The currency of NBA draft picks, and more specifically those of the first round variety, has arguably never been higher. As such, the need to extract value from selections (when the opportunity arises) is paramount. Of course, various predetermined conditions weigh in on the decision-making process, and the further one slides up the proverbial draft ladder, the more apparent the shift from "team need," or "NBA-level contributor," to Jay Bilas-esque phrases such as "wingspan," "length," and "upside," becomes. Furthermore, as much as teams wish to smother and grill prospects with workouts, interviews, intense psycho-analysis, hypotheticals, and all forms of executive rigmarole, the draft continues to stand as one of the more unscientific, diverse, and intriguing processes in the realm of professional sports. This, however, is not the appropriate domain for expounding a revolutionary theory and cracking the code of the athlete's amateur-to-professional transition -- not that any such hypothesis exists.
Simply consider how the contributions of freshly drafted players, under the functions of the CBA's rookie scale deals, come to affect the course of any given team's season.
On Thursday night, the Knicks' rookie guard Tim Hardaway Jr. -- kindly accompanied by an especially repugnant Cleveland defense that has allowed opponents to score 106.0 points per 100 possessions in the month of January -- blossomed for a (to date) career night, with 29 points and six made three-pointers on 11-17 shooting. Whilst Hardaway Jr.'s prodigious perimeter play is far from newsworthy, it was refreshing to see the reserve gunslinger reap the rewards of his thirty minutes on court. In a vacuum, Hardaway's evening may just seem like a scorching stretch of shooting in a game that was (in reality) over after the initial twelve minutes. A hint of extra research, though, delivers a neat bit of context; since the beginning of the 1989-90 season, only one other player (Ben Gordon with Chicago in 2005) has achieved what Hardaway did against the Cavaliers. That is to say that Hardaway is merely the 2nd NBA player in roughly twenty-five seasons to be 21 years of age (or under) while registering at least 29pts, six 3PM, and 64% shooting -- all in thirty or fewer minutes. The league values and attempts more long range shots more so in the contemporary climate than ever before, and pace of play is an obvious factor is stat lines such as the free-wheeling Hardaway's, yet that fails to alter the historical significance of the performance.
In rather cruel and poetic fashion, it happened to be that Hardaway Jr.'s memorable evening was painstakingly juxtaposed against the fortunes (or misfortunes, as it happens) of Cleveland's number one overall pick, Anthony Bennett. Bennett, the tireless subject of talking heads and recent recipient of the dubious title of being the first number one pick since Kwame Brown to fail to be selected in the All-Star weekend's pool of rookies and sophomores, (by contrast) compiled a forgettable 4pt, 1-6 game with a -13 in 23 minutes on the floor. It's a fascinating exercise, with the inimitable luxury of hindsight, to reflect on pre-draft scouting, prognosticating, and musings, not merely of these two respective players, but more broadly within the frameworks of the draft procedures. For example, here are some assorted remarks on 2013 prospects from ESPN's resident draft expert, Chad Ford (courtesy of ESPN Insider):
On Tim Hardaway Jr.'s stock, pre-draft
"He's one of the more polished players in the draft with good shooting ability, size and athleticism. It's his lack of upside that appears to be affecting his draft stock." - Chad Ford, June 26, 2013.
On Cleveland's selection of Russian forward Sergey Karasev, in the context of post-draft team grades
"I loved the Karasev pick. They needed a shooter with a high basketball IQ, and I think he has a chance to be a solid player in the NBA. That's all you can ask for at No. 19." - Chad Ford, June 28, 2013.
On Washington's selection of Otto Porter, in the context of post-draft team grades
"Porter was the perfect fit as both a player and person for the franchise. Although his upside might not be as high as that of some others in the draft, he also is the most well-rounded, NBA-ready player of the group. He should contribute right away in D.C." - Chad Ford, June 28, 2013.
On New York's selection of Tim Hardaway Jr., also in the context of post-draft team grades
"He's a good shooter, but his game is pretty forgettable... I'm not sure that his talent allows him to have a ceiling any higher than rotation player." - Chad Ford, June 28, 2013.
There are no real, fundamental motives in aligning those quotations alongside one another, although it does appear a little perplexing that Ford was willing to commend the Cavaliers for attaining a "shooter" with the chance to be a "solid NBA player," with the 19th pick, only to query the Knicks choice of a shoot-first player whose potential is limited to "rotation player" five spots later. Subjectivity aside, all that this reflection does is highlight the inexactness of the practice, and emphasise the extent to which variables like situation, age, coaching, and opportunity can be mitigating circumstances.
What, ultimately, is taken into consideration when evaluating the options and leaning one way or another toward a player who looks ready to produce in the intermediate, or one whose growth could well dwarf the short-term stutters? It's encapsulating, and Ford's theorising is inevitably almost always on point.
For the Knicks, there is no option but to be contented with Tim Hardaway Jr.'s timely ascension to the place of increasingly reliable role player. The Michigan alum is presently thirteenth in the league for his three-point marksmanship, at 41.6%, and has scored at a rate of 17.8 points per 36 minutes over his last ten games. Across that same period, Hardaway Jr. has also connected on 52.8% of his deep hoists in the eight games he's played at Madison Square Garden. With three years of collegiate experience and a relatively simple (at face value) game style, Hardaway Jr. was ostensibly lumped into the "ready" category -- Ford ($) later stated, "I don't think he has tremendous upside, but he is ready to play right now. A solid pick for the Knicks." The air of certainty and somewhat of a feel that Hardaway stood as a known commodity is, in part, what contributed to the brief murmurings that he could have surged as high on the draft board as at number seven to the "playoff-or-bust" Sacramento Kings. Mining for value at a draft slot in the mid-twenties, particularly for a franchise so often beleaguered by burdensome salaries, is why rookie scale production can be so imperative.
Below is a list of players who, in their rookie season, registered a minimum True Shooting percentage of 60.0% with a PER of 15.0 (league average), in addition to qualifying for the league's 3PT% leaderboard (h/t @benchwarmerdan):
That leaves Hardaway in limited and revered company, measured from the beginning of the league's shot-clock era. He is, however, marginally beyond the halfway-point of his rookie campaign and likely nailing an unsustainable clip of his launches. In 2014, Hardaway is the only rookie coming off the bench and connecting on a minimum of 40.0% of his heaves from beyond the arc, and what he has yielded offensively is the trigger for him receiving 20 minutes per game throughout January. Stark defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, his lightning, efficient, long range attack in a reserve role has warranted the surge in playing time, and is overwhelmingly his playing manifesto through the first 45 games of his career. Here are his per-36 minutes statistical breakdowns:
It's difficult to isolate whether or not his healthy and abundant shooting will endure to the point at which his defense, or lack thereof, will not ostracise him from the nightly rotation. At this point, though, it's much easier and far more therapeutic to immerse one's self in the available playlist of all 67 of Hardaway Jr.'s made three-point field goals.