While fans are looking forward to the unpredictability of this weekend's Final Four, NBA executives are dreading the next phase of the college season. "We're literally facing the worst draft in 20 years," said a league GM. "There is no no-brainer in this draft. This draft is a train wreck. There are guys who will be in the lottery and people don't expect them to be starters."
As a matter of courage, teams with high picks should focus on one name in particular: Andre Drummond.
Little was expected of Connecticut's freshman center, who at one time was rated as a potential No. 2 pick in the draft last year. He slid to the back of the top 10 amid talk that he was too nice, unfocused, unprofessional and uncoachable. The Pistons grabbed him at No. 9 and they're now glad they did: The 6-foot-10 Drummond is averaging 7.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game. His 18.3 rebounds per 48 minutes are the most by a rookie since 1985-86, and he joins Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol as the only centers with at least 85 blocks and 45 steals this season.
"People questioned his drive," said Pistons coach Lawrence Frank. "He's made unbelievable progress because of the work that he put into it. He's unique because of his athleticism, his size, his strength, great hands, good footwork."
After Damian Lillard (the No. 6 pick of Portland poised to win Rookie of the Year) and Anthony Davis (the No. 1 pick of New Orleans who is viewed as a franchise star), Drummond is now viewed by many as the third-best player of the draft. Though let's not get carried away either: Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Harrison Barnes and Terrence Ross may yet turn into perimeter stars, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could turn into the second-coming of Gerald Wallace, and Thomas Robinson shouldn't be judged by the first impression he made in Sacramento.
The unimpressive history of UConn big men in the NBA was also held against Drummond on draft day.
"Josh Boone wasn't terrible his rookie year," said a league scout who isn't quite ready to call Drummond a can't-miss star. "He teased people, he was running up the floor and doing stuff, [but] he couldn't make free throws."
Boone was also from UConn, whose run of national championships was built on a foundation of intimidating size in the paint. And yet the last five UConn big men to go in the first round (Emeka Okafor, No. 2 in 2004; Charlie Villanueva, No. 7 in '05; Hilton Armstrong, No. 12 in '06; Josh Boone, No. 23 in '06; and Hasheem Thabeet, No. 2 in '09) have failed to live up to the high expectations created for them by the draft.
"With some of those guys, some of the issues were motor," said Frank. They weren't, to use other words, high-energy, hard-driving players. Jim Calhoun was, on the other hand, a high-energy, hard-driving coach. "His pushing, prodding in a college setting got the most out of those guys," Frank said of Calhoun. "Whereas an NBA setting, 82 games, 100-plus practices -- maybe the motor gets exposed. I think it's a case-by-case situation."
In the case of 19-year-old Drummond, the motor runs hot.
"I've shocked a lot of people, but that's not my goal to surprise people," he said. "I'm here to play the game that I love. I'm here to prove nobody wrong, I'm here to play basketball."
Drummond isn't the typical NBA player who stays awake obsessing over how he can ruin the lives of the GMs who passed him by in the draft.
"Everybody always has something negative or positive to say about you," he said. "Keeping all the stuff people say in the back of my head is really dumb."
The Pistons realized he was an atypical NBA player during Drummond's recent convalescence for 22 games from a stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebra. During that time, he offered to visit the concourse during a game in order to sign autographs.
Though the Pistons have earned their 25-51 record -- worse than all but four teams -- they insisted on introducing Drummond to the league slowly while limiting his minutes off the bench.
"We're not an overly athletic team so he stands out," said Frank. "It was big picture in terms of his development -- just kind of learning the game, and learning the proper habits, and not being thrust in a situation with all the expectations and pressure. We just want to put him in a position where he can have the most success."
Drummond arrived to the NBA with little understanding for terminology.
"It was as if he hadn't been to college at all," said a Pistons insider, who cites that deficiency as one of many examples of how far Drummond has come in a short time.
To say he's limited offensively is to skirt the issue. Drummond recently airballed two free throws Sunday in the fourth quarter of a 95-94 loss at Chicago. Detroit is going to need to space the floor in order to create lobs for him to dunk around the basket because he has no go-to moves. As much as the Pistons expect him to improve his skills over the years ahead, Drummond might never be known for his offense. "He's going to be a defensive player for sure," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers before Boston's 98-93 win over the visiting Pistons Wednesday.
Isn't it interesting how the Pistons have reverted to their traditional winning standards? Of course, the common denominator is Detroit president Joe Dumars, who played on the Pistons championship teams at the turn of the '90s, and then assembled their championship team of 2003-04.
"But he's so young," said Rivers, who has grown to know Drummond as a generational rival of his son Austin Rivers. "Is he Rick Mahorn? Is he Ben Wallace? Is he Bill Laimbeer? All three are different. I just think let us watch him for a little while. He's a good kid. I want him to do well."
The Pistons are spending Drummond's final rookie month starting him with 6-11 Greg Monroe, who has shifted to power forward. Monroe is an excellent passer who can play out of the high post, but he must show that he can guard stretch 4s out to the perimeter. He'll be entering the fourth year of his rookie contract next season, and the Pistons must make expensive decisions on the future. If they move forward with Monroe and Drummond together up front, they will do so with hope that their size around the basket will ultimately overwhelm the quickness of smaller teams throughout the league.
Detroit will go into the summer with enormous cap space as well as the Bird rights to point guard Jose Calderon. They'll also have a high pick in the draft, in which the prospects are supposed to be poor. But then, the Pistons have heard that kind of talk before.
? Are the Kings up for grabs? "We've never had a situation like this," said commissioner David Stern after presiding over dueling presentations by groups representing Seattle -- which has signed an agreement to buy the Kings for a league-record $525 million -- and Sacramento --which is desperate to purchase the team from the Maloof family in order to keep it in its home of the last 29 years. Seattle has been without a team since the Sonics were moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.
The Maloofs emphasized to the committee of fellow owners that they wanted to sell the team to Seattle. But you have to wonder how much weight their opinions carry after so many years of difficulty involving their ownership of the Kings. Which prospective ownership group creates the most confidence? Which market matters most to the NBA?
The decision is so difficult that Stern said the owners may need to extend their April 18-19 deadline in order to reach a decision -- though not too much longer, because the franchise is going to have to prepare for next season. It's as if the NBA has turned into a kind of Olympic committee deciding which city will win the next Games. While this decision reveals the NBA to be operating from a position of strength, with two cities each offering wealthy ownership and a new facility, it is also a mistake waiting to happen. One former NBA market is going to despise the league based on this outcome, because this is a decision being made by the league and for the league. The fans of Sacramento deserve to keep their team, and their rivals in Seattle deserve to have a team, too.
? Kobe Bryant talks retirement. "As I sit here right now, yeah," he said when asked if he is planning to quit at the end of next season, which will be his 18th. Bryant will be 35 and making a league-leading $30.5 million in 2013-14.
"I'll talk to my family and stuff and really see if I want to continue to sacrifice as much as I'm sacrificing right now," said Bryant of his future. "I'm putting my body through a lot to just try to get ready to play every single night. To do what I'm doing right now, it's not easy. I'll tell you, it's taken a lot of commitment."
The Lakers won't be able to convince him to play beyond next season.
"It's my decision," he said. "It's really about what I want to do, if I want to train and be psychotic with my training. That's what it comes down to. It's really how I'm feeling physically."
That's how it should be. The reality that he must face, too, is the fact that the Lakers may not be able to keep paying Bryant the level of salary he has earned in recent years. If Howard re-signs this summer, then the Lakers will have room for one more max contract in 2014, when LeBron James will be a free agent.
? Manu Ginobili may miss the start of the playoffs. The Spurs' 35-year-old sixth man is expected to be sidelined for three to four weeks by tightness in his right hamstring, continuing a run of unfortunate injuries that have weakened San Antonio in recent postseasons. The difference this year is that the Spurs can win their opening-round series without him because they've improved the athleticism of the role players who surround Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker..
? Carmelo Anthony carries the Knicks. The Knicks won their 10th straight Wednesday as Anthony scored 40 in a 95-82 victory at Atlanta. He had 50 the previous game at Miami, and the formula has become simple at last for the Knicks. Their defense is mediocre and they can't count on the return of Amar'e Stoudemire from recent knee surgery, so Anthony -- after being criticized for scoring too much -- is going to have drive them through the playoffs. He and his team are heating up at the right time as they approach a potential first-round series against the Celtics.
? LeBron James sits. The Heat won at San Antonio Sunday and lost to the visiting Knicks Tuesday without their starting trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers. Were they injured? Yes. Could they have played if the Heat were facing a crucial playoff game? Probably. Does the NBA need to come up with a set of rules that defines right from wrong when it comes to resting players? Absolutely -- and the league needs to err on the side of the coaches. When the coach of a contending team decides his best player needs to take the night off, it's in the best interests of everyone to respect that opinion.
? Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34 retired in Los Angeles. For the halftime ceremony Tuesday, the Lakers brought back Phil Jackson, who was greeted by a standing ovation and chants of "We want Phil!" (Mike D'Antoni was in the locker room with his players, including Kobe Bryant, who videotaped a message congratulating O'Neal on his latest honor.) Shaq became emotional when he was asked about joining the other retired Lakers' numbers of George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. He also essentially challenged Dwight Howard to join their group. "I would like to see him average 28 [points] and 10 [rebounds]," he said. "I'm not criticizing the guy. I'm just issuing a challenge. I see a kid with a lot of talent. When I see him averaging 16 or 18 [points], that's not enough for me."
? Jay-Z becomes an agent. After convincing Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano to hire him as his agent, the entertainer created speculation that he may sell off his minority ownership of the Nets in order to represent NBA players as well. This would be an interesting turn of events. Ownership in the NBA has always appeared to be the ultimate destination; could it be that representing the players could become more attractive at some level?
? Greg Willard succumbs to pancreatic cancer. Willard, 54, was one of the NBA's most respected referees. A moment of silence was held in his honor at NBA games this week. "Greg touched all those with whom he came in contact thanks to his extraordinary spirit, dedication and hard work," said commissioner David Stern. "As a Finals referee, he reached the highest level of his profession while at the same time demonstrating a strong commitment to his family and his community."
Get To Know Greivis Vasquez
The 6-foot-6, 211-pound point guard is a Most Improved Player candidate for New Orleans. In his first full year as a starter, Vasquez, 26, ranks third in the NBA with 9.2 assists and is the Hornets' No. 3 scorer with 14.1 points.
? He was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. "Our main sport is baseball. I played baseball, but I wanted more than baseball. I wanted to be something different, I wanted to be more active. I was always tall. It was weird because my mom is a little bit taller than my dad -- he's about 5-11. My dad started to take me to his games back home, and I was 8 or 9 years old when I told him I wanted to be a basketball player.
"I'd say my family is in the middle classs. They would go out and work and pay the bills. My dad had a job, my mom had a job, it was solid. Their background was from humble places. Basketball back home is a humble sport -- the wealthy people don't play back home. The good players, they come from the bottom, from the neighborhoods and the places people don't want to go. I spent a lot of time there and I saw so many different things. Most of the time I thank God for what I have and the opportunities I have now, because it could have easily been some other way."
His talent didn't show through instantly. "I got better when I was practicing every day. I started to play, then it started to become more of something that I loved. And then I was getting really good. I represented the city of Caracas and I represented my country in different international tournaments and did pretty good. Then I went to Brazil with Basketball Without Borders and it was so good to me there."
After being discovered at the NBA-sponsored camp in Brazil, he turned down an opportunity to play professionally in Europe. "I was 16-17 years old and I said no -- I want to come to the States.
? Vasquez spent his last two years of high school at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md., where Kevin Durant transferred for their senior year. "He came the summer before his senior year and we spent the whole season together and we graduated together. It was an amazing experience. He was showing flashes of how good he was going to be. He is one of the best players in the world, and for me being part of that, that's something nobody can take away.
"I got so much better because the better basketball is right here in the States -- the best players, the best athletes. When I was a junior at Montrose, the senior guys I played with, they all went to Division I schools. I played against Ty Lawson in high school and I never knew who he was, and now he's playing in the NBA. I never knew who they were. Now I'm one of them. I'm in the league, a starting point guard, and I'm putting great performances out there and leading my team. I'm just thankful.
"It wasn't that easy for me. A lot of people doubted me, a lot of people didn't believe in me, but the right people did. The right people believed in me, like my high school coach, my parents, the people that really cared about me. That was good enough to keep me working harder. Even though I went to Montrose, nobody thought I was going to play high profile. At Maryland they said I was too slow -- and I became ACC Player of the Year."
? After four years at Maryland, Vasquez was the No. 28 pick of the Grizzlies in 2010 (the pick arrived as part of the 2008 trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers). After his rookie year he was sent to the Hornets for Quincy Pondexter. "Like college, every year I get better and better. Next year will be it for me -- being the type of point guard I want to be, the leader I want to be.''
Vasquez is a big point guard of the style that was popular 20 years ago. Can he defend the smaller and quicker point guards? "Any NBA player that plays the 1, 2 or 3 understands you can't stop anybody one-on-one. Where the extra step and the little details come into play is by watching film. Understanding I'm not the quickest guy, and you may get by me, OK; but I'm going to get you in foul trouble, too. I'm going to post you up. That's why this year is the best year for me. I'm getting experience, I'm learning now from my mistakes. I see the guys' tendencies right now, I see what the point guard is going to do to me on pick-and-rolls. Next year I'm going to be even more prepared with another year under my belt, with playing time and confidence.
"My goal is to lead this team to a playoff run -- to be the starting point guard, go to the playoffs, make a run and see what happens. I think this goal of making the playoffs next year and really getting ready, I can accomplish that. And being a good leader, I can accomplish that and make a huge step for the whole team. That's what I want."
Quote Of The Week
"If she is the best on the board, I will take her." -- Mark Cuban on the prospect of drafting women's hoops star Brittney Griner.
The Mavericks owner was referring Tuesday to Griner, the dunking 6-foot-8, 208-pound center whose college career ended recently at Baylor, 90 minutes south of Dallas.
In 2009 I asked commissioner David Stern if a woman would play someday in the NBA. "I think that's well within the range of probability," he said. At that time Cuban was among those in the league who was supportive of the possibility.
At the same time, most basketball people would insist -- adamantly -- that no woman today is capable of playing in the NBA. "I think it would be a sham," said UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma, who knows a lot more about this than Cuban. "The fact that a woman could actually play right now in the NBA and compete successfully against the level of play that they have is absolutely ludicrous."
Auriemma couldn't be more right: It will be a huge shock if Griner is able to compete in the NBA.
But then, that's exactly why Cuban is interested in her. There are a thousand obvious reasons why we will never see a woman play in the NBA. The reason someone like Cuban will remain interested in recruiting a female player -- and making it happen sooner than most people think -- is because there will be money in it. In one sense it will be a sham. From another point of view it will create discussion around the world. The Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match of 1973 was an athletic sham that wound up creating unexpected benefits for women.
Pro sports is usually resistant to change. In this unusual case, however, there are going to be NBA leaders -- Cuban is not the only one -- who will want to introduce women to their league. Griner won't be the last great woman player. There will be more to come, their play will evolve and they will inspire more conjecture from people like Cuban. It may be a sham and it may end badly for the women who are brave enough to challenge the barrier, but the story of a woman playing in the NBA isn't going away.
An NBA advance scout looks at the race for the Sixth Man of the Year award:
"His role is similar to J.R.'s with the Knicks in that he comes in scoring, and automatically you have to know where he is all the time. When he crosses halfcourt he has the potential to make a shot. He can create off the dribble, he can get space for himself get his shot off. At the end of every quarter the ball is in his hands. There's a small group of guys like that -- Paul Pierce with the Celtics, J.R. with the Knicks right now, Jamal Crawford; it used to be like that for Jason Terry with the Mavericks. There are a few guys who can get their own shot against whoever -- it doesn't matter if you switch or you play straight up, they can get a shot and give you a chance to go for a two-for-one or a last shot that can be a momentum builder. If you have a closer like that at the end of the quarters it could give you a six-to-eight point swing over the course of a game if he has it going.
"The problem is that none of those guys is a great defender -- that's the issue. If they were great defenders then they'd be starting.
"With the sixth man, I think the plus-minus is more important than it is with starters. Because you're playing with so many different guys as sixth man -- you're not always playing with the bench guys; sometimes you're out there playing with the starters.''
The scout looked online and discovered that Crawford holds a "simple rating" of +5.8 points according to 82games.com, which accounts for his plus-minus as well as the production of his counterpart player on the other team while he is on the court. Among the other leading candidates for the award, Vince Carter (4.4) was next, followed by Mike Dunleavy (4.3), Andre Miller (3.5), Jarrett Jack (2.9), Kevin Martin (2.5) and J.R. Smith (2.2).
"The award exists so coaches can convince guys to come off the bench even though they don't want to -- so coaches can tell them they can be Sixth Man of the Year. Most of the sixth-man guys are gunners, and so everybody looks at how many points they score. In reality it should be the most valuable bench player. Then you can include a guy like Andre Miller, who coaches the game when he plays. He understands tempo, he can post you up, you can run the offense through him on the block, he gets to the free throw line and he's crafty defensively. He's not a lockdown guy but he can get steals and you're not going to take advantage of him too much -- and fortunately for Denver, they have guys in the back to block shots if he gets beat. In that respect he's a sixth guy who gives his team a great advantage.
"I would give Matt Barnes credit for being a good Sixth Man candidate. He's having his best offensive year [10.2 points per game for the Clippers], but he also affects the game when he comes in defensively.
"I'm not really buying the hype on Jarrett Jack. I'm going to go off his previous years in the league vs. this year right now. Come back to me this time next year if he's doing the same things.
Here's one way to assemble the NBA's most productive 12-man roster. These are the top players from the "simple ratings" at 82games.com (mentioned in The Breakdown item above). It measures each player's production vs. the counterpart player on the other team while he is on the court, as well as a simple on-court/off-court plus-minus.
F -- Tim Duncan, Spurs +10.4 F -- LeBron James, Heat +18 F -- Kevin Durant, Thunder +14.5 G -- Dwyane Wade, Heat +13.6 G -- Tony Parker, Spurs +9.9
C -- Brook Lopez, Nets +8.2 F -- David West, Pacers +9.8 F -- Carmelo Anthony, Knicks +7.7 G -- Chris Paul, Clippers +9.9 G -- Kobe Bryant, Lakers +8.7 G -- Mike Conley, Grizzlies +8.3 G -- James Harden, Rockets +7.9