ALAN GOLDSHER IS COLLECTABLE’S HEAD OF CONTENT.
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I’ve consumed about three bajillion basketball games, and the one of the most notable takeaways from my decades of hoops watching is that I’m a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad college scout. To wit, here are some of my more mortifying pre-NBA Draft assessments:
2017: “Markelle Fultz is gonna be a stud. Way better pick than Jayson Tatum!”
2016: “Kris Dunn has All-Star written all over him. He should’ve gone at two or three.”
2015: “Karl-Anthony Towns? At number one? With that footwork? Oy.”
2014: “Taking Jabari Parker over Joel Embiid was one hundred percent the right call.”
2013: “Yeah, Anthony Davis is the logical first pick, but he’ll be slightly above average at best.”
2008: “Russell Westbrook is just kinda okay.”
2005: “Picking Deron Williams before Chris Paul? Count me in!”
2003: “I dunno, man, I might’ve grabbed Carmelo before LeBron.”
I could go on.
All that said, I’ve gotten a small but notable handful of them right. In 2013, I nailed it when I trumpeted that the Cleveland Cavaliers should’ve figured out that Anthony Bennett wasn’t great at basketball. (Admittedly, I wasn’t alone. But still.) In 2010, I had Paul George getting picked at the three spot, over the likes of Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, and Epke Udoh. (The Pacers were thrilled that nobody listened to me.) And in 2003, I pegged Dwyane Wade as the third-best player in his class, ahead of Chris Bosh. (I was actually off on that one. He was the second-best. Sorry, ‘Melo, but I think that deep down, you know I’m right.)
But my greatest scouting call came in 2009, when I screamed from the rooftops that Stephen Curry—a undersized guard in search of a true position from a school that nobody had heard of—would be a wonderful choice at number one, the only time in my basketball-watching life when I badly outfoxed the professionals.
To be fair, I shouldn’t beat myself up about my lack of scouting ability, because NCAA men’s basketball talent evaluation is way more difficult than it seems. Since the NBA became a thing in 1946, there have been dozens, if not hundreds of examples of intelligent, experienced, highly-paid hoops experts wildly swinging and missing. Like choosing Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Or Kwame Brown over Pau Gasol. Or the gold standard of whiffs, Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan.
The 2009 NBA Draft also delivered an oopsie for the ages.
The Los Angeles Clippers made Blake Griffin that year’s first pick, and for that, they can’t be faulted. Griffin was a skilled, physical freak who scouts envisioned as a melding of Shawn Kemp and Kevin Garnett, a frightening paint presence who could both handle the ball and consistently hit from outside the paint.
Griffin was a potential generational star. Hasheem Thabeet, the number two pick, not so much.
The Memphis Grizzlies grabbed the center/project Thabeet, a move that a Grizz staffer complained to me wasn’t what we in the basketball industry refer to as “good.” After the draft, the former player—with whom I was working on a book project at the time—told me something along the lines of, “James Harden was available, and we took this guy?” followed by an uncharacteristic, yet impressive string of expletives. Soon thereafter, my book collaborator was tasked with teaching Thabeet how to play basketball.
He tried. Oh, how he tried. It didn’t end well.
With the next pick, that aforementioned Harden guy went to the OKC Thunder—a no-brainer—then at four, the Sacto Kings grabbed Tyreke Evans, also a logical, plug-and-play choice.
And then came picks five and six, two selections that shall live in Minnesota Timberwolves infamy.
Before we delve into the Wolves’ epic fail, let’s take a quick side trip to Davidson College.
Located in Davidson, North Carolina—population: 12,921—this private school boasts a miniscule student body of 1,843. (For perspective, my high school graduating class was 1,282.) What with less than 2,000 people to choose from, it’s little surprise that Davidson hasn’t been an athletic powerhouse.
Their football teams have managed only three postseason appearances, those being 1969’s Tangerine Bowl, 1990’s Exhibition Bowl, and 1994’s Bermuda Bowl. (I’m not 100% convinced that the latter two were NCAA-sanctioned bowl games. I mean, the Bermuda Bowl? Really?) The Davidson basketball team has fared better, making 14 trips to March Madness, but the results haven’t been awesome—we’re talking seven first-round exits and three second-round eliminations.
On the plus side, in the late-aughts, Davidson enjoyed three hella good years from one Stephen Curry.
The son of NBA three-point prodigy Dell Curry, Steph put up some stellar numbers during his memorable college career…
- Freshman year: 21.5 ppg, .536 FG, .835 FT
- Sophomore year: 25.9 ppg, .540 FG, .894 FT
- Junior year: 28.6 ppg, .519 FG, .876 FT
…but he truly earned his stripes during Davidson’s 2007-08 season, when the 6’3”, 183-pound sophomore dragged his Wildcats to an in-conference record of 20-0. Any team going undefeated in any year, in any conference is no joke, but Steph’s conference was the Southern Conference, and the Southern Conference is, well, the Southern Conference, thus the hoops world wasn’t all that jazzed.
Because here’s the Southern Conference.
- Appalachian State
- College of Charleston
- Georgia Southern
- North Carolina-Greensboro
- Western Carolina
With all due respect to those fine institutions of learning, that’s a list that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of the NCAA powerhouses, so Davidson’s steamroller season didn’t make many pundits or scouts outside of North Carolina feel all that tingly.
But come the 2008 edition of March Madness, tingles abounded across the nation, thanks to a Steph Curry postseason run that ranks alongside Carmelo Anthony’s (Syracuse, 2003) and Shane Battier’s (Duke, 2001) as among the finest ever.
In Davidson’s first round game, Curry went off for 40 points on, hitting 8 of his 10 shots from beyond the arc, and the Wildcats upset Gonzaga, 82-78.
In round two, led by Curry’s 30 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals, Davidson eliminated a solid Georgetown squad, 74-70. Another massive upset.
In the third round, Curry dropped 33 points in a 73-56 beatdown of a Wisconsin team that had previously racked up 31 wins. A massively massive upset.
It was at this point that my mad scouting skills came into play.
Watching the little man from the little school run roughshod over larger athletes from larger programs convinced me that Curry was going to be a stud, maybe like Allen Iverson with a better outside shot…and without a dislike of practice.
I didn’t care that Curry’s arms and legs were distinctly spaghetti-esque, nor was I concerned that Davidson had compiled their impressive regular season record against teams who sported nicknames like the Paladins, the Terriers, and the Catamounts. What I did care about, however, was that Curry passed the Goldsher Eye Test, an Eye Test that, if nothing else, nailed it on D-Wade.
By the time Davidson hit the Elite Eight, Curry was pooped, which led to a 9-for-25 shooting performance and a 59-57 loss to the 35-win Kansas Jayhawks. But I still believed Curry had the potential to become the most impactful player in his draft class.
Apparently, I was alone.
When it came to scouting Stephen Curry, there was likely a whole lot of small school bias that went into the tepid evaluations, but most outlets focused on Curry’s physicals, or the apparent lack thereof. For instance, Bleacher Report wrote:
[Curry] doesn’t have the size, the strength, or the lateral quickness/athleticism to defend shooting guards in the league. He is also going to run into some issues at the point as well. His first step leaves much to be desired, and it more than likely will mean that Curry will have problems beating NBA points off the dribble.
The usually reliable NBADraft.net also blew it spectacularly, saying that Curry’s NBA comp was journeyman guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and claiming that the Davidson product, “…overshoot[s] and rush[es] into shots from time to time” and, “…will have to adjust to not being a volume shooter, which could have an effect on his effectiveness,” and he, “…makes some silly mistakes at the PG position.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves, who owned the fifth and sixth picks of the 2009 NBA Draft, read the reports and drank the anti-Curry Kool-Aid. Matter o’ fact, the Wolves disliked Curry so much that they selected not one, but two point guards who weren’t him. (As I write this, even I—a man who has zero skin in the Timberwolves game—am cringing at what’s coming next.)
At number five, Minnesota chose Ricky Rubio. Now that was a justifiable move (sort of), as the Spaniard had been playing professionally in Europe since he’d turned 14. It’s hard to disregard that kind of experience, so Wolves decision makers sort of get a pass on that one. Sort of.
No passes on their next move. Only sadness and disappointment for all of eternity.
With the sixth pick, the Wolves made the unforgivable sin of grabbing Jonny Flynn. Yes, Flynn was a terrific college player who had an uncanny knack for rising to the moment in big games, but even the dummy who thought Russell Westbrook was a big bowl of meh (that being me) could see that the Syracuse guard’s game wouldn’t translate to the Association.
After Minnesota’s epic fail, my fandom took over. I got down on my knees, raised my arms to the hoops heavens, and begged the basketball deities that the next nine teams in the draft pass on the small guy from the small school so he’d land in the lap of the Chicago Bulls.
Sadly for me, but happily for the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors did the right thing, grabbed Stephen Curry, and began their path to hoops domination.
Curry’s first three years in the Association were decent—if nothing else, he was better than Jonny Flynn—but he didn’t set the world on fire. It appeared that the scouts were right and the Goldsher Eye Test had, once again, failed.
But then came the 2012-13 season, the season that Steph Curry officially launched his journey to becoming STEPH CURRY.
The skinny kid out of Davidson—who was still skinny, and still looked like a kid—was now not only one of the deadliest scorers in the Association, but he was making the nay-saying scouts look silly from all over the floor. For example, Curry’s first step—which so concerned many evaluators—while not ankle-breaking, was good enough that defenders had to respect it, thus giving him an extra inch or so of separation. And all Curry needed was a half an inch to get off a clean shot, so take that, scouts.
Curry wasn’t a world-class defender, but he was an enthusiastic one, and his hustle and desire compensated for any perceived shortcomings. In other words, he was a pain in the buttocks with a relentless motor who made life difficult on the both sides of the floor.
As for that alleged lack of size, when you’re banging down treys at a 45% clip while averaging 23 points and 7 dimes, who freakin’ cares if you weigh (maybe) a buck-seventy-five soaking wet?
Listen, if you’d carefully watched Curry light it up at Davidson, you could see he had “legend” written all over him. Any scout worth their salt should have realized that a blurry-fast, gorgeous shooting stroke like Curry’s will dominate every venue: High school, a playground, a Division III college.
And, of course, the NBA.