Kawhi Leonard was one of this postseason’s hottest commodities. The San Antonio Spurs drafted the defensive specialist out of the San Diego State to replace Bruce Bowen when he retired following the 2008-09 season.
This year, Leonard developed into more than Bowen ever imagined he could be. It is a testament to both the player and the team. The Spurs have a great system. Leonard is surrounded by hall of fame players and his coach is one of the game’s all-time greats.
When Leonard came through Sacramento for his pre-draft workout two years ago, many hoped the Kings would pick him with the seventh pick in the 2011 Draft. There was a glaring need for a defensive stopper who wouldn’t require the ball in his hands. He was on the Kings shortlist of players and word is that his advisers thought he would end up in Sacramento.
Instead, the Kings made a draft day deal to acquire John Salmons and then selected Jimmer Fredette with the 10th overall pick. Hindsight is 20/20. Leonard went on to fame guarding the greatest player in the game today for seven straight contests in this year’s NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, Jimmer has struggled to transition to the NBA and Salmons is a square peg that the Kings keep hitting with a hammer, hoping he will fit in a round hole.
These things happen. And bear in mind that at the end of the day, Leonard probably wouldn’t have become the player he is under the Kings’ old regime, just like Jimmer would probably have become more than what he currently is if he played for a team like the Spurs.
The NBA draft is a crapshoot to a certain extent. You hope and pray that a player turns out great, stays relatively healthy and progresses as he matures. It doesn’t always happen the way you hoped and often times, that is because the best laid plans were flawed at their infancy.
Stick with me for a second. Jimmer was drafted to be a starting point guard next to Tyreke Evans. Someone could attempt to debate this fact, but if Evans and his ball-dominant, mack-truck-to-the-basket skills are utilized to their fullest, then the perfect fit next to him is a sweet shooting scorer with unlimited range.
The plan was for Jimmer to bomb away and open up lanes and for Evans to tear through defenses and find the wide-open Jimmer at the elbows. It’s a common idea in basketball. If you have slashers, you pair them with floor spacers.
The problem is that Jimmer was not that type of player. He too is a ball dominant guard. He just prefers to dribble to set up his shot, instead of ramming it down the throat of the defense. So he quickly became the wrong fit next to Evans.
Some folks want to blame Jimmer for this issue. But honestly, it was the talent evaluators that made the mistake here. They are the ones who wrote floor-spacing-point-guard next to Jimmer Fredette’s name on a whiteboard and circled it five times.
Too often that is what happens in the NBA. Teams see what they want in a player and not what they should. They think they can mold the player they draft into something he’s not, instead of just searching for one with the skill-sets they really need.
In the end, Evans doesn’t progress because he still lacks the required floor-spacer and Jimmer is blamed for being the player that he always was, not the player people thought the Kings could make him.
This leads me to something I like to call the David Lighty Theory.
Lighty is a former Ohio State Buckeye who went undrafted in the 2011 Draft. The fact that he just won a European championship in France for JSF Nanterre is not the point of this exercise. Lighty may never play an NBA game in his career. In fact, Lighty is completely inconsequential, but the idea behind him is not.
He is the prototypical player that teams like the Spurs search for. He was a four-year student athlete, who played 157 games in the Big Ten. There was no small sample size here. Lighty understood his role both on and off a basketball court 100 percent. He was a defensive stopper on the wing, a 43-percent 3-point shooter as a senior and a leader.
Instead of selecting him, team after team looked for players that they thought might have star potential hiding – all the way down to the 60th pick in the draft.
Here is the problem with drafting on talent alone. The typical NBA draft pick was almost assuredly the best player on his high school team. He was nationally ranked going into college, where he probably excelled as the team’s No. 1 option. So why would he possibly think he’s a role player at the next level?
College teams, just like professional teams, have role players. Role players that are tasked with guarding the opponents toughest cover. Role players who have accepted who they are and what their limitations are on the court. There are thousands of them, who have varying degrees of success.
But those guys don’t get drafted. David Lighty didn’t get drafted.
While Lighty’s contemporaries were comparing themselves to Russell Westbrook (yes, I did hear that this week from a player that may or may not be drafted at all) and Dwyane Wade in their pre-draft interviews, this guy is ready to play one of the most valuable, sought after positions on any team – a perimeter, defensive specialist that can shoot the short three.
This isn’t about one player – it’s about thinking of players differently. If you bring in a kid that’s been the man at every level he’s played, why are you surprised when he struggles to accept something different as a pro? Why not bring in the guy who already knows and understands the job?
It’s what the Spurs do. Sure Tony Parker is great. Tim Duncan is still really good in bursts. But the San Antonio Spurs are built around a different concept than almost every other team in the league. They are built around an entire team of Bruce Bowens.
And they are built around defined roles and execution. Fourteen players on their roster know what their roles are. And when a player no longer buys into their concept of team, they are sent packing.
That is what the Spurs were looking for when they took Leonard. The difference is that they understand what they are looking for when so many others do not.
“We talk endlessly about players before we bring them in,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told Cowbell Kingdom last November. “Whether we draft them or (through) free agency or (through) trade, (we) make sure they are people who can accept roles, understand that they are just part of a whole and that they realize that it’s not just about them, but it’s about how they can make the group better.
“If you don’t have that, I think it’s really difficult to build a cohesive unit that cares about each other and cares about the right things,” he added.
So here is a suggestion: copy the Spurs. They have made the playoffs 33 of their 37 years in the NBA. They are a small market team that has won four championships and barely missed a fifth this last week.
Search the NCAA, the D-League and Europe for players who know who they are. Search for players that can look around a room and place themselves in an honest pecking order. Look high and low for players that understand their skills and thrive to be the best at what they are good at.
I’m not talking about lottery picks here. You still need a load of talent to succeed in the NBA. I’m talking about the other nine or ten guys on your roster.
Over the last seven years, the Kings have been the antithesis of the Spurs. They have no less than nine players that believe they can score 30 points or more at any time if given the chance. It didn’t help that Keith Smart had never heard of a team with defined roles before, but this issue predates Smart by a few years.
No one on this roster wants to be David Lighty, except maybe a veteran like Chuck Hayes or a guy clinging to his NBA life like Cole Aldrich. That is what you call a problem with the culture of a team.
There aren’t many ways to fix this issue and honestly, a lot of these players need to go. A pecking order needs to be established and players that want to fit into the team concept need to be brought in.
With the draft just four days away, the Kings need to find players that fit. It’s not the easiest concept, but it is the way that the culture of this team can change.