Drafting An Untried Big Man

Six years ago the Los Angeles Lakers selected an already injury prone, clumsy 18-year-old seven footer from New Jersey. The pick was laughed at by many and angrily questioned by frustrated greatness. At the time patience was incredibly thin. Phil Jackson had just made his triumphant return and everywhere the game’s best player turned, redundant scrutiny regarding an inability to win the big one without the big one smacked him in the face. Andrew Bynum was not the answer to anyone’s prayers. After back to back first round exits, the Memphis Grizzlies traded their franchise player, Pau Gasol, to L.A. and the Lakers made three straight appearances in the NBA finals. In their first go round Bynum was absent with a leg injury and Boston dismissed the Lakers in six games. Upon his return they won two straight rings and before running into a hungry Dallas Mavericks team were heavily favored to three-peat. The risky pick that everyone had criticized paid off in an unforeseeable way. The once inept high schooler had grown into a dominating defensive presence, and quite possibly, behind Dwight Howard, the league’s best answer for the pesky scoring point guard trend. Just by being on the court, guys like Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, and Trevor Ariza were afforded more opportunity to gamble on defense, knowing if they were beat off the dribble a monster who could kiss the rim on his tippy toes sat lurking in the paint ready to bail them out. The pick was validated. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was a genius and a blueprint was formed.

Going back to the Pau Gasol trade for a second, the Grizzlies were killed for the deal. As badly as Kupchak was beat up for drafting Bynum and then refusing to trade him for the likes of Jason Kidd and Carmelo Anthony, Memphis GM Chris Wallace was given the Rosie Larsen treatment for moving the face of his franchise for a mixed bag that included Kwame Brown (one of the five worst No. 1 overall picks in league history), Javaris Crittenton (best known for provoking Gilbert Arenas to pull a gun out in Washington’s locker room), Marc Gasol (Pau’s fatter, less talented younger brother), and a few draft picks. Up until a few weeks ago this was lauded as the most lopsided trade in NBA history. I say up until a few weeks ago because that fatter, less talented younger brother project has emerged as the pleasant surprise of these playoffs. Ironically, it’s very similar to Bynum’s situation: The Grizzlies were patient with their big man hoping he could someday evolve into a game changing performer. (To this point in these playoffs he’s outplayed Tim Duncan and Kendrick Perkins.)

So how does this relate to the Knicks? More so than in any other year that comes to mind, the greatest commodity seems to be the unknown. Yes, the entire essence of the draft is the unknown, but as opposed to, say, predicting how a guy like DeMarcus Cousins will do, this year there’s all this international talent most of us have never had the opportunity to witness. Most of them are projected as lottery picks, thus outside the grasp of New York’s 17th pick, but Walsh might be open to moving an expiring contract like Chauncey’s or the cheap Landry Fields along with No. 17 for a shot at moving up (both unlikely, but play along for the time being.) Turkey’s Enes Kanter, Czech Republic’s Jan Vesely, Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas, Serbia’s Nikola Mirotic, and Latvia’s Davis Bertans are all listed at 6’10” or taller. Some of them have scouting reports as soft perimeter players, but still, you can’t teach height.

Can the city of New York handle a wait-and-see big man? More importantly, can a wait-and-see big man handle the city of New York? It’s probably a no for both, but it worked out for the Lakers, and Memphis seems to be on the right path. The Knicks already have their two franchise foundations in place so the pressure on whatever rookie comes in won’t be as great as it would in a rebuilding effort, but the Knicks seem to be in a win now situation (given the uncertainty of Amar’e’s legs) so this would be a huge risk. Still, it might be something worth mulling over if you’re Donnie and Mike.

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