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. Today we continue with Luke Walton, Jeremy Evans, and Kyrylo Fesenko.
Follow Luke Walton by AUGUUUHUH NOT A LUNK WALTON CAPSULE NOOOOOOO.
You really have to wonder, sometimes, how far a man can make it on name alone. Luke Walton isn't a great basketball player. At least not at the NBA level. He was good in college -- legitimately good, not just faking it for the cameras. But even then, there were signs. He was a more prominent player his junior year than his senior year, implying that the team actually didn't need him quite as much his senior year when they had better pieces. He still went early in the second round, packed his bags for the 1-hour puddle jump from Tucson to Los Angeles, and nested in. Put up a shaky first few seasons -- rebounded well for a wing, but his defense was highly questionable from day one and his shot has always been about as busted as busted can be. Then, in the 2007 season, Luke Walton broke the hell out and had one of the greatest seasons anyone has ever seen from a playe-- ... wait, he averaged 11-5-4 in 33 minutes a game and downright awful shooting percentages, without any defense to speak of? Jesus Christ, Marie. Despite having a pedestrian at best, barely-replacement-level 2007 season, Kupchak saw fit to offer him a downright hilarious 6-year $30 million dollar contract. Three things about the contract that I find kind of amusing:
- There was literally a $582,726 trade kicker. He made half a million dollars from the Cavs trade. I have no idea how his agent actually got that in the contract.
- Due to the fact that post-CBA the max contract duration for a non-bird rights player was moved down to 4 years, even after the lockout ended, Walton still had 50% of the years of a max contract left on his deal. After four years.
- The mere idea that Luke Walton was signed a 6-year $30,000,000 contract at any point in his career.
God, I don't get it. His agent may actually be the greatest salesman who's ever lived. The contract was sort of like the Lakers going "Oh, hey, Luke. You played at a barely replacement-level pace for a single season! Sure, we'll make the assumption you'll improve dramatically and rise meteorically for the next 6 seasons, culminating in you being a starting quality player for the 2013 champion Lakers starring Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Bosh." (They almost got it right!) Alas, that didn't happen. I won't pretend that I'm not sympathetic to the reason Walton's failed miserably -- back problems are terrible, awful things to go through. And I'm sorry that he had to go through that. And perhaps he's going to be a good coach. But Walton's contract is basically nothing more than the worst case scenario for a situation that happens all the dang time. Marginal players who haven't played good years -- and even marginal players who play decent years! -- get large, overly long contracts. Teams spend the duration of the contract blaming them for not living up to standards, even though the standards were remarkably unreachable even at the outset. I don't really blame him for the contract as much as Kupchak, as that's one of the few incredibly poor decisions Kupchak's had over the course of his tenure. Blame the franchise, not the player. Usually.
Walton's just so easy to hate, though. I understand that Walton thinks it's really unfair to be so cruel to him simply because he got the contract. I see his point, to some extent. I also kind of disagree, mostly because I think the premise of his thought regarding the unfair nature of the criticism is based on a lie. It'd be one thing if he'd gotten the contract off a legitimately good season. He didn't. Walton's 2007 season was pedestrian at best. He got assists, sure, but his overall assist rate given the minutes he played was actually extremely low, and all things considered, it wasn't like Walton was tapping new ground. Of his 257 assists that season, 109 of them came to Smush Parker and Kobe Bryant. He didn't really have strong connections with anyone else on the team, and a huge percentage of his assists (more than average, in fact) came on long twos and inefficient outside-the-rim floaters and hooks. He gets a lot of dap from commentators, coaches, and fans for being a "brilliant passer" and a "fantastic mind on the floor" (both actual, real things said by Byron Scott upon his being traded to the Cavaliers). He just... it just... HE REALLY ISN'T, OK? He isn't an amazing passer! He isn't even a good one! He's mediocre at best and a homeless, headless man's Hedo Turkoglu on average!
I just... it's just... Christ! Christ and a half! Christ and three quarters, even! Why? Why in God's name do people insist he's such a good passer? Why do people insist Luke Walton has some magical, mystical touch? I swear! I don't get it! People give higher praise to Walton's passing than they do KYRIE FREAKING IRVING'S passing, AND THAT INCLUDES THEIR COACH. Kyrie has ridiculous court vision, and if it wasn't for the fact that his best target for assists was Antawn "take a dribble then throw up an off-pinkie ten foot spinning ballerina dive" Jamison, I'm pretty sure more people would notice. And even then -- Kyrie's assist rate this year was literally almost double the best assist rate of Luke Walton's career. Just... I don't... Why? WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN. Am I living in some absurdist alternate reality where Walton isn't half the player he is for everyone else? Is this just my punishment for hating the frat bros at Duke and disliking my university experience in general?! WHY?! WHYYYYYYYYYY.
... Anyway, that's Luke Walton. Heard he's a great passer. Solid pickup for the Cavs, I feel.
This capsule is pretty simple. I could talk about why Jeremy Evans is limited on defense (gets a ton of blocks, but at the expense of a wealth of missed rotations and out-muscled covers). I could talk about Jeremy Evans' jump shot (as broken as broken can be). I could talk about his awful rotation handling (SO BAD), his slippery fingers (does he eat pancakes by hand on the bench?), his inability to corral the easiest rebound (HOW IS HE SO BAD AT REBOUNDING), et cetera. I could discuss any of these things, but I don't think I will. I just stated that they exist, but that's it. Because absolutely none of this has anything to do with any of the reasons you should know anything about Jeremy Evans. Reasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 as to why Evans is at all noteworthy? Simple.
He dunks. A lot.
Seriously, Evans is an fun dunk artist, albeit not a particularly creative one. Actually, it's a good mark of why the dunk contest has descended to levels of trash that even make league leaders wonder if it's worth keeping around. In the last decade or two, contest dunks have become an exercise in props, raw power, and general gimmickry. Evans is a good dunk artist because he's an incredibly talented jumper, athletically -- if there was an NCAA Tournament bracket for NBA players participating in the long jump, he'd be the #1 overall seed with a bullet. His jumping is so next-level he's able to go from a flat-footed floor catch to the rim in virtually no time flat, and although he's certainly not the strongest dunkmaster in the league, he gets up so high he's usually got the room to slam the ball in from a good few inches above the rim, minimum. The thing is, what do you really do with that? His general dunking skillset is essentially "he jumps high", "high he jumps", and "jumps high he does". But when the dunks are constrained to people generally matching Evans in jumping ability, the only way to actually differentiate them is by relying on stupid gimmickry and stunts. Not really a good formula. In my view, the reason it doesn't work has nothing to do with the players and the skillsets. It more has to do with the nature of the dunk itself.
When we think of players who are known for downright excellent in-game dunks -- LeBron, Griffin, Rose -- there's a common thread. Each of them are excellent not just at the dunk itself, but at the moment. They're good at distilling the dunk down to its purest form, an act of active aggression against another player and another team. A good dunk can't occur in a sterilized, whitewashed environment. It's not a field goal, simply existing between the uprights and the kicker. No, a good dunk is reliant not just on the player and the rim, but the player and everyone around him. It's reliant on a strong cut through a hard defense to power to the rim. It's reliant on the opposing team getting emblazoned on posters and the crowd reacting with hushed reverence or abuzz with hysterical cheers (depending on whether it's an away game or a home game). It's the other players viscerally cringing at the fury, the short preen before both players need to forget it ever happened and get back on defense. THAT'S what makes an NBA dunk so cool. With a dunk contest that's never going to be able to reflect the actual essence of an NBA dunk, I'm honestly of the view that you're better off watching the Sprite Slam Dunk contest without the NBA players. Those things are crazy -- people off the street figure out ridiculous and quasi-impossible moves, rolling with 780 degree spins off a flat-footed heave or a backflip dunk-with-the-feet or other such absurdity. Love them. And there's an added level of interest, too, when you realize that it's just people off the street. No NBA talent, just guys you could theoretically face at a pick up league. A true air of mystery. No idea what to expect before they take off. It's exciting, far moreso than the NBA contest where you know everyone's general style before the event.
Still. Evans is fun to watch at an NBA level if you like powerful dunks. If you're looking for more? Might not be your guy.
Kyrylo Fesenko doesn't get major minutes. In my view, he probably should. I understand the basic reason why hasn't happened. Fesenko is large and bulky, but he struggles absurdly much at the offensive end of the floor -- his per36 numbers are a tepid 10 points and 8 rebounds a night. Poor all-around, ergo, most teams barely deign to play him at all. But the game is played on two ends, and on one end of the court, Fesenko is rather special. His real value comes on defense -- Fesenko has reliably been among the tops in the league for almost every defensive stat he could for the last few years. On/off court adjusted plus/minus, Synergy stats, 82Games opponent tracking, everything -- name a defensive assessment stat, and Fesenko probably rates pretty highly on it. In the last few years, anyway. He isn't necessarily a great defender due to hustle plays, shot blocking, or freak athleticism. More aptly, he's a great defender because for someone his size, he's incredibly fluid. Moves as though he's six pounds shorter and 100 pounds lighter. Probably would make an EXCELLENT boxer. Combine that with his raw size, which is honestly incredible? You've essentially created this giant, highly mobile wall that smart teams employ very effectively to cordon off the rim and blow up any team's average pick and roll play. Even with his lacking offensive stuff, his defense makes him a clear NBA talent, and in a good situation where he's only called upon as a defensive rock he could carve out a relatively lucrative career. I'm hoping he does. (And, I'll admit -- I was really hoping the Spurs could've picked him up. A legitimate defensive center, dangit! Could've been cool!)
Off the court, Fesenko is one of those stealthy jokesters. You'll miss his humor if you aren't looking. Luckily, so many people are! And by so many, I essentially just mean Dan Devine and me. Take my favorite example, courtesy of Mr. Devine: this video from the 2010 playoffs taped shortly after the Nuggets were eliminated. Wait. You actually can't take that video for an example, because the NBA deleted it during the lockout. (I found this out about 6 months back. I was distraught.) Retrospectively, this may be the biggest lockout casualty. Never mind the 400-something people who lost their jobs. This video was legitimately one of my favorite things to watch for almost a year, and it was gone post-lockout. Dan probably knows exactly how I feel here. I'll try to explain the video for the rest of you. Basically, in a completely average and nondescript interview, Fesenko starts mumbling about teammates and what he's trying to improve. He's a little incoherent, talks about how he needs to cap the number of jokes he has per day (totally untrue, he shouldn't cap any jokes at all), stuff like that. Then, without any warning, he gets completely lucid and goes "The fans love me. In fact, I'm trying to get Kyle Korver's sexy movie of the Jazz position." I just... what?! I'm not kidding whatsoever when I say I've spent actual hours of my life on earth trying to unravel what exactly Fesenko meant, here. It's beautiful.
Is he implying that Kyle Korver made a sex tape in his Jazz jersey? Is he implying that while the fans love him, he imagines they'd love him more if he taped a highlight reel with a porn-music backdrop and a Kyle Korver wig? Did a fan REQUEST that? Does he think Kyle Korver's shot is sexy and worthy of emulation? I just... there are so many angles to take. It's one of those great turns of phrase that's so incomprehensibly vague and brilliant you have simply no idea how to parse it. Hilarious. His twitter isn't quite as absurdist, but it has its moments, like when he called The Expendables "The Expandables" (probably unintentional but completely hilarious subversion), when he said he was super excited to see Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer in Chicago (again, probably unintentional, but I laughed when I read it), or when he was equally excited for Diablo 3 to come out as he was for the Heat series. Funny stuff. Basically, everything Fesenko has done has seemed funny in one way or another since I saw the video. Which... you are completely unable to see. So this whole capsule may come across as head-scratching. But alas. Fesenko is great, and I'm glad the Bulls got SOMEONE of some repute this offseason, at least from a comedy perspective. Good on you, Bulls fans. (Also, yes -- if they utilize him in a similar role as Asik, there's absolutely a fringe possibility he'll be just about as good. Which would be astonishing. But his limited-minutes defensive stats certainly indicate that kind of a potential in a greater role.)
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. 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. Good work on the riddles, where every riddle was correctly answered at least once but where nobody got a full 3/3. For the 2/3 guesses, props to Mike, Sean, and Atori. Fun.
- I'll admit it -- I was absolutely, 100% shocked that this former Tiger could make threes this season. Only seven, but still, pretty cool wrinkle. Always thought Player #187 to be more of a big, myself.
- Should've gone with the point guard, guys. Player #188 not only isn't a great NBA player, he also suddenly doesn't fit on the team that explicitly wanted him. Yikes. He could be good, someday, but he certainly hasn't gotten there yet.
- REALLY good defender as a rookie. Still solid last year, too. Not great on offense, but that was to be expected. Player #189 may always be criminally underrated on defense because he's thin, wiry, and doesn't preen. And honestly, that's a huge shame.
Suppose I'll put this here. I'm officially over 50% of the way through the series! Fewer capsules ahead of us than behind us! Hooray! And no, this project won't be finished on opening day (nor was it ever intended to be, contrary to popular belief), although it will be by Christmas. I'll be posting a halfway-there retrospective either this weekend or in the middle of next week to go over some stats, thoughts, and musings on the general course of the project. If you want to contribute to the retrospective, please name your favorite three or four capsules in the comments below. You can even tell me why you like them! Thanks a whole bunch for reading, whether you're a regular reader or just one who pops in from time to time. I really appreciate the support.