looking at Miles’ line, from second-least minutes played his rookie season, and the gradual rise as coach Sloan brought him along, recognizing his deficiencies and making him work on them before getting floor time, it’s hard to argue with the method when you consider the results.
And I’m not just talking about efficient scoring in Miles’ case. Sloan made him work on one thing at a time, rewarding him with more floor time as he began achieving the desired results, first chiding the player perceived as simply a gunslinger for his defense. Miles responded by creating a little friendly competition among teammates last season to see who could make the most thievery happen in a given game. He’d finish at a new career high in steals-per-game.
He was next goaded for not getting to the free throw line enough. His response? A new career high. You can clearly see in the game logs when the message hit home and he stopped exclusively popping it from range and started bringing the leather to the rack.
This season, with the Jazz struggling mightily on the glass, Deron Williams (and assistant Scott Layden? He’s usually responsible for the small goals the team has, like “12 deflections per-quarter” for example) asked the wings and guards to pick up some the slack on the boards. Miles has responded with yet another new career high water mark.
There’s something to be said for making players earn those minutes, for developing them the right way, rather than just playing them for their potential or because they or their agent whines about it.
And just to bring the thing full circle, this year’s first-round pick of Utah, Gordon Hayward, is in the top 20% of total minutes played among the 60 rookies taken in the draft. This on a team leading it’s division and top four in the Western Conference virtually the entire season.
Follow Clint on Twitter @Clintonite33
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