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How Do We Know?

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Yesterday's tongue-in-cheek review of the talents of Rudy Fernandez leads us to a bigger, more serious question:  How exactly do you tell whether a guy is going to make an impact anyway?

We need to preface the discussion with a caveat that we're talking about how fans and media-types know, not professional scouts and those in the business.  They have all kinds of systems and all kinds of time to research and watch.  Unless we have a pipeline to those folks we don't have the same advantages.  

In any case, as the summer wanes and the pre-season is nearing, it's time to share Dave's Nearly Immutable Theorem #24.  It goes like this:

Dave's Nearly Immutable Theorem #24

In 99.9% of the cases the only way to tell if a guy is going to be a good NBA player is to see him play well in an actual NBA game. No...make it several.

This theorem necessarily leads to Corollary 24a:

The only bankable news in the summer is the bad news.

Summer League, Euro Leagues, Training Camp, and informal practices all have their place, but none of them is particularly indicative of regular season success.  Of course some who have shined in those venues have gone on to great performances but just as many haven't.  What's more plenty of guys who nobody hears of before they are inserted into their first game go on to make decent impacts.  In the case of Summer League, Training Camp, and other practices the competition and pressure just aren't the same.  You can score 40 in one of those games and still shoot 22% when the real deal comes around.  The defenses aren't coordinated.  The talent either isn't the same or isn't going all out.  They just aren't reliable predictors.  

The overseas leagues are a little different.  There the talent level and competition can approach NBA level.  But it isn't a case of "better" or "worse", it's just a completely different game.  There's always a significant adjustment for Euro stars coming over here.  Some make it, some don't.  Dirk Nowitzki was laughed at when he was drafted and widely considered a bust after his first year.  Parker and Ginobili were drafted very late compared to their eventual impact.  Guys like Frederick Weis don't make it at all.  The talent is there in all those cases but even for the experts it's hit and miss.  You just don't know when, how, or how much of an impact a guy will have based on his European play.

All of these venues are similar.  Guys can drop out at any one of them, but they can't cement themselves in through any.  You can end your budding career really quickly in Vegas or Bologna but you can't guarantee it there.  Thus the corollary about the bad news being the only reliable news.

This also, by the way, applies to news about various leaps in development from guys already in the league.  How many times have you heard, "Player X is getting in shape this off-season" only to have that player show up with Krispy Kremes oozing out of their jacket pockets?  We hear all the time about players developing jump shots, bulking up, turning over new leaves in their attitudes and personal lives.  All of those things can and do happen, but far more rarely than they are reported.  And either way the only way you really see a difference it is when it comes out on the court.  Here too the only truly trustworthy news is the bad.  Travis Outlaw may or may not have developed a legitimate, consistent NBA scoring move over the summer.  Greg Oden really did need surgery.

Of course there are exceptions.  Some players, usually from the U.S. college or high school basketball systems, are on a plain track to stardom from the moment you see them.  LeBron James was one.  I think Greg Oden will probably turn out to be another.  Also sometimes you can tell by a player's past body of work that summer development really is taking hold.  Lamarcus Aldridge is one of those.  Having seen his development last season you can tell by the way he moves, his body, and his shot that something is brewing this year even just seeing him in Summer League.  However these are the exceptions, not the rule.  Everybody who gets even an outside chance at the Show is a good player, otherwise they wouldn't be looked at.  You can find great things about all of their games.  But the harsh reality is that more of them will look good before they make the league than will actually turn out good once they get there.

So back to the original question of how you know a player is going to make an impact...the short answer is we almost never do.  Of course people will say they do...media folks and fans alike.  If you bet the ponies enough you're going to come up with some winners, so everybody has a little something to hang their hats on.  (Or more likely someone about which they can say, "Woohoo!  I told you so!")  But when it comes to reliable, predictable information there just isn't much out there.

As with every pre-season we're going to start hearing a lot of stuff in the next month or so.  95% of it will be really good-sounding stuff.  At least 75% of that good-sounding stuff will be wrong, or at least not materialize.  I remember last year in the heart of the pre-season one of the national websites asked various team bloggers to submit an analysis and prediction for their teams in the upcoming season.  Twenty-eight of thirty bloggers predicted their team would have more wins in the coming year than they had in the past year.  I wondered if the NBA was going to come up with an extra team to absorb all of those losses.  (I think they could have done it if they went, like, 0-121 for the season.)  And most of the increased wins were put squarely on the shoulders of new acquisitions, the development of young players, or veterans returning from injury in fine form.

Like everybody else does around this time of year I'm going to be reviewing the various teams, including some extensive work on the prospects for the Blazers.  Like any decent fan I expect my outlook on our team will be somewhat optimistic.  But as we all sort through the barge-load of material that's going to come out in the next month--mine included--it's important to acknowledge that none of us really know until we see it played out on the court.  Media coverage has become so prediction-oriented in the past decade or so that it's easy to forget that.  Everybody wants to be seen as a genius, but none of us really are, save perhaps the guys who make the decisions for real.  (And maybe only half of them, eh?)  

In short...enjoy the reading and all the good-vibes dreaming, but keep your grains of salt handy.  We'll all need them.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)