There’s always room for players who “weren’t supposed to be this good”

“Having my back against the wall, being back at square one where nobody believes in you and everybody’s counting you out,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet before Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

“To be back at that point, it kind of put me back in my natural element where I like to be most of the time. Because that’s where I spent most of my life, being the underdog and being disrespected and counted out.”

VanVleet then reflected back on his collegiate career at Wichita State where he spent four years and made a final four appearance under coach Greg Marshall.

“It was a great time at Wichita and it propelled me into my NBA career,” said VanVleet. “I’ll always have a lot of love and respect for the people, my teammates, and coaches I had there.”

VanVleet had a respectable career at Wichita State but he wasn’t quite perceived as someone who would be a long-term asset in the NBA. Playing in Wichita, Kansas unequivocally had a lot to do with that.

VanVleet had plenty of success there but was seen more as one of several players that clung to a hardcore system and made the Shockers a gritty, unbreakable team that marquee programs had a tough time dealing with.

VanVleet wasn’t the most efficient shooter in last year’s postseason, shooting just over 39 percent from the field. Nobody cares about that though because he delivered for a Raptors team with its back against the wall after trailing Milwaukee 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

He connected on 14 of 17 three-pointers while compiling a plus/minus of +65 in the last three games of the series. Someone besides Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam had to rise to the occasion or the Bucks would have been well on their way to the finals. Coach Nick Nurse called VanVleet’s number, and VanVleet responded accordingly.

There must be something about interviewing players like VanVleet in late May to early June because the same thing happened with Draymond Green following Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2016. His interview had a slightly different vibe to it though.

He recollected all 34 players drafted ahead of him in 2012 – and in order. Well, he did have one hiccup and that was mixing up Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger. In retrospect, Anthony Davis was the only player Green had no business being picked ahead of.

There were other noteworthy players who have made All-Star teams such as Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond. To be fair, you couldn’t make the strongest case for putting him ahead of Lillard. Both Green and Lillard though played all four years of college ball.

Green played at a prestigious program in Michigan State in comparison to Lillard spending his four years at a small mid-major school in Weber State. The commonly shared mindset of most general managers (probably at least 25 of them) was that Green would not last in the league being a 6-foot-6 power forward without great speed or athleticism while lacking a smooth touch from the perimeter.

Throughout the first couple years of his professional career, there was a lot of quiet chatter about, “what if Green wasn’t picked by the Warriors?” That chatter dwindled down pretty quickly. The reality was that he was picked by the Warriors and for good reason: teams select players that fit their scheme and Green did just that.

Green’s towering basketball IQ allowed him to blossom into the player he is today. The difference with Green was his readiness to contribute right away. He wasn’t a project like many others in his draft class – like someone the Warriors would stash on the bench and hope would turn into an x-factor talent one day because he already was one.

When Green converted on 41 percent of his shots from long-range in the 2017 playoffs, that was considered a major bonus. His job was never to hit outside jumpers because, even when he wasn’t making them, all the other brilliant basketball plays made up for that, and that was on both ends of the floor.

On to the next player that was overlooked entering the NBA: Malcolm Brogdon, who also played all four years at the collegiate level for the University of Virginia, further proving that there is often a misconception that players who stay in college all four years probably aren’t built to last in the NBA. That is simply not true though, for some players at least.

Like Green, Brogdon was also an early second-round pick that most teams passed up on. The Bucks were desperate for a point guard as Giannis Antetokounmpo hadn’t yet been in complete All-Star form.

The point guards on that team included Michael Carter-Williams, Jerryd Bayless and Greivis Vasquez. The Bucks were the same old Bucks – a franchise looking to put Milwaukee on the radar map instead of just blending in as a unimposing threat year after year.

The Bucks drastically improved in 2016-17 as Brogdon was named Rookie of the Year. Although he didn’t put up stellar numbers, averaging just north of ten points and less than four and a half assists, Brogdon stood out that year because of how much better he made the team. Milwaukee climbed all the way to sixth in the Eastern Conference.

With the season-long injury to Ben Simmons, the first pick in Brogdon’s 2016 draft class, there weren’t really any hands-down favorites to win Rookie of the Year.

There was Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown and Jamal Murray, three players who spent just one year at college. Then there was Buddy Hield who left Oklahoma after his junior year, but his progression as a rookie was disrupted by his involvement in the DeMarcus Cousins blockbuster trade.

Brogdon was the 2015-16 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. However, that shouldn’t have labeled him as just a defender. Many GMs concluded Brogdon was a smart, trustworthy guard coming out of college but not fast or athletic enough to even compete with mid-tier guards in the NBA. Brogdon is now one of the most complete, if not the most complete, point guards in our league.

“You’ve got to be honest with your situation and say there’s time where good luck plays a part in the draft,” said former Bucks general manager John Hammond during the 2016-17 season. “To say we knew Malcolm was going to be this, I wish I could say we were that confident. Players that stay (in college), sometimes we have a tendency to over-evaluate.”

Brogdon pitched in himself saying, “I think teams make the same decision every year based on the same information and based on the same decision-making. I think a lot of it is flawed, but it’s the way they draft.”

The excuses in regards to draftees not being ideal selections go on and on from athleticism to work ethic to shooting touch and etc. and then there’s the one glaring attribute, and that is height.

Yes, height is a must-have in the game of basketball. There are always disadvantages to having undersized players on the floor. It is possible to defy the odds though when we’re talking about a team game.

That leads me to the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas. The almost-31-year-old is just a shell of what he once was but there is no reason for him to feel unsettled about what he accomplished in his career.

The Kings had nothing to lose and figured, “why not,” snagging Thomas with the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. That same Kings team also selected BYU guard Jimmer Fredette tenth overall.

Thomas was one of the nation’s most electrifying scorers in his three years at the University of Washington but his height gave critics too much incentive to doubt he would be able to maintain a roster spot for long. Most under-six-foot point guards, even with that type of skill, eventually find a permanent role playing ball overseas.

Thomas, on the other hand, did more than just enough to stick around the league for a while. He quickly became problematic when trying to contain him off the dribble. That made him peculiar for someone of his frame.

Not only did Thomas command more playing time than Fredette, but he also started almost half of the games his rookie year before molding into Sacramento’s full-time starting point guard.

Thomas was traded to Boston after signing with Phoenix as a free agent in the summer of 2014. Coach Brad Stevens utilized him to the fullest right from the get-go as Thomas carried an otherwise-mediocre group of players to a 48-34 record.

That was the season following Rajon Rondo’s last stint in Boston. The Celtics, however, put themselves in a position where they didn’t need to rebuild, but had to retool with sneaky, poignant additions like Thomas.

The Celtics transitioned into an Eastern Conference powerhouse in the 2016-17 season while retaining their core of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and company and also added a proven All-Star talent in Al Horford.

That’s when Thomas was really given the green light and he never looked back from there while somehow managing to take the league by storm and perform at an overwhelming MVP-caliber level. He averaged almost 29 points per game and was named an All-Star for the second consecutive season.

There are also European players who are awfully tough to project coming into the league. Since they tend to have more experience than college players in the U.S., being NBA-ready isn’t as much a trait that teams are worried about when selecting these European players.

It’s more an argument of, “will they be able to adapt to the NBA and compete with the world-class athletes that make our league so potent?”

It’s not that alarming to see a player like Nikola Jokic fall into the second round because the polar opposite happens with some of these players: that is European-bred stars such as Jan Vesely, Dragan Bender or even Darko Milicic.

You could write an infinitely-long piece about some of these prospects being utter disappointments. That’s precisely why stealing a European player in the second round and stashing him makes sense; it’s all in the unpredictability and that’s something we can’t expect to ever change.

Jokic is probably one of the least explosive players in our league today. He jumped to the forefront of the NBA by bringing a new element, and that’s a center being able to operate with point guard-like features. Offense used to run through big men like Shaquille O’Neal through their defining post presence.

Jokic has an uncanny way of manipulating defenses. He’s a point guard and center at the same time. That leaves some uncertainty as to exactly how much of his offensive wizardry is taught and how much just comes naturally to him.

The NBA is kind of like a puzzle. All the pieces fit together someway and somehow, even when they don’t appear to at first sight. It’s not just that All-Star talents are picked in the second round anymore, but it’s also innovative athletes that overcome boundaries faster than we can comprehend.

Of course there is no instrument to gauge a player’s heart. There is a tape measure to discover a player’s height, wingspan and leaping ability. Those tape measures tell far from the entire story as evidenced by players like VanVleet, Green, Brogdon, Thomas and Jokic.

Players like the ones mentioned above kind of just happen and it’s become more than just accepted. It’s become highly anticipated and enthusiastically cherished.

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