Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Worldwide Farm

Ambrose's post from earlier today has had me seriously thinking about where non-NBA development happens.

Think about Anthony Parker's story. He was good enough, skilled enough, big enough, athletic enough, to be drafted in the first round, but his early career was derailed a bit, as many careers are, by the wrong circumstances. He struggled with injuries and couldn't find a good fit, and was out of the league within two years. To his credit, he worked hard, eventually got a gig in Israel, and proved he could ball at the highest levels by winning back-to-back EuroLeague MVPs and EuroLeague Championships. With similar early struggles, Chauncey Billups bounced around the NBA for a number of years before blossoming into an NBA Champion, All-Star, and MVP-candidate in Detroit. These days, players faced with these sorts of issues early in their careers also have the option of competing in the D-League and proving themselves that way, while getting a chance to work on their games. Clearly, there are a number of (extremely tough, but still possible) routes available to players who either aren't drafted or are drafted but don't make a splash during their first go in the league.

But what I find interesting about Parker is the skillset he brings to the table. As Ambrose points out, he really is a complete perimeter player. He won't post-up like Joe Johnson or Kobe Bryant, but otherwise he has a strong mid-range game while also shooting a superb percentage from beyond the three-point line, he can catch-and-shoot as well as shoot extremely well off the dribble, he is incredibly smart and understands spacing and moves flawlessly off the ball, he makes good decisions with the ball and is a good passer, he has solid (but fading, somewhat, at the age of 33) athleticism as well as size and is an acceptable defender . . .. From the description, it really sounds like I'm discussing a star, because of the well-roundedness of his skillset. But Parker is not a high-usage type of guy, he only shoots when he's open (hence the high shooting percentages), and was never a 20 point per game type of scorer in the NBA (though he was definitely that kind of star in the EuroLeague). He's basically a solid fill-in-the-gaps type of guy, a guy you can count on to score 10-12 points without making any mistakes, but who won't get headlines or national attention. Every good NBA roster is filled with these sorts of players, we call them role players. But most role players are specialists. We have Steve Kerr-style shooters who are in the game to shoot a high percentage from three, and not much else; we have undersized defense-and-rebounding bigs who can hit the occasional mid-range shot but don't have a well-developed post game and aren't relied upon for points, like Josh Powell or Ronny Turiaf; and so on, and so forth.

While specialists are a dependable resource for a coach to look for off the bench, I'd venture that the way domestic player-development is handled also leads to the Fordist divisions we see. After all, if a player doesn't have instant success in the league, the domestic path will often look like: find the skill(s) you have to offer, and work with trainers to refine those particular skills until they are undeniably NBA-level, play in the summer league and possibly spend time in the D-League proving yourself, and hopefully get called up. And the D-League, while a wonderful development tool, is still seen as a stepping stone to the NBA, and so games will inevitably be somewhat shaded by individual agendas. I don't mean that in a negative way -- this is a solid enviornment in which to refine individual skills. But this sort of development puts a premium on specializing -- find what you have to offer at an NBA level, and focus on that.

But the EuroLeague, on the other hand, isn't really a means to an end. The EuroLeague is, like the NBA, a high-level competitive professional league. While I'm sure Parker continued to harbor dreams of the NBA during his time in Israel, he also developed the skills necessary to contribute to his team in a variety of ways, independently of any NBA dreams. It's possible that if he were toiling in the D-League during that time instead, he would have focused on just one or two specific skills and made his bones in the NBA as, say, a lethal spot-up shooter.

As it is, if I'm a GM, I'd spend some time thinking about what my team needs and look to these different avenues for these needs. If the team needs a great rebounder, or a knock-down shooter, chances are I can find that in the D-League. But if I need a contributor off the bench who will do a little bit of everything, without doing anything great? I'd have to consider the EuroLeagues, right? I can see Josh Childress developing the sort of all-around game that Parker boasts during his time in Greece. And I can already see a similar sort of ability to contribute from Rudy Fernandez, although Fernandez's ceiling is higher given his young age.

And who's the next potential Anthony Parker? Looking at DraftExpress's international free agent listings (and we should trust them -- they were all over Parker for two years before he came over to the NBA), the top international free agent is Ramunas Siskauskas. Like Parker was before he came to the NBA, Siskauskas is being called the most complete player outside the NBA, and he is "a phenomenal shooter, ball-handler, passer and defender, as well as one of the smartest guys you’ll find around." But in terms of American players who were unable to make a name for themselves in the league early in their careers, which is what this post is concerned with, we might want to pay attention to Marcus Haislip. Haislip, like Parker, was an NBA first round draft pick who didn't develop early on. And, like Parker, he has used his time in Europe to develop into an all-around player. While he still has some holes in his game that the linked profile covers, the sentence that caught my eye was: "his skill set is radically different than it was when he left Indianapolis for Istanbul."

And that's the bigger picture that I'm wondering about. My hypothesis is that a player like Haislip could very well have developed some NBA-worthy skills in the D-League, but we probably wouldn't see his skillset as "radically different" from what it was when he was drafted -- just more refined. Is it possible that the NBA has somewhat outsourced the very different tasks of developing "utility" role players and "specialist" role players to two completely different leagues (EuroLeague and D-League)? It seems that way to me, and I think it's great. In terms of role players, the league needs Amir Johnsons and Ben Wallaces and Steve Novaks as well as Charlie Bells and Jorge Garbajosas (well, not literally Garbajosa, but that type of all-around player). There's no reason to think these completely disparate strands of development can or should happen in the same leagues, so maybe what we're seeing, as far as American players (I am excluding non-American players for this discussion of development), is different schools for different types of players.

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