How Long Is The Leash?: The Unpredictability Of Player Development

The NBA is a league that is seeing more and more young talent come through the ranks and either flourish or falter. For every Kevin Durant there was a Greg Oden. For every Steph Curry a Johnny Flynn. Drafting the right player seems clear on draft night, but the development of players is what makes or breaks their NBA careers.

It seems obvious. If a player doesn’t improve season to season they most likely won’t make it into the NBA. The question is on why some top prospects develop and others don’t. It’s a lot more complex than the “some guys just don’t have it” rhetoric that is often used as a detriment on draft night. There’s an aspect of emotion we like to call “hunger”.

“Hunger” as in the drive to be great. It is an overused term that some players can never shake off or earn. But hunger isn’t the entire reason why a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo succeeds and a top prospect in Anthony Bennett flops.

Development coaches are paid a lot of money to train a player to be better. But in reality, their job is based on 50% coaching skill and 50% blind faith. Each individual player must have a certain type of mindset and dedication to reach their full potential, but another factor is the environment he’s in.

I’m not sure we’d see the same Antetokounmpo if he were playing in Orlando or Phoenix or Golden State. That’s the intricacy on forming culture. Culture isn’t something shaped by a CEO or General Manager. It’s a combination of the type of players you bring in and the city around them. Milwaukee’s close knit and accepting culture undoubtedly had a positive effect on the creation of Antetokounmpo.

But there’s even m0re factors than culture of an organization. Let’s dive in to what seems to be the biggest leap in talent for a former top prospect. Andrew Wiggins was touted as the next Kobe or LeBron heading into his freshman season at Kansas.

His freshman year wasn’t eye-popping, but still good enough to earn him the top spot in the 2014 NBA Draft. His rookie season he shot a 51.7% true shooting percentage, scoring 16.8 points per game. It wasn’t the rookie season that many were hoping for from the touted “future of the NBA”, but still good enough to earn him Rookie of the Year.

Year 2 saw a marginal improvement in the large jump in usage rate, but defensively Wiggins hadn’t come to be the great perimeter defender many were looking to see. His shooting was also questioned, as he shot 30% from the outside and 38% from mid-range. There wasn’t some tremendous jump that would warrant anyone to pin him after a star, but after just two seasons it seemed that everyone was starting to fall off of the “face of the NBA” bandwagon.

Maybe it was due to the historic rookie performance his successor of the Rookie of the Year and teammate Karl-Anthony Towns, but Wiggins’ potential for stardom took a hit. Or so we thought. That was until Wiggins scorched every opponent to start off the 2016-17 season. He dropped over 25 points 9 times in his first 15 games.

He did so shooting 41.8% from the outside. He seemingly turned his weakness into a strength over the summer. But how? Was it a focus in training? Was it him visiting a sports psychologist? Maybe. Some of it had to be a response to premature critics who once awed at him. More of it had to be the long leash the Minnesota Timberwolves were giving him.

Being underwhelmed by a top prospect when he first enters the league happens often, but a team committing to a player through his early struggles are signaling a belief in the player.

The Golden State Warriors stayed committed to Steph Curry through his underwhelming play and injury issues, and saw a historic star be born in his 3rd season. The Chicago Bulls saw Jimmy Butler form as a top shooting guard in his 4th season. Kawhi Leonard was brought to attention in his 3rd year.

Point is, patience is needed in prospects, for the most part. Many are understandably giving up on 2013 top pick Anthony Bennett and 2015 3rd pick Jahlil Okafor on ever becoming stars. Bennett had all of one year for many to discredit him as a potential star, same for Okafor in just 53 games.

Maybe it’s a case by case scenario. But every top prospect was drafted with the belief that they could turn into a an above average player. It’s the potential to develop.

It’s unfair to use Karl-Anthony Towns as the marker for rookie success. He was an absolute outlier. Hardly anyone can come into the league and dominate the way he did right from the start. So while we have a rarity in Towns dominating, we’ll have a Julius Randle who takes a season or two to find his rhythm.

Patience on young prospects is important, and it allows for teams to assess the necessary traits they must develop to reach stardom. It’s why development coaches are paid so much. It may be partially blind faith, but development coaches work to expand a top prospects game to allow him to reach the potential many believed he would have coming out of the draft.

It’s not an over night occurrence. It’s why we are seeing Wiggins slowly reaching that start potential in year 3. It’s why Jimmy Butler went from average to Most Improved Player and a top five shooting guard. It’s beautiful to watch.

The relationship between a player and the team who selected him in the draft is one that could foreshadow the player’s career. A strong relationship that allows for development and is not too quick to expect stardom will generally give a big return. That is, of course, if the player is willing to commit to it.

Development is really a theoretical hope in a player. No one truly knows why some expand their game and reaches the next level, while others try to improve aspects and just can’t seem to find their rhythm. What we do know is, without patience in a young prospect it takes away that hope in development.

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