FreeDrafto #56893: One Pant at a Time

By now, everyone reading this website knows the stories reputed as the biggest to come from the Draft, and almost all of them are driven by free agency and salary capism. (If there is a job called "capologist," I would assume that person is an expert in "capism." Unless the word applies to restaurants that won't serve Batman.) Look no further than the Wizards, a team that drafted John Wall but likely eclipsed its actual draft news by acquiring Kirk Hinrich and the seventeenth pick. In New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, and almost everywhere else, the Hinrich transaction remains a far more pressing affair. Today's mathematics is Hinrich = LeBron + Wade + Bosh + Amare + et al. Yes, Wall's ascent was inevitable, a foregone conclusion that mitigated the news value of the moment. He had been the presumptive top pick since he laid siege to the AAU circuit as a teenager. But he was not the first high-school sensation to attend his own coronation, no matter how circuitous the route there. Nor will he be the last: BRE has likely already begun planning the melancholy farewell to Harrison Barnes that will be staged in Chapel Hill next April. Wall may be divinity bound, but those already godbody have not yet yielded their time.

Rather than contribute to all of this white noise, though, why not take a few moments to reflect on some actual Draft happenings? In many ways, some of which defy conventional measurement, last night was plenty consequential.

Start in Orlando. The institutional skepticism with which this website approaches college basketball has left it mostly bereft of Stanley Robinson coverage. There was yesterday, when Robinson was pegged as the man most likely to blow up the summer league, and there was the time I said that by this November, Sticks would lead the NBA in hopeless athletism. That is, he will be the most hopeless athlete, not the most hopelessly athletic. Those two sentences are the authoritative FreeDarko history of Stanley Robinson. It's pathetic, and it needs to change. Thankfully, the Magic drafted him with the fifty-ninth pick.

Stanley Robinson is the sort of athlete who renews the wonderment of sports. Even in basketball, where the aerial exploits of a high-flying legion have conditioned many fans to take skywalking for granted, Robinson stands out. YouTube does not fully capture his essence, but consider a few moments that should restore your faith in excitement:

Watching Robinson leap is a true spectacle. Though the NBA is already filled with LeBron's muscular drives and Josh Smith's impossible, glowering air show, Stanley is his own man. His form helps to create the distinction. Though he can seamlessly transition from running to flying all the same, Robinson is most effective when jumping off of two feet. When James swoops in from behind or Smith drives and finishes on a man, each does so while already in motion. Robinson, however, will often launch himself with unintended theatrics. Watch the first video closely. Before dunking on the entire Spartan team, Robinson pauses for a half second to elevate off of both feet. He launches himself like a rocket exploding into the air. It happens the entire game against Chattanooga, too. See the pattern? He does this all the time. Pausing to jump off of both feet surely diminishes his effectiveness, but combined with the results, it creates a stylistic signature.

The results, too, are stylish in their own bizarre, enchanting way. Bred by the contrast between reality and potential, Robinson's game seeps volatility and mania. For the entire duration of his UConn career, he was criticized for his bouts of indifference and his intermittent absenteeism. There were times when his way literally forced the hard way. And, to be frank, he can't really play ball so well: his handle is weak, his jumper is spotty. Throughout entire games, he will seem distracted, a step slow and an idea short. But he is a glorious physical force whose laconic demeanor can be replaced easily by authentic enthusiasm, and who talks a good game. Stanley Robinson knows the path, he just doesn't always walk it. Perhaps he just can't.

When he is on, though, in those moments when he forgets his limitations, or remembers what he can be, Robinson is gorgeous. He elevates for a jumper as though the ground were boring him and he needed an extended break. He throws the ball through the rim as though he has done them both a favor. It looks easy for him, not because he's so good at basketball, but because he's such an anomaly that basketball happens to be a sport he can play well. Stanley's long arms, lithe body, and active legs turn him into a defensive wrecking crew, the sort of guy who always seems to overwhelm his man during a pickup game, taking the ball or swallowing the other dude whole. The dunks and blocks are self-evident. The power is awesome, but so, too, is the sense that Robinson has temporarily achieved a tenuous grasp on his raging basketball universe. This calm amid chaos, the leveling of the vicissitudes, is transmitted by the desperate way with which he redirects the ball toward the rim when finishing an alley-oop. He needs to finish the play, lest he surrender his home. It is reflected in blocks that seem less like basketball strategy and more like an outward manifestation of some internal struggle for control. Sticks has a game of yearning...except for the moments when he doesn't. When he is airborne, he finds a pacific competency not always available terrestrially. It's fascinating.

All too perfectly, Robinson's struggle for efficacy and identity will now play out in the gloaming of Vince Carter's career. (Hopefully--Sticks must make the team.) Vince, of course, was a Robinson-like figure at one time, a man whose daring and uncommon acrobatics were startling and exciting. Entering the Draft, Carter had a fuller game than that which Robinson brings with him to Orlando, but each left college for the NBA across a bridge built by outsized athleticism.

Since arriving as the fantastically gifted and fatally flawed mantle bearer of a post-Jordan generation, Vince has fought demons similar to those which confront Robinson. We can disagree, but I always found that the central conflict in Vince Carter's career was whether he actually wanted to play basketball. Was he a basketball player with tremendous athleticism, or was he a tremendous athlete who happened to play basketball because that was the best way to maximize his body? In Vince's mean-mugging, in his self-conscious fadeaways, in his dramatic injuries, in his conflicted persona, I always saw ambivalence. The hollow, insincere manner with which he would attempt to portray hero and villain at various times betrayed his disaffection. Vince Carter is a likeable, thoughtful, fairly serene guy whose most productive years were spent acting as just the opposite, and I always got the sense that basketball was merely something to do.

Vince's career narrative has the tinge of tragedy because he hasn't achieved the basketball success to which his natural talent would perhaps entitle him. However, that gloomy feeling quickly recedes if Carter is cast not as a basketball lifer who bleeds orange, but instead as a more passive observer who inadvertently came to star in a serendipitous story. For Vince, it was always easy, a path of least resistance. That is a gross oversimplification that enjoys a liberal creative license, but there is an underlying truth. A truth illustrated by Carter's steady decline into irrelevance and horrible playoff campaign this past season. The coda of his career does not sound as though Vince's heart were ever in it. As a result, memories of the visceral excitement which VC once encouraged are tempered by the contemporary suspicion that it was a charade to some extent. He stuffed his arm through that rim and he did those reverse 360s, but none of that was ever really in the service of the game. It was in the service of his own athleticism; dunking was masturbatory in some way. Whether we begrudge Vince his indulgences is another topic, but recognizing them does alter his basketball legacy.

We don't yet know who Stanley Robinson will be, but it is impossible to not root for him. His fantastic leaping is a rare gift (to say nothing of its intrinsic FD qualities). Seeing him jump, alone, can be breathtaking. We just need to hope that he turns out to be either more of a basketball player than Vince ever was or someone who can act at least half as well. Perversely, he will be working with an ideal mentor.

The other bit of overlooked manifest destiny from the Draft was Devin Ebanks arriving in Los Angeles. In the FD mock, we had Ebanks in Minnesota so that Rambis could reclaim OG Laker status by replicating the formula which Los Angeles has used to conjure two straight titles. Fate one-upped this prognostication by delivering a mercurial, itinerant Queens man whose offense comes and goes to the team that already has two of them. Or, if you'd prefer a story that replaces fate with something approaching irony, what about this: Ebanks, a rangy collection of knees and elbows who plays effective wing defense and has a variety of skills but no one exceptional ability, arrives in Los Angeles to back up Ron Artest, the man who replaced Trevor Ariza. Ariza, of course, was the rangy collection of knees and elbows who played effective wing defense and had a variety of skills but no one exceptional ability. In 2011, the Lakers will likely draft a bear and let Ebanks become a Rocket.

One also should likely see fate in Boston drafting Luke Harangody, college basketball's reigning Great White Hype. After a postseason in which the all-black Celtics gave Scalabrine limited burn and lost once it ran out of big men, drafting a burly white guy from Notre Dame made sense. Luck of the Irish, right?

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At 6/27/2010 1:32 AM, Blogger lux said...

some powerful writing, that was. long time reader, very occasional commenter, feeling the need to pay homage...

At 6/27/2010 5:34 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

Not sure where to put this, so I'll just toss it out there so that I can say you heard my dark horse pick here & now:

Lance Stephenson for Rookie of the Year.

At 6/27/2010 7:53 PM, Blogger BigSaxmo said...

A capologist would study capology.

At 6/27/2010 9:43 PM, Blogger Joey said...

@BigSaxmo of course! good call. my b. thanks.

wv: ingspet--the way that a g might conclude a letter: "in g-spect, tookie williams."

At 6/29/2010 2:32 PM, Blogger bushytop said...

thanks for writing on my guilty pleasure/favorite college player these past two seasons. i pegged him as something my t-pups could've used last season (a three that makes corey maggette take his shirt off and flex), but now see his future as a formidable stopper on the us soccer team. even more likely: he'll be appearing on a bench next to brandon bass real soon.

At 6/30/2010 4:58 PM, Blogger mgmartin33 said...

In my former life as a sports editor, I covered Robinson as a high schooler in Birmingham. His freakish athletic ability as a teenager made him a man among boys. Here's hoping he stays focused and does not wander in the wilderness for too long.

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