NBA Draftermath: The Most Sneaky Good Pick of the Night

Finding someone who thought the 2011 NBA Draft was a good one is harder than finding someone who thinks Casey Anthony was innocent. Whoops. But just because it was a historically weak draft, that doesn’t make it short on talent, as discussed before.

One thing that really made this draft stand out was the influx of foreign talent. Six of the first seven draftees were born outside of the US (Kyrie Irving – Australia, Enes Kanter – Switzerland, Tristan Thompson – Canada, Jonas Valanciunas – Lithuania, Jan Vesely – Czech Republic, and Bismack Biyombo – Congo). This made for an even more confusing draft because no matter how many scouting reports and grainy YouTube videos you watch of these foreign talents, it’s near impossible for the average fan to gauge how bright their futures will be.

Luckily for the fans, however, the NBA teams know what they’re doing when it comes to the draft. They pour hour after hour and dollar after dollar into scouting to figure out Donatas Motiejunas will be Darko Milicic or Nikoloz Tskitishvili. I mean Mouhamad Sene or Yi Jianlian. I mean Yaroslav Korolev or… gah I give up. Teams shell out hundreds upon hundreds of man hours to find out who will be the next star in each draft. At least, that’s what we’d like to think.

Some front offices are what I like to call “fundamentally challenged,” for example Minnesota. Fundamental stuff like, you know, don’t draft two point guards in the top five of the same draft.

Some front offices are what I like to call “needy drafters,” like Philly and New York this year. Each team had a need they desperately needed to fill (size and defense), so they both reached for borderline first-round players (Nikola Vucevic and Iman Shumpert) while drafting in the teens. Tell me when reaching ever worked out.

So here we have arrived at the 2011 NBA Draft, full of intrigue, promise, and mystery. The draft is undoubtedly most important for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who look to finally be able to turn the page from LeBron’s Decision to the new chapter in Cleveland Sports. By hook or by crook, the Cavs landed the first and fourth picks in the draft, which, again, comes in the worst draft potentially since 2000.

The first pick was easy. Sure, they really hurt on the wings and could use the potential of a Derrick Williams, but there’s no way they could pass on Kyrie Irving, the scintillating point guard out of Duke. But as Williams and Enes Kanter came of the board 2-3 to Minnesota and Utah, the Cavaliers were suddenly faced with a tough choice with the fourth pick.


Even if Valanciunas wouldn't help the Cavs this year, were they really going anywhere with him?

Everyone agrees that this draft is chock full of international talent. Not everyone agrees, however, with who the best player from overseas is. Some, including myself, like Kanter. He’s big. He’s rough. He’s polished. Some like Jan Vesely, an extremely athletic forward who has everything you look for in a perimiter player except a jump shot. But as the draft drew closer, eyes started turning to Lithuanian seven-footer Jonas Valanciunas.

Just 18 years old, Valanciunas started putting on a show for his Euro League team and has all of the physical skills to find success. With a great motor, proficiency in the pick-and-roll game, and a soft touch around the rim, there’s not much to dislike about him. But there’s just one problem–he has a sticky buyout situation that will prevent him from playing in the 2011-12 NBA season.

So here sit the Cavaliers. They had reportedly fallen head over heels for Valanciunas, even putting him above Kanter on their draft board, but the buyout could pose a dilemma. Which is more important: taking the better player and waiting a year, or taking a lesser talent who will help out immediately.

The Cavaliers made a mistake. Not only did they pass up potentially the best player in the entire draft, but they reached a good bit to take an even riskier player, Tristan Thompson. If you told someone at the beginning of the college basketball season that Tristan Thompson would be the fourth pick in the draft, you’d be laughed at. If you told someone during March Madness that Tristan Thompson would be in the conversation for the top five draft picks, you wouldn’t have even been dignified with a response.

I don’t want to knock Mr. Thompson too much because I believe he can be an effective roll player. With that being said, I think Cleveland could have gotten the exact same productivity with the man who was drafted 22nd overall, Kenneth Faried. Thompson will never make an All-Star game. He’s a little to small, a little to offensively inept. If he waited until next year to enter the draft, he’d need an incredible amount of luck or a preposterous string of injuries to make it back to the lottery.

Just hours before the draft commenced, word came out of the Raptors’ camp that they thought they had found their franchise center, a mysterious young international player with huge upside: Bismack Biyombo. There’s no way they thought Valanciunas would still be on the board; they had already looked ahead for the next best option. To their utmost surprise, their man was still on the board–I’m sure they wanted to send in their pick as soon as they heard Thompson’s name announced by David Stern.

Some Raptors fans will complain about their newest player. After all, he won’t score a single point, grab a single rebound, or block a single shot for the 2011 Raptors. But I actually think this is a good thing. I can’t think of a better scenario for the Raptors.

It’s been said by many basketball experts, “The worst place you can be is in the middle of the pack. You need to get bad to be good.” To use the phrase first used by Bobcats Baseline‘s ASChin, every team needs to escape the Nottery, a place where franchises go to die: Not good enough to be good and not bad enough to get good.

As long as you’re stuck in a small market, the only way to improve is through the draft. And as long as you’re stuck at the back of the lottery, you’ll never find a franchise-changing player. You need to become very bad to get good, or just very lucky.

Right now, I would classify the Raptors as very bad. If Andrea Bargnani is their signature player, I think that’s all that needs to be said, but just a quick perusing through their roster should probably upset your stomach. Amir Johnson. Ed Davis. James Johnson. Ugh. Even Lindsay Lohan has more talent. (Side note: is she talented in that she’s rich because she has no talents? Does that count as a talent? Hand me an Aspirin, please).

Now that the Raptors essentially added no players for next season through the draft, they immediately become the worst team in the league, just a level above the Bobcats, Raptors, Cavs, and Kings. They’ll presumably end up with another top-five draft pick–likely even higher–in the best draft to come around since 2003. Genius. Now the Raptors will have a stud center and a stud wing (Harrison Barnes or Perry Jones, perhaps) starting on a rookie contract next year.

Now let’s imagine Cleveland remained patient and took Valanciunas, while the Raptors snatch up Biyombo. The big man from the Congo immediately makes a difference on the defensive end and allows Bargnani to roam freely around the perimeter, where he is more comfortable. All of a sudden, Toronto isn’t a bottom-five team any more. Harrison Barnes isn’t coming north of the border. Suddenly, the Raptors are getting stuck in the Nottery. They’re just good enough to be bad, not bad enough to get good.

I’d also like to point out that this in an ingenious way to hold onto your job if you are a GM on brink of losing your job (cough cough Brian Colangelo). Toronto can’t fire him at the end of the season, his stud prospect hasn’t come over from Europe yet. The Raptors aren’t bad because Colangelo made a bad move, they’re bad because Valanciunas hasn’t arrived yet; you can’t fire a man who’s plan hasn’t yet been played out.

Is the a passive-aggressive form of tanking? Maybe. But who’s going to be laughing when the Raptors trot out a lineup of Jerryd Bayless, DeMar DeRozan, Harrison Barnes, Andrea Bargnani, and Jonas Valanciunas? Give Toronto a few years and GM Brian Colangelo’s patience will pay off with a young, talented roster headed to the playoffs instead of another fruitless trip to the draft lottery.

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