Looking historically at the NBA Draft, there are oodles of lottery picks that haven’t worked out. Every year, sports analysts and draft experts claim that so and so is the next LeBron or so and so is the next Alex Caruso. In reality, it’s pretty difficult to tell if someone will actually be a star. And a lot of the time, a draft pick, even a lottery pick, can be a complete gamble. Think about it, you’re taking a 19 year old kid with “potential” and basically hoping that he can develop into the next big thing. It’s a total crap shoot. And that’s why we hear so many ridiculous draft stories like the Blazers taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan or Jonny Flynn getting picked before Steph Curry. You never know how players will turn out.
When we think about highly touted players with high expectations, I wouldn’t say that many of them end up as flat out busts. However, we do see many cases where players with great potential just end up as average journeymen and never reach the ceiling that sports analysts project for them. Evan Turner and Andrew Wiggins are players who come to mind for me. These guys were both high lottery picks who were projected to be stars. But like many other lottery picks, these two haven’t panned out the way that we expected them to. Andrew Wiggins was getting compared to LeBron when he was in high school, and now, five seasons in, he still hasn’t made an all-star team. And I think a part of his struggle is due to the fact that, up until the NBA, Wiggins had never dealt with any adversity in his basketball career. The man was blessed with God-given talent. He was 6'6" as a 13 year old, he was born with truly insane athleticism, and he could jump out of the gym as a high schooler. There was no question that he would make it to the NBA.
And Wiggins isn’t the only player who was spoiled with insane talent at a young age. There’s a lot of players that have that natural athleticism, and they grow up being stronger and faster than their peers. The main problem for some of these guys is that, because they have never had to overcome any challenges at a young age, it becomes much more difficult once they finally face some adversity when getting to the NBA.
Anthony Bennett is another example of a player who had it easy his whole life. Growing up, he never faced any challenges, which is why it was so rough for him when he finally got to the league. David Griffin, the Cavs former GM, was asked to describe Anthony Bennett and he shared that “the kid had no desire to overcome adversity whatsoever. As soon as it was hard, he was out.” Griffin continued, stating, “[Anthony’s] whole life he rolled out a bed bigger, better, and more talented than everybody else.” Anthony Bennet was the man his entire life. He didn’t necessarily have to work hard in high school in order to put up great stats. And as a result, it was a huge wake up call when he got to the league and realized that “talent” wouldn’t be enough.
We see this all the time with players. Maybe it’s not as drastic as Anthony Bennett’s case, but we oftentimes see players who make it to the league with tremendous talent, however they never show improvement due to a lack of work ethic. (I’m looking at Hassan Whiteside).
In a way, I almost feel bad for these players who dominate the game from an early age because it gives them this false sense that things will always be easy.
On the complete other side of the spectrum, you hear some of these amazing stories about lightly recruited or undrafted players who end up being huge stars. I think the Blazers backcourt is a perfect example of two players that had to fight for every opportunity. Dame had to put in his 4 years at Weber. And C.J… well just look at this photo of C.J. in high school.
What makes this photo even more hilarious is the fact that C.J. has what looks like Boban’s 1st cousin hovering over him.
But that’s the thing. You look at someone like C.J. McCollum, who was 5'2'’ as a Freshman, and you realize how hard he had to work just to get recruited to the Patriot League. But for C.J., facing those challenges in high school is the reason why he has the same work ethic today. And it’s those early challenges that have turned underrated players like himself, Steph, and Dame into superstars. Lil Baby, the legendary Atlanta rapper, spoke the truth when he said, “I feel like it’s different when you got it out the mud.” And players like Dame and C.J. certainly have got it out the mud. These guys have been slept on their whole lives, so naturally they’ve always had that chip on their shoulder to prove people wrong.
We have these great stories of players like Steph, C.J. or even T.J. “Insurance Agent” McConnell who have thrived despite being undersized for so long. The physical challenges are one thing. But there are also emotional journeys and traumas that have fueled certain players to success. Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid, both from Cameroon, grew up in rough environments, and dealt with a lot of adversity in their childhood years. Embiid, believe it or not, was lanky and uncoordinated when he first started playing basketball at the age of 15. Even when he first moved to the U.S., his peers made fun of him for not speaking english, and his teammates at Montverde told him that he didn’t even belong on the JV team. Clearly things weren’t always easy for the now-dominant big man.
For Pascal, his father passed away in 2014 while he was playing at New Mexico State. To make things worse, he was told that returning home to Cameroon to visit his family would get him kicked off the basketball team. It was around this time where Siakam started “playing mad” as he was out to prove himself and make his father proud. Fast forward a few years and look where he’s at now. He just helped Toronto win their first title and he won himself the Most Improved Player award. When asked about his legacy, Pascal explained, “[I’m] just doing it for my dad. Going out there every single night. Not worrying about what’s going on. Just having a bigger purpose.”
Giannis is another player who dealt with a lot growing up. The Greek Freak’s family was very poor, and from a very young age, Giannis had to work with his brother, hawking watches, handbags and sunglasses in the streets of Athens. Not the most glamorous childhood.
A video from 2013 went viral recently, showing an 18 year old Giannis, talking about his dream of becoming an NBA player.
Looking at this scrawny 18 year old, and comparing him to now, it’s crazy to see the progression that he has made. After watching his interview from years ago, it’s great to see that he spoke his dreams into existence and really put in the work to exceed what he set out for himself. From humble beginnings to the league MVP.
We can sure learn a lot from the Greek Freak’s journey, as well as every other player who has overcome personal challenges to make it to the NBA. Just looking at stories like C.J., Siakam, or Giannis, I think that GMs could really benefit from looking at a player’s personal background.
You have to look for people who truly care about their legacy and are more interested in the journey rather than the fame or money that comes with playing. If you can find a player who shows that he is in love with the process and and is obsessed with getting better, take a chance on that guy.