As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with DeJuan Blair, Bill Walker, and Goran Dragic.
Good ol' DeJuan Blair. Let's not bury the lede -- it's pretty cool that he's still playing basketball at all, let alone having a relatively decent career. A lot of people forget or tend to overlook this given that he's been in the league 3 full seasons and has enough experience that he's essentially a veteran at this point, but DeJuan Blair has no ACLs. None whatsoever. The real knock on Blair coming out of college was that his lack of ACLs was going to eventually turn him into a useless NBA player, a man whose body would break down halfway through his rookie year and who'd whittle away the rest of his minutes an injury-tattered bust throughout the duration of a short and meaningless NBA career. And, well. No. That didn't happen. In fact, Blair has been almost preternaturally healthy in his time in the league -- no real knee problems of any note have resulted from his lack of ACLs, and his only injuries that I can remember include a nose injury from an errant Hibbert elbow late last season and his recent sprained ankle. That's it.
In over 3 seasons of play, as a nominal big man? That's insanely healthy, and while he's registered some DNP-CDs in there (three so far, in the regular season), it's really rather remarkable that Blair was able to put together over three seasons a bill of health that clean. A credit to him and a credit to San Antonio's medical staff. Good show, all. As for the pick itself, a lot of people praise the Spurs endlessly for it. That's never made much sense to me. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill, Kawhi Leonard -- those are good picks. Those are ones where they found something others weren't paying attention to. Blair, though? He was one of the most obvious picks the Spurs have ever made. As long as you as a franchise had any faith in your medical staff, he was a no-brainer pick from about #20 onwards. Apparently, of all the franchises in that duration, only San Antonio really had any faith in their medical staff. It was an obvious choice that virtually every other team in the league simply refused to make. Simple as that. There are a lot of examples of the Spurs as an excellent drafting team. DeJuan Blair -- the obvious choice to end all obvious choices -- is not that example, even if it's the easiest story to remember and retell.
On the court, Blair is quite the mixed bag. He's got a lot of hustle, but the man's a poor defender in every respect and needs to learn to use his weight to set proper screens. That's one of the keys, to me. He's never in his NBA career been able to consistently set good screens and I don't really see why -- he's short, sure, but he's an emphatic widebody. Look at Diaw's screens, when Diaw's locked in. Look at Chuck Hayes. Look at ANY slightly tubby-but-short center -- there are ways to set your weight to make the screen formidable even if you aren't a great defender. It's a skill he needs to master. He's a value big with the length of a Barkley-type and an insane amount of rebounding talent, although that talent seems to have been scouted better by other teams throughout the years. His passing game is extraordinarily underdeveloped for a guy with arms and strength like he has, but his post game is a bit underrated and he has the exact skillset needed to make tall and lanky defenders look foolish -- he pushes against them with his weight, uses his low center of gravity to get them wobbling, then creates enough space to create a layup with his wide reach. Which is nice, offensively, and makes him a useful offensive player against lineups like Oklahoma City (where Ibaka and Perkins trade off on him, both of whom are susceptible to his offensive moves) and Los Angeles (where Gasol is exactly the sort of defender he always goes off on).
The big problem with Blair is that he gives most of it back at the other end, where he's a remarkably bad defender. Doesn't maintain position, barely rotates, fouls a lot. As his rebounding has slowly fallen off, his defensive value (formerly higher when he'd vastly improve the Spurs' ability to rebound every miss) withers away and leaves him with nothing. Which is bad. I'd like to think Blair's endgame is going to be a far less talented Barkley-type with less-than-Barkley-but-more-than-nonextant defensive chops, but he has yet to really show me what I feel he needs to on the defensive end. Can't really pencil him in for any defensive talents if he doesn't show any off, you know? Most likely, he'll end up a bench player now-and-forever. Which isn't the end of the world, although it's annoying that his size is just small enough to make defense so difficult for him. He's a nice dude, no doubt, even if following him on twitter is a bit confusing. Mentions of "P.O.P." abound, with all-caps LOLs after virtually every tweet. Funny at first, eventually becomes tiring and confusing, but alas. He also has an incredibly hot girlfriend who once did semi-pornographic shots of her in a painted-on DeJuan Blair jersey that I refuse to link to. (Speaking of which, when taken in context of some of the personal drama that's surrounded the Spurs the past few years -- Blair's girlfriend posing semi-nude in Spurs garb, the Crawford photo, the public Pop/Stern feud, Tony and Eva, Pop's feud with team USA, Stephen Jackson doing anything, etc... aren't the Spurs actually becoming oddly counterculture? This is strange to consider. I'm just going to leave this thought here and abandon it for a bit.)
Anyway. I like Blair. Don't think he has much more upside than "decent rotation guy", but I'm emphatically sure he can be that. And that's a pretty big accomplishment, all things considered, given his knees and the expectations -- which is a fact that absolutely shouldn't get lost when Spurs fans get disappointed he's nothing more.
Bill Walker's an interesting one, and just between you and me, I'm a bit sad that he hasn't found his way back into the NBA yet. He's one of those NBA disappointments whose career's foibles are neither his fault in any way nor really under his control -- he's a victim of circumstance and timing, and both may have conspired to end his NBA career before it really had a chance to begin. A long time back, he and O.J. Mayo were two of the top prospects in the country. Many actually thought Walker the superior of the two. It was like the Leon Powe & LeBron James dynamic, actually. Walker teamed up with Michael Beasley at Kansas State during his college years, leading the Wildcats to their best season in school history and generally making mincemeat of the undersized mess the NCAA sent out to oppose them. Unfortunately, Walker suffered injury problems even in college (including a nasty ruptured ACL his freshman year, which is a terrifying thing to recover from that young), and he ended up dropping from a definite lottery pick all the way to #47 after suffering yet another knee injury in a workout with the Warriors.
Walker's not a bad player, although he's never been anything phenomenal in the NBA. He started his career with the Celtics and didn't show much, finally escaping Beantown in mid-2010 as a skid-greaser in the trade for Nate Robinson. Funny enough, he might've been the best player moved in the deal -- he had a breakout of sorts in New York, proving himself to be a relatively decent rotation player with a neat blend of not-completely-incompetent defense and excellent spot-up three point shooting. He had a few good years with the Knicks, alternating haphazardly between moments of sublime quintessence and baffling incompetence. One minute he'd be draining threes like he had no other care in the world -- the next, he'd be shanking easy dunks and getting lost behind a set of extremely simple screens. I don't quite agree with the supposition made by Ryan O'Hanlon at The Classical earlier this year -- that is, the idea that Bill Walker "never learned how to play basketball." He makes his threes, he rebounds well, he hustles. Yes, he has his problems. He turns the ball over obscenely much for a non-ball-dominant tertiary player, and his passing is remarkably poor. He barely ever draws fouls and he barely ever does anything beyond rim-rocking dunks and well-timed three point shots. Which made him an excellent target for Jeremy Lin during the height of Linsanity -- he got about a bucket-per-game from Lin's hand while Lin and Walker were together, and they seemed to have a nice touch of on-court chemistry.
Still. I find it hard not to root for the guy. He has a lot of work ethic. Nice guy, pretty funny, and seems pretty smart. The Classical piece on him is well-done, and covers a lot of good points -- no, he didn't need to learn "how to play basketball" in the traditional way, and no coach really challenged him to learn fundamentals like ball-control or defense. But I'm in some disagreement over the article's general tone, implying that Walker never learned these things, or that his career is somewhat lost at sea because he hasn't seemed to fully internalize them yet. If you watch footage of Walker from last year, and look at how his career's progressed, I don't see how you can really deny that he's trying, and that he's definitely made strides -- his defense has gotten quite a bit better over the years, and he's developed from an off-the-dribble player to an off-the-catch type. He's a better three point shooter than the numbers imply -- he shot an absurdly low percentage on corner threes last year despite being a generally excellent corner-three shooter both in college and in 2011. He'd make a good addition to any playoff team in need of three point shooting on the wing from a defender that doesn't kill you, like the Grizzlies or the Celtics. He probably can be had for a minimum deal. I'm not sure why he hasn't gotten a call-up yet -- the man's just 25 years old, he's relatively healthy, and while injuries have sapped his game, they haven't eliminated it. Generally I prefer D-League callups to vets, but when the vet is as young and potential-stricken as Walker (and comes so cheaply!), I can't help but hope he comes back.
He's also responsible for my single favorite Seth Rosenthal series ever. Missing you, Bill.
I don't dislike Goran Dragic. I have bad memories tied to him, sure -- Dragic single-handedly kicked the Spurs when they were down in the 2010 playoffs, as the Suns experienced the sort of franchise-wide catharsis that only comes once in a lifetime and swept what then appeared to be Tim Duncan's last chance at a championship team out of the playoffs in embarrassingly lopsided fashion. Dragic was, as most remember, almost solely responsible for the Suns' win in game three of that series -- he scored 23 points in the fourth quarter of the contest, which I like to contextualize by stating that Dragic scored more points in that fourth quarter than LeBron James scored in every single fourth quarter of the 2011 finals combined. It was a good night for the kid, let's just say. The 2011 Brandon Roy night before 2011 Brandon Roy's night, so to speak. Game of his career? Game of the century? Game of my lifetime?
Okay, none of the above. Perhaps the game of his career, to-date, but I've got a feeling he's got more in him than that. Just because it's the best he's got so far doesn't mean it'll stay that way -- Dragic is actually a really solid player, and chances are pretty high he'll reach a bit higher someday. We'll start on the end of the court guards aren't usually known for -- Dragic is one of the better defensive point guards in the league. He's adept at shadowing his man despite so-so quickness. He's got a highly developed sense of when to dive into a lane and cut off a pass before the players put them up. As said, not incredibly quick... but it doesn't really matter much, as Dragic tends to get physical enough that you don't really have a chance to take advantage of the lacking quickness. He reminds me a bit of a highly souped up defensive-prime Vujacic, in a smaller frame and a more effective position. Physical, mushes you, gets you inflamed and making terrible decisions on the daily. That's how he approaches defense. It helps that he's a tad large for a point guard, measuring up at around 200 pounds at 6'4" -- he's lanky, but a bit large and with a wingspan longer than the average. It helps. He's a good match for just about every non-freak guard in the league and can safely cover most if not all bench point guards, which is a nice feature.
Offensively, the story's more mixed. I hear a lot of people give a ton of praise to Dragic's passing game, and while I agree that he's decent, I'd stop short of saying it's anything to write home about. By the numbers, he has a slightly above-average assist rate for a point guard (good) and a well above-average turnover rate (not so good). Aesthetically, his passing isn't Rubio-esque nor is it Arenas-level drab. It's all just very average. No next-level court vision, but no insignificant talent either. As for his personal offense, again, it's a bit mixed. His shot still leaves a bit to be desired, despite being quite improved last year. He helped himself quite a bit by sticking to an extremely efficient distribution of shots (over 2/3 of his shots came at the rim or behind the 3 point line), and that led to high overall scoring numbers and composite efficiency. But break it down and you still see a few of the problems with his scoring game -- he doesn't spot up well (and tends to create more offense for himself than one would perhaps appreciate), his three point shot is neither phenomenal nor below average, and he's an average-to-poor midrange shooter. On the other hand, he's a FANTASTIC finisher at the rim, one of the absolute best at his position. And the ability to stick to an efficient distribution of shots (something he's done throughout his career) is an underrated talent in the league. So perhaps I'm just being a bit too hard on him.
Ironically, before last season, I'd assessed Dragic's upside as "a starter for a noncontender a la Kyle Lowry." I'd amend that to say that after Lowry's breakout 2012, I'm not sure that's really fair to Lowry. And after Dragic's breakout 2012, I'm not sure it's fair to Dragic either! I could see him putting in time as a Mike Conley-type figure later in his career, if he can take control of his turnovers and make his way to the right team. Conley is absolutely essential to what the Grizzlies do -- I could see Dragic do the same, later on. Just needs to improve his handling a bit and take better care of the ball. And improve his shot. And keep his defensive intensity. And... well, alright, now I'm manually realizing that I'm underrating Mike Conley. Is there no point guard I can properly rate? Wait, I got it. Mike Bibby. That guy sucks. There. Done. Faith in my own abilities restored. Off the court, Dragic's your average everyday foreign guy -- a bit brash, a bit silly, fun to follow. He also was the star of one of the league's all-time best feuds, the feud that began in 2010 when Dragic insulted Sasha Vujacic's mother and called Vujacic a "very low human being." It's hilarious. Read about the feud, if you get the chance -- it's absolutely worth your time.
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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. I was kind of shocked that so many people got perfect scores on yesterday's riddles. Are these getting easier with so few players left to go? Good work to Dr. No, Alex, and Mike L.
- Player #340 was the centerpiece of one of the most confusing trades of the summer, for me. I kind of get what they were doing, but have no clue how his new team thought he'd be a key piece for them at his age.
- Player #341 isn't quite Ryan Hollins, but he's close. It's really hard to be 7'0" and average less than eight rebounds per 36 minutes in the NBA. But he's perservered.
- Player #342 has probably seen Lincoln. He should've made a cameo in it, I think.
Due to my missing a day, I may need to double up capsules sometime in the next few weeks to finish on my desired closing date. But we'll see. We've got just 31 players to go -- just two full weeks of capsules. Crazy stuff, this.
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