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 we continue with Lance Thomas, Wayne Ellington, and Ty Lawson.
Follow Lance Thomas' example and buy a black diamond Jesus head.
As far as I know, most of the people who actively follow this blog are NBA fans -- few that I know of follow the NCAA with any sort of fervor or interest. I count myself in this general group. I don't like watching college basketball all that much, honestly. The talent is dismal, the excessive shot clock leads to overcomplicated and aimless offensive sets, the coaches lord over their players, chalk rules in a boring regular season, and the "possession arrow" is quite possibly the stupidest major-sport concept I've ever seen. March Madness is a lot of fun, and the crowds are neat. But I watch college basketball with this inherent sense that I'd get a better aesthetic experience by watching any average NBA team with an obsessive fanbase like Portland or Golden State. The defense is interesting, at times, but the requirements of the game tend to make successful college-level defensive schemes actively harmful to a player's development as a professional league defensive talent -- far too much of an emphasis on reach-ins, ball-watching, and zone protection. Simply not enough focus in the college game on single coverage, or on understanding ways to truly shut down a play. There's a reason most rookies are terrible at defense -- their college coaches do them a great disservice.
The reason I mention this is that I'd like to talk about a recently-broken story that most NBA fans have only glancingly heard about. The story broke this summer, and has intimately to do with Lance Thomas. Basically goes like this. Early in the 2010 season, Duke University's men's basketball team was in New York to play Gonzaga. They won by 35 points, then the team generally dispersed for a short winter break before a return to campus a bit over a week later. Lance Thomas -- alone, with nobody beside him -- went to an upscale jewelry store in New York and bought a black diamond necklace, a diamond-encrusted watch, a diamond cross, diamond earrings, and a black diamond pendant in the shape of Jesus' head. (... yeah, really.) The cost was $97,800. He paid $30,000, but the jeweler allowed him to take the rest on a bill-of-sale agreement that he'd pay the rest of the total within 15 days. The payment never came, Thomas stopped returning his calls, and the man eventually gave up trying and took him to court this summer. The two eventually came to a very carefully worded settlement, one where the money was conditional on the store not cooperating with any internal NCAA investigators and one where neither Thomas nor the jeweler would release the terms of the settlement otherwise. So, nothing will happen.
But, you know... that wasn't a given. For about two weeks, NCAA media types reported endlessly about the potential looming issues. The basic problem is that the jeweler gave Thomas a $67,800 loan with no interest and no certain terms. According to anyone with a functioning brain and a sense of logic, there's no way that kind of a loan happens if Thomas isn't a semi-professional athlete with a good shot at going pro. The fact of Thomas having $30,000 on hand is ridiculous, but not nearly as actionable -- perhaps that was a college fund his scholarship freed up, or money he earned somehow. There is virtually no chance that either of those statements are true. Thomas most likely got it from someone based on his basketball at Duke. But actually litigating the $30,000 would take firepower the NCAA doesn't have -- instead, the NCAA intended to litigate the loan, upon the argument that the loan itself was an intangible benefit given to Thomas, which would in turn disqualify not only Thomas as a player, but every single Duke team Lance Thomas played on. It would vacate the 2010 championship, Thomas' college career, and irrevocably stain the offending school. This story summarizes just about everything that puts college basketball over the top for me. It takes it from a sport I merely don't like to a sport I vehemently detest. You know why?
Via NCAA rules, this makes perfect sense. Via actual human reality, nothing about this litigation does.
There is absolutely no logical reason that Thomas' university should actually be punished for this, even if you accept the NCAA's bull that college athletes deserve no payment (they sure as hell do) and that Thomas used his Duke credentials to get benefits he wouldn't have gotten otherwise (he sure as hell did). Absolutely nobody at Duke had any idea Thomas was at the jeweler. Absolutely nobody at Duke -- at any point -- knew anything about this scandal before the news broke. Anything. Perhaps some of his teammates saw the jewelry -- who knows what they say in the locker room? But the coaches certainly didn't know, the athletics department was clueless as all get-out, and the hyperconservative Krzyzewski surely didn't know about it (because he'd probably have personally had Lance Thomas killed if had). The idea of vacating a title due to something nobody on the team had any way whatsoever to know about is absurd to me. It's like suspending Miami's big three because Dexter Pittman tried to kill Stephenson. It's throwing out Gregg Popovich because one of the fans in the crowd yelled an expletive. It's vacating half of Phil Jackson's titles because he doesn't smoke peyote.
This sort of thing happens all the time in the NCAA's warped reality. These absurd and illogical applications of rules that, as they stand, mean virtually nothing and create incomprehensible hazards a college basketball team can't possibly account for. A team playing under NCAA rules and regulations is better off locking every single player in separate cages (without pay, per NCAA guidelines!) than letting them traipse the world with an ounce of humanity intact. The NCAA's rules and regulations treat players as though they're indentured servents of their alma mater, not people. Rules like this only add to the general air of entitlement that belies just about every college coach and athletic director in the game. They all think they're great, and why wouldn't they? They pocket and take credit for every dollar the school makes off a series of phenomenally talented athletes who (for the most part) could probably use the money. This scandal is just another reminder of what anyone who watches a lot of NCAA ball already knows -- the NCAA rules are broken, and while I hated my time at Duke and earnestly disliked most members of that championship team (and especially Thomas), there's not a bone in my body that sympathizes with anything the NCAA is trying to do here. Not here, not against North Carolina's "egregious" missteps, not against Coach Calipari's somehow outlandish prospect that he'll actually treat his players like the young adults they are and let them see the fruits of their labor. The NCAA is a pathetic institution with a tenuous grasp on reality and the most insultingly warped views of their own players they could possibly have. They take a beautiful game and makes it a legal, moral, and exploitative disaster.
"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the player?"
Honestly, Lance Thomas isn't very good. He doesn't have any professional-level scoring talents, and while he's finally figured out how to operate in a defensive scheme (with an emphasis on breaking up the pick and roll, a valuable skill) and bought nicely into Monty Williams' system, unless he can improve his outside tertiaries to anything resembling average he won't be long for the league. He'd probably be a decent player to land in an organization like the Pacers or the Spurs, where the coaching staff could put together lineups that cover him up offensively with a bounty of weapons and use him as a situational stick of dynamite to bust up any pick-and-roll play the other team deigns to run. But on a team like the Hornets, whose best scorers are Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and a retired Monty Williams? Not quite what the team needs. If he could perfect his midrange shot and pick up a few more ball handling skills, he might be able to stick in the league longer as a situational wing, but again -- he needs a lot of massaging and work just to fit in a lineup as he stands, and the jury's out as to whether he's got the ability to provide that. On a personal level, I'll be totally honest with you -- I think he's probably the 4th best NBA talent on Duke's 2010 championship roster. Two of the players above him -- Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek -- never made the league, with Zoubek retiring to start a cream puff shop in New Jersey (NO, SERIOUSLY!) The other one, Nolan Smith, has looked absolutely terrible up to this point. A bit shocked Thomas has stuck around, but perhaps he's finally dealt with his college issues of lackadaisical work ethic. For Monty to praise him, he probably has to. So good on you, Mr. Thomas. You grew up. Good to hear. (Now stop buying diamond-plated Jesus heads.)
Given the ridiculously long rant I went on in the Thomas capsule, I'll try to make this one a bit short. The Grizzlies traded for Ellington this offseason, and all things considered, I think this is a pretty decent pickup for Memphis. Although I admit, I remain unconvinced they couldn't have gotten a tad bit more for Dante Cunningham. As I outlined in Cunningham's capsule (which I am now reminded was a startling 229 players ago, dear lord), Cunningham is a decent 2nd-or-3rd big and he's got a few definitive NBA talents, despite suffering from somewhat tweener size. There are a lot of teams in the league that could use a player like him, and you wonder if the Grizzlies could've gotten a bit of a better package. Still. Ellington is coming off a pretty poor season, and although his defensive numbers are solid, they're a bit misleading -- watching 10-15 minutes of defensive play from Ellington reinforces the idea that he's a "lucky" defender whose man tends to miss wide open shots, somehow. He's not bad, but he's lucky, and eventually the other shoe will drop and his defensive numbers are going to look a lot worse through no fault of his own. It's not his fault his numbers are a bit inflated, and he's a decent defender... but it's incumbent on me to remind you of the fact.
Still. Ellington's spot in the league isn't for his defense, it's for his shooting -- on his career, he's a very good shooter from outside 15 feet, rating out as a mid-to-high 40s long two shooter and a high 30s three point gunner. In college, he was more than any mere gunner -- he was a remarkably effective sniper and his shooting talent looked to get him a long and profitable NBA career if he could step out a foot or two. His first two seasons were excellent from that regard, as he shot around 39% from three and looked to be a decent pickup by the Wolves, even if he wasn't an excellent player. This last season, though, he shot only 32% from three, and if he repeats that kind of a performance, the Grizzlies' trade is going to end up being yet another trade that was in-theory great but in-practice busted. I don't expect that, though -- I think his poor season will help teams lay off him, and the post threats on the Grizzlies will draw the defense in enough that Ellington will have ample room to take (and make) a ton of threes this year. If that happens and he can actually play the role of the token three-point sniper, the Grizzlies have a lot more upside potential than most give them credit for. Even if this doesn't work out (his offensive game really did look like absolute trash last season, it's worth noting), it's an admirable attempt to shore up a serious weakness. And a classic case of a team trading on fit rather than raw quality, which is something I do tend to get annoyed when teams ignore. So... good on you, Grizzlies.
There are a lot of reasons to like Ty Lawson. Chief among them is a fact that often gets overlooked for players like Lawson -- he simply doesn't have any pressing faults. His shooting percentages are above average from almost every spot on the court, his turnover rate is relatively low for an NBA point guard, and if you're an opposing defense it's really hard to scout a scheme to account for him. This is all pretty phenomenal, but it's also somewhat underrated -- often, people gaze upon Lawson's skills and don't see anything particularly great. They see a good scorer, good passer, good defender, good handle. But they don't see anything great beyond his blazing speed, which most people know intuitively doesn't always translate to NBA-great talent. (Just look at Ish Smith.) The general refrain is to compare each individual component of his game to one of his betters -- say, people comparing his passing skills to those of Rondo or his shooting to that of Nash or his defense to that of Westbrook. You look at a player through nothing but his individual components, and the whole view ends up looking mixed and shaky. How can he be a great player if he's so far behind the greats in fields like that?
Well, it's as I said -- there just aren't any real weaknesses in his game. Rondo can't reliably shoot -- Lawson can. Nash turns the ball over like it's nobody's business -- Lawson doesn't. Westbrook can get overly aggressive and can shoot his team out of games -- Lawson threads the fine line between aggression and passivity like a 7-year pro. Lawson's greatest gift is that he's good-to-great in every individual aspect of the game, which makes him add up to far more than the sum of his component parts. He masterfully directs one of the best offenses in the sport, leading his pieces both verbally and in-his-play. He and Andre Miller orchestrate a complex series of plays, movements, and actions that make Denver such an entertaining team to watch -- both are phenomenal offensive players, above and beyond their "above-average" traditional passing stats. Lawson adds to that brilliance a fantastic three point stroke, a reliable midrange shot, and already next to Tony Parker as one of the best at-rim scorers from the guard position. He's fast, but never out of control -- his motor is sublime, and the way Lawson changes speeds effortlessly from the top of the key is something to behold. His defense isn't an active, in-your-face press. He's more of a sneaky, shifty, spot-picking defender whose quickness is good enough to stay with more guards than most but hesitant enough to keep from getting himself in bad foul trouble. Doesn't take a lot of chances, but he does a good job keeping his hands in a player's face and cutting off angles. He's no Westbrook, but he's a sight better than the average NBA guard.
Make no mistake -- Lawson isn't as heralded as the big names like Deron Williams or Kyrie Irving, but he's phenomenal. One of the 30-something best players in the league, in my view. He's one of the best kept secrets in the league, combining an electric play-style with one of the most amusing off-court natures out there. Which does lead me to once again admit something that most don't realize -- Lawson is freakishly competitive, to the point of often being a jerk. One of the first posts I wrote for Gothic Ginobili was a retelling of one of my favorite college anecdotes, a story about how Ty Lawson utterly shredded a good Duke team to pieces simply because someone in the crowd pissed him off. You can read the story here. I highly recommend it, if only because understanding Lawson's amazing competitive streak is absolutely necessary to fully appreciate how great he actually is on the court. His hot temper and his competitive nature hasn't shut down in the interim, either -- look at his amazing performance against the Lakers in last year's playoffs, or his brazen declaration that this year's Nuggets are the team to beat in the West. Just hilariously confident in everything -- the crisis of confidence I outlined for Austin Daye would never get past a blink from Lawson. Even in college I had trouble rooting against such a phenomenally lovable, self-assured jerk -- now, in the NBA, at least I don't have to pretend I dislike him. Lawson's great. Watch him this season, as much as you possibly can, whether he's playing laser tag or filleting every defense that deigns to face him -- he may not make the all-star team, but chances are he'll very much deserve it.
• • •
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. This morning's riddles were admittedly pretty patchwork -- nobody got a single one correct. Alexander Smith wins a shout-out despite not guessing, though, because he posted one of the most hilarious comments anyone's ever put up here. Let's see if these riddles are more to your liking!
- Player #238 made enough clutch shots for a massive highlight reel not less than 3 years ago. He is now barely in the league. Funny how ("u") things work.
- Player #239 started in the finals in the past decade, despite his low repute. He actually resembles the average Finals starter at his position, at least in the modern era. Teams don't tend to have great players at his position when they win a title, at least not recently.
- Here's a riddle only one or two people on earth will know. One of our writers, Alex Arnon, covered the 2012 summer league. He witnessed Player #240 laughing and miming at what could've been a deadly spine injury. I may have indicated his relative praises earlier this week in the most amusingly controversial capsules I've ever written, but lord almighty, if he got waived because of his attitude I completely understand it. Also: that stupid, stupid nickname. Oh my lord.
Just a note, once more. Tomorrow, I'll be doing one of my semi-regular Q&A sessions. (As well as a lot of other stuff.) Topics are, as always, quite flexible. If you ask it, I shall answer. Most likely. Gothic Ginobili is significantly more popular now than it was back when the last few occurred, so I'm guessing there will be a few more questions than there used to be. I'll probably be answering questions for most of the day, but if you'd like to get in questions early, please email your questions to staff (at) gothicginobili (dot) com. Thanks for reading.
Also, in case you didn't notice: I updated twice today. If you missed the first set, check them out here.
• • •