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Busted: How to ID potential draft flops

6/11/2010

Back in December, we took up the task of identifying the 10 worst draft busts of the past decade.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. During the draft process every player on the list was hyped and fans, analysts and teams alike thought they had the real thing after each pick. Making a big mistake in the draft can set a rebuilding franchise back years. Avoiding those mistakes is often the key to a GM keeping his job.

I spoke with a number of GMs and combed over the draft lottery for the past decade to put together what I hereby dub: The Anatomy of a Draft Bust.

Whenever any of these elements are present ... stay away.

The Height of Sam Bowie

We are all still scratching our heads over the Blazers' confounding decision to take Bowie over Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. But a close look at history tells us that GMs didn't learn their lesson from that mistake.

Big men have a huge advantage in the NBA draft. There are very few players 7 feet tall or taller who can actually play. Find one like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal or Dwight Howard and he can dramatically turn around your franchise. But the litany of big man busts dramatically exceeds the big men that changed a team's fortunes for the better.

For every Shaq or even every Brook Lopez there are two or three guys like Michael Olowokandi, Shawn Bradley or Kwame Brown. Why?

"If you're going to make a mistake, make a big one," one NBA GM said. "I can almost always justify to my owner when I draft a big guy and it didn't pan out that it was worth the risk. But when you pass on a guy like Andrew Bynum and then he blows up, that can get you fired."

That thinking partly explains why Greg Oden went over Kevin Durant. While virtually every GM in the league thought Durant was the better talent, there wasn't one GM I spoke with who would've taken Durant over Oden.

"You can't pass on a potential once-in-a-decade big man," was the refrain at the time. "Even if that big guy scares you to death."

While the jury's still out on Oden (he has played well when healthy) he epitomizes the dangers of going big. GMs are willing to overlook glaring weaknesses as they become infatuated with size.

If a guard has a poor work ethic, a history of injuries or struggled to produce in college, there's virtually no chance of his getting drafted in the lottery. But if you crack the 7-foot barrier, all bets are off.

Potential 2010 Big Man Bust Alert: Hassan Whiteside, C, Marshall

The Heart of Darko Milicic

We ranked Darko as the biggest draft bust of the past decade. When you talk to people in the league who have had him on their team, you hear the same refrain, over and over: He's a very talented big man, he's a good athlete and he doesn't seem all that interested in using those talents in the NBA. Darko follows a long line of busts who just don't seem to like basketball all that much. Derrick Coleman was the poster child for it in the '90s. Kwame Brown ruined Michael Jordan's rep as a talent evaluator. Eddy Curry killed both the Bulls and the Knicks.

"Talent is the most important thing in the NBA," one GM said. "But if you lack passion for the game, a desire to get better and a killer instinct on the court, this league will eat you alive."

Big men, again, seem to be especially prone to this problem.

"I think a lot of big guys play basketball because they're told they should be playing basketball," another GM said. "A lot of times they don't have the same passion for the game that smaller guys do. Mom and dad forcing you to be here only works so long. These guys start making their money and then they check out. If you don't have a desire to be great, it shows in everything -- work ethic, hustle, days on the injured list -- you name it."

Potential 2010 Heart Bust Alert: DeMarcus Cousins, F/C, Kentucky

The Explosiveness of Adam Morrison

Morrison was supposed to be the next Larry Bird. He dominated the college game, played like a 35-year-old veteran and wowed Jordan to the point that he took him with the No. 3 pick in the 2006.

Four seasons later, Morrison is on the brink of a permanent European vacation.

While Morrison had some amazing basketball skills, he was lacking another quality that NBA GMs all rank as one of the most important -- elite athleticism. "The way the college game is played, if you're a good shooter, you have a good shot at looking good," one NBA GM said. "Zone defenses hurt guys with explosive athletic ability and help guys who can shoot. In the NBA, the game opens up and you have to have the ability to create your own shot."

Morrison isn't the only guy player who has struggled with this issue. Mike Dunleavy has had a solid NBA career, but he was drafted ahead of guys like Amare Stoudemire. Marcus Fizer, Rafael Araujo and Shelden Williams all fell into the same trap.

"Part of the problem is creating your own shot," another GM said. "But I think the real issue is that in the NBA you're only as good as who you can guard. If you lack lateral quickness, I think your ceiling is pretty limited. Morrison was a good scorer but his lack of athleticism made him an inefficient one. Then you take into account that the guy he guards every night is lighting him up and no coach in the league wants to play him."

Potential 2010 Explosiveness Bust Alert: James Anderson, G, Oklahoma State

The Resume of Nikoloz Tskitishvili

Former Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe famously drafted Tskitishvili in 2002 without ever seeing him play. Skita was one of those workout wonders who looked amazing in drills but was clueless once the game began. Over the course of the past decade, thanks in part to a huge influx of young Europeans and high school players into the game, there have been a fair share of workout wonders who have fooled GMs.

"I think the workout is the biggest source of mistakes in the NBA draft," one GM said. "I hate them. If you've watched a player all year and haven't been impressed, don't fall in love with a guy who suddenly starts hitting every jumper in an empty gym."

The reverse is also true.

"If you have a guy ranked highly all year," the same GM said, "why would you turn around and not take the guy just because of a poor workout? You have to look at the whole body of work."

Brown, Milicic, Marvin Williams, Yaroslav Korolev, Eddie Griffin and most recently Joe Alexander wowed NBA teams in workouts with their skills or athletic abilities despite the fact their numbers on the court weren't all that special. When they didn't progress in the way teams expected, that created the perfect recipe for a draft bust.

While there are certainly exceptions -- Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo didn't really blow up in college -- drafting a player who has struggled in college or overseas is usually a pretty bad idea.

"Unless there is a legitimate context for why they were struggling -- like a bad coach, a system that doesn't fit their style or some sort of skill you think was underutilized previously, I think you've got to stay away. Far away."

Potential 2010 Resume Bust Alert: Daniel Orton, C, Kentucky