Friday, June 8, 2012

Ernie Grunfeld and underachieving first-round picks

Unhappy with the Wizards' decision to bring back Ernie Grunfeld? Worried about what they're going to do with the third pick in the upcoming NBA draft? Don't worry, you're not alone.

Looking back at the Wizards' previous eight drafts under Grunfeld's watchful eye (note: the 2003 draft, when the Wizards took Jarvis Hayes with the 10th pick, was handled by Wes Unseld), it's pretty easy to get frustrated. And since I'm a Wizards fan (among other routinely bad teams), I'm already frustrated, so I decided to take a look at the first round of those drafts. You likely remember most of them, but let me refresh your memory:

2004: Traded No. 5 pick (Devin Harris), Christian Laettner, and Jerry Stackhouse to Mavericks for Antawn Jamison.

Verdict: Good move, because of Jamison.

2005: In 2001 the Wizards traded a future first-round pick (ended up being No. 20 in this draft) and Laron Profit for the draft rights to Brendan Haywood.

Verdict: Nice move.

2006: Selected Oleksiy Pecherov (No. 18). Next five players taken: Quincy Douby, Renaldo Balkman, Rajon Rondo, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone.

Verdict: Awful pick. Pecherov was out of the league in three years.

2007: Took Nick Young (No. 16). Next five: Sean Williams, Marco Belinelli, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Smith, Daequan Cook.

Verdict: Decent pick.

2008: Drafted JaVale McGee (No. 18). Next five: J.J. Hickson, Alexis Ajinca, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos.

Verdict: Also decent.

2009: Traded No. 5 pick (Ricky Rubio), Etan Thomas, Pecherov, and Darius Songaila for Randy Foye and Mike Miller.

Verdict: Terrible trade.

2010: Picked John Wall (No. 1). Also picked Kevin Seraphin (No. 17) (picked up in the Kirk Hinrich trade) and acquired Trevor Booker (No. 23) (swapping picks with Minnesota). Next five picks taken after Seraphin: Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, James Anderson, Craig Brackins, Eliot Williams.

Verdict: Too early to tell, but looking up.

2011: Selected Jan Vesely (No. 6) and Chris Singleton (No. 18). Five taken after Vesely and Singleton (respectively): Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Klay Thompson; Tobias Harris, Donatas Motiejunas, Nolan Smith, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Mirotic.

Verdict: Too early to tell.


Yikes. Trading the fifth pick twice? Not really picking and developing anything close to a star player? And Oleksiy Pecherov? Yup, these all happened. Granted, I didn't go back and comment on the makeup of each one of those teams in various years (much of the strategy had to do with finding players to fit alongside Gilbert Arenas, Jamison, and Caron Butler); so yes, the Wizards obviously passed on certain players and positions in various drafts because of needs they had. But that doesn't make passing up good players look any better.

I put a similar list together back in January when the Wizards fired Flip Saunders. I noted that there was (and is) a lot of blame to go around, but basically that new people needed to be put in charge. I don't like quoting myself, but here's what I said at the time:
Because of how horrible this team is, the Wizards will have an excellent chance at a top three pick in the next draft, but I don't have much confidence that Grunfeld will select the right player. And unless better coaches are in place, I also don't believe that player will develop at the level necessary to help turn this team around. I also have little trust that even if he does make a strong pick that he'll be able to surround that player and Wall with the right types of pieces.
I still strongly believe that. And yes, the Wizards did secure a top three pick. Unfortunately, Saunders is still the only guy to go. Grunfeld received a two-year extension, as did Saunders's successor, Randy Wittman. The rest of the coaching staff will remain the same.

But back to Grunfeld's first-rounders: There aren't a whole lot of really high picks in there (he traded two of those potential selections away). And there were some mistakes, but Grunfeld also made a couple of interesting finds -- mainly, Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Unfortunately, neither player really grew up in Washington or improved their games THAT much, and the Wizards parted with both last season.

And, essentially, that's the biggest issue. Grunfeld isn't the best at finding talent, but he's not the worst either. But under his watch, those selections don't get better! (Oddly enough, Grunfeld's best find was probably Andray Blatche in the second round, and he even showed some promise by improving for a handful of seasons in a row. But Grunfeld bought into the hype and gave Blatche an extension through the 2014-2015 season. If your best example of someone improving is Blatche, then you're not doing so well.)

So not only do the Wizards not do a great job of identifying talent, but when they actually do bring talent in, they don't do even a competent job of cultivating it. Did Young and McGee improve? Sure, a little bit. But Young is now just a role player, and McGee may never be anything more if he continues his inconsistent, out-of-control game.

But even John Wall, the consensus top player in the 2010 draft, hasn't taken the step forward that many hoped he would. He'd undoubtedly be more impressive with a better supporting cast and a collection of shooters and hard workers (which Grunfeld and co. seem to finally understand), but his jump shot is still not very good, which limits his explosiveness when defenders consistently play off of him, daring him to chuck up shots. Just take a look at Wall's averages from his first two seasons:

2010-2011: 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 41.0% shooting, 3.8 turnovers
2011-2012: 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 42.3% shooting, 3.9 turnovers

Those seasons are very similar, and there's nothing wrong with averaging 16/8 with four-plus rebounds. But there is still room for improvement for someone with Wall's tantalizing skills, and he didn't necessarily get better. But he's just 21, so it's silly to worry too much just yet.

Trevor Booker and primarily Kevin Seraphin, who both made noticeable strides from their rookie seasons, may be the best two examples that something in the Wizards' organization may be changing. Or maybe both of them are completely devoted to working hard and getting better, which hasn't been a calling card for many Wizards players the last several years. When Booker is healthy, he's an effective role player, and Seraphin showed down the stretch last year that he can be more than a competent big man -- and also that he can score a bit from the block. The Wizards will be much better for it if that trend continues.

But can Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton take a step forward? And what about whomever Grunfeld chooses with the third pick this year? That player, whether it's Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thomas Robinson, or someone else, will need to be a solid player and building block alongside Wall. It's obvious that the Wizards need more talent. But more than that, they need gifted players who are able to keep getting better each season. It's one thing to identify special and unique talent. It's another to properly teach that talent and make sure it develops into something better. No one is saying that's an easy thing to do. But to finally be good again, that's something that must happen.

How does that happen? I don't know. Maybe some combination of hiring better scouts and evaluators, better coaches, better trainers, and better nutritionists, or building better facilities. Something. Almost anything would be better than what the Wizards have been doing. And say what you will about Ted Leonsis and his decision-making, but he seems pretty open to trying different things in order to win:
[...] we will invest in additional coaches and development staff because we believe in taking a strong view of building infrastructure to support our players and our franchise. We have been investing in statistical analytics as well as in-house technology and have made additional investments in scouting.

In the long term I want to build a new practice facility for the Wizards, much like that fabulous facility the Capitals have with Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which is one-of-a-kind and first class for our players, fans and the community. The Wizards deserve that as do the Wizards fans. We are changing and adding and investing every season.
All of those presumed changes sound great. But Leonsis does talk (and blog) a lot, and some of that just seems like lip service. Regardless, the Wizards need to try something new, and it's important for Leonsis and the front office to be open-minded about fresh ideas.

Unfortunately, one of those things wasn't hiring someone new and presumably superior to oversee the whole operation. Grunfeld's had his chance. Players are chiefly responsible for their own development, but their organizations also play a huge role in that. And obviously, the only thing the Wizards have developed is a pattern of not having their first-round picks demonstrate much growth at all. So if the No. 3 pick in the draft is disappointing in a couple years, don't be surprised.