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NBA Sunday: Kemba Walker’s Inspiring Journey

Moke Hamilton sits down with Kemba Walker, New York City’s torch-bearing point guard.

Moke Hamilton

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Al-Farouq Aminu bent his knees and exploded skyward after summoning all the strength his 17-year-old legs could muster. He corralled one of his four rebounds on the day in what began as a routine-enough play and instinctively spun around, looking for a teammate to pass the ball off to.

Instead, Aminu saw his smallest teammate—some kid hailing from New York City’s Soundview Projects in the Bronx—already sprinting down toward the other end of the floor.

Aminu channeled his inner Peyton Manning and lofted a perfect pass to the streaking guard who received it at half court, in-stride.

Less than four seconds later, on March 26, 2008, at the McDonald’s All-American game, the world learned exactly who Kemba Walker was.

Breathing heavily, the wide-open Walker caught the pass as his red, sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. He took two steps toward what seemed like an easy basket, but out of the corner of his left eye, saw a defender, Jrue Holiday, quickly gaining ground on him.

At that moment, the words of his junior high school coach, Carl Nickerson, echoed in his head. Nickerson taught Walker to be tough. Coach taught Walker to never let his size be a deterrent, and above all, he taught Walker to leap over any hurdle that appeared before him.

Without hesitation, the tiny point guard decided to go for it all.

He accelerated and with two dribbles and a two-step, took flight. Walker rose up through the air and soared, defying gravity and odds, and threw down a vicious tomahawk dunk over the outstretched Holiday. The crowd of 11,000 erupted after Walker pulled off the feat that was as surprising to occur as it was inspiring to witness.

Even seven years later, he remembers both the play and the game vividly. It was, after all, the night he walked away feeling as though he was truly capable of not only running with, but taking flight with the stars of tomorrow.

***

It’s a fairly brisk January 2015 afternoon in Charlotte. Seven years later, Walker has come a long, long way since being a McDonald’s High School All American. After enrolling at UConn prior to its 2008-09 season, Walker’s pre-professional basketball career was a resounding success, ultimately culminating in him leading his UConn Huskies to a national title in 2011.

Fulfilling a promise to his parents to always keep his education at the forefront of his priorities, Walker completed the requirements for his degree in Sociology in three years and declared himself eligible for the 2011 NBA Draft.

After months of training, private team workouts and a hectic travel schedule, Walker made it to the date he had circled on his calendar: June 23, 2011. Despite mostly excelling in the pre-draft process, some draft-day projections had him sliding due to a combination of concerns over a mostly phantom knee ailment and his reputation for being a streaky jump shooter.

Despite the concerns, the Charlotte Hornets selected Walker with the ninth overall pick of the draft. The hope was that he could provide youth, stability and All-Star upside at the point guard position—qualities that the franchise believed his predecessors Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin lacked.

After hearing his named called and shaking hands with Commissioner David Stern, Walker was relieved and excited to head to Charlotte, and his youthful exuberance was on full display when we met for the first time a few hours later.

“This has been such a long process for me and for everyone,” Walker said at the time. “But I’m excited, man.

“And now, Michael Jordan’s given me a great opportunity, so I’m just gonna come in with a great attitude, respect everyone, and try to do everything possible to get that team to the playoffs. I’m so excited.”

That night, Walker spoke a bit about his personal journey. He spoke about wanting to take care of his parents and loved ones and wanting to fulfill the potential that the world saw during his years at UConn.

Above all else, on that night, Walker spoke to me about what was ahead. For many youngsters, being drafted into the NBA and hearing their name called is the highlight of their NBA career. Most simply don’t make it long-term.

Way back in 2011, though, it was evident that Walker understood that this was not the end of his journey—it was a new beginning.

***

The practice court is bustling with energy. Brian Roberts and Gary Neal are competing in shooting drills while Lance Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist participate in their own workout.

Walker, now 24 years old, has mostly fulfilled the promise that the Hornets believed he had when they drafted him four years ago. He led the franchise to its second playoff berth since 2004 and is now playing out the final season of his rookie contract. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension with the Hornets about three months prior, though, there is no question that he will continue to be a fixture for the franchise.

When we sat shoulder to shoulder for the first time since 2011, my first question to Walker seemed simple enough.

“What’s life been like since you came into the league?”

Walker seemed startled by the question, perhaps even confused. He looked at me and then looked away, chuckling and raising his eyebrows, shaking his head. For a moment, I felt a bit self-conscious, wondering if my question struck him as silly for some reason.

But finally, after a few uneasy moments, the words came.

“It’s been everything I expected,” he said, simply. “Life has been great. Just being able to live my dream, play basketball for a living, being able to take care of my family; it’s been everything I expected.”

And in that moment immediately preceding his pensive gaze and broken silence, Walker looked much more like the college kid I first met in 2011—one who was just caught off guard by a professor posing a tough question.

Indeed, for Walker, life in the NBA has been everything he expected—except for the constant traveling.

“Yeah, the biggest thing that surprised me was the travel,” Walker said. No doubt, he was recalling a recent stretch that saw his Hornets play five games in eight days in Orlando, Boston, Charlotte, Toronto and New York.

“That was one of the tougher things to adjust to when I got here,” Walker said. “Just going to all these different cities, getting in super late and sometimes having to play the next day.”

Still, for him, the long NBA road trips are a cakewalk compared to the arduous journey he had already endured. Madison Square Garden may be just 10 miles from the Sack-Wern courts in the Soundview projects in the Bronx, but the route between the two is littered with dashed hopes and crushing pressure that many of Walker’s predecessors couldn’t navigate.

And there, where it all began for Walker, was worlds away from the stardom and fortune that he knew potentially awaited in the NBA.

***

“I never really knew, honestly.”

After sighing and thinking about it, his candor got the best of him. It wasn’t until well into his high school career that Walker even seriously considered pursuing basketball professionally. Growing up, he’d routinely been discouraged from doing so since small guards do not often make it big in the NBA. Often, even when they do, their careers are short-lived.

Officially listed at 6’1, Walker measured in at the 2011 pre-draft combine at 5’11.5 without shoes. The concerns over his size, statistically, were well-founded. When asked how often he’d heard his size would preempt his aspirations, Walker didn’t hesitate.

“All the time,” Walker said. “I’m ‘too small, not strong enough, can’t shoot… That’s stuff that I’ve heard for years, but it’s never bothered me, because I know how to play. I just play based off of straight-toughness. I just knew—I always knew—that would get me over the hump. I always took the criticisms as motivation.”

From time to time, though, doubt would creep in. How could it not? As a young man attempting to defy odds, if you hear enough people say that you’re not good enough, or that you’re too small or too weak, you may eventually begin to believe it yourself. That can be especially true of a youth growing up in an underprivileged neighborhood where hope and optimism don’t necessarily reign supreme.

That’s probably why Walker needed the validation of playing varsity basketball to help him believe that he had an opportunity to be great. But even after that, it would take a few more years for him to believe that he had NBA potential. When he first laced up his sneakers for Rice High School’s Varsity team, Walker’s prime focus was earning a scholarship to attend college, not to one day play in the NBA.

“I really started to take [basketball] seriously my sophomore year of high school,” Walker recalled. “That was my first year playing varsity, so when I made that team I was just like, ‘Hey, I could probably go to school for free.’ That was my goal.”

It was a goal that is indicative of the values that Walker’s Antiguan parents, Andrea and Paul, instilled in him from an early age. Even as his stock climbed and the NBA began to seem an attainable aspiration, Walker’s mother continued to stress the importance of an education. His playing days would be limited, but an education would last a lifetime.

Before long, though, his on-court contributions ceased to fly under the radar. By 2008, he had become ranked as one of the top high school players in the country, earning an invitation to the 2008 McDonald’s All-American game where he would share the court with other future NBA lottery talents such as Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Greg Monroe, Ed Davis and, of course, Al-Farouq Aminu—the one who assisted Walker on the play that would make all the difference in the world for him.

“After the McDonald’s All-American game, I started to look at all the mock drafts and stuff like that, and I saw that I was up there,” Walker said when he asked when he realized the NBA was an option for him. “Just for my name to be up there, it gave me some hope and some confidence that I could be a pro.”

And the fateful play over Holiday? It was an exclamation point that underscored many things about Walker’s game—his athleticism, his fearlessness and his determination.

“I played well,” Walker recalled, proudly. “[The] big time dunk that game, on Jrue Holiday… I had a big time dunk on him. That was definitely, by far, the most memorable play of that game for me.”

Yes, it was an exclamation point that underscored Walker’s virtues. That one play epitomized the belief that Carl Nickerson—Walker’s junior high school coach at Intermediate School 174—instilled in him from his days as a young teenager.

“[Coach Nickerson] is the one who kind of helped me develop a toughness that nobody could take away from me,” Walker said. “He always pushed me. He made me super tough, and he was always hard on me. He just made me go and he was the one who got me really serious about basketball.”

Nickerson also played a key role in Walker finding his way to Rice High School and it was there that he attained national recognition playing for coach Moe Hicks. Like Nickerson, Hicks helped Walker’s development, instilling the key defensive principles that he needed to truly become an impact player at the next level.

With his national championship and a trove of awards and accolades under his belt, it’s clear that Walker has capably met each challenge he has faced. Now, in his fourth year as an NBA pro, Walker can proudly wake up each morning and lace up his sneakers knowing that he is an inspiring and improbable success story.

En route to this point, he has overcome social, economic and physical obstacles and epitomizes the spirit of New York City—tough, rugged, defiant and hard working.

With a rich basketball tradition and some of the most famous courts in the country, Walker, the city’s own, has emerged from among his peers as the torchbearer for New York City point guards. Perhaps the best point guard prospect to come from the five boroughs since Mark Jackson, Walker seems poised to join Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls as the only active NBA player to become an All-Star after playing high school basketball in the five boroughs.

Unlike Noah, though, Walker spent his entire childhood in New York City. Truly, he is a son of the Big Apple. And now, on the cusp of greatness and with his city on his shoulders, Walker again finds himself approaching a new beginning.

***

The “next” Kemba Walker is out there, somewhere. He is minuscule in stature, but gargantuan in heart. He needs tutelage and encouragement as much as he needs practice and repetition.

Walker knows that well, because long before he was an inspiring professional and a role model by default, he was a young teenager taking directives from Coach Nickerson, sneaking out of his apartment behind his mother’s back, developing and honing his skills on the basketball courts at the Sack-Wern housing projects where he grew up.

That’s why Walker returned to the court in 2013, armed with his stardom, fortune and support from both Under Armour and the NBA to refurbish the courts that helped him rise up out of the underprivileged neighborhood from where he came.

Somewhere, Walker knows, there is another future torchbearer. And if they were to ever have a conversation, for Walker, the words would be easy to find.

“I would ask him if he thinks he’s good enough to make it and I would definitely expect him to tell me ‘Yes,'” Walker said. “I would ask him what he’s going to do to make it, and [I would tell him] there’s only one thing you can do, and that’s outwork everyone around you.

“You got to put in the extra work to become a pro basketball player, you got to work extra hard.”

He knows a thing or two about that, as well.

So, as much as Walker pays respect to his former coaches and the tough playgrounds for his development, he also honors the example that his parents set for him many moons ago.

“My parents always worked hard to try and provide for my siblings and me,” Walker said with a smile and tone of admiration. “I remember there were times where my parents, mom or dad were sick and shouldn’t have even gone to work, but they went anyway. Rain, sleet, snow—whatever the weather conditions were—they went to work to try and provide for me and my siblings and to make sure that we had food on the table and clothes and sneakers to wear each and every day.”

Walker paused for a moment. With his eyebrows raised, he nodded.

“My hard work definitely comes from my parents.”

***

With Tim Hardaway as his hero and the Sack-Wern courts as his lab, Walker has improbably risen as the face of an NBA franchise. The Hornets are currently attempting to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and with the 24-year-old Walker leading the way, brighter days are ahead.

Seven years ago, when he received Aminu’s pass at half court, he could have opted to delay the potential fast break. Instead, he accelerated and met his challenge, head on.

Seven years ago, Walker mustered his strength and courage and he leapt.

Seven years later, he is still ascending.

In the four years that have passed since he first entered the league, Walker’s physical appearance has changed, albeit slightly. He has a bit more facial hair, a few more pounds of muscle, a couple more wrinkles and a more confident, relaxed demeanor.

Still, through it all, even after four years, he’s the same person with the same values, same spirit and same heart.

Through it all, he’s still minuscule in physical stature, but a mammoth with miles and miles of heart.

Still ready to hurdle any obstacle, hailing from the Sack-Wern courts in the Bronx to Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, some things never change.

And as it relates to his approach to defying odds and meeting challenges, neither has Walker.

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Looking Back At The Draft: The No. 12 Picks

David Yapkowitz assesses the 12th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.

David Yapkowitz

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The further you get into the NBA draft, the harder it is to categorize hits and misses. There aren’t many expectations with later draft picks, especially in the second round. If a player ends up panning out, then great. If they don’t, it’s no big financial loss for the team and they can easily cut ties. When you’re still in the lottery, however, you probably expect a little more than just an average player. Superstars are never guaranteed, especially with late lottery selections. But you probably would expect to have a quality rotation player if not probable starter with a late lottery pick.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re continuing our look back at the draft, pick by pick, with each of the No. 12 picks going back the last 10 drafts. Let’s see how those picks have panned out.

The Hits

Steven Adams – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2013

The OKC Thunder didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, but they acquired it from the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade. With Adams, the Thunder certainly hit the mark. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who 13 other teams in addition to the Thunder passed on) and Rudy Gobert are players picked after Adams who have fared better.

Adams has become one of the best defensive players and rebounders in the league as well as a great screen setter and roll man in the pick and roll. He plays his role to perfection and is a starting-caliber center. He may not have hit All-Star status, but he is a legit starter and with a lottery pick, that’s probably what you would expect.

Gerald Henderson – Charlotte Bobcats – 2009

I’m going with a hit on this one. Henderson played nearly all of his eight-year career with the Bobcats with the exception of his final two years with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers respectively. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement due to nagging injury issues.

But for the eight years he was in the NBA, he was a capable scorer and mostly a starting-caliber wing player. As mentioned, with a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you should expect. Henderson averaged double-digits in scoring for most of his career and he shot in the mid-’40s from the field. If not for injuries, he probably would have played in the NBA for a few more years.

The Misses

Xavier Henry – Memphis Grizzlies – 2010

Going back to the last ten drafts, Henry is the only player picked No. 12 that I would consider to be a miss thus far. He had some hype coming out of Kansas and was expected to be a first-round pick and NBA contributor. He didn’t play much as a rookie with the Grizzlies and was traded to the New Orleans Hornets.

He showed some brief flashes with the Hornets but never really was able to sustain any sort of consistent success. He got hurt during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and that pretty much ended his NBA career after five years. He’s had a couple of G League appearances since then but didn’t really show that he was ready for an NBA return.

The Middle of the Road

Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks – 2016

Again, for a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you expect your selection to develop into. Prince is here under the middle of the road rather than hits because it’s still too early in his career to determine if he is truly a full-time starter.

With the Hawks, he certainly looked the part. After a so-so rookie year, he stepped up in a big way, becoming a scorer and deadly three-point shooter with solid defensive capabilities. When he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, he was considered to be a big pick up. This season, although he started in 61 of the 64 games he suited up in Brooklyn, his shooting suffered and he wasn’t as effective as he had been in Atlanta. There is still time for him to be considered a hit though.

Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets – 2012

Lamb is another player who had some high expectations coming out of college but got off to a rocky start in the NBA. He showed some flashes in Oklahoma City but was wildly inconsistent. But like many players, a change of scenery seemed to be all he needed.
He broke out when he arrived in Charlotte, becoming a solid bench scoring threat and becoming more of a regular in the starting lineup as the years went on.

He rightfully earned himself a solid payday from the Indiana Pacers and he started 42 of the 46 games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a season-ending injury in February. The Pacers are hoping he can bounce back from that.

Luke Kennard – Detroit Pistons – 2017

Another player that is still a little early to categorize. For now, he appears to be a middle of the ground type player. This is only his third year in the NBA, and he’s shown improvement each year. This season was a breakout year for him.

Since coming to the league, he’s been a very good three-point shooter. This season he was knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. His scoring has gone up every season and this year he had broken through to double-digits. He has some injury concerns, and he was actually out when the NBA suspended the season. But if he can bounce back healthy, then he certainly looks like a solid pick at No. 12.

The Role Players

Trey Lyles – Utah Jazz – 2015

In a league where the game is changing and traditional big men aren’t as common as they used to be, Lyles fits right in. Lyles seemingly was another case of a player who needed a change of scenery to find his niche. He wasn’t able to stick in either Utah or Denver, and it wasn’t until this season, his first in San Antonio, that he looked like a capable role player.

Lyles became a regular starter for the Spurs, and again, that’s what you want from a lottery pick. He isn’t included in the hits yet because this is the first season out of his five that he’s shown this. He doesn’t have a big enough sample size. He shot a career-best 38.7 percent from three and if he keeps this up, he’ll be a good pick albeit a late bloomer.

Alec Burks – Utah Jazz – 2011

Burks once looked like he was going to become more than just a solid NBA player. He might have had borderline All-Star potential. At least a starting-caliber shooting guard. But unfortunately for him, his career was seemingly derailed by early injuries.

He has since bounced back though. He’s reinvented himself as a scoring threat off the bench. He put up a career-high 16.1 points per game with the Golden State Warriors in the first half of the season. On a playoff team though, he’s a second unit player and that’s exactly what the 76ers were hoping for when they traded for him. He only had 11 games in Philly before the season was halted, but he’s done well to change his game and be effective despite major injuries.

Too Early to Tell

Dario Saric – Orlando Magic – 2014

I’m introducing a new category here, the too early to tell group. These players either don’t have a big enough sample size, or they have had circumstances that may have hindered their abilities. Saric falls into the latter part of that. He’s been a solid starting stretch-four when he’s gotten consistent playing time. But he struggled to adapt to being thrown around in different roles and inconsistent minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He’s a pending restricted free agent who might not figure to be in the Suns future plans. Quite a few teams should consider throwing an offer his way.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Bobcats – 2018

It’s a bit too early to make any major assessments on Bridges. This is only his second year in the NBA, a season that has been cut short. He mostly came off the bench as a rookie and had a pretty solid year with some aspects he could certainly improve upon. He looked much improved this season albeit some areas he could still work on.

He became a regular starting small forward for the Bobcats this season. He upped his scoring and rebounding and he’s often asked to guard multiple positions. He’s young and has a lot of room to improve. I don’t quite feel comfortable yet placing him in one of the above categories so that’s why he’s too early to tell. The future does look good for him though.

The later you go in the draft, the fewer expectations you put on the player you drafted. Franchise level players are not common, there are only a handful in the league. But at least with first-rounders, and especially a lottery pick, you’d expect to get at least a quality rotation player.
Judging by the production of the all the No. 12 picks for the past ten years, it’s safe to say that they all have, or look like they will pan out in some capacity. Only one of them is a sure-fire miss.

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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 11 Picks

Drew Maresca assesses the 11th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.

Drew Maresca

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The 2020 NBA Draft was scheduled to take place in approximately one month from today. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and resulted in delays for just about every profession worldwide. So instead of preparing for the upcoming draft and/or analyzing the 2020 NBA Playoffs, we are looking back at recent drafts and how the picks fared.

Basketball Insiders began analyzing each pick of the last 10 or so drafts last week. As we make out way toward the end of the lottery, there is clearly less certainty around prospects. This is where guys who are seen as bigger risks go, as well as where guys who NBA personnel might have too little upside are selected. It’s where teams can be too creative for their own good, or where taking risks is paid off in spades.

So let’s turn our attention to the 11th pick in the NBA Draft, as we continue identifying hits, misses, middle-of-the-road guys and role players.

The Hits

Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors – 2011

Thompson is the clear headliner of the 11th overall picks. He’s a three-time champion with five All-Star selections, two appearances on the All-NBA team and a selection for the All-Defensive team in 2018-19. Granted, Kawhi Leonard (14) and Jimmy Butler (30) were selected after Thompson; but there’s no one else you’d even consider taking over him – and the return on investment that Thompson has provided has been exquisite for an 11th pick. End of story.

Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers – 2015

The 2015 NBA Draft was really good. I mean, look: Turner dropped to 11 – that says it all. Turner was selected before Devin Booker; but otherwise, it’s pretty clear that he was the best available player.

Turner is among the rare seven-footers (technically 6-foot-1) who can shoot from deep – he’s a career 35.4% three-point shooter – and defend the rim – he also rejected 2.2 shots per game this season. Technically, that qualifies his as a unicorn, right?

But the Pacers’ commitment hasn’t been iron-clad. He’s only breached 30 minutes per game once, in 2016-17 – the same year he posted his career-high in scoring (14.5). Turner will struggle to fulfill his full potential unless he’s either given more time or traded. Still, Turner’s unique skillset renders him a “hit.”

Domantas Sabonis – Orlando Magic (and traded to Indiana Pacers)– 2016

Sabonis was an unnecessary pick for the Pacers. They’d selected Turner in the previous year’s draft, and they obviously could’ve used Caris LeVert (20) and Pascal Siakam (27).

Still, Sabonis has been so good that he forced his way into the Pacers lineup and onto this list. Unlike his teammate (Turner), Sabonis has received a serious commitment from the Pacers; he was awarded a new contract in 2019 (4 years/$77 million) before 2019-20, and he also received a career-high 34.8 minutes per game – this season also saw Sabonis secure career-highs in scoring (18.5) and rebounds (12.4). And he received wide-spread recognition throughout the league, too; Sabonis made his first All-Star team in his fourth season.

Ultimately, Sabonis is a bull on the block and he’s still only 24 – a sure thing.

The Misses

Terrance Williams – New Jersey Nets – 2009

Williams entered the league with potential oozing from him. The 6-foot-6 swingman averaged 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2.3 steals per game in his senior year for head coach Rick Pitino at Lousiville and looked like a great piece for the Nets. And throughout – and especially toward the end – of his rookie year, Williams looked like he might make the leap. He played in 78 games, starting nine of them; and he averaged 14.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game across the final two months of the year (22 games).

But for some reason, then-new coach Avery Johnson was against the idea of playing Williams. He was inactive and/or delegated to the G League for much of his sophomore season with the Nets – and then he was traded to Houston. From there, he never stuck anywhere for more than a season – and his effect was less evident than it was during his rookie campaign. Making matters worse, Williams was selected ahead of Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison and a number of other more productive players who would have been smarter picks than Williams was.

All of the talent was there for Williams; but for whatever reason, it never worked out. Was it his fault? That part is unclear. But either way, this one’s a miss.

Cole Aldrich – New Orleans Hornets (and traded to Oklahoma City Thunder) – 2010

The term “miss” is relative, but Aldrich is a “miss” in just about any draft. He stuck around the NBA for eight seasons, but his effect was minimal. He only started 18 times in his 339 career games – 16 of which were for the 17-win 2014-15 Knicks. And even then, he averaged only 5.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 16 minutes per game.

2010 didn’t result in a huge influx in talent. From it, we got a few stars (e.g., Paul George and Gordon Hayward), but the draft produced more than its share of underwhelming players. And in Aldrich’s defense, most of the guys taken in the bottom-third of the 2010 lottery disappointed their teams; only Eric Bledsoe (18), Avery Bradley (19), Hassan Whiteside (33) and Lance Stephenson (40) were long-term starters selected after Aldrich — and none of them where under consideration at 11. Still, whoever made the call to draft Aldrich, be it New Orleans or Oklahoma City, should have looked more closely.

Michael Carter-Williams – Philadelphia 76ers – 2013

Carter-Williams was a pretty exciting prospect coming out of Syracuse University. He entered the league after a breakout sophomore campaign in which he led the Orange to the Elite Eight. He followed that up by winning the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year award.

And all of that makes everything that transpired later even harder to stomach. Carter-Williams was traded to the Bucks in a three-team trade in 2015. His strong play continued in Milwaukee, but he struggled after suffering an ankle injury and was shut down after tearing his labrum. And it got worse from there.

Carter-Williams seems to have re-established himself in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, but he’ll never be the triple-double machine he once was. Add in the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo was taken just four picks later and that leads to the eventual…that Carter-Williams is a “miss.” But that doesn’t mean he won’t stick in the league for at least the next few seasons – this writer feels that he will.

Malik Monk – Charlotte Hornets – 2017

Monk entered the NBA with a lot of momentum – mostly because he was attached to the New York Knicks, who picked eighth overall in 2017. However, Monk was selected 11th by the Hornets, and he’s struggled to live up to even that hype.

Monk shot an abysmal 28.4% on three-point attempts this season, which is even worse considering he was thought to be someone who could get hot from deep. He also possesses a below-average effective field goal percentage (47.8% in 2019-20) and his assist-to-turnover ratio is underwhelming.

Still, Monk had some impressive moments this year and his confidence remains. He might not be efficient, but he’s young and athletic. Monk will continue to get opportunities to prove himself, but he still has a lot to work on. A change of scenery might help, but Monk has lot to prove if he’s going to go down as anything but a “miss.”

Middle of the Road

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Los Angeles Clippers – 2018

In this particular instance, “middle of the road” is code for “really close to qualifying as a hit” – unfortunately, Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. Gilgeous-Alexander has played really well in his first two seasons. And he took a pretty impressive step forward in 2019-20, averaging 19.3 points per game as a starter alongside Chris Paul in Oklahoma City. Gilgeous-Alexander actually led the team in total minutes and he shot pretty well (35%) on three-point attempts, too.

But Gilgeous-Alexander is a natural point guard, and he was only third on the Thunder in assists. In fact, the Thunder’s two most frequently used lineups feature Chris Paul, or Paul and Dennis Schroder alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. That means that despite being a point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander has had the benefit of playing with at least one other lead guard for the majority of his minutes this seaon.

This is not meant as a knock on Gilgeous-Alexander – in fact, that will probably benefit him down the road. It’s just that a “hit” must be established. And while Gilgeous-Alexander will almost certainly join that club very soon, he’s still ramping up.

Cameron Johnson – Phoenix Suns – 2019

Johnson was a pretty weird pick as of draft night last year. While he posted good numbers in his final collegiate season (16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists), his age led NBA executives to believe that his ceiling was low relative to his peers. It wasn’t completely unwarranted. Johnson had just wrapped up his fifth NCAA season, thanks to a knee injury and his transferring from Pittsburgh to North Carolina. As a result, the 23-year-old was the NBA’s oldest rookie witjh only three other first-round picks clocking in at 22 –Matisse Thybulle, Brandon Clarke and Dylan Windler.

But Johnson’s rookie year surprised a number of folks around the league. He posted 8.1 points per game on 39.7% shooting from three-point range. And he demonstrated a surprising amount of athleticism and better-than-expected decision making. Johnson still has lots to prove; but he very well may end up having a better career than anyone expected.

Role Players

Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers – 2012

On the one hand, Leonard hasn’t been shown up by many guys taken after him – only Evan Fournier is definitively better. On the other hand, he hasn’t turned into a world-beater, either. In fact, his stat line isn’t that different than two guys taken later in the 2012 first-round: Tyler Zeller (17) and/or Miles Plumlee (26).

Leonard posted the second-best season of his not-so-young career in 2019-20 – 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 42.9% on 2.4 three-point attempts per game – but what does that really say for an 11th pick? He’s clearly serviceable – but he’s no building block. He’s a great backup, he’s seven-feet tall and he can even shoot a little. Leonard will have a place in someone’s rotation for years to come. But will he ever be much else? Probably not.

Doug McDermott – Chicago Bulls – 2014

McDermott is exactly the player we expected him to be coming out of Creighton. He’s shot the ball well (41.3% career three-point shooter) and he scored it better in 2019-20 (10.4 points per game) than he did in any previous season.

But McDermott was selected just a few picks before Zach LaVine, T.J. Warren and Jusuf Nurkic. Comparatively, he’s just not as good as any of them. And he’s also been a limited defender and rebounder. So, it’s a stretch to think of McDermott as a successful pick.

But he sure can shoot it – McDermott has the fifth-best three-point percentage in the NBA in 2019-20, and that means he’s filling a key role for any playoff team.

The 11th pick has been proven itself a challenging spot for teams to make successful picks. There have been a number of gambles taken with the 11th pick in recent years. It’s hasn’t worked out great for most teams, but it only takes one pick to change a team’s fortunes – and NBA teams will continue to bet on their front office’s abilities to identify prospects. So don’t except teams’ strategies to change anytime soon.

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NBA

Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 10 Picks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ looking back series by examining the last decade’s worth of 10th overall picks.

Matt John

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As Basketball Insiders has continued its “Looking Back” series, it was only a matter of time until we crossed the double digits. Now that time has come. Today we are taking a look at how all of the tenth overall picks since 2009 have fared in the NBA.

As you probably know, as the lottery picks go down further and further, the prospects’ ceilings aren’t nearly as high. At the same time, the 10-14 range is usually reserved for teams that actually had no intention of being in the lottery to begin with. It’s usually around this point in the draft where if you got someone good with this selection, you got a steal. No questions asked.

The tenth overall selections since 2009 have overall done okay for where they were picked. As a group, they’ve done better than some of the other selections that were higher than them

The Hits

Paul George – Indiana Pacers – 2010

This should be a given. It only took three years for George to prove he was a household name. By that time, he had taken Indiana the furthest they had gone since the Reggie Miller/Jermaine O’Neal days and usurped Danny Granger as the team’s best player. Since then, George has routinely made both the All-Star team and an All-NBA team – save the one year he was recovering from one of the most gruesome leg injuries ever – while establishing himself as one of the league’s best two-way wings.

George has been a top-12 player for the duration of his career, which is impressive enough as it is. We knew he was a fantastic player. We just didn’t know he was an elite one until last year. Before a crippling shoulder injury stopped him in his tracks, George was a man possessed, averaging 28.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He maintained his efficiencies even while increasing his usage, which upped him from perennial All-Star to MVP candidate.

Since migrating to his hometown Los Angeles Clippers, we haven’t seen the same production from George. Some of that comes from the shoulder injury among others that he’s endured this season. Some of that comes from playing next to Kawhi Leonard. Even so, George is not to be underestimated as a right-hand man on a title team.

We’re going to see what PG-13 is truly made of when the Clippers go on their playoff run this year. We know that Kawhi will be on his A-Game when the playoffs start. George’s expectations are a little more uncertain. He’s received some flak in recent years for his inability to step up in the clutch as well as his somewhat lackluster playoff performances.

Although going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the conference finals in back-to-back years would certainly certify him as a playoff performer, here’s a fact that’s fallen under the radar: George hasn’t made it out of the first round since 2014. As far as hits go, George has been a home run, and he could still prove to be a grand slam.

Most hilariously of all, there have only been two tenth overall picks in NBA history who have rivaled the production of Paul George — Paul Pierce and Paul Westphal. If another Paul gets taken No. 10 in the NBA draft, the bar for him should be set at Hall of Fame. At minimum.

CJ McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers – 2013

What McCollum has done should be appreciated more. Without him, Portland may not have been able to steady the boat as well as they did when they were pretty much gutted in the summer of 2015. Without him, Portland definitely would not have made the Western Conference Finals last season. We’re not taking anything away from Damian Lillard here. It’s just that if McCollum hadn’t been there, how far would Dame and the Blazers have gone?

The resume is pretty good for McCollum. He’s been one of the league’s premier scorers for five years now. He is half of one of the league’s top-scoring tandems. He’s been one of the few excellent players from one of the worst drafts of all time. Playing in the jam-packed Western Conference will probably prevent him from making an All-Star team, but he’s never not been in consideration.

There were better players taken after McCollum — Giannis Antetokoumnpo and Rudy Gobert — but Portland still nailed the selection when you consider only one guy that was taken ahead of him has been on his level (Victor Oladipo), and when you factor inconsistency, McCollum has a case over Oladipo.

The Trail Blazers are going to face more questions next season with the Western Conference still remaining a bloodbath and Lillard and McCollum entering the peak of their careers. No matter what happens, McCollum came into this league renowned for getting buckets. He may not have hit the ground running, but once he took off, he lived up to the hype.

The Misses

Jimmer Fredette – Sacramento Kings – 2011

Guys, can you believe “Jimmer Mania” was almost a decade ago? It seems like just yesterday we were all watching him shoot the lights out from just about everywhere on an NCAA basketball court. Yet, somehow, it feels like forever ago since he was last in the NBA.

Jimmer’s ultimately forgettable NBA tenure is really strange when you consider what the league is like now. He came in as an elite shooter above all else. Even if his scoring prowess from BYU wouldn’t have translated to the big leagues, his jumper should have made him a valued commodity. It somehow never was.

You can blame it on him starting his career in Sacramento if you’d like. He only played there for two-and-a half years. He played for organizations that were run much better at that time like the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. He still never found his footing. His time in the NBA should teach us a lesson. We get plenty of sharpshooting guards who dominate the college game as snipers, but for every Stephen Curry, there’s always a Jimmer Fredette.

Years later, it’s good to see that Jimmer went on to establish himself as a household name. Even if that wasn’t in the NBA.

Thon Maker – Milwaukee Bucks – 2016

On paper, Thon should have been a perfect fit for the modern NBA. A rare combination of length, mobility and shooting would have made him the perfect floor-stretching five in the modern NBA. Early mixtapes of him before he was drafted hyped him up to be such a player. That hype soon died down to the point where once the Bucks took him tenth overall — picking him over Domantas Sabonis will eat at them for years — we were all pretty quick to call it a reach.

Outside of the rare occasional outbursts, which manifested in the playoffs of all places, Maker’s never really found himself in the league. For his size, he’s not a good rebounder and only an okay shot-blocker. For someone who shoots threes, he’s also a subpar three-point shooter. He’s managed to be a rotation player in Detroit, but he plays a tick under 13 minutes a game for one of the worst teams in the league.

His physical makeup will probably make for some interested suitors in a “low-risk/unknown-reward” scenario. It’s not his fault the Bucks swung for the fences when they took him, but because they did, he’s a bust.

Middle of the Road

Brandon Jennings – Milwaukee Bucks – 2009

There may not be a better player that exemplifies “Middle of the Road” better than Brandon Jennings. Talent-wise, he should be a hit. Career-wise, he should be a role player at best overall. He only played in the NBA for nine seasons. When he was at the top of his game, he was an excellent ballplayer.

Jennings at first made us all think he was a cornerstone in the making his first month in the league, which was highlighted by a 55-point rampage he hung on rookie Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. He fizzled after that, but even so, he was averaging between 15-19 points a game while putting up five to seven assists in that time too.

His prime was cut short by an Achilles tear mid-season in 2015 — which was a shame at the time because he was playing the best basketball of his career at the time — and he was never the same after that. After some brief stints in Orlando, New York, Washington and Milwaukee again, Jennings had been phased out of the league in 2018.

Jennings does not deserve to be labeled as a miss because a cruel twist of fate ruined everything. Unfortunately, his short-lived career prevents him from being labeled a hit.

Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT – 2015

When an executive is willing to trade four first-round picks to take you ninth overall in the draft, that puts a fair amount of spotlight on you when you first enter the league. Justise Winslow already came into the NBA a winner, having won an NCAA championship. He was supposed to be an added bonus of youth and pizzazz to a Miami team that was locked and loaded upon first drafting him.

Five years later, Winslow has been… fine? The injuries have piled on for Winslow since entering the league, but when he’s on the court, he’s proven himself to be a finesse player. That title alone prevents him from being called a role player. At the same time, finesse players aren’t exactly stars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Winslow has been as good as advertised defensively and has come along quite nicely as a playmaker and a rebounder. His shooting has been inconsistent and he hasn’t evolved into the scorer many thought he could be. A man of his skillset is incredibly useful, but there seems to be this feeling that begs the question, “Wasn’t he supposed to be better than this?”

Even while evolving into a Swiss army knife swingman, it’s a little disconcerting that Miami practically gave him away to Memphis for an aging Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder on an expiring contract. Many would proclaim that a steal for Memphis, but Winslow hasn’t exactly proven he’s good enough to be warranted as a steal both in the draft or in a trade.

Seeing as Memphis suddenly has a very promising future, let’s see how Winslow does now that he’s on a team that fits his timeline.

Zach Collins – Portland Trail Blazers – 2017

A shoulder injury early on interrupted what should have been Collins taking his next step as a pro. Into what is up in the air, but the returns on Collins since he started his career have been promising. He’s got some bounce in his game. He’s shown that he has good awareness on the court. He can stretch the floor, although he hasn’t proven to be entirely reliable. When last season’s playoff run ended, he was on the up-and-up.

Alas, that darn shoulder injury messed everything up. Jusuf Nurkic will be back next season, but he’ll need time to get his game in full swing. Hassan Whiteside will more than likely be gone. Factoring all of that, Collins will get another shot next year to show what he’s got.

As his role expands in Portland, we’re going to see who the real Zach Collins is.

Cam Reddish – Atlanta Hawks – 2019

The third amigo from the 2019 Duke Blue Devils, Reddish’s start in the league was pretty awful. That happens when your efficiencies in 2019 are 32 percent from the field and 26 percent from the three. 2020 has been a different story. His shooting percentage from the field has been 44 percent while his three-point percentage has bumped up to almost 40 percent.

A lot of rookies have uneven seasons during their first go-round. Atlanta as a team stinks as a whole, but as time goes on they should get better. In that time, Reddish should be able to demonstrate what kind of player he is. Let’s hope the 2020 Reddish is more indicative of who he is, because players who average more turnovers than assists definitely need to grow.

Role Players

Austin Rivers – New Orleans Pelicans – 2012

Can we stop giving Austin Rivers grief now? Yes, he was a bust in New Orleans. Yes, he’s Doc’s son. Yes, he rubs some players very much the wrong way. Rivers’ slow start in the league and family ties make him an easy target for critics, and it’s overshadowed that he has rebounded quite nicely after, well, a disastrous first tenure in New Orleans.

Rivers played some of the best basketball of his career under his father in LA. Rivers molded into a respectable scorer in their rotation by putting up some of his career bests, averaging 15 points and 4 assists. Although, one can argue that those were inflated numbers on a strictly average Clippers team.

In Houston, he’s found a more suitable role as a hybrid scorer/three-and-D type guard off their bench. 8.5 points off 42 percent shooting from the field including 36 percent from the field are good numbers for a team that centers its strategy around shooting threes. Rivers definitely deserves criticism after being selected No. 10 — Evan Fournier probably would have been the better guard to pick — but not for what he does these days.

Elfrid Payton – Orlando Magic – 2014

Unlike Rivers, Payton didn’t struggle out of the gate. He just never really took a big leap after a promising rookie season. He’s always proven himself to be a playmaker – he has a 6.6 career assist average in just 29 minutes, but his lack of shooting — a career 29 percent shooter from three — has kept him from making any meaningful progress.

Unless they have some of the most unreal athleticism or craftiness that we’ve ever seen, non-shooting point guards don’t make too big of a difference in the NBA. Payton hasn’t been a bust by any means. He’s been productive everywhere he’s gone. It’s just abundantly clear that where his career is right now is where he’ll be production-wise for the duration.

The shame of it all is, Payton’s never played for a playoff team. Orlando traded him to Phoenix just before they made the playoffs. He then signed with New Orleans just before the Anthony Davis fallout. Now, he’s in New York. Being a rotation a player on a good team is something he still hasn’t proven yet.

Can we please see that someday?

Mikal Bridges – Phoenix Suns – 2018

Over the last couple of years, Phoenix has had a string of failed draft picks over the last couple of years — Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson — so any fruitful draft pick from the lottery, whether they’re a star or not, would be a welcome change of pace. Enter Mikal Bridges.

Bridges has been a half-decent two-way swingman for the Suns over his first two years. He’s not much of a pure scorer, but that’s not why Phoenix drafted him. He’s been more of the defensive specialist that the Suns have desperately needed since they launched their rebuild back in 2016 as well as an underrated floor-spacer.

His shooting efficiencies thus far in his career — 46/34/82 splits over his first two years — as well as his solid rebounding numbers as a wing (3.6 per game) show that he is already a solid role player on a team that’s been looking for the right supporting cast members.

So does Bridges meet the criteria stated earlier? Honest answer: They could have had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but, good enough.

As previously stated, the tenth pick in the draft doesn’t boast a whole lot of star power, but it’s not designed to. Paul George panning out into a full-fledged superstar is more luck than anything else. This group has overall met expectations. Only two guys didn’t live up to being the tenth pick. The others have done, at the very least, what their teams have asked of them.

If you compare them to say, the eighth pick, you’d be even more impressed.

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