Player Capsules, 2012 #22-24: Brandon Knight, Donald Sloan, J.J. Hickson

Posted on Fri 13 July 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. This afternoon's trio: Brandon Knight, Donald Sloan, and J.J. Hickson.

• • •

Follow Brandon Knight on twitter at @BrandonKnight12.

All things considered, Knight hasn't been exactly what you'd expect out of a lottery pick. There were some promising aspects to his game, no doubt -- his 38% from three point range was solid, and his rebounding was relatively good for a lead guard. And he shot above 40% in his rookie season, something that took Brandon Jennings three years to do! He is a Calipari product, though, and as of late, we tend to expect big things from them. After all -- Rose, Wall, Evans -- all of them came from Coach Cal's tender tentacles. Expectations were high for Knight. It's worth noting that just because Calipari recruits excellent NBA talent doesn't necessarily mean he's developed them -- none of the players aforementioned really improved much from high school to the pros (with the possible exception of Rose's passing game, which did improve a bit at Memphis). Which isn't a knock on Calipari, actually. In some respects, the worst thing NCAA coaches can do to an NBA player is teach him bad habits and create system-reliant players. Just look at Jim Boeheim.

Oh, sure. Boeheim's a great college coach. I won't refute that. He's led the team to decently deep runs and high seeds on an almost yearly basis and he's put together a system where most players look reasonably competent. The problem is they barely ever pan out in the NBA -- while Boeheim is famous for teaching players the Syracuse zone, he's also famous for essentially making sure that it's all his players learn. Syracuse players tend to get to the NBA completely unprepared for next-level ball, and it shows. In 30 years of NCAA title contention (in which Boeheim has won 890 NCAA games, gone to four Final Fours, and has made 28 NCAA Tournaments in his coaching tenure) Syracuse has produced a grand total of three quality NBA players, out of 36 drafted prospects. No major program in college basketball history (including noted poorly-translating schools like Duke) has a ratio as bad as that. I won't belabor the point -- go read this excellent diatribe on the subject.

Jim Boeheim -- excellent college coach that he is -- is terrible at preparing his players for the NBA and it's hard to argue it. The point isn't about him, though, it's about Calipari. Many people say that Coach Cal doesn't prepare his players for the NBA. I suppose I'd partly agree -- you don't get the sense Calipari is an excellent basketball mind who's teaching his players how to break barriers when they get to the next level. On the other hand? He also doesn't screw them up. He doesn't teach them to rely on a player friendly 2-3 zone, or teach them to act inside a rigid system in the way Duke's Krzyzewski does. He gives them freedom to make their own mistakes and generally doesn't impact their development in a negative way. In some cases, inaction is significantly better than overreacting and ruining a young man's game. All that said, this hasn't helped Knight one bit. He's exactly the same as he was in college in the NBA -- inefficient, poor at passing, and poor on defense. But alas.

In the case of Knight, I think his issues are two-fold. First, while he's an athletic marvel, he's relatively lacking in size -- he's shorter and only slightly heavier than I am. Second, unlike Wall or Rose, he doesn't really have the ability to flip a switch and function as a pure passer. He doesn't have the passing creativity to really run plays and develop the offense. It seemed this year that most of Knight's passes were a result of him getting lost on offense, glancing aimlessly around, and randomly throwing the ball to a perimeter shooter with the expectation they'd put up a rushed two. It went in a few times a game -- about three -- but lord, it just never seemed like an actual play, you know? And then there's the Monroe issue -- despite Monroe being by far Detroit's best player, Monroe only accounted for 43 of Knight's 251 assists. This wasn't really a problem endemic to Monroe -- as I described in Monroe's capsule, basically everyone on the Pistons became experts at freezing their star out this season.

To improve, Knight absolutely needs to improve his shooting. Perhaps more importantly, if he wants to get minutes, Knight is going to have to be able to milk a two-man game with Greg Monroe. If he can't do either, it's quite likely Knight gets shipped out at some point, and not happily. I don't really want to see Knight left a castaway floating adrift in a league with no place for a player like him. But all that said, he's a poor shooting shoot-first guard who never developed a particularly effective two-man game with his team's best player. Yes, Virginia, that's a problem. Here's hoping next year he comes back strong -- reports seem to indicate he's putting the work in, so we'll have to wait and see if Knight can make good on our now significantly more reasonable expectations. He's not going to be a Rose, a Wall, or an Evans -- we know that now, and perhaps with our lessened expectations Knight can finally thrive.

• • •

Follow Donald Sloan on twitter at @dsloan15.

Most people probably aren't hyper-aware of Mr. Sloan. I am, because I'm a Cavs fan. All things considered? I don't mind Sloan. I don't like him as much as many friends, for a few reasons. First, I'm not sure he's really a passing point guard in the NBA, nor am I sure he's really a shooting point guard in the NBA. "But wait!" you say. "That eliminates all possibilities!" Well... okay, sort of, it does. He's not the world's best defender, yet, either, which brings you down to wondering if he's a next-level Ramon Sessions. I don't mind Ramon, which is why I like Sloan. I think he can be a plus rebounder from the guard, and he has a bit more NBA size than Knight -- he's similarly too short to play the NBA wing, but he's stocky and VERY strong. His passing is something of a work-in-progress, but when on the court he seemed roughly dependable for 2 or 3 dimes, a few nice drives, perhaps a few layup opportunities. His strength also helps him in a lot of little ways -- he sets great screens, doesn't shy from contact, and has the potential to be a plus physical defender if he works his game enough.

The other real reason I don't mind Sloan is that I love what he represents. As a person, Sloan seems to be absolutely awesome -- he retweets random fans and enemies, both in support and rallying against him. He's a former boxer of some regard, and like David West, he's really good at it. So, he's tough. He's a D-League crossover -- he was a 24-year-old rookie last season coming off a 58 game D-League career with the Reno Bighorns and the Erie Bayhawks. Sloan's move to the NBA doesn't just represent a personal triumph for the former boxer, it represents a triumph of a teams finally taking chances on D-League standouts instead of simply signing "crusty free agent veteran guard #226342" to an overly large backup deal. Sloan didn't produce a massive amount of value this season, but there are a lot of ways Sloan looks set up to improve upon his rookie year -- his improving defense, learning when not to shoot, getting a bit better about the turnovers, et cetera. Also, he'd be backing up a bonafide superstar in Kyrie Irving, which certainly takes some pressure off. Teams can (and in my opinion, SHOULD) take chances on promising D-League guys. Sloan represents an example of that.

No, he's probably not going to be a starter in the NBA anytime soon. But can he be a solid backup for a player like Kyrie Irving? Certainly. And he'll certainly bring your team more potential value than signing a cryptkeeper-aged former star looking for one last shot at glory, like an Iverson or a Baron Davis. I like the Sloan signing a lot -- it represents NBA GMs finally starting to utilize the D-League as an actual wealth of talent rather than simply a place for angry coaches to send lottery picks as punishment or a place to let lottery picks develop. The D-League CAN be both of those things, and it should be -- but it should also be considered a useful, effective place for teams to find cheap and promising young talent to use as backups on a good team. It really comes down to whether you think the NBA is better off filled with seasoned vets or giving younger bucks a chance. I err on the side of the youth, I suppose. So good on you, Sloan. I hope you make the Cavs next year.

• • •

Follow J.J. Hickson on twitter at... wait, his account has 2 followers, welp.

So, in any sports league, there are going to be some players you will irrationally dislike. Most of them will play for other teams -- for me, three of the best examples are Jason Terry, Eduardo Najera, and Reggie Evans. There's a very different type of distaste, though, and it comes from hating players who actually play for your own team. This is a more familial hatred. Instead of hating someone for beating your team, or for playing dirty against your guys, you are hating on someone because you feel they simply aren't as good as expected or are harming the other players on the team through their play. You hate them not because they're putting it all on the table against your team, but rather because they're taking things off the table. I don't think there's a single better example of this type of a fan-player relationship than how I feel with J.J. Hickson.

It's not like the expectations were fair, necessarily. He was awful defensively from day one, and he never really had much time to develop his game. For all Mike Brown's positive accomplishments with the Cavaliers, developing players was NEVER much of his strong suit, and beyond the defensive evolution of LeBron James' there really weren't all that many huge player developments over Brown's tenure. When a player came in to Brown's system, they weren't going to get better as players -- mostly just worse with age or with their flaws better covered by Brown's usually excellent defensive rotations. But the degree to which J.J. Hickson underwhelmed in his Cleveland tenure -- with special emphasis in last year's horror show -- is beyond pathetic. At least with Antawn Jamison you had the excuse of his age, and his relative efficiency, and his interesting finishing. At least with Anthony Parker you got a made three every now and again. At least with Ryan Hollins he's gone and I never have to think about his existence again. J.J. Hickson... ugh.

He just... he never lived up to even the most cursory of expectations. Hickson's shot selection and his defense were my biggest aggravations during his Cleveland tenure. The man NEVER figured out that he doesn't have a passable long-range jumper. EVER. Hickson has been an electric player playing under the rim for his entire tenure in the NBA -- not once in Cleveland did he take the advice of the coaching staff and try taking it inside. He'd simply camp out in the midrange, receive the ball, dribble into a defender and take a terrible jumper. That was his "thing." Another "thing" for Hickson was his anemic help defense, the main reason Mike Brown never gave him more playing time -- Hickson is absolutely one of the worst help defenders in the league, and he never really managed to turn his electric athleticism into anything other than some nice dunks and slightly-below-average offensive output from every area of the floor. And that defense. And the attitude issues, the primadonna tendencies, the support of LeBron James while LeBron's Heat were wiping the floor with his team in the much dramatized December game in 2010.

I know he's a skilled player -- few are as athletic as Hickson, and he's more innately good at rebounding than most would expect. His athleticism lends itself to images of him as a game-changing defensive PF, or at the very least, an effective stopgap off the bench. You got the sense watching him that he could've been (and still can be) so much more. And that's what aggravates me the most about Hickson. He's simply an underwhelming statement of what could have been. And when it's a player who the franchise essentially staked its hopes on and effectively made their premier selling point, post-LeBron? No, Virginia, that's not good. So, yes. He was decent in Portland. He was horrible in Sacramento. You don't really know what you're gonna get from J.J. Hickson. And as a Cavs fan, I'm only certain of one thing -- I'm glad he's not around to make me root for him on the Cavs. There are some men who like to watch the world burn. I think J.J. Hickson, in some ways, is like those men. So yeah. I wish him the best, but dear LORD am I glad I don't have to put up with him anymore.

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next batch. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. If several people tie, I'll post everyone who tied. This morning's riddles were best answered by @sstewart1617, who got 2/3. We have yet to have anyone get 3/3, though I've made these three easier and you have an entire weekend to answer them. Come on, guys. You can do it! Here are riddles for Monday's first three.

  • I worry about his health, and I worry that his prime will never be as long as it should be. But make no mistake -- Player #25 is our first superstar, and one of the greatest at his position who ever lived.
  • Have to agree with most of my Laker fan friends -- Brown NEEDS to give Player #26 more minutes. And his last three coaches probably should've as well, honestly.
  • I know a ton of people who are incredibly high on this one. I don't quite share the enthusiasm, but he could be a solid point guard someday. "Pass alert."

See you next week.