Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Case Against Thabeet

Posted by on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 9:35 AM

With the NBA Draft only hours away, it is looking increasingly likely that the Grizzlies will select UCONN center Hasheem Thabeet with the second pick in a draft. A trade could still send the Grizzlies in a different direction, but the safe money at this point is on Thabeet. I've been against the pick but haven't really summarized my objections, so it's time to get those in before it's too late. Three reasons not to draft Hasheem Thabeet:

thabeet.jpg1. Value: My primary objection to a Thabeet pick has been that I don’t think it maximizes the asset the Grizzlies obtained by getting the #2 pick. This notion is predicated on Ricky Rubio being the consensus #2 player in the draft. If it’s true that the shine is coming off Rubio a little as NBA teams take a closer look, then maybe that’s no longer true. But I tend to believe that there is still sufficient interest in Rubio that what you can obtain in trade for the pick is more valuable than Thabeet.

2. Precedent: My radio partner Chris Vernon has been talking a lot this week about the lack of a correlation between being a big-time college shot-blocker and being a high-level pro, citing such former NCAA shot-blocking machines as Calvin Booth and Adonal Foyle. This is a persuasive point, but the counter-argument would be that none of the players Vernon cites were quite as highly regarded coming out of college as Thabeet.

But what's the history of players of both Thabeet's type and draft ranking? Not good. By my count, there have been only nine true centers taken with Top 5 picks since 1990. (There is a degree of judgment call here about what constitutes a true center. I can hash that out in the comments if anyone wants to challenge the list.)

Only four of these players were considered can't-miss franchise players:

Greg Oden (2007)
Yao Ming (2002)
Shaquille O'Neal (1992)
Alonzo Mourning (1992)

The success-rate here is three of four pending Greg Oden. But, no one considers Thabeet a clear franchise player. What about the true centers taken high that weren't considered obvious stars?

There have been five:

Andrew Bogut (2005)
Eddy Curry (2001)
Michael Olowokandi (1998)
Shawn Bradley (1993)
Dikembe Mutombo (1991)

From this group you have three busts, one serviceable starter (Bogut), and one star in Dikembe Mutombo. The clear lesson — and it only gets worse if you expand to Top 10 picks — is that reaching for size is gamble that doesn't usually pay off.

If it possible that Thabeet is another Mutombo — a dominant defender and rebounder who makes up for his offensive limitations? Yes. Is it likely? No. I do think Thabeet is a more fluid athlete than even a young Mutombo was and, thus, might have a little more offensive upside. But he's also not as strong, as tough, or as talented a rebounder. This is why I think more reasonable comps for Thabeet are Samuel Dalembert or one-time all-star Theo Ratliff. Quality starting centers are their best, but not #2 picks.

9421/1245940452-marc_gasol_1.jpg3. Marc Gasol: I’m starting to think this is my biggest issue with a potential Thabeet pick. Thabeet and Gasol are both one-position players. Can you pair them together against certain match-ups? I suppose. But playing them together with any frequency is a forced fit, which is why I fear the drafting of Thabeet sets the stage for the departure of Gasol, whom I think is now and very likely will remain a better player.

Gasol was a quality starting center as a rookie and can still get better: His conditioning can and should improve after a year of adjustment to the NBA game. I also think there are perimeter skills as a shooter and passer that haven't been fully exploited. Plus he brings intangibles to the team in terms of mental and physical toughness and basketball I.Q. that I think are as valuable as Thabeet's shot-blocking. I see Gasol as an emerging team leader, which is hard to do with a heavily-invested-in #2 pick potentially pushing you to the bench or even, eventually, to another team. I think the team's frontcourt solution should come in pairing a rebounder and defender at the power forward with Gasol. If Thabeet were really a franchise center, then you have to take him and make the change. But I'm not convinced he is.

The Prospect of Being Wrong: I, of course, have to allow that I could be wrong about all of this. I've seen Thabeet play on television maybe half a dozen times. I've never seen him in person. I don't watch a ton of college basketball and my own personal prognostication history is decidedly mixed. (Examples: I was right about Dwyane Wade, whom I would have taken second behind Lebron James at the time. I was wrong about Deron Williams, who I thought was too slow and not as good a prospect as Raymond Felton.)

The people at the top levels of the Grizzlies basketball operations are professionals who do this for a living. They've invested a lot more time, effort, and expertise into these questions than I have, and there seems to be a pretty universal consensus on Thabeet. Does everyone in the room consider him the number two player in the draft? No, I don't think so. Does everyone consider him a viable pick at that spot? It appears so.

And the Griz war room is not alone in this regard. Chad Ford's "draft tiers" piece, which gauged consensus opinions among NBA general managers, had Thabeet as a top four prospect. Last night on ESPN's draft preview special, Jay Bilas ranked Thabeet second.

It should be said that this goes for Ricky Rubio as well, who would be my choice at #2 based on what seems to be his franchise-altering, fan-inspiring potential for a franchise that needs altering and a fan-base than needs inspiring. But maybe Rubio is as much of a risk as any candidate at #2. Bilas — who may have a non-college bias — was skeptical of Rubio, and John Hollinger was more persuasive in underscoring just how profound a problem Rubio's scoring difficulties could be in a transition to the NBA.

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