Same goes for Jermaine O'Neal. After four seasons, the former 17th pick in the draft was averaging 3.6 points and looking more like a bona fide bust than a future six-time All-Star. Chauncey Billups, too. After three seasons, the former third pick in the draft had already played for four teams and was looking nothing like a point guard who would someday lead a team to an NBA championship.
In those early, developmentally delayed days of their career, any one of them could have been had without major sacrifice in a trade. And was.
The point of all this is that "hidden gems" offer teams caught in limbo hell the best path toward significant improvement. They're not good enough to contend for a championship and they're not bad enough to get a high draft pick. The best way to move forward, then, is to locate someone else's short-term disappointment who can become their own long-term difference-maker.
The Indiana Pacers, for example, had to restructure their team after reaching the NBA Finals in 2000 when Rik Smits retired and Mark Jackson signed with Toronto. They came up with two hidden gems, trading Dale Davis for O'Neal in 2000 and acquiring Ron Artest as a throw-in to a seven-player swap with Chicago in the 2001-02 season, and rebuilt another contender without ever dropping out of the playoffs.
Which begs the question: Are there other early versions of Nash, O'Neal and Billups in today's NBA? Are there hidden gems who could be had for a song, maybe even a catchy little melody, who will glisten when exposed to the heat and light of playing time at the right time in the right place?
Who are they?
Sorry, it's not that easy.
A hidden gem, for clarification, isn't a promising young player who makes gradual improvement and then emerges. That's a breakout player. A hidden gem is someone devoid of expectation who makes a surprising leap to stardom, or, more likely, was once highly regarded but became viewed as a disappointment, yet could flourish with more time. He is the sporting world's version of a battered stock that has become a bargain, but has major upside.
It happens all the time in the sports and entertainment worlds. The Beatles labored long and hard and developed a rabid local following in Liverpool, but were rejected by two record companies before signing with the equivalent of a D-League label, Parlophone. They came cheaply, too.
In the NFL, Johnny Unitas wasn't selected until the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then was cut in training camp. He caught on with the Baltimore Colts after playing semi-pro ball, and got his break only after the starting quarterback was injured. More recently, running back Cedric Benson, the fourth player taken in the 2005 draft, washed out after three seasons with the Chicago Bears because of injuries and arrests. Cincinnati got him as a free agent in September with a risk-free, one-year, $520,000 deal. He was among the NFL's leading rushers until he was injured on Nov. 15.
Identifying their equivalents in the NBA is largely guesswork, but there are common elements that provide clues.
• Lack of opportunity. Nash and O'Neal, for example, were stuck behind established players with their original teams. Nash played behind Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and Jason Kidd in Phoenix, and O'Neal played behind Rasheed Wallace in Portland.
• Hastiness. O'Neal and Billups came to the NBA too soon. O'Neal was 17 years old when he entered the league out of high school, and Billups left college after his sophomore season. They were bound to need time to grow into the job, more time than their first teams were willing to give them.
• Bad timing. Billups was drafted by Boston, which was left in chaos by the frenetic maneuvers of hyperactive coach/general manager Rick Pitino. He was traded in February of his rookie season, before he had a chance to prove or disprove himself. Put any youngster in a dysfunctional home, and what else can you expect?
• Injuries. Billups played just 13 games in his third season. Nash appeared in only 56 games in his fourth season. You don't get better in street clothes.
Given those parameters, here are our nominations for the top three potential hidden gems of the 2009-2010 season. Not all of them will rebound to meet their once-lofty expectations, but one or two of them could. Maybe. With more time. Who knows? But get 'em before they're hot.
1. Ike Diogu, New Orleans. The ninth selection of the 2005 draft is already with his fifth NBA team. The 6-foot-9 power forward forward showed flashes with the Warriors as a rookie, such as when he scored 27 points on 13-of-15 shooting in a game at Detroit, back when the Pistons' Ben Wallace was one of the league's top defenders. He has routinely delivered when given playing time, but hasn't received consistent minutes. Last season was typical. He didn't play much in Portland, was traded to Sacramento in February, and didn't play much there until the final two games. Then he went out and got 32 points and 11 rebounds against Denver, and 28 points and 13 rebounds against Minnesota. They were let's-get-this-over-with, end-of-season games, sure, but they still counted. He missed the first month of this season with a knee injury, so it's too soon to know if New Orleans will be the place he gets a chance.
2. Sebastian Telfair, L.A. Clippers. The 13th pick in the 2004 draft is playing for his fourth team and his seventh coach in his sixth season. Hardly a stable upbringing. Though the 6-foot, 175-pound Telfair is undersized and a subpar shooter, he has the athleticism and quarterbacking skills to excel. He averaged 9.6 points and 5.2 assists in the previous two seasons with Minnesota, and now backs up Baron Davis with the Clippers. Still only 24, he stands a reasonable chance of breaking out if he catches a break with the right team and coach.
3. Yi Jianlian, New Jersey. Hard to say if he can be fairly categorized as a disappointment yet, but some have already done so. Milwaukee took him with the sixth pick in the 2007 draft, then traded him for Richard Jefferson after he averaged 8.6 points as an injury-plagued rookie. He averaged 8.6 points (on only 38 percent shooting) and 5.3 rebounds for the Nets last season, losing his starting job in March. Many have expected more from a 7-foot lottery pick, but he just turned 22 and is dealing with culture shock as well. He had 17 points and 12 rebounds in the Nets' opener this season, followed that up with a few mundane games and then sustained a badly sprained right knee. So he's out again. The injuries continue, but the potential remains.
If one of these players doesn't rise and shine, perhaps someone else will. Some team's general manager will find one soon, and look like a genius. A lucky genius.