A friend recently told me about a show she was watching where scientists conducted an experiment with young children. They put them in a room and on a table was a cookie. The kids were told that if they didn’t eat the cookie, then after half an hour, they would get two cookies.
Despite knowing that they would get two cookies if only they wait a bit, the vast majority of the kids ate the cookie sitting on the table. Why? Because most young kids live completely in the present and can’t comprehend a future that is not directly in front of them.
So what does this have to do with the Raptor’s draft pick, Jonas Valanciunas?
Well, I have to say I was shocked to hear about all the negative reaction involving the Raptors pick. While I was disappointed that Kanter failed to fall to 5, I was thrilled when David Stern called out Valanciunas’ name. Thrilled and relieved. Part of me, like last year, was afraid Colangelo would turn his nose up at the gift sitting in front of him and stay with his plan. Maybe I’m still stinging from when the Raptors had Andre Iguodala fall into their laps only to politely hand him to the 76ers and instead opt for Rafael Araujo.
So how the hell does this have to do with kids and cookies? I’m getting to that.
As I said, I was a little taken aback by the reaction of the fans. Overwhelmingly negative, or so it seemed. The comments ranged from disappointment that Colangelo didn’t take an NCAA star like Kemba Walker or Brandon Knight, to puzzlement that they didn’t draft someone who would help immediately, to blatant and extremely ignorant xenophobia.
The strangest comments revolved around the fact that the Raptors desperately needed a point guard and didn’t draft one. Sorry? While most people don’t see Jose Calderon or Jerryd Bayless as the point guard of the future for the Raptors, I fail to see how they need to be desperately replaced. Calderon is a far better point guard than many give him credit for, and has been good enough to help the team be one of the best scoring teams over the last 5 years. And Bayless certainly showed he deserves a chance to build on the success he showed at the end of this past season.
To me, center is probably the position most in need of upgrading. While I don’t buy the line that Andrea Bargnani has been playing out of position and is really a 4, no one can argue the Raptors don’t need a new center that isn’t going to hand opposing players rebounds and show the way to the hoop. It’s pretty obvious to me that the center position was the greatest need for the Raptors.
But that’s not why drafting Valanciunas was a good idea.
There were many that felt that Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight were simply better players, having had success in the NCAA. Of course, that is a view not held by the majority of scouts and paid NBA people who probably know a little more than the average Raptor fan. A lot of these fans were the same ones that booed when Ed O’Bannon wasn’t drafted by the Raptors. Unfortunately a lot of North American basketball fans don’t have a very wide perspective. Most Raptor fans only watch Raptor games or the NCAA Tournament, so really have little idea what goes on in most of the basketball world. How many of them would have booed if the Raptors had drafted Robert “Tractor” Traylor and then traded him for that German guy no one had ever heard of? Or if they’d taken Pau Gasol ahead of Shane Battier or even Eddy Curry?
Just because you LIKE a player better, doesn’t actually make him a better player. Both Walker and Knight have their issues that caused them to drop. No one knows if Knight can even play PG, which would be a problem, especially considering that he’s VERY similar to Jerryd Bayless when he came out. Compare the two and see.
And Walker, while a very successful college player, has neither the length nor shot to suggest he can be anywhere near the player he was in college. And I can’t get Damon Stoudamire out of my head. A very good college player who put up good stats as the best player on a bad team, but couldn’t find a role on a better team when he wasn’t allowed to dominate the ball like he was used to.
But the fact that Walker and Knight were questions themselves, questions that lead to them both dropping on draft night, is not what made drafting Valanciunas at 5 a good idea.
A common complaint about drafting Valanciunas is that he won’t help the team immediately. In fact, CBSSports gave the Raptors an F for that very reason (Of course, many of the grades the guy gave are incredibly perplexing. For instance he apparently thought Utah should have drafted Jimmer Fredette instead of Enes Kanter. Wow, just wow.). This would make sense if the Raptors weren’t in the position they are right now. The team won 22 games and, barring an unexpected free agent bounty, don’t have much of a chance to make the playoffs next year. Plus, there wasn’t a player available that would have changed that. Are people really getting worked up about the fact that the team might win 30 games instead of 35? Really?
How many rookies make much of a positive impact in their first year, anyway? John Wall didn’t, and he was the consensus #1 pick last year. You think Brandon Knight or Kemba Walker would have turned the Raptors into a playoff team next year?
Probably the most ignorant complaints I’ve heard about the Raptors drafting Valanciunas is that he’s European, like Bargnani, so he must be soft. My question: Have you watched the guy play before making that rather massive assumption? Obviously not, because he’s basically the complete opposite of Bargnani. Valanciunas is all defense and rebounding, at this point, with a strong motor and gets all his points around the rim. That doesn’t sound at all like Bargnani, does it?
I actually heard a lot of strange comparisons, like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. Peculiar, since none of those guys were known for their defense when they were drafted and had pretty advanced offensive skills. In fact, other than them being European and white, I fail to see the similarities.
The guy that Valanciunas actually reminds me of the most is Amir Johnson, and I’m actually surprised I haven’t heard this before.
While Valanciunas obviously has a lot more length than Amir, the two have strikingly similar games, at this point. Both are high energy, hustle players who rebound and defend well. Both are good, although not great, shotblockers. Both are better team defenders than man-to-man defenders, at this point, due to their slight builds. Both have (apparently) exceptionally good hands and are excellent pick and roll players. Both have a great touch around the basket, despite not being great offensive players, which results in a very high field goal percentage. Even their free throw percentages are similar, very good for big men.
Unfortunately, they even share the same penchant for fouling.
Now, before you start complaining that the Raptors drafted a taller version of a bench player, remember two things. The first is those few inches that Valanciunas is taller can’t be overstated. It’s the difference between Ed Davis and Dikembe Mutombo. It’s the difference between Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal.
If Amir Johnson were 3 inches taller, he’d probably be considered potentially a top 10 center, in the league. And probably be paid a lot more.
Secondly, and more importantly, Valanciunas is only 19 years old and about at the same stage that Amir was a year ago, at 23. I think that Amir comparison is starting to look better.
So am I ever going to get back to the cookies?
The problem is that a lot of Raptor fans seem to have a lot in common with the kids who took the cookie off the table. They don’t want to wait and can’t comprehend a future that isn’t directly in front of them. When Boston drafted Larry Bird (at 6th), they were coming off a 29 win season. And they did it knowing they would have to wait a year before he could play on the team. If they had decided to draft a player that would have helped immediately, then Reggie Theus might have been a good choice. He certainly had a decent career. Sure, Boston wouldn’t have had the decade they did, but at least they wouldn’t have had to wait that year.
San Antonio, after winning 28 games in 1987, won the lottery and had to choose between Armen Gilliam, an All American coming off a 23 and 9 season with UNLV, or David Robinson, who they’d have to wait two years for while he served his time in the Navy. Gilliam made the All-Rookie team and Phoenix, who drafted him, eventually went on to the Conference Finals twice, albeit only once with Gilliam, who was traded after two and a half years to New Jersey. Still, that’s not bad.
Now, obviously Valanciunas isn’t a Larry Bird or David Robinson, but the fact is that you need to look at the big picture when drafting a player. And most fans don’t do that. According to most people who make a living having to know this stuff, Valanciunas was the best player available, and selecting someone else, who is more well known and would have helped immediately, would have been more popular with the fans, it would have also short changed them.
So if you want your cookie right now, then Knight or Walker, or even Biyombo would have made more sense. But if you want two cookies, then Valanciunas, who just about everyone with knowledge of the situation says was the best player available, was the way to go.
Unless of course, you’re happy with this.