Saturday, June 28, 2008

The honeymoon's over: With draft in the past, reality sets in

Draft day is like wedding day: Everyone is happy, usually all the way through the weekend, but eventually (usually once summer league play begins), reality sets in. You can immediately see that some players are much better suited for the pro game while other guys struggle.

A former assistant of mine, Jim Boylen, now the head coach at the University of Utah, used to say, "You can't serve two Gods," meaning you can't play rookies and try to win at the same time. As a team, your focus is either on developing young players and building for the future, or making a full effort to win games and challenge for a title.

The day (or week) after the draft (both NBA and NFL), beat writers and talk-show hosts begin rating and scoring which team did the best. You'll start seeing grades less than 24 hours after the draft ends.

I understand that it's their job to provide analysis. But in truth it's impossible to rank a draft that soon. It takes time for players to develop. After 2-4 years, I think it's fair to score how players/teams fared. By then, you have a better understanding of how they've done as players have been put in various roles and different situations.

Coaches beware: The list of coaches who've lost their jobs over the playing time of rookies is a long one.

First, many rookies will be unhappy with their role next year. They come in with big expectations only to find out it's much harder than they expected or their teams have different ideas of how to use them.

I remember when the Timberwolves drafted UCLA's Pooh Richardson back in the 1989 draft, the team's first-ever draft. [As a sidenote, my father was coaching the T-wolves and really wanted Timmy Hardaway as his point guard.]

Pooh had a great rookie year -- almost a "career year" for him -- but he wasn't happy and made it known publicly. This had an influence on my Dad's firing after two seasons, even though the team's performance exceeded many expectations.

What happened is no different than what happens with a lot of
players. A few years later, the player realizes that expectations are (unreasonably) high for rookies and that his role that first season was the right one for him.

With Pooh, he realized that Minnesota's offense, with its grind-it-out-pace and pick-and-rolls, were designed to hide his weaknesses and highlight his strengths. He didn't see it at the time, but it became more clear as his career went on.

Sometimes a coach will get fired due, in part, to the front office's high expectations for a rookie. When they're unhappy with his role or development, management looks for another coach who will use the player how they see fit.

In the end, it wasn't the coach (or coaches). And it wasn't that the player wasn't "good." It was that expectations were simply unrealistic. I've seen players leave the team that drafted them and go on to have long, productive careers with another team (or teams) where the expectations of the team and fans were different and the system was better-suited to their style.

It's not only the players who voice their opinions. Their agents can be just as outspoken as they work to help their client land his first "big contract." In many cases, it's the coach who is holding them back, keeping them from the "real money."

The GM wants his pick to succeed for his team. He and his scouts worked hard in evaluating the player. The owner holds the GM responsible for the pick. And fans and the media are, as I mentioned earlier, begin grading the pick almost immediately. It's important the player finds success early in his career.

When I worked for Golden State, GM Garry St. Jean made it clear that he wanted rookie Mickael Pietras to get experience over the last 20 games of his first season. His role was clear: Be a defensive stopper. And he was, locking down on the opponent's point guards. [His role has changed over time. Today, he's playing the power forward spot, so he's no longer guarding point guards.]

There are other groups who are watching rookies closely. The media, of course, is monitoring the story closely. Fans hope the rookie is the future of their team. [I know when my favorite NFL team, the Chargers, draft a player, I'm hoping he'll help get them back to the Super Bowl.]

Even the team's marketing and accounting folks are watching the rookies. A rookie's performance can impact season ticket sales, merchandise sales, TV contracts, sponsorship deals, etc.

The most pressure, as you'd expect, is with lottery picks. There's intense pressure -- on the coach, GM, and player -- for him to produce immediately.

Mid-range picks get more time to develop. For example, when I was an assistant with Memphis, Jerry West's primary objective was to win, so he wasn't in a hurry to get Hakim Warrick big minutes. Instead, the coaching staff worked with Hakim, taking some of the pressure off.

Usually, if a guy can play right now, he's going to be on the floor. If not, it's the responsibility of the head coach and his staff to develop the player, creating a plan for helping him develop -- in his first year, second year, and beyond.