Best/Worst: Jadeveon Clowney, Jamal Crawford, and the Good Ol’ Days

It’s Friday. We made it. We’re here. What was the best in sports this week? What was the worst?

BEST: Athletes From the Future

The NFL combine took place over the course of (somehow) five days in Indianapolis last weekend and this week, and the star was obviously Jadeveon Clowney. His 10-yard split in the 40 was 1.56 seconds, a number that should instantly send shudders down the spines of the 30 or 40 NFL quarterbacks who have to think about running from this guy one day soon.

Altogether he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, which is faster than most running backs; measured at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, with an 83-inch wingspan, 10-inch hands; and achieved a 37.5-inch vertical. He’s from another planet. In two years America should just send Clowney and LeBron to the Summer Olympics and have them compete in every event.

Clowney-Jadeveon

Now, you may notice that Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t actually appear to be hitting anyone in that picture. You may also notice that doesn’t make the picture look any less awesome. The larger point here: We have no idea if Clowney will ever put all this athleticism together to actually dominate in the NFL, but in the meantime I’m just glad he exists.

Watching highlights from the combine this week mostly just got me dreaming about how surreal athletes will be 10 or 15 years from now. Clowney is basically a real-life version of a create-a-player from a video game — for some perspective: He ran the 40 faster than Richard Sherman — but all these guys will only get more athletic as time goes on.

I swear, one day we’re gonna have a linebacker who’s 6-foot-10, 270, and runs a 4.5 40. Or a safety who’s 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, and will knock the crap out of anyone on the field. Or a quarterback who runs a 4.3 40. Then there are guys like Giannis, Durant, and Thon Maker in basketball, who will blow our minds in that sport for the next 10 or 15 years.

Freak athletes like that aren’t necessarily what make sports great — that’s only true if they capitalize on all the gifts, like Durant or Randy Moss or Lawrence Taylor — but it’s never a bad thing to have more supernatural humans like Jadeveon Clowney added to the mix, letting us imagine what they might do, or what comes next.

That’s the one thing that’s great about the NFL combine every year: It’s the one place where we all get to stop and just take a week to gawk at how ridiculous athletes have gotten. And every few years someone like Clowney pops up and it all gets a little more ridiculous, while we’re all on the sidelines like Warren Sapp.

WORST: The Backlash Cycle

Of course, as soon as everyone saw what Clowney put together at the combine, there was the backlash. Nothing great happens in 2014 without an immediate backlash from somewhere. But Clowney was disappointing in the bench press, we heard. Clowney’s game tape from this year wasn’t half as impressive as that workout in tights. Clowney might not actually love football. And so on. This then leads to another group of people stepping up to debunk all the skepticism — a backlash to the backlash — and pretty soon it becomes one big argument where everybody’s mind is already made up, but people keep arguing about it anyway.

And the rest of us are  just like …

I could address some of the Clowney criticisms and try to prove them wrong, but honestly, maybe the skeptics are right. If he doesn’t love football enough to work at it obsessively, he probably won’t be great in the NFL. And we have no idea whether he does or not. We’ll wait and see, and know that he’s worth drafting high regardless, because … uh … holy shit, his 40 time was faster than Richard Sherman’s. Draft him and see what happens.

BEST: Jamal Crawford Is a Religious Experience

Take three minutes and experience basketball nirvana.

Nobody in the NBA brings me more pure joy than Jamal Crawford. That clip is what every game looks like in basketball heaven. The sequence about at 1:35 is like pure heroin.

Obviously Durant is part of what makes that clip so perfect, but we’ve talked plenty about what makes Durant great, so let’s focus on Crawford for a minute. Endless impossible floaters, spin moves into fadeaway 20-footers, and rainbow 3s. There’s nothing better than watching a guy do the wrong thing, driving announcers and coaches insane … only having it work, so they can’t even get upset.

He does it all so consistently that announcers and coaches don’t even get mad anymore. They just watch him pull up off the dribble for a 26-foot 3 that arches 40 feet in the air, and … it doesn’t even matter if it goes in or not. Everybody just knows that’s Jamal Crawford’s game. We’ve all accepted it. That’s what you’re getting when you put him on the court. He’s got the best handle of anyone on the planet, he’s as quick as anyone on the floor, and he’ll take eight to 10 shots every game that make your head explode. And he’ll make half of them somehow.

We live in the analytics era of sports, with all kinds of advanced stats to explain what we’re watching and scold people for bad strategy, and that makes every night of Jamal Crawford glory twice as enjoyable. You know? Fuck science, get the holy spirit in your life.

crawford

WORST: The NFL Is Solving Racism!

In case you missed it, this week the league proposed a 15-yard penalty for anyone who uses the n-word on the field. It’s an idea so backward and impossible to implement fairly that it’s a wonder the NCAA didn’t come up with it first. But it’s also such a classic example of the Roger Goodell NFL’s arrogant approach to everything that you can’t help but admire it.

The NFL’s solution to every problem is to make more rules and pass the problems on to the players. People think the game’s getting too violent? Let’s start fining players! The economy’s struggling and fans are watching games at home instead of shelling hundreds of dollars for tickets? The players have to sacrifice to reflect these realities! People are uncomfortable with the racial dynamics behind players using the n-word on the field and Richie Incognito using the n-word in text messages to teammates? Well, then … 15 yards for progress!

WORST: Court Storming Chaos

This scene at Utah Valley was terrible on its own, but it’s also terrible because storming the court is great, and one day an incident like this will probably ruin it forever. If anything, it’s surprising we’ve lasted this long.

In brighter news …

BEST: Buzzer Beaters

It always takes a few months for me to get fully invested in college hoops. But now here we are at the end February, and …

… yep, starting to get pretty excited for the tournament.

WORST: Spring Training Highlights on SportsCenter

Dammit.

No.

How is this starting already?

It’s February.

Get baseball out of our lives until at least August.

WORST: Athletes Owning Guns in New York City

If you live in New York and you are a professional athlete, please, for God’s sake, don’t own a gun. The laws are so strict, there’s no way it’s worth the risk. Even if the gun is registered, just keep it another state and buy a ton of insurance in case you get robbed. Whatever the insurance costs will be so much cheaper than lawyer fees.

BEST: Jason Collins Arrives

Yes, there’s Jason Collins presenting the Sheppard family with his no. 98 jersey — a number Collins chose in part because Matthew Sheppard was killed in 1998. Whatever you think about Collins as a player, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could’ve handled this whole process more gracefully.

Watching Collins going through all this just makes me happy. There’s been all kinds of discussion and celebration of everything Collins has done since becoming the first active, openly gay professional athlete this week, so there’s no need to pile on with too much redundant praise. But even if doesn’t feel that important to have an 11th man in the NBA who happens to be gay, it will when we look back at all this in 20 years and remember how impressive Collins was, as the face of this movement. While various states across America propose psychotic anti-gay legislation and remind us how far we have left to go with this stuff, Collins is doing his thing, detached from all that, well received by just about everyone, and reminding us where we’re eventually going. It’s all very cool to watch.

(You know, except for actual Nets games.)

(Deron Williams and the corpse of KG still make those totally depressing.)

BEST: Barry Switzer, American Hero

Earlier this week we ran an interview with Barry Switzer about his days coaching Oklahoma and the Dallas Cowboys, and you should read it, because Switzer is a true American hero. When he talks, we should all listen. Including when he says, “Johnny Manziel is the first football player I’ve ever seen that can control the game like [Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan] did basketball. It’s unbelievable … ”

But then earlier this week, he was asked again about Johnny Manziel and in addition to praising his game, he called him an “arrogant little prick.” There was some backlash for this, but honestly, it just makes me love Switzer even more.

Johnny Manziel IS an arrogant little prick. Or he was at Texas A&M. It’s OK to love Manziel and still admit this. And stuff like this quote is why I’ll love Switzer forever. Because he could praise Manziel without airbrushing anything. Manziel is an arrogant little prick who should still go top five in two months. Only a handful of people in sports have zero filter on any topic, and Switzer is one of the nationwide leaders in realness, forever.

(FWIW, current Realness Power Rankings in American sports: (1) Charles Barkley, (2) Barry Switzer, (3) Rob Ryan, (4) Kobe Bryant, (5) all hockey coaches.)

(Current Fakeness Power Rankings:  (1) Golfers, (2) Dwight Howard, (3) Roger Goodell, (4) Kobe Bryant, (5) Robert Griffin III.)

BEST: LeBron and Laaaaaaaaaaaaance

First LeBron got WWE championship belts for all his teammates. Rasheed Wallace did it originally, but still. All is forgiven because it allowed us to imagine Birdman as a professional wrestler, his rightful destiny all along.

HEAT-BELT

Then LeBron came back to play the Knicks last night, and the greatest basketball player on earth turned into a comic-book supervillain:

ScreamingLeBronMaskNightmareFuel

@CJZero

Meanwhile, over in Indiana, here’s Lance Stephenson living the American Dream with a million dollars cash in the Pacers locker room.

Every single day, the NBA gives us the most enjoyable news on earth. There is no second place.

For more, please see the Bulls singing “Happy Birthday” to Joakim Noah, and Kevin Durant taking an injured cameraman to get X-rays an hour after the end of a Thunder game. Kevin Durant is a much better human than any of us will ever be.

WORST: The Good Ol’ Days

Let’s start by saying up front that Jerry West is one of the greatest players ever, and one of the people who made the NBA what it is today. He also seems like a pretty great guy, and he’s been brilliant throughout his career as an executive. But this week he went on the SVP & Russillo show and had some harsh words for the NBA draft, and the NBA in general. We only mention this because it’s a microcosm of a bigger problem in how a lot of people talk about sports.

“Just look at the league,” West said. “This is the weakest I’ve ever seen this league. The weakest. And we are depending on people who go to school for a year to come in and change the fortunes of franchises. Rarely does that ever happen. Everyone is talking about an incredible draft class this year — I think it’s just the opposite, I think it’s a poor one myself. There are going to be prospects there. But these franchises have really struggled. At one time you could get a branded name. These kids are not branded today. They’re not branded.

“And by that I mean kids who have played in school for three or four years and come out and people know who he is. He’s tutored, he’s more mature, more experienced. Those kinds of players come in and make an impact right away. But if you look at some of these kids, it takes about three years for them to get going. And for a team that’s really struggling, you’re selling your fans that this player’s going to make us better. Most of the time it does not happen today.”

OK, couple different points here. First, he’s right that “most of the time it does not happen” for bad teams that land high lottery picks. But that has as much to do with crappy management that sent them to the top of the lottery. The structural problems of a team don’t magically disappear when a star draft pick shows up. The Eastern Conference is horrible this year because of crappy management, not crappy players.

His point about this year’s draft class is fair. Nobody’s a guaranteed superstar in this class, but there are also four or five guys who could turn into one, plus 10 or 15 more who could turn into good-to-great role players, somewhere down the line. That’s why people are excited about the draft.

The larger point is where he’s wrong — the idea that the structure of the draft today is somehow making the NBA worse. Look at this picture of the 1996 draft class I saw this week:

Iverson’s missing from that photo, but let’s just deal with who’s there:

  • You have guys who were “branded” college stars like Ray Allen, John Wallace, and Marcus Camby, all whom spent three or four years in school. One (Allen) of them turned into a star, one took five or six years to find a role that made sense for him (on another team), and then John Wallace disappeared almost instantly. (Knicks!)
  • Then there’s Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a freshman who was hardly “branded” at all, but went to Vancouver and averaged 19 and seven as a rookie. And Stephon Marbury, who spent a year in school and then came into the NBA and averaged 16 and eight as a rookie point guard.
  • And Steve Nash, who spent four years at Santa Clara, got to the NBA, and … still took four years before he cracked 10 points a game anywhere. It wasn’t until a few years later that he turned into a Hall of Famer.

The lesson: The draft has always been a complete crapshoot. How long guys stayed in school had nothing to do with who adjusted quickly and what happened to their teams. I mean, just look at the guy we didn’t mention. Kobe left high school, wound up in L.A., and by Year 2 he was averaging 15 a game. He was so good that West was able to steal Shaq and start a dynasty. Did the Lakers suffer because Kobe wasn’t a “brand”?

It’s always easy to look back and say everything was better 20 years ago, but this particular example is a good opportunity to remind you that almost anytime someone says that, it’s bullshit. We do this all the time in sports. As far as West’s point about basketball … the NBA’s not perfect right now, but “weakest it’s ever been”?

The NBA had seven teams when Jerry West was drafted, players were stuck with teams for life, people were dazzling crowds with layups and set shots, and there were no players pretending to talk on the phone with a brick of $10,000 in the pregame locker room.

Everyone has their own favorite era from any sport, but look at Jason Collins or Jamal Crawford, or think about how awesome this year’s NCAA tournament will be in a few weeks. Or the NBA playoffs a few weeks after that, or the NFL next year with Manziel and Clowney. Remember all that anytime people try to tell you some sport isn’t what it used to be. No era will ever be perfect, but I’m pretty sure we’re all doing just fine right now.

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp