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Five takeaways from our Reranking Recruiting Classes series

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Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve rolled out a series re-ranking the eight recruiting classes from 2007-2014.

It was a fun project to put together, in part because of the trip down memory lane that came with a number of the players we discussed, but also because it is interesting to take another look at these rankings once the players involved have reached — or approached — their peak years.

Here are five things that we learned while reranking the recruiting classes:

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PLAYING, AND STAYING, IN THE NBA IS AN EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT THING TO DO

I knew this before diving into this project, but rolling through each and every one of those eight recruiting classes reinforced the simple fact that having an NBA career is a damn-near impossible dream for many, if not most, basketball players.

On average, there were a couple of all-stars in each of these classes. Once you got outside of the top ten, however, it was difficult to find players that spent their career as starters. By the back-end of the 20s, you were digging through players that spent most of their career on the end of an NBA bench when they weren’t bouncing around between Europe and the G League.

It doesn’t exactly work out this way, but there are roughly 25 five-star recruits in each recruiting class with is roughly the same numbers of kids from each recruiting class that end up getting more than just a cup of coffee in the league.

That doesn’t mean that the guys on the fringes of the NBA are bad basketball players.

It’s quite the opposite actually.

I wrote a long story on Nigel Williams-Goss earlier this summer. He was identified as an elite talent way back in middle school. He was the first four-year player at Findlay Prep, one of high school basketball’s powerhouse programs. He won two high school national titles. He made all of the all-american teams and played in all of the all-american games as a senior. He was all-Pac-12 at Washington before transferring to Gonzaga where, as a senior, he was a first-team All-American on a team that might have won the national title had he not rolled his ankle in the national title game.

And, after getting picked 55th in the 2017 NBA Draft, Williams-Goss went out and had a monster, nearly-unprecedented season with Partizan, a storied basketball club in Serbia that is known for producing NBA talent. His rights are still owned by the Utah Jazz, but even that wasn’t enough to get him a guaranteed spot on their roster, which is why he will be playing for Olympiacos in Greece next season.

He’ll be paid very well and he’ll play in the Euroleague, which might be the best basketball league in the world outside of the NBA.

But it’s not the NBA.

And it should be proof of just how difficult it is to get there.

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LASTING IN THE LEAGUE IS ALL ABOUT THE ROLE YOU CAN PLAY

A few years back, I was grabbing a beer with a longtime scout that was working for an NBA team, and we got to talking about the differences in evaluating high school players for the college level and college players for the NBA game. The biggest difference, he said, was that with high school players, you try and predict what the player can be as he continues to grow into his body and develop his game.

You think about the big picture.

But at the NBA level, scouting is in the details. What role can that player have for our team? What can he do at an NBA level? Will he be willing to accept that he is just a glue guy that is going to be asked to only do the things he can do at an NBA level? Does he have the positional size to be able to defend?

Because the truth is this: There are a lot of players that are not in the NBA that are “NBA players”, that are good enough to be deserving of a roster spot somewhere in the most competitive league on earth.

Actually getting one of those spots, however, depends on whether or not you fit into exactly what a team is looking for. Just being able to score 20 points in an NBA game isn’t enough, because unless you are one of the absolute best scorers on the planet, you aren’t going to be good enough in the NBA.

Take Andre Roberson, for example. He was unranked as a high school senior and never averaged more than 11.6 points at Colorado, but he’s been a starter in the NBA for five years and is now heading into the second year of a $30 million contract because he can rebound and he can defend and he is perfectly willing to do nothing but rebound and defend.

Is he a better basketball player than, say, Reggie Bullock, who was a top ten prospect coming out of high school? If you were playing pickup, would you ever pick him over, say, Jerian Grant, who was an all-american at Notre Dame?

Probably not.

But he’s likely going to end up making more money and playing more NBA games than both of those guys combined in his career.

The complicating factor in all of this is …

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

 

… THE NBA IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR

The way that basketball is played today is totally different from the way that it was played even just four years ago, and the result is that players that were, at one point in time, thought to be can’t-miss talents are on the verge of being out of the NBA.

Let’s call this the Jahlil Okafor Phenomenon.

Okafor was a high school superstar in the city of Chicago. He ended up going to Duke, where he teamed up with the likes of Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen as freshmen to win the 2015 national title. He would go on to be the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D’angelo Russell — before averaged 17.4 points and 7.0 boards as a rookie with the 76ers.

That was the 2015-16 season.

By October of 2017, Okafor was demanding a trade out of Philly because the Sixers had decided not to pick up the option on the fourth-year of his rookie deal, which is almost unheard-of for a player picked as high as he was picked. Granted, there are some off-the-court issues involved here, but the biggest problem that Okafor faced is that the game had passed him by. He was a dominant low-post scorer that couldn’t make threes with limited range that defended on the perimeter like he was wearing cement blocks for shoes.

Philly also had a guy by the name of Joel Embiid on the roster, but it’s telling that Okafor was traded for, essentially, a second round pick and that after half a season in Brooklyn, he signed for a minimum deal in New Orleans.

Four years after looking like he would be the next Tim Duncan and three years after averaging 17.4 points and 7.0 boards as a 19-year old, Jahlil Okafor is Just A Guy.

And it’s not just Okafor, either.

As of today, the position that every team in the NBA is looking for is the big, versatile wing that can defend in space, are switchable and can make threes. Everyone wants the next Trevor Ariza. The O.G. Anunoby’s of the world are in high-demand. It’s why someone like Jaren Jackson Jr. can be looked at as a better prospect than Marvin Bagley III by really smart basketball people.

That’s because the last thing that everyone in the NBA was trying to find — players than can defend the rim on one end of the floor and that can space the court on the other end — were rendered somewhat obsolete by the Golden State Warriors putting together two playmakers that can do both of those things (Draymond Green and Kevin Durant). As valuable as the likes of the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka and the like are, if they can’t handle the constant switching that is required these days, they become a liability.

And all that is happening because the NBA has become increasingly more reliant on ball-screens this decade.

The ever-changing landscape of the NBA combined with NBA teams that are drafting players that need two or three or four years of development means that the goalposts are constantly moving.

Think about it like this: Is there any chance in hell that Clint Capela would drop all the way to 25th in the 2014 NBA Draft if NBA teams knew that in three years the only way to hope to compete with the Warriors would be to have a rim-running, shot-blocking center than can switch out onto point guards?

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IF YOU MAKE THE NBA, YOU LIVED UP TO THE HYPE

After working through this project, I’d hazard to guess that somewhere around 60 or 70 percent of a player’s success in the NBA has to do with the organization that they land with and the circumstances that they are put in while there.

For some guys, the stars align and they get their chance to shine. Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell have NBA Championship rings — and a likely future in the league — because they ended up being the perfect fit for what the Warriors were looking for. For other guys, they wind up in an organization — like the Spurs, like the Celtics — that prioritizes and excels in player development. For others, they get drafted by the Kings or the Knicks and are all-but guaranteed to be cursed, regardless of how good they actually are.

Does that mean they are “better” than other guys that don’t get their shot?

Not necessarily. It just means they took advantage of their chance when they got it.

To be fair, there are varying degrees of this — it’s hard not to argue that someone like Josh Selby or Byron Mullens was a bust — but given everything that I just said, if a player gets to the NBA and hangs around for a while, they made it, in my mind. Shabazz Muhammad’s career has been a disappointment relative to the expectations he had in high school, but he averaged 13.5 points one season and just signed with Milwaukee, meaning he is heading into his sixth season in the NBA.

He made it.

FOR THE MOST PART, THE GUYS DOING THE RANKINGS DO FINE

No one is ever going to be perfect when making projections, particularly when your projections involve guessing how a 17-year old will react to getting millions and millions of dollars when he turns 19.

They’re ranking a kid’s personality as much as you are their basketball ability, and I don’t know how many scouts there are with psychology degrees.

Some of the biggest busts we found in this project (Josh Selby, Cliff Alexander, Mullens) were ranked high despite their red flags. Some of the biggest misses (Russell Westbrook, C.J. McCollum) had growth spurts while in college, while others (Steph Curry, Paul George, Damian Lillard) were overlooked by recruiters, not just people doing rankings.

It’s an inexact science by definition.

And that makes it a hard job.

But for the most part, the guys that look like the best players in the class at 17 years old often end up being among the best players when they reach the NBA.

VIDEO: Auburn’s 5-11 Jared Harper posterized Xavier

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Jared Harper might have the best poster dunk for a player under 6-feet this season.

When the No. 8 Tigers on the ropes against Xavier in the opener of the Maui Invitational, Harper made a huge play in overtime that helped ensure that Auburn would pull away with the win.

It was this:

VIDEO: Zion Williamson’s windmill defies the laws of physics

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Get used to seeing posts like this: Zion Williamson dunks making the highlight reel.

This might have been his best to date, a windmill that came off of a steal in Duke’s 90-64 win over San Diego State in the opening game of the Maui Invitational:

To really get an appreciation for this dunk, you have to look at the entirety of the picture at the top of this post. The faces … they know what they are seeing:

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No. 1 Duke routs San Diego State 90-64 in Maui

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — R.J. Barrett scored 20 points, Cam Reddish added 16 and top-ranked Duke remained undefeated at the Maui Invitational with a 90-64 rout over San Diego State.

The Blue Devils (4-0) shot 52 percent, made 10 of 25 from 3-point range and improved to 16-0 in Maui while earning a spot in Tuesday’s semifinals against No. 8 Auburn.

Duke has been the talk of college basketball since its highly-touted freshmen shot the season out of a canon with a blowout win over then-No. 2 Kentucky. The five-time Maui champion Blue Devils arrived in paradise the favorites and played like it against the Aztecs (2-1).

Despite front-court foul trouble in the first half — Zion Williamson played seven minutes — Duke took control with an 11-0 run and led 49-32 by halftime behind Barrett’s 16 points.

The Blue Devils kept the runaway going with an early 8-0 run in the second half, building the lead to 71-46 on Williamson’s breakaway windmill dunk. Williamson had 13 points in 18 minutes.

Devin Watson had 15 points to lead San Diego State (2-1).

No. 8 Auburn outlasts Xavier 88-79 in Maui

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — Bryce Brown scored 26 points, Jared Harper added 25 and No. 8 Auburn outlasted Xavier 88-79 in overtime to open the Maui Invitational.

The Tigers (4-0) shot poorly from the perimeter early and had a hard time shaking the new-look Musketeers (2-2), missing badly on a shot to win it in regulation.

Auburn took control in the overtime behind its defense, outscoring Xavier 11-2. The Tigers scored 31 points off Xavier’s 22 turnovers overall to earn a spot in the semifinals against the Duke-San Diego State winner.

Ryan Welage had 17 points and Paul Scruggs 16 for the Musketeers.

Auburn had a five-point lead with a minute left in regulation, but Naj Marshall made a 3-pointer from the wing to pull the Musketeers within 77-75.

Xavier tied it at 77-all with 26 seconds left in regulation on Tyrique Jones’ two free throws and Brown’s last-second shot came up well short.

Villanova, Syracuse fall out of Top 25 poll as Duke, Kansas stay on top

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Two of college basketball’s bluebloods remained firmly entrenched atop the AP Top 25 after a week of easy wins, while two more tumbled all the way out after a week filled with defeats.

One of them happens to be the reigning national champion.

While top-ranked Duke and No. 2 Kansas did little to hurt their status as early national title contenders, Villanova and Syracuse slid all the way out of the Top 25 on Monday. The Wildcats lost a rematch of last year’s championship game with Michigan, then lost in overtime to Furman on Saturday to give coach Jay Wright’s team back-to-back losses for the first time in five years.

The Wildcats had risen to No. 8 last week. They were among those receiving votes this week.

“We’re trying to work out a lot of chemistry things with our team. We have a lot of new guys,” Villanova guard Phil Booth said. “We’re trying to play more together and figure things out.”

Indeed, the Wildcats are trying to replace key players Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman after last year’s championship run. But while a strong recruiting class is trying to find its way, the Wildcats are off to a 2-2 start for the first time since 1997.

They’re also the first national champion to start 2-2 since UCLA in 1995.

The Wildcats weren’t the only big-time program to take a tumble this week. Syracuse dropped from No. 15 out of the poll after losing to Connecticut and Oregon in the 2k Classic.

“We have to play better offensively we’re going to be successful. Our defense is nowhere near the point it was last year. That’s something that also has to get better,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team is 2-2 for the first time since the 1987-88 season. “There’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do. We’re a long ways away.”

The top five remained unchanged with Duke remained the clear No. 1, receiving 53 of 63 first-place votes after blowing out Eastern Michigan. Kansas was second with seven first-place votes after wins over Vermont and Louisiana-Lafayette, followed by Gonzaga, Virginia and Tennessee.

“I think in the past few days we grew up a bit more,” said Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team played San Diego State in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Monday.

Gonzaga (3-0) and eighth-ranked Auburn (3-0) are also in the tournament.

“It’s a great field,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re playing three straight days, which will never happen otherwise during the season, so success or failure there has to be looked at a little bit closer. It’s a great opportunity for competition, and there are some big-time teams in the tournament, which usually there are when we’re in the tournament.”

AT THE TOP

The only major movement in the top 10 involved Villanova dropping out and Michigan (5-0) climbing from No. 18 to ninth. Nevada (3-0) remained sixth and North Carolina (4-0) seventh. Auburn moved up one spot and Kentucky (3-1) rounded out the first 10.

BIG RISERS

The Wolverines were the biggest movers, while Virginia Tech (4-0) climbed three spots to No. 13. Clemson was No. 16, followed by UCLA, TCU and LSU after each of them also moved up three spots.

ALSO SLIDING

Marquette joined Villanova and Syracuse in dropping from the poll after the Golden Eagles (3-1) were routed by Indiana. Oregon (3-1) dropped from No. 13 to No. 21 after splitting its games against Iowa and Syracuse in New York.

BIG TEN NEWCOMERS

Iowa (4-0) leaped into the poll at No. 20 after beating Oregon and blowing out UConn to win the 2K Classic. It’s the first time the Hawkeyes have been ranked since the final poll of the 2015-16 season.

The other newcomers this week were also from the Big Ten: Ohio State (4-0) entered at No. 23 after beating Creighton and South Carolina State, and Wisconsin squeaked in ahead of another Big Ten rival in Nebraska at No. 25 after the Badgers (3-0) took care of Xavier and Houston Baptist.