Me and RJR Still Got Unresolved Issues
I never grew up as any kind of college basketball fan. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, hardly a college town. My dad went to a tiny school in New Hampshire, and my mom went to a small school in Pennsylvania that, when she went there, did not have a men's basketball team or, for that matter, men.
Now I actually go to college, and care deeply about the fortunes of my USC Trojans, although in going from the Golden State Warriors to USC basketball, all the advantages the college game is supposed to have over the pro game-the energy in the building, the sense of kinship with the players, and the feeling that the game is not some pre-packaged industry but a genuine competition in which the players give all that they have out of a desire for glory or pure love for the sport-feel noticeably absent.
Anyways, whereas college basketball was once only an opportunity to evaluate the merits and flaws of future pro players, I now genuinely care about not only the performance of players destined for the NBA, but the play of the actual team, from the future lottery picks to role players, and how they work together as a team in order to win games.
Unfortunately for me, the emphasis on college basketball has shifted in recent years to an extended pre-draft camp, especially since the "one-and-done" rule allowed players who in years previous would have jumped straight to the pros shrouded in mystery to show their skills for a year in the national spotlight, especially when they sign with programs not seen as traditional college basketball powerhouses.
Anybody who watches college basketball now knows of what I speak; about two weeks ago, I watched Georgetown get upset by Pittsburgh, although I only knew that from the score; the broadcast itself taught me about how good of an athlete Roy Hibbert is, how good of a passer he is from the high post, how he can finish with either hand around the basket, and how (I am not making this up) he puts "perfect rotation on his free throws," which is much more important to hear during a pair of big free throws than something like how often he actually makes free throws. (An un-perfect 63.4% on the year, by the way.) I am not exaggerating when I say that when another Georgetown player hit a tough three coming off a Hibbert screen, the broadcasters chose to talk about the screen instead of the shot.
Naturally, what sent me over the edge was when my beloved USC's upset over hated rival UCLA became a five-on-five workout for Kevin Love. While DaVon Jefferson quietly took the Bruins apart, I got to hear gushing monologues about Love's rebounding, post play, outside shooting ability, choice of number (again, I am not making this up-the broadcasters pointed to Love's choice to wear Connie Hawkins' number as evidence of his respect for the game), and especially his outlet passes, which have ignited UCLA's pace of play to 254th in the country.
The best-known example of the player being more important than the game has to be last year's championship game, when the broadcast team raved about Greg Oden for 40 minutes while Florida quietly won its second consecutive national championship.
The emergence of singularly talented players taking over programs and dominating college basketball as freshmen, made directly possible by Carmelo, made possible in theory by Amare, LeBron, and Dwight Howard showing just how much game an 18-year old can have in them, and made real by Durant and Oden, is odd for college basketball, because it has always been a platform where the program is paramount to the individual-like the old saying goes, the only man who could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points a game was Dean Smith.
For one year or more, top prospects must now show the strengths and limitations of their game, where in the short-lived era of the draft dominance of high school players, we had convinced ourselves that the draft's best players should not have limitations.
Take Derrick Rose. When he was a high-school senior who almost no casual fan had ever seen play a full game, all we knew about Rose was that he had a Baron Davis-like point guard build, and was capable of shocking dunks and bowel-emptying crossovers set to new-wave Europop; that, combined with reports that he was a "true" point guard with surpassing court vision, allowed us to see Rose as a one-man point guard revolution, combining Jason Kidd's size and passing ability with Devin Harris' speed and young Steve Francis' finishing ability.
However, he came to John Calipari's big-time Memphis program, and instead of being allowed to handle the ball on every play or run the pick-and-roll, he's been relegated to being one in a bevy of slashers in Memphis' equal-opportunity speed attack, finishing on fast breaks, making passes when needed, and playing quality defense, doing his job for an undefeated team, and in doing so has become less compelling in the eyes of the draft than Michael Beasley, doing it all for the significantly worse Kansas State Wildcats.
Whereas before college players were seen in varying degrees of good, and teams looked at which one would be most effective in helping their team, with the crown jewel of a draft being a player like Duncan or Iverson or K-Mart, players who had proven themselves to be effective for their teams through countless battles, the phenomena of LeBron James and the rest of the high schoolers and the prophetic choice of Dwight Howard's freakish potential over Emeka Okafor's established game have turned high school superstars with the spotlight of the "one-and-done" year shining on them into team saviors who will all be franchise players.
When those players hint at the possibilities of their game without needing to show the whole thing, like Oden or Marvin Williams, they are free to remain superstars in our imagination and we rejoice. When they dominate with the spotlight on them, like Michael Beasley this year or Kevin Durant last year, the filter of our dreams for them when they were shrouded in mystery and talent makes us see them being radically different from those that supposedly dominated the college game through savvy and skill like Adam Morrison, Shane Battier, or Jameer Nelson, but rather as having possessed so much natural talent that the college game itself bent to their indominable will.
Going back to the UCLA game/Kevin Love-fest 2008, the broadcasters briefly stopped fawning over a Love outlet pass that almost started a fast break to issue my boy O.J. Mayo the ultimate put-down of the "one-and-done" era: "O.J. Mayo is a good player, but he's not a great player." While one-and-done players who appear to follow the paths we forge for them in our imaginations turn from valuable players to gods worthy of clearing out an entire franchise so that their gifts may be better accommodated, those who show a ceiling during their showcase year are punished with a lower spot in the draft and a much lower place in our imaginations.
After Florida's first championship, Joakim Noah was a tremendously athletic big man who could pass, run the floor, play defense, and rebound like a man possessed; in the imagination of the draft, he would one day become a player who would add to those skills 20 pounds of muscle, an outside shot, and post moves, and he was projected as a top-three pick. He chose to stay, and played nearly the exact same role for Florida that he had in the previous year, and the result stayed the same as well; Florida won the national championship. Instead of being rewarded for proving himself as a player who would be an extremely valuable member of any team, Noah ended up going behind not only the sure-thing foursome of Oden, Durant, Horford, and Conley, but Jeff Green, Corey Brewer, Yi Jianlian, and Brandan Wright as well, players who all seemed more attractive than Noah because they had not yet allowed the world to see that their games came with limitations.
While many of those picked ahead of him are crumbling under the weight of what their NBA teams expected of them, Joakim has quietly posted the second-highest PER of any rookie and leads the Bulls in +/- rating. Likewise, O.J. was expected to be an Arenas-like Deus ex Machina of a guard capable of scoring 40 points with a flick of his jump shot and elevating the otherwise offensively-challenged Trojans to greatness through the sheer virtue of his game; instead, he has accepted his role on a grind-it-out Tim Floyd team that is a top-5 defensive team in the country, and instead of freewheeling on drives and fast breaks patiently runs off screens looking for a jumper or bucket off a curl, gradually settling into his role as an efficient scoring option. Like Noah, O.J.'s performance in college strongly suggests that he will contribute rather than dominate, and as this fails to jibe with what he was expected to be given his status as a phenom since he was a freshman in high school, he has dropped out of most imaginations, and hence has dropped out of many top 5s.
By definition, greatness cannot be so common as to present itself in three or four players every year, but in an era where we have become spoiled because of the influx of incredible young players in recent years, the mystery-shrouded scraps of wonder we get from fawning scouting reports and fleeting YouTube clips about the one-and-done wunderkids lead us to believe just that, and hence we trip over ourselves to anoint those who appear to fufill the destinies we have laid out for them as the next Michael Jordan, as well as condemn those who prove themselves merely human, but if NBA teams learn to temper their expectations for the men in the spotlight and see one-and-done phenoms as players capable of being a part of the answer rather than the answer itself, they may find the sublime in the simply good.
UPDATE: I'm just as devastated as the rest of you by the Shaq news. I've never believed in Stern conspiracy stories, but this does make Wade relevant again, puts a big, fat marquee name on one of the young and exciting teams that the league believes should merit more attention, and the chances of a Shaq-Kobe playoff series just went from "completely impossible" to "fairly likely." I'm fucking stoked for this-I see it as either going down like Ray Allen destroying his dad at the end of He Got Game or Darth Vader finally killing Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Kobe punctuating a 40-point game with a vicious dunk over Shaq as Shaq walks to the bench with a serene grin on his face when Boris Diaw replaces him and the Suns go on to win the series. I just don't see a lot of explanations for this-could Marion's attitude really have been worse than Scottie Pippen's, who was at open war with the Bulls organization but was ultimately able to man up and win a championship? Steve Kerr was on that team. And the idea that this was done to protect against the threat of Bynum feels like when the military resorted to activating SkyNet to control the giant computer virus in Terminator 3, which led to the immediate immolation of most of humanity. I'm with those of you hoping that the best outcome of this is that the whole thing goes down in horrible flames and a revolution springs anew from the ashes.