December 5, 2012

Class Report: The unpredictable 2009 Draft Class look to redefine their legacy

This is my first feature published in SLAM China. Originally in English, it was translated and published in Chinese in the magazine's 2012.22 edition. Here is the original English version of the story.

The NBA can be a funny, unpredictable place. Today’s legend can become tomorrow’s has-been. An afterthought from the past can spring up to be a superstar in the present. And the interweaving, up-and-down fate of the 2009 draft class, who entered the league with such fresh-faced optimism three years ago, is a perfect example that star power in the world’s strongest basketball league is but a fickle thing. There are no guarantees and no accurate predictions.

It was almost exactly three years ago. November 14, 2009, the night when a young Milwaukee Buck, the rookie Brandon Jennings, scored 55 points against the Warriors, he scored the most points by a rookie in NBA history since Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe’s 56-point outburst… back in 1968!

While Jennings was coming into his own, another rookie guard in Sacramento was making a name for himself, too. When Tyreke Evans finished his rookie season, he became only the fourth rookie in NBA history since Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James to average 20, 5, and 5 in their first year in the league.

And yet, only a few years after their impressive rookie campaigns, both Evans and Jennings now find themselves expendable. Neither of their teams have yet offered them an extension to their rookie contracts, leaving the glittering stars of the 2009-10 NBA rookie class looking into their future with looming uncertainty.

NBA Drafts are an inexact science, mainly because it is near-impossible to predict the type of career a near-teenager would have when a team decides whether or not to call up his name on draft night. Some highly touted youngsters picked high turn out to be spectacular disappointments. Some unknown names found hidden in the second round can spring up to become All Stars a few years later.

Evans and Jennings were the two best players of the 2009 class, as they finished first and second respectively in the NBA’s end-of-season All Rookie Team picks. But with both their careers flattening over the next year, neither the Kings nor the Bucks respectively have yet given their ‘star youngsters’ a contract extension.

Many tend to forget that the first pick of the 2009 draft was actually Blake Griffin by the Los Angeles Clippers. A harrowing pre-season injury ended Griffin’s rookie season before it could even begin, and the Clippers were left wondering if they another one of their highly-touted prospects had been struck with the fabled ‘Clipper Curse’ again. Luckily for them, it seemed Griffin was not going to let Clipper-history come in the way of his route to destiny: he recovered the following season to have a ‘Rookie of the Year’ campaign, and has now developed to become one of the highest-rated young players in the team, a guy whom the Clippers have paired with superstar Chris Paul to become one of the leaders in the Western Conference.

The second pick in 2009 was almost as inconspicuous in his rookie year as the first. The Grizzlies took a gamble with Tanzanian Center Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet was a flop from day one, and was rapidly forgotten amongst the other names of his rookie class. He averaged just 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in his first season, numbers that he hasn’t been able to match in his NBA career since. After a few unimpressive years in Memphis and Portland, he was picked up as a free agent by the Thunder this year, who themselves lost the man picked after Thabeet in 2009 in a high-profile trade.

The third pick from 2009 may have a sunny outlook to his future. James Harden didn’t garner the same hype as some of the other players of his draft class, mostly because he on-court minutes were limited coming off the bench for a couple other explosive superstars in OKC. Still, Harden quietly developed into a solid pro, until he had a banner campaign last season winning the 6th Man of the Year Award, and become the centerpiece of a major trade that sent him to the Houston Rockets before the start of the new season. Just three years into his NBA career – which he mostly spent as a backup – Harden deservedly got handed a max contract. With the scintillating start to his Rocket career, he is already proving that he deserves it.

Evans was picked fourth (and went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award), and the fifth pick was another player whom – like Blake Griffin – NBA fans couldn’t witness in action straight away, Ricky Rubio. Rubio came with a mercurial reputation, and many doubted if the young Spaniard’s skill-set could thrive in the NBA. After being picked fifth by the Timberwolves, Rubio insisted to stay two further years playing in Europe before finally making his way to the NBA last season. In less than two months, Rubio went from being an unseen commodity in the NBA landscape to one of the most exciting young players in the league. He suffered a major injury midway through last season, but his brief cameo was enough to prove to his team that their future will be built around his development alongside Kevin Love.

With Rubio missing the rookie season, the T-Wolves instead relied on having their offense marshaled by 2009’s sixth pick Jonny Flynn. Flynn played well enough to be named into 2009-10’s All Rookie Second Team. But he has miraculously disappeared from the NBA since! Just a few years after an impressive rookie season, Flynn has bounced around two other NBA teams, and in the NBDL, and is now already out of the NBA, holding his business down under in Australia for the Melbourne Tigers.

The seventh and ninth place picks – Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan – have since developed into solid young players, and only time will tell how high their NBA ceiling could be. Jordan Hill was a surprise high eighth pick by the Knicks, and now he finds himself playing backup to Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard in Los Angeles. Brandon Jennings, who took the risk of playing a year in Europe before being eligible for the NBA draft, rounded up the top 10.

But the 2009 class provided several hidden gems outside of the lottery picks. Talented point guards Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Jeff Teague came between the 17th-19th picks, and Darren Collison was 21st. The Bulls waited till 26 to find Taj Gibson. The Spurs, one of the shrewdest scouts of talent in the league, were able to find a nice pick-up in DaJuan Blair with the 37th pick. Players like Jodie Meeks (41), Marcus Thornton (43), Chase Budinger (44), Danny Green (46), and Patty Mills (55) are proof that solid professionals can be found deep into the second round of the draft.

Every draft class has their shining star, the one player who stood the test of time to rise above the rest and become the cream of the crop. 1984 had Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, but people will most remember the group of rookies drafted that year for a certain North Carolina guard named Michael Jordan. 1996 featured a plethora of riches, from Steve Nash and Allen Iverson to Ray Allen and Stephon Marbury, but no one would make a bigger dent on NBA history than Kobe Bryant. 2003 brought Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, but it will most be remembered as the year that first pick LeBron James became a professional player.

Who will be the star of 2009? Will Blake Griffin continue on his road to success as he bounced back from a season-ending injury to a superstar career? Will James Harden become the next best shooting guard in the NBA, only after Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade? Will Ricky Rubio recover to continue the impressive fulfillment of his basketball journey that saw him become Spain’s youngest ever professional at 14? Will Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans finally rediscover the potential that had NBA fans gawking in surprise? Will Brandon Jennings – who has led the Bucks to a nice start to the 2012-13 season – take the next step as one of the elite point guards in the NBA? Can Stephen Curry become the league’s next best shooter? Can Hasheem Thabeet save his career and somehow, play like a second-pick is supposed to? What about DeRozan, Holiday, Lawson, Teague, Colisson, or Gibson?

Luckily for all the young players, time is on their side. Just as many of them have seen their NBA fortunes change so dramatically in the course of the last three years, they have to be ready for similarly dramatic changes in the future. The 2009 class has some big names: some peaked early and fell quick, and some waited a while before exploding on the scene. The end of the first three years can only mean the start of a new career for many of them. How well they do over the next few years will determine if this group will eventually be remembered as one of the better draft classes in NBA history!

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