Every year, the NCAA Tournament captivates a nation looking for a “Cinderella” team to re-capture the magic of Hoosiers, one of the most popular sports movies of all time. It is (mostly) based on the true story of the 1954 Milan High team that stunned the state of Indiana by winning the state title despite a paltry enrollment of 161 students.
The NBA, with its two-month long ordeal of seven-round series, is not nearly as partial to upsets.
Because of the importance of height, the talent level in basketball is more pyramidal and less evenly-distributed than the other major American sports.
The MLB draft has 50 rounds. The NFL and NHL have seven. The NBA has two.
Even the most talented high school football players have to put on 20-30 pounds of muscle in college and learn to play in elaborate schemes that depend on eleven players moving in unison.
The greatest 16-year old baseball player in the world has never seen the action of a major-league 12-6 curveball.
But a 6'11" teenager with a 40" vertical? A 6'7" 16-year old who can shoot NBA-range 3’s? It doesn’t take a wizened talent evaluator to know they have a future playing pro basketball.
Recruiting services can miss a lot of 6'1" athletes. It’s a lot harder, literally, to miss 6'10" ones.
What happens is these sixteen year-olds become lottery tickets everyone is waiting to cash, especially in the disadvantaged communities where many NBA stars grow up. When I was 16, no one could tell me anything, and I was a 6’5 post player with a playing ceiling of a low-major D1 program. No one that age needs grown men telling them they will be millionaires in two to three years.
The results can be all too predictable, especially with children from broken homes.
Derrick Caracter was a 6'8" 13-year old when he became famous for being the first middle schooler to play at the Adidas ABCD basketball camp.
As recounted in the New York Times years later, being profiled in a national newspaper didn’t exactly make him humble.
Doherty recalled Caracter telling him: “I don’t understand why I have to be here in math class. I don’t need this. I’m just going to go to the N.B.A.”
He put on weight, flaming out of multiple high schools and was run out of Louisville by Rick Pitino for discipline problems.
Yet, in a strange way, coddling from such a young age may have saved him.
Basketball is a game that depends on confidence; every time you put up a shot, you have to expect it is going to go in. When you’re basically brainwashed that you will be great in your formative years, confidence is something you’re not going to lack.
So even when Caracter was banished to El Paso, Texas, and written off as a cautionary tale, he could hold on to the times when he defeated Greg Oden in a 1-on-1 battle that was reported on and talked about nation-wide.
If this kid who Caracter routinely destroyed just a few years before was an All-American and a likely No. 1 overall pick, then surely Caracter still had a chance at being an NBA player.
In the midst of a dreary Toronto-Sacramento game a few weeks ago, the color analyst made a great point about struggling Spanish guard Jose Calderon.
Whenever he matched up against someone like the Slovenian Beno Udrih, who has carved out a respectable niche for himself in Sacramento, he could remember competing against him and defeating him in international play. It was a good boost of confidence to go up against a player he was familiar battling against since he was younger.
In that same game, DeMar DeRozan, a second-year Raptors player still struggling to make a name for himself, was matched up against reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans.
But it was only three years ago that DeRozan was the No. 3 ranked senior in the class of 2008 and Evans was No. 6.
DeRozan can look across the court and see a guy with the same physical build being hailed as a star.
It certainly wasn’t the first time those two had played against each other; since they were 13, the two AAU stars had spent their springs and summers being measured against each other for spots in the national ranking services.
And if Evans could become a star, than DeRozan has no reason to think he can’t either. In a sport like basketball, when that kind of confidence is paired with physical ability, it’s half the battle.
The second-round of the NBA draft is a notorious crap-shoot. Most teams place little value on these picks, trading them and outright selling them for the (relative) pittance of a few hundred thousand dollars. Franchises like the Spurs became famous for taking long-shot gambles on foreigners and stashing them overseas for years – most notably Manu Ginobili, the No. 57 pick in the 1999 Draft.
Over the last few years, as many of the AAU players in my cohort, the high school classes of 2004-2006, came up for draft eligibility, I found myself recognizing some of these second-round long-shots as high-school basketball legends.
If a second-round pick makes a roster, it’s an accomplishment. If one becomes a legitimate NBA rotation player, it’s a miracle.
I started tracking their careers, and I noticed that high-school success may be an undervalued asset in looking at fringe NBA prospects. At the very least, a high-ranking high-school senior, accompanied by appearances in the Jordan Brand Classic or the McDonald’s All-American game, is a good proxy for extreme athletic ability and high levels of confidence.
The 2004 draft produced three second-round American born players who became legitimate NBA players – Royal Ivey, Chris Duhon and Trevor Ariza. Ivey is a classic late-bloomer who established himself as a defensive specialist; Duhon and Ariza were McDonald’s All-Americans ranked No. 6 and No. 18 respectively in the country as high-school seniors.
Ariza is a 6'8" athlete who muddled through a disappointing freshman season at UCLA. But he was the third-ranked small forward in the 2003 class behind Luol Deng and LeBron James.
Those were the guys he compared himself too; he saw LeBron winning Rookie of the Year and probably thought, I’m not that much worse than him. It was foolish pride that caused him to declare for the draft, but it was that same foolish pride that kept him going after being picked #43 in the 2004 Draft.
The success rate for player being picked in the 40’s is not good. Ariza, a starter on the Lakers 2009 NBA championship team now playing under a $33 million contract, is one of the few who made it.
The 2005 draft, the last year high-school players could declare straight to the NBA, was even more remarkable. Ten McDonald’s All-Americans were picked in the second round; seven—Brandon Bass (No. 11 player in his class), CJ Miles (No. 19), Von Wafer (No. 23), Monta Ellis (No. 3), Louis Williams (No.7), Andray Blatche (No. 4) and Amir Johnson (No. 29)—are still in the NBA five years later.
The only successful second rounder in that draft to fit the classic under-appreciated/over-achiever model we’re typically used to seeing from fringe prospects who make it is Providence SF Ryan Gomes, who wasn’t highly regarded coming out of high school.
The same thing happened in 2006 (pick 42: Daniel Gibson, ranked No. 7 in his class and pick 49: Leon Powe, ranked No. 10), 2007 (pick 32: Glen Davis, ranked No. 13 as a high-school senior and pick 37: Josh McRoberts, ranked No. 2) and 2008 (pick 34: Mario Chalmers, ranked No. 12 and pick 35: DeAndre Jordan, ranked No. 8).
Of course, there are still flame-outs like the one-trick dunking sensation James White (No. 22) and the undersized shoot-first gunner Bracey Wright (No. 12), who was a bigger star at The Colony HS outside of Dallas than then-teammate Deron Williams. And true under-dog success stories like Jazz star Paul Millsap (No. 130) and Kings forward Carl Landry, who played his first year in college at Vincennes University.
It may not fit our pre-conceived notions of justice, but the super talented kid who wasted a chance is probably a better gamble than the scrappy guy who kept going when everybody else doubted him.
There was no real-life Jimmy Chitwood at Milan High. But they did beat an all-black high school from Indianapolis in the quarterfinals led by a pretty good sophomore guard. His name was Oscar Robertson.
With that in mind, here are a few second-round picks from the 2010 NBA draft to watch it out for. History tells us that some of these names will become a lot more familiar to basketball fans in the next few years:
No. 40: Lance Stephenson
Nick-named “Born Ready,” Stephenson was the No. 1 ranked player in the class of 2009 and arguably the most accomplished NYC high-school player of all-time. With a powerful 6'5" 210 frame and a strong handle, he impressed many summer-league observers with his ability to penetrate to the basket and dish the ball. His career as a Pacers rookie is currently on hold after he picked up an assault charge for pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs.
Character concerns are a re-current theme for many of these players. But Ruben Patterson and Zach Randolph (to name a few) are proof that teams, and fans, will look the other way if a player is talented enough.
No. 43: Devin Ebanks
The 6'9" Ebanks, blessed with quick feet and a 7'4" wingspan, was the 11th ranked player in the 2008 class. In college, he was the key to West Virginia’s Final Four run, as he could defend all five positions.
His offensive game didn’t keep up, but if he ever develops a jump shot, he should be a lock for All-Defensive teams over the next few years.
No. 46: Gani Lawal
The bruising 6'9" 233 forward was a McDonald’s All-American ranked No. 29 in his class. At Georgia Tech, he was good enough to keep No. 4 pick Derrick Favors relegated to the background of the team’s pecking order, much to the frustration of NBA scouts.
With a 7' wingspan and a 27" vertical, Lawal could find a niche for himself as a rebounder and low-post defender.
No. 47: Keith “Tiny” Gallon
A massive 6'10" 290 pound forward, Gallon has surprising touch out to 18-20 feet and was ranked ninth in the nation in 2009. He was forced to declare for the draft as a freshman after reports of payments from an agent were discovered by, of all sources, TMZ.
Cut by the Bucks, he was picked up by Boston and assigned to their NBDL team. The Celtics have a good history of recognizing undervalued 4’s like Glen Davis and Leon Powe.
No. 54: Willie Warren
There are troubled kids, there are bad apples, and there is Willie Warren. After his freshman season, this 6'4" combo guard was projected as a top 10 pick, despite nearly tearing his Oklahoma team apart after (allegedly) messing with senior guard Austin Johnson’s girl.
The next year, the program imploded, and an injured Warren was one of the inmates leading the asylum. Rumors of attitude problems and ignorant behavior have circulated in Dallas basketball circles, where Warren starred at North Crowley High and was ranked No. 10 in the nation, for years.
But on the court, he’s a phenomenal athlete with the ability to pick apart a defense with long-range shooting and a great cross-over dribble. The ultimate risk/reward player, he’ll be an NBA starter in three years or out of the league completely.
No. 58: Derrick Caracter
Caracter’s descent from the best middle school player in the nation was so drastic that being drafted at the end of the second round is an accomplishment, not a disappointment. The crazy thing is, if he were two inches taller, he still would have been a lottery pick.
As it is, he has great touch around the basket, a solid feel for the game and very quick feet for a man his size. Undersized power forwards with the ability to grab rebounds have proven time and again to be second-round steals (from Gomes to Millsap to Powe to Craig Smith and DeJuan Blair). Caracter could be the next one.