Buried On The Bench
When an NBA team chooses a player in the first round of the NBA Draft they are making a commitment to that player. They make a commitment financially, for at least two guaranteed seasons, plus two more at the team’s discretion, and then own the right of first refusal in free agency. They also make a commitment to develop that player because they feel that player can make their team better. Ideally the player becomes what the team envisioned on draft night, filling a needed role, making the team better, and leading to more team success.
Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes the player ends up being a bad fit for the system initially, or the system changes dramatically amid a coaching change or a front office shakeup. Sometimes the team chose to draft the best player available even though they already have a star at the same position. Sometimes they already have the reserve entrenched as well. Some coaches just aren’t on the same page as management and don’t trust the young players, believing their best chances for success lie with veterans.
Based on statistics as of January 20, 2012, the two lists below represent the former first-round picks who are rookies or sophomores receiving the fewest minutes per game. Let’s take a closer look at these 10 players and see what’s going on.
5 – Nolan Smith, Portland Trail Blazers (#21 overall, 7 games, 41 minutes): On draft night 2011 the Blazers had a major hole at backup point guard. Swapping Andre Miller for Raymond Felton didn’t lessen that need and with their first-round pick they chose Smith, a four-year player out of Duke. A smart player and a solid defender who can hit a three-pointer, Smith looked to be the likely backup to Felton. Instead his minutes disappeared when the Blazers signed Jamal Crawford, even though Crawford isn’t a true point guard, which is what the second unit needs.
4 – Marcus Morris, Houston Rockets (#14 overall, 3 games, 17 minutes): While twin brother Markieff is averaging 21.1 minutes per game in Phoenix, Marcus is on a team bursting with forwards. Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson get most of the power forward minutes, and the small forward minutes go to Chandler Parsons (their 2011 second-round pick) and Chase Budinger.
3 – Elliot Williams, Portland Trail Blazers (#22 overall in 2010, 4 games, 17 minutes): When All-Star Brandon Roy abruptly retired just before training camp opened because of his bad knees, it looked like Williams – who missed his entire first year with injury so is still considered a rookie – would get a chance to show his athleticism in games that mattered backing up starter Wes Matthews. However, like Smith, the minutes Williams would have gotten went to Crawford (who is shooting 35% from the field).
2 – Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (#30 overall, 8 games, 30 minutes): The Bulls went into the 2011 NBA Draft with a clear need at shooting guard. They needed that guard to be a reliable passer, good defender, solid shooter, and have the ability to get some rebounds. Butler fit that bill perfectly and figured to get some playing time with the position really up for grabs because the veterans hadn’t shown consistency. Then the Detroit Pistons agreed to a buy-out with Rip Hamilton, who promptly signed a three-year deal for the full MLE with Bulls. Butler’s minutes disappeared.
1 – JaJuan Johnson, Boston Celtics (#27 overall, 8 games, 23 minutes): Johnson’s inability to get playing time on a Celtics team with little depth and a poor record is somewhat perplexing. Jermaine O’Neal, the starting center, is shooting only 42% from the floor for 5.8 points a game. Most all of his backup minutes have gone to another rookie, Greg Stiemsma, a rookie free agent who is blocking 1.5 shots a game in 10.6 minutes. If the Celtics continue to falter Johnson needs to start getting minutes because this year will become about the future sooner rather than later.
5 – Cole Aldrich, Oklahoma City Thunder (#11 overall, 6 games, 30 minutes): When the Thunder traded for Aldrich at the 2010 draft they had serious issues in the middle. Then they made a couple trades in the middle of last season netting them veteran centers Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, both whom signed extensions before the end of last season, moving Aldrich to the end of the bench. The Thunder thrives on uptempo play, something that isn’t Aldrich’s strong suit.
4 – Dominique Jones, Dallas Mavericks (#25 overall, 9 games, 35 minutes): As a rookie Jones played just 135 minutes in 18 games, at the end of the bench behind veterans like DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Terry. After the Mavs won the title some thought Jones would get a shot at some minutes, but instead the team signed Vince Carter to the mini Mid-Level Exception after he was waived by the Suns. Maybe he’ll get his chance next year; Jason Terry is a free agent after this season and the Mavericks are cutting costs.
3 – Craig Brackins, Philadelphia 76ers (#21 overall, 5 games, 16 minutes): Playing in five games is actually an improvement for Brackins; last year he played in just three. He doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the Sixers, who have another player in Thaddeus Young they just gave a five-year, $43 million contract to that does many of the same things. Young also comes off the bench for the moment, so if he’s not starting there is little chance Brackins gets minutes.
2 – Luke Babbitt, Portland Trail Blazers (#16 overall, 3 games, 8 minutes): As a team the Blazers were thin last season in the frontcourt, but Babbitt played in only 24 games with little success (27% shooting). In the D-League he tore it up, averaging 20.1 points on 51% shooting – 38% from long-range – in 14 games. He is capable of playing the four but seems a better fit at the three, where the Blazers start Gerald Wallace and are likely about to make a long-term commitment to Nic Batum.
1 – Christian Eyenga, Cleveland Cavaliers (#30 overall in 2009, 1 game, 1 minute): Eyenga is a very raw talent who reportedly doesn’t get after it enough in practice, something you can’t do under Byron Scott. That said, the 11 double-digit scoring games he recorded in 2010-11 clearly indicate he has NBA talent and can produce against NBA defense.
What jumps out from these two lists? How about this: three of these 10 players are members of the Portland Trail Blazers, representing all three of their first-round picks from the past two seasons. Coach Nate McMillan last season had to go to his bench a lot because of injuries, but this year the depth provided by free agency and the draft combined with the shortened schedule and little recovery time should lead to larger rotations for most teams. McMillan has gone the other way, playing as small as an eight-man rotation in one recent game Marcus Camby missed with a sprained ankle. Either McMillan isn’t willing to play the young guys or he feels management has not drafted him the proper players for his team.
Teams make a commitment to the players they draft and while the players then have an obligation to work hard to justify that commitment, it’s a two-way street. Drafting a player is just the first step in a long process.