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How Did He Get So Good? Why Isn’t He Better?

Grantland's NCAA hoops columnist watches the first round of the NBA playoffs and wonders how some of the guys he played with and against ended up being so much better (or worse) than he expected as pros

I do a lot of pretending in April. I pretend that I’m not excited about whatever Michael Bay’s newest movie is so people won’t judge me. I pretend to care about the start of the baseball season and an NFL draft full of linemen so I can maintain a conversation with my friends. I pretend that anything else in the world other than the fast-approaching Indy 500 matters to me. The toughest act to pull off, though, is pretending to know what’s happening in the NBA. Because I’m a college basketball expert and achieving my level of mastery in the sport requires total immersion, I mostly follow the NBA regular season by watching highlights, reading some articles and tweets, and catching maybe one game every couple weeks. So when the playoffs roll around and I start paying closer attention to the NBA, I find myself playing a game I call “How did he get so good/Why isn’t he better?” Here’s how it works: I watch the NBA playoffs and wonder how guys who weren’t particularly great in college got so good, while players I expected to be pretty good in the NBA are either benchwarmers or seldom-used role guys.

With that in mind, here are five guys in each category who came to mind while I watched the first week of the 2013 NBA playoffs.

“How Did He Get So Good?”

1. Chandler Parsons

What he was:

At Florida from 2007 to 2011, Parsons was a stretch 4 who was capable of knocking down 3s but wasn’t exactly a lights-out shooter. He never rose above being Florida’s third-leading scorer, even though Parsons’s first three seasons were three of the worst Billy Donovan–coached Florida teams ever. The Gators did make the Elite Eight in his senior season, but Parsons didn’t lead them there. Gator forward Alex Tyus (who is averaging eight points a game for Cantu in the Italian League this season) outplayed Parsons throughout that entire tournament. Parsons was a good-but-not-great college player whom I had pegged as a middling journeyman in the NBA.

What he is now:

Parsons has been in the NBA for only two years, but his career scoring average as a pro is higher than any of his individual-season scoring averages at Florida. That sentence alone should give you a good idea of how surprising Parsons’s NBA success has been. But he’s more than just a decent scorer in the NBA — Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions are living proof that anybody can put up points for a bad team. Parsons is a major contributor on a playoff team, and he shares the ball with James Harden, one of the most trigger-happy players in the league. Considering all that, with the exception of the lack of a SiriusXM channel that plays nothing but Disney songs, Parsons’s success in the NBA is the biggest mystery in the world to me.

DeAndre Jordan

What he was:

To be fair, I remember watching Jordan at Texas A&M and thinking his game was much better suited for the NBA than for college ball. He was long and athletic and at his best in an up-and-down style of game, instead of the slow, grinding style so many college teams favor. Still, I was surprised when Jordan turned pro after his freshman season in 2008, since he averaged only eight points and six rebounds. At that time, he was more of an athletic specimen than a basketball player, which is why I guessed he would spend three or four years as a benchwarmer, get abused in practice and scrub time, then possibly have his confidence destroyed and end up in Europe.

What he is now:

This. This is what he is now.

Paul George

What he was:

Pretend you know nothing about Paul George. Now imagine there’s a guy in this year’s draft who is 20 years old, who played at a mid-major school where his career record was 28-39 despite playing zero ranked teams during his two years, and he averaged only 15 points per game. This guy has no postseason experience, he isn’t particularly big, and he has two first names.

Now open your eyes. Oh, right. Your eyes were never closed. Anyway, the point is this — you’re never going to believe this, but that guy I just described to you was Paul George in 2010. Pretty crazy, right?

What he is now:

If there were a do-over of the 2010 draft, George could very likely be the no. 1 pick. He’s a household name among NBA fans and he might become a household name among all Americans in the next few years. He leads the Eastern Conference’s no. 3 seed in points, rebounds, and assists in this year’s playoffs, and he almost single-handedly made Pacers fans forget that Danny Granger — their leading scorer on last year’s team that gave the Miami Heat all they could handle in the conference semifinals — has been out for most of the season. Most important, though, Paul George is on the verge of surpassing Afroman as the most famous living man from Palmdale.1

Lance Stephenson

What he was:

At the risk of hyperbole, I’d guess that there have been a billion shooting guards in NCAA basketball history who averaged 12-plus points per game and 2.5-plus assists per game while shooting 21.9 percent or better from 3. Yet for some reason, after posting these pedestrian numbers in one season at Cincinnati, Stephenson declared for the 2010 NBA draft. Unsurprisingly, NBA teams weren’t falling all over each other for the chance to land a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot and who just finished leading his team to a second-round NIT loss. This explains why Stephenson — who also has a history of being a handful off the court — wasn’t drafted until the middle of the second round.

What he is now:

As much as I like to make fun of the Pacers for drafting white guys way too early (Tyler Hansbrough, Miles Plumlee, Primoz Brezec, Austin Croshere, and more), they hit a home run in the 2010 draft. Not only did they land Paul George, but they also got a tough-nosed defender whose offense has improved drastically every year. Stephenson’s path to NBA success — which Jonathan Abrams highlighted earlier this month — has been so sudden that while watching Game 1 of Pacers-Hawks last week, one of my buddies who doesn’t follow the NBA said, “That’s not Lance Stephenson from Cincinnati, is it?” Hell, if it weren’t for George making the leap this season, Stephenson probably could’ve contended for the Most Improved Player Award, which is pretty remarkable considering not long ago it looked like he was destined to carry on the great Indiana Pacer tradition of getting arrested after fighting at a local strip club.

Danny Green

What he was:

Here’s what I remember about Danny Green at North Carolina: He liked to dance before games tipped off and he momentarily became the most beloved player in college basketball when he put his genitalia in Greg Paulus’s face. He was good, sure. You don’t average 13 points a game for a national champion without being good. But throughout his four-year career at North Carolina, the words “I’m really worried about what Danny Green might do to us” were almost never uttered by fans of UNC opponents.

What he is now:

In many ways, Green plays the same role on the Spurs as he did on North Carolina. He isn’t necessarily lighting up the NBA, and my guess is that when NBA coaches form their game plans against the Spurs they don’t focus on stopping Danny Green. But he is a starter who scores double digits for a team that figures to be the Western Conference favorite now that Russell Westbrook is injured. That’s something that can only be said by … well … every Spurs starter. Actually, I think that explains Green’s path to NBA success perfectly — he’s on the Spurs. If the Spurs were to sign Tim Tebow now that the Jets have released him, they’d probably turn him into an All-Star.

“Why Isn’t He Better?”

Daequan Cook

What he was:

I’ve known Daequan since we played on the same AAU team in eighth grade. And even though a majority of you will roll your eyes when I say this, I’m 100 percent serious when I say that he was the best eighth-grade basketball player I’ve ever seen. Even back then, he had NBA range, he could hit fadeaways and step-backs with ease, and he had at least a 40-inch vertical.2

Then this happened during our junior year in high school: Our team had an 8 a.m. tournament game on Saturday in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We were told Daequan wouldn’t make it to the tournament until Saturday night because his high school’s prom was being held Friday night in Dayton, Ohio (two and a half hours away). But at 7:58, while the rest of the team was warming up, Daequan walked into the gym, went straight to the bench to put on his sneakers, and told our coach he was going to start. Two minutes later, Greg Oden won the opening tip, then Mike Conley took two dribbles and threw a lob from half court to Daequan, who finished the play with a two-handed dunk. On the next possession, he posted up at the 3-point line, spun toward the baseline, and hit a fadeaway with a toe on the line.

So to recap: Daequan Cook at 17 was better with three hours sleep, no stretching or warm-up, and probably hung-over than I could ever dream to be.3

What he is now:

The greatest eighth-grade and post-prom player of my generation has been on four different teams in four seasons (which doesn’t include the team that drafted him, the 76ers, which traded him on draft night). He is on a league-minimum contract with the Bulls, he hasn’t sniffed the court in this year’s playoffs, and he may be out of the NBA in the next few years. Worst of all, he’s stuck on the bench for a team whose best player is currently Nate Robinson.

Tyler Hansbrough

What he was:

He was the Tim Tebow of college basketball, for better and worse. Few players have the career résumé of Hansbrough, who accomplished pretty much everything there is to accomplish in college basketball. And just like Tebow, few people were as universally hated by fans of every other team in the sport. Whatever the case, Hansbrough played at one of the most storied programs in the country, took everyone’s best shot night in and night out, and more often than not was still the best player on a court that featured a handful of other future NBA players.

What he is now:

The biggest difference between Tebow and Hansbrough is that Tebow plays the most scrutinized position in sports.4 Whereas Tebow’s work ethic and chest-pounding can’t mask the fact that he can’t throw a football, Hansbrough could conceivably do exactly what he did in college — be physical and “want it more” — and still be pretty successful in the NBA. Instead, he’s averaging just seven points and 4.6 rebounds for the Pacers this year and all signs point to him averaging no more than 25 minutes per game for the rest of his career.

Don’t get me wrong. I never expected Hansbrough to be a 20-points-and-10-rebounds-a-night guy in the pros. But he’s got decent size and a good deal of skill, and his work ethic in college was the stuff of legend,5 so it is a bit surprising that Hansbrough doesn’t play a bigger role for the Pacers.

Terrence Williams

What he was:

At Louisville, Williams was a do-everything point-forward and one of the best players in college basketball in 2009. Because Williams was a 6-foot-6 220-pounder with elite athleticism who averaged five assists and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 38.5 percent from the 3-point line, it wasn’t that crazy to think that he could conceivably play four positions in the NBA. He claims half of the four triple-doubles in Louisville basketball history, he was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated three weeks in a row, and — perhaps most important for Louisville fans even though it’s irrelevant to his pro career — he’s responsible for Peyton Siva coming to Louisville.

What he is now:

After stints in the D-League and China, Williams is now playing for his fourth NBA team in as many years. Despite being picked 11th in the 2009 draft, he has started just nine games in his career, he hasn’t played in more than half the games in any single season since his rookie year, and he barely gets any burn for the Celtics even though the average player in Boston’s rotation is 35 years old and injured. It’s impossible for analysts to talk about him without using words like “potential,” “opportunity,” “hopefully,” or “finally.” He wasn’t that highly touted of a recruit coming out of high school, so maybe his pro career should be thought of as a relative success. It’s just hard not to imagine how good he could’ve been if everything had clicked like it did when he was at Louisville.

J.J. Redick

What he was:

The 2006 national player of the year was one of the most exciting college basketball players in recent memory, even though he had a remarkably punchable face and he gelled his hair for games. He will forever be remembered as the all-time most hated Duke player not named Christian Laettner. That last bit alone tells you how good he was. Although Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf tried his hardest to prove otherwise, it’s borderline impossible to garner so much hatred without being really, really good. And make no mistake about it — even though his pro career has probably not been as great as he expected it to be, Redick is one of the best players in college basketball history. Every game during his senior season at Duke — when he averaged 26.8 points per game — was must-see TV, and his 41-point (and 0-assist) performance against Lamarcus Aldridge and Texas in the no. 1 vs. no. 2 game in December 2005 was a “Where were you when this happened?” type of moment. He’s a couple inches shorter than the ideal NBA shooting guard, he’s not all that athletic, and there were questions about his defensive capabilities when he came out of college, but Redick was arguably the best shooter in college basketball history and he could score against just about anybody.

What he is now:

Of all the guys on my “Why isn’t he better?” list, Redick has had the best NBA career by far. He started in a Game 7 during the Magic’s 2009 run to the NBA Finals, and his scoring has improved every season in his career. He averaged 14 points a game this season, which is mildly impressive until you realize that he spent most of the season on the worst team in the NBA and that kind of offensive production was what was expected of him all along. Like with Hansbrough, I wasn’t naive enough to think that Redick was going to torch the league. But I did expect him to be in the top five of 3-point field goal percentage every year, and I expected him to be a starter, to average 20 points a game on a terrible team or 15 points a game on a title contender, and to dominate the 3-point contest year after year. Basically, I expected him to be a homeless man’s version of Stephen Curry. Instead, Redick has been pretty “meh,” as evidenced by the fact that this season he barely shot a better percentage from behind the 3-point line than Evan “The Villain” Turner. In case you don’t understand the magnitude of that, maybe this will help: The Villain is to shooting what a foot-long hot dog is to my understanding of analogies.

Adam Morrison

What he was:

Everyone remembers Morrison as the guy with the dirty mustache and mop top who cried even before Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament loss against UCLA in 2006 was over. But I’ll always remember him as Larry Bird 2.0. Unless Ohio State wins a national championship in the next 50 years, 2006 will forever be my favorite college basketball season simply because of Morrison. Everything about him spoke to me — his long, unkempt hair; his gross mustache; the enormous T-shirt he wore beneath his jersey; his audacity to shoot from literally anywhere on the court at any time. If I could assemble my perfect basketball player, he would look and play exactly like Adam Morrison.

What he is now:
Based on all that, it’s hard to believe that Morrison couldn’t even get off the bench for the Lakers in this year’s playoffs. I mean … what? Wait, are you serious? He’s not on the Lakers anymore? When did that happen? Wait. WAIT. HE’S OUT OF THE LEAGUE?! So he’s tearing it up in Europe then, right? WHAT? HE’S NOT EVEN PLAYING PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL?!

I … I … just give me a second. I’m not sure how to handle this. It’s just … I can’t do this right now. If you need me, I’ll be in my room reminiscing about the glory days by growing a pencil mustache and saying “When I get to the NBA, more people will cry” into my mirror. In the meantime, I’ll let Little Texas express my thoughts for me.

Filed Under: Events, Mark Titus, NBA Playoffs, People, Sports

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Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

Archive @ clubtrillion

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