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March Diamonds Often Revert to Coal

March Diamonds Often Revert to Coal
Apr 27, 2004, 01:00 am
Submitted by Jeffrey Risdon

Every year the NCAA Tournament becomes a springboard for some players leading into the draft, their stock soaring with a great team run or awesome individual performance on the game's biggest stage. The average fan and non-local media take notice and become enamored with these March heroes, often stars from smaller conferences or good players on what becomes a popular, great team. But the savvy draftniks and good NBA GMs know that for every unearthed diamond, there are plenty more lumps of NBA coal.

Some of the names induce cringes, others a long sigh, still more become subjects of the NBA "Where Are They Now" carousel. Ed O'Bannon, Mateen Cleaves, Lorenzo Charles, Bo Kimble, Todd Day, John Wallace, Keith Smart, Yinka Dare, Dontae Jones, Bryce Drew, Joel Pryzbylla, Jared Jeffries, Trajan Langdon and Olivier St. Jean (a.k.a Tariq Abdul Wahad) are just a few of the myriad March darlings who shot themselves up the draft board with a strong NCAA Tournament. Their momentary glory led to less time in the green room, more money in the bank, more pressure to perform quickly, and ultimately, more pain to the fans of the teams that drafted them. In some cases, less-heralded players drafted after these expected gems go on to emerge as diamonds, adding insult to injury for the newly exposed coals.

Most of these disappointments fall into two categories: a good player on a very strong overall team with a strong system that plays great in March (see Jones and Day), or a player from a smaller school which wears the Cinderella slipper (see Drew and Kimble). Players from National Champions or Final 4 teams often wind up being drafted much higher than merited. O'Bannon had a very accomplished college career, but he played with six other future NBA players during his tenure at UCLA. Who can forget the stars of March 1995 for UCLA – Tyus Edney and his frantic buzzer-beater over Missouri and Toby Bailey and his unconscious shooting, not O'Bannon. New Jersey took O'Bannon 9th, figured out in one season his tweener size and inability to defend or rebound made him overmatched in the NBA and sent him packing to Dallas.

Mateen Cleaves led Michigan State to the title in 2000, capping a great career as leader of the "Flintstones," four players from Flint, MI who had played together since grade school and shared a magical chemistry on the court. Despite being overmatched against quicker guards and never shooting better than 41% from the field, Cleaves was taken 14th in the 2000 Draft by the local Detroit Pistons. Even on a team desperate for distributor with leadership, the two best qualities of Cleaves' game, he proved very quickly that he was not NBA worthy, certainly not mid-1st round caliber.

Jared Jeffries continued a long line of over-hyped Indiana prospects drafted high and hitting rock bottom (Alan Henderson, Kent Benson, Damon Bailey, Kirk Haston). Don't even get me started on Duke and their ignominious draft history.

Without the spotlight that comes with being a key player on a high-profile March contender, none of these guys would have been drafted nearly as high as they were in their respective drafts.

Perhaps even more worthy of caution are the small school players like Drew and Kimble. Far too much gets made of their leading the Cinderella charge, in most cases by being exceptionally good at one (and only one) skill. Look at Olivier St. Jean. He left Michigan for greener pastures of San Jose State because he wasn't earning. At his new school, Jean suddenly became a very big fish in a much smaller pond. He was a late 1st rounder at best headed into the 1996 NCAA Tourney. Yet with just one half of admittedly great play against eventual national champion, Kentucky, he vaulted into the lottery. After changing his name to Tariq Abdul Wahad, he had a couple of nice seasons as a defensive specialist before his shaky shooting and poor handles forced him from the league.

The Nets were willing to overlook the hard facts about Yinka Dare – his two years of playing organized ball, his complete inability to catch or pass the ball, his poor conditioning and proclivity for fouling – after watching him dominate defensively in the paint and dunk back board after board for George Washington in two tourney games. The recently deceased Dare played 3 minutes his rookie season and is best known for his comical inability to get an assist.

Of course some players have raised their stock in March and proven that their tourney outing was merely a preview of good things to come. Penny Hardaway, Bobby Jackson, and Dwyane Wade are just a few guys that went from question marks to exclamation marks. And many players from smaller schools have parlayed the brief exposure into 2nd round picks, or managed to get in to some NBA camps that might otherwise have been closed and then made nice careers for themselves. Malik Rose, Johnny Newman, and Lee Nailon fit that bill.

Some tips for judging March wonders:

1. Is he a dominant college player simply because of the competition he's facing? Centers from mid-majors most likely wind up undersized PFs in the NBA and some 3pt snipers find it harder to just shoot over defenders in the NBA.
2. Is he the product of a non-NBA style of play? Other than Detroit and Memphis, very few NBA teams ever press and trap regularly on defense, and even they only do it in spurts. Those easy transition baskets from the wing and kick-out threes on the break simply don't exist in the NBA like they do in college.
3. How did he do against other NBA draftees, if he played them at all?
4. How good were his teammates? If none of them will ever even sniff pro ball in China or Hungary, chances are, the leap to the NBA will be a tough one. And for those that played alongside other future pros, did they impress both individually and in a team setting consistently?
5. Was he a consistently good student both in the classroom and on the court? Showing growth and improved skill from month to month are big factors when GMs step into the war room.

These are some of the things NBA GMs will be gauging at draft time. So when you're looking at 2004 NCAA Tournament stars like Kirk Snyder, Romaine Sato, and Hakim Warrick (still bumping higher from his 2003 heroics), don't be surprised when they either: 1) Fall lower than you anticipate or 2) Fail miserably in the NBA.

As this draft appears heavily leaning towards high schoolers and foreign prospects, the pressure to deliver what, to fans, is a known, somewhat proven commodity they've watched in March Madness, will undoubtedly cause at least one nervous GM to reach too high for a March diamond. Shortly there after, the team will learn that fickle fans, like young brides, don't appreciate zirconia when only a diamond will do.

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