Before the 2013-14 college basketball season even began, the 2014 NBA Draft class was more more hyped than The Gobbledy Gooker. Much like the failed wrestling gimmick, the entire classes’ splash at the college level was immediately felt with a strange backlash. Because, you know, players who fail to live up to others’ expectations are surely going to feel the wrath of those who set them to begin with.
The word on the mean streets of recruiting websites always had this class as a mix of raw, but potential riddled, future NBA players. Between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, etc., the excitement over each future potential draft pick even started multiple “tank for Player X” hashtags. However, between hyperbolic expectations and the idea of potential being as much a part of sports-talk as there is today, it really put a damper on how people perceived the 2014 NBA Draft player pool by the time the college season was over.
A prime example being Wiggins, who, through no fault of his own, ended up being billed as the Canadian LeBron James before ever playing a college basketball game. Which is not adding any pressure at all to a player whose offensive game clearly needed work. So, naturally, by the end of the year Wiggins was no longer the next LeBron, but a player filled with potential. Just potential. While we ignore his already strong defensive abilities, we are more concerned about something that can’t be measured.
Now here we are, in mid June, back to evaluating Wiggins as an NBA Draft prospect. Words that you will likely hear — to the point of nausea — until the draft are potential, upside, and athleticism. Which are all basically the same exact thing. Those adjectives, mind you, are why some NBA executives will place him higher on their draft boards than Jabari Parker, despite the fact that Parker is currently the more polished overall player. Which makes one ponder the question: Why do NBA front offices put so much stock into potential?
Well, first we have to know what potential actually is. I mean we can’t exactly measure potential. It’s an intangible of sorts. Potential usually boils down to a player’s youth as well as his perceived athleticism. The more athletic you are, at a younger age specifically, the more supposed potential a player has. Which is pretty odd, considering if Wiggins were to stay one more year NBA Draft experts would then magically considering his potential as being much lower.
After a player is deemed as having a ton of potential, experts will then talk about the player needing to just work on his jumper, basketball IQ, handle or anything else that actually relates to tangible on-the-court success. That is where the idea of potential runs into some trouble. If it were just that easy to develop those aspects of a player’s game, the NBA Draft wouldn’t have a history filled with busts, blowouts and could-have-beens but never actually-weres. Which is why it is rather puzzling that Zach LaVine is climbing up all mock drafts. Why, because he can jump really high?
Granted, that can’t be taught, but becoming good at nearly every other single aspect of playing basketball is not easy either.
Having an injury-riddled career aside, most NBA draft busts are born out of some NBA general managers’ obsession with potential. More specifically, a certain player’s potential. Much like brokers on Wall Street, front offices would prefer to put more stock in a huge risk, albeit big reward, investment rather than play it safe and go for a more sure-fire thing.
Which isn’t exactly solely the fault of the people making draft choices. The NBA, by design, puts teams who are flailing in a position where only the NBA Draft could save them. No one of consequence is going to go to certain teams as a free agent. It leaves those franchises in the drafting for a home run predicament. Rebuilding from scratch, an NBA organization means you need to hit it big in the draft.
That’s why more sure-fire players, like a Parker, sometimes get passed for a player who has supposedly more potential. For some reason, mostly because he is already polished, Parker’s ceiling as a player is viewed as limited. So, in reality, he might be punished in the NBA Draft selection process for being a better overall player in the right now. Which makes zero sense.
If a player’s ceiling is an actual thing, so too is a player’s floor. Somehow, though, a player’s floor is never viewed as important as that same guy’s ceiling. Since everyone assumes that Wiggins’ ceiling is much higher than Parker’s, why haven’t we acknowledged the fact that the latter’s floor is already set much, much higher? Because it’s not as fancy. Oh, and because potential can give NBA general managers a scapegoat. What about LaVine’s ceiling and floor? There is probably no greater discrepancy between those to things for any other player, but that won’t stop him from going in the lottery. Even funnier, if funnier meant disheartening, if LaVine does not turn into a great pro we won’t admit we were wrong, instead we will question his work ethic because “he had so much potential” or whatever bologna.
Potential, for whatever it really is or isn’t, is something that somehow becomes widely agreed upon. Nearly every expert will say that Andrew Wiggins has the most potential in the upcoming NBA Draft or that if Zach LaVine ever “figures it out” (whatever that means), he will be incredible. So, if Wiggins is to be drafted because of his potential, but then does not work out, the organization’s front-office can blame their decision on the fact that they were placing their bets on his potential — something that everyone else said he had. Again, without having anything to base it off of other than the fact he is young and athletic.
Where does that leave a Wiggins, Parker and LaVine? In the same place they were before entering the previous college basketball season. The realm of never being able to live up to another’s expectations because they are going to be set at otherworldly, mostly fictitious levels — which were all mostly founded by the idea of each players’ potential. Which, um, we decided how much each had without being able to actually measure it.
All of this is without mentioning the fact how we treat these draft classes. Before the season began, experts hyped the group of incoming freshmen as the best thing since slice-bread. That the 2014 NBA Draft would be deeper than any Chicago style pizza. Naturally, time went on and the rhetoric began to change. It went from the most talented and deepest class in the history of history, to just another good one.
See, as games are actually played, skills are showcased, and players are exposed for whatever they truly are, the expectation-makers adjust their fictional meters of a player’s success. It is also a way of every basketball analyst to safeguard themselves from down the road criticism.
Much like last year’s draft class was horrible until it was declared as a deep group, this year’s class was proclaimed as tank-worthy until now, while the draft is closer, and everyone needs to protect their jobs and credibility by downplaying the greatest draft in a billion years.
All of that brings us, in the most roundabout way as possible, back to potential. For whatever it is worth, which might not be much, potential can’t be measured. If we were to be honest, potential isn’t even really that real. I mean it is real in the same way a business plan can look great, but you have no actual idea if it will work until the plan is enacted. It is just there. Unlike business, though, a company’s ceiling isn’t solely based off of how young it is and how bad it is in certain areas. The tangibles of the business are very important. Much less stock is put in the intangibles. If Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were stocks, Parker’s would be the much safer bet. However, the NBA has very rarely relied on playing it safe in the market known as the NBA Draft. With that being said, Wiggins is very much a boom or bust investment.
At the end of the day, though, whichever general manager selects Wiggins is linking their basketball reputation to his resume. If Wiggins is to become everything that people expect, living up to that potential, the GM will be considered a genius. Sadly, if Wiggins is to fail, never develop or just turn out to be a ho-hum NBA player, that same guy will be considered a dope.
So yay, potential?