A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Analyzing why James Harden, Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson’s star upside was missed in the 2009 draft

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Washington Wizards v/s Denver Nuggets January ...

Washington Wizards v/s Denver Nuggets January 25, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 2009 draft has turned into one of the best of this generation. James Harden, Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin are blossoming as superstars and franchise players. Ty Lawson is leading the way in Denver not too far behind.

It’s easily forgotten that 2009 at the time had been called one of the worst drafts of this generation, with 1 star in Blake Griffin and little upside after him. Many saw Ricky Rubio as having the 2nd highest chance at a special career, while some supported Demar Derozan, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, as potential surprise stars. Few saw such upside coming for Harden, Curry or Lawson.

The question is, why? What mistakes in evaluation led to not just missing on Harden, Curry and Lawson, but missing on evaluating their maximum potential?

Here’s my analysis of why:

James Harden

Harden had many clear strengths in college, such as size, shooting, passing and ballhandling for a 2 guard. His feel for the game, control and “old man” game stood out as well.

The main reason Harden’s upside got underplayed, is he was regarded as a less than an elite athlete. A few points about this. Although Harden may not be a freak athlete, he’s still a good one. He has a strong first step, especially for his size.

Furthermore, I’ve made the point that athleticism goes as far as it can be used. The usual value of a wing player’s athleticism, is “slashing” or having the explosiveness to attack the basket, scoring points in the paint and at the free throw line and collapsing the defense for others. When a wing player forces his will on the opponent by attacking the basket, I categorize it as physically impacting the game. A few months ago I wrote how Gerald Green despite great athleticism, had less than impressive ability to physically impact the game due to a lack of ballhandling. Because of lacking ballhandling skills, a player like Green could not use his athleticism to physically impact the game at a high level and without that his athleticism is not as valuable. Harden is the antithesis of Green. Although a good and not elite athlete, he adds to that elite ballhandling ability. The combination of good athleticism, elite size and elite ballhandling makes Harden a closer to great or elite talent physically impacting the game than merely judging his athleticism in a vacuum would suggest. Furthermore his college career showcased this. Harden used his first step, size and ballhandling to be a dynamic player attacking the basket in college. Largely a mistake was made assuming the tools allowing Harden to attacking the basket at an elite level in college, wouldn’t be there in the NBA too. Certainly Harden’s skills and IQ were so high that if he had been projected as a dynamic slasher at the next level, he’d have been known as a surefire star.

Stephen Curry

Coming out of college, Curry clearly was a special, special 3 point shooter. What people didn’t know is whether he’d do anything else. The reasons to doubt Curry were long. His athleticism and skinny frame was seen as a weakness limiting his upside. It was unclear whether he could play PG and run an offense at the next level, or whether he’d be stuck at SG. Many expected awful defense. Curry was also a 21 year old Junior coming out of Davidson, older age and small schools usually hurt draft prospects. With Curry the appeal was a guaranteed skill, 3 point shooting. However younger, more physically gifted peers in the draft were seen of players with a higher chance of flaming out, but a higher upside.

A main reason for the Harden miss, is similar for Curry. Curry may not be an elite athlete or very wide, however he is an exceptional ballhandler. When added to at least decent quickness, Curry’s ability to create attack the rim off the dribble is average, not bad. This difference between average and bad slashing, is key considering the rest of Curry’s game is flawless. Aside from all time great shooting and elite ability to create jumpshots off the dribble, Curry’s feel for the game and IQ is elite.

As for the rest of his concerns: In regards to playing PG, Curry became more of a playmaker his final year at Davidson averaging 5.6 assists per game. As a strong ballhandler with an elite feel for the game, while doubts about his position were not unfounded, PG was always his most likely position. Curry is still not a defensive standout, but many offensive stars aren’t and especially at PG, where man-to-man defense is almost dead. Point guards are almost entirely defended with help and team defense, allowing a team to survive Curry’s defensive inadequacies. Curry’s age and college are red herrings to me because talent is talent, regardless of when the player comes out. Furthermore age and college are usually red flags when a player who doesn’t produce early in his career, suddenly starts dominating them once they’re a few years older. Curry was elite as a freshman at Davidson statistically (27.8 PER) and one of the best in the NCAA in his sophomore season (34.7 PER and a dominant March Madness performance), before his junior year (36.4 PER).

Of the misses in this article, I consider Curry’s the most forgivable due to valid questions about whether he’d attack the basket and his position in the NBA.

Ty Lawson

With Lawson it’s quite simple, his height. At under 6 feet this submarined an otherwise perfect resume. Lawson had an elite combination of speed and strength for his height, an elite skill game with a dominant 3pt shooting season his final year at UNC with great ballhandling and passing, along with a silky smooth feel for the game and IQ. Furthermore Lawson was the standout, star player on the a national championship Tar Heel squad. But because of his height, he got labeled as a likely backup PG and sparkplug. The other thing that hurt him, is he was a Junior and set to turn 22 in November of his 2009 draft year.

Lawson’s height prevents him from being an even better player, but considering he aces the rest of the test, he has more than enough to make up for it. I wrote last week about why I consider height to be overrated. The gist is that length has to compete with athleticism and strength for what matters in physical talent alone, but then physical talent has to compete with skill, intelligence and motor as other factors influencing a player’s success. If physical talent is only a slice of a pie for a player’s success, if one sees height as only a slice of that slice, all of a sudden it becomes logical to see why a short player like Lawson can be so good. Lawson’s height is relevant, but when it’s added to his elite skill and strength which allows him to attack the basket and finish, even from a physical talent perspective he comes out well. When added to terrific perimeter skills and feel for the game, Lawson playing like this makes sense. Largely what it comes down to, is isolating any single factor as overwhelming an otherwise near perfect resume, is likely a mistake just because of the amount of factors that go into a player’s success. For example, Rajon Rondo is a star with shooting as a clear weakness. But like height, one can see shooting as only a portion of skill level, while skill level is then a portion of overall talent and success – like Lawson’s situation, Rajon’s weakness as a shooter then becomes a slice of a slice and thus overcome-able. Marc Gasol’s athleticism is likewise only a slice of a slice, with Gasol having other physical talents like strength and length, then that physical talent only being a portion of his success competing with skill and intelligence where he is elite for his position.

As for his production, like Curry, talent is talent. Furthermore Lawson played at a strong level his freshman (21.3 PER) and sophomore (24.8 PER) seasons before his junior (30.5 PER) year and was not a late bloomer, in particular emerging as a star by his sophomore season.

Lawson’s is clearly the most unforgivable evaluation of this group, considering how far he fell compared to the others, that he had the perfect college situation for the spotlight to be on him and especially considering an undersized PG with a poor skill level and feel for the game in Jonny Flynn went 6th overall!  I don’t know entirely how Lawson fell that far, sometimes you have to shrug your shoulders and just accept wild things happen.

As a wrapping note, as I’ve stated before, whenever you hear that this or another draft is terrible and hopeless – just remember Harden, Curry and Lawson and how they were missed. And check out this blog because I’ll be trying to sniff out who the next versions of them are!

Written by jr.

May 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm

4 Responses

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  1. you nailed it. i LOVED the 2009 draft. so much talent. heres a prediction that will not fail to be true: the 2013 draft will be much better than “the worst draft in recent memory”.

    the lawson thing was bonkers. he passed the eye test; he passed the stat test; he played at a major program; he won a title as the best player on his team; he dominated the tournament; hes short but hes also very strong.

    i suspect youre right about the height thing, but i also wonder if there was some weird groupthink business going on there. chad ford said in a chat recently that the revelation that shabazz lied about his age gave nba decision makers the excuse to drop him on their boards, something they had wanted to do anyway but didnt. once opinion crystalizes its apparently really hard to change it, or even go against it.


    May 10, 2013 at 9:33 pm

  2. wow, great blog man keep it up


    May 14, 2013 at 11:37 am

    • Thank you for the kind compliment


      May 14, 2013 at 7:07 pm

  3. Interestingly, I think most of the “advanced stats” people were all over Ty Lawson as an elite prospect. I also recall posting numerous places that Curry and Harden’s athleticism were underrated, particularly after they graded out pretty well at the combine (Curry in particular was somewhat of a surprise).


    May 15, 2013 at 4:14 am

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