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Is There Really Such Thing as a 'Can't-Miss' Prospect in the NBA Draft?

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Is There Really Such Thing as a 'Can't-Miss' Prospect in the NBA Draft?
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It’s become something of a common conversational crutch to posit the 2014 NBA draft in the following, caveat-capped terms: There’s a lot of depth but no true can’t-miss prospects.

Here’s the thing: With the exception of a tight handful of pantheonic players, there never have been any can't-miss prospects.

Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Lew Alcindor, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James: It’s because of these bona fide guarantees that we allow ourselves the liberty of so flippantly levying can’t miss.

Because it’s only in hindsight that a particular player can truly be considered as such. From there, we take the resulting template and try—time and again over a period of decades, perhaps—to fit it over the next in line.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Not only is it indicative of a desire to copy and paste the past, but it’s also unfair to the players themselves. Imagine being 18, 19, 20 years old and knowing, as you bid adieu to your dorm-room diet and frat-party friends, that you have to be great. Falling short simply isn’t an option. Because—wait for ityou can’t miss!

The danger here is twofold, at least: Either the hype goes straight to the player’s head, pre-emptively compromising the fear of failure that drives so many a legend, or that very fear—of being the one who misses—becomes too much to bear.

Even recent history is ripe with both.

In a piece for ESPN's Insider (subscription required), Chad Ford ranked the most hyped draft prospects since 2000. Of the 25 Ford included, at least 10 can be safely deemed flat-out busts, with another handful’s only recourse being that the jury is still out.

That’s a full 40 percent that didn’t just miss; they missed spectacularly—and, in almost every case, sadly.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Greg Oden: 7’1” shot-blocking behemoth with offensive upside for days, turned his freshman year at Ohio State into his own punishing proving ground. Can’t miss.

Darko Milicic: Versatile Serbian big whose skills were so advanced as a 17-year-old that he drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett. Can’t miss.

Jay Williams: Derrick Rose before there was a Derrick Rose, two-year Duke phenom with uncanny speed and quickness and fundamentals to boot. Can’t miss.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Michael Beasley: Big 12 dominance on par with Kevin Durant’s the year before, scoring and rebounding machine conceivably poised to play three positions. Can’t miss.

Adam Morrison: Can score from anywhere on the floor, gorgeous release reminiscent of Larry Legend himself. Can’t miss.

Dig a bit deeper into the annals of hardwood hype, and you’ll even find a few sadder stories.

Take the case of Lenny Cooke, the one-time New Jersey prep-ball wunderkind once spoken of in the same breath as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Cooke was the subject of a recent documentary and, consequently, a profile piece by legendary New York Times reporter Harvey Araton:

A decade ago, many were predicting that Cooke, a New York City prodigy, would become a basketball shoe pitchman and would flaunt his wares and skills at All-Star weekends like the recent aerial show in Orlando, Fla. There was a time, however fleeting, when he was more heralded, or perhaps merely hyped, than any other high school player in America.

Can’t miss.

After going undrafted in 2002, Cooke would pull stints with the Continental Basketball Association and in the Philippines. He never logged a single minute in the NBA.

Cooke’s case may be extreme, in that it’s difficult to take can’t-miss predictions seriously when high school camps and pickup games make up the body of evidence.

It’s a sad, cautionary tale, to be sure. But where we analysts make perhaps our biggest mistake is in assuming that the ones who lived up to every ounce of hype—your Chamberlains, LeBrons and Jordans—would have in any and all possible universes.

History has it that the Portland Trail Blazers took Sam Bowie not necessarily because they believed him to be a superior prospect to Michael Jordan but because Clyde Drexler had already been anointed the team’s shooting guard of the future.

But is it really outlandish to think Portland could’ve convinced itself that Jordan and Drexler could share the floor? What would their legacies look like now?

Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

It’s impossible to say, of course. What’s not impossible is the idea that context and circumstance—a change of team here, a freak injury there—can fundamentally alter a particular player’s career trajectory.

Greg Oden comes immediately, painfully to mind. At the time, Portland’s selection of the paint-eating force over the undeniably brilliant but painfully thin Kevin Durant was, at worst, a 50-50 proposition.

Now, a full seven years on, it’s safe to say Portland’s play proved just as poor as the one made 23 years prior. Just like Bowie, Oden’s career was cut down by injury. And, just like Bowie, the scars of failure are fresh—and most likely forever will be—on his mind.

Here’s Oden from a 2012 interview with Grantland contributor and former Ohio State teammate Mark Titus:

I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t suck to see Durant doing so well. Only because every time he had a good game in those first few years, I knew I was going to get a bunch of crap from all of my haters. But that doesn’t mean I dislike him as a person or anything like that. He’s a good guy and one of the three best players in the league right now. The only reason it hurts to watch him play is because I know that if I got the chance to show what I’ve got, I could be making All-Star teams like he and Horford are, too.

That’s the worst part about all of the injuries and the criticism. It would be one thing if I had been healthy for five years and just sucked when I was on the court. But I can’t prove what I can do because I can’t stay healthy. Not having control over the situation makes it tough.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to re-imagine what we mean when we say "can’t miss." Far too often the term is used to pinpoint a player destined to be a franchise game-changer, a 10-time All-Star, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

What we should be meaning when we say "can’t miss," while far less controversial or cavalier, is that a player will do what countless hundreds of thousands of others who grew up dreaming the same dream, often to premature tragedies all their own, simply couldn’t: play in the NBA.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

If that reeks of semantic mollycoddling, so be it.

But ask Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or any of this year's dozen other lottery hopefuls whether they’d prefer being labeled "can’t miss." You’re liable to find that not even they, the most promising of green-room phenoms—young men through whom confidence courses as boldly as blood—are about to beckon that kind of curse.

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