Ernie Grunfeld, Drafting, and Player Development in Washington

While watching the Jazz-Wizards game a couple nights ago, one of my favorite basketball Twitter handles, @HPBasketball, made a very frank and outside-looking-in assessment of the Wizards young prospects. I Storify’d the comments here for your convenience. For those of you too lazy to open the link, HPBasketball basically says that he is afraid when a young prospect goes to the Wizards, because they are almost never successful.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve always felt one of the silliest criticisms of Ernie Grunfeld’s tenure as GM was his drafting ability. In my mind, it was a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.  Just because many players the Wizards have drafted haven’t become good NBA players doesn’t mean they weren’t at one time good prospects. I went back and looked over where the Wizards first round draft picks over the past 5 years ranked in mock drafts by NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com. I put the results in a table below.

NBADraft.net

DraftExpress.com Actual draft position
Bradley Beal 3 3 3
Jan Vesely 6 6 6
Chris Singleton 18 12 18
John Wall 1 1 1
Lazar Hayward 30 57 30
JaVale McGee N/A 13

18

 

Based on the table, Grunfeld appears to be a perfectly adequate drafter, siding with conventional wisdom and not taking many risks.

In hindsight, it is easy to say that if Grunfeld was a better GM, the Wizards could be sitting pretty with Kenneth Faried, Kawhi Leonard, and Jae Crowder. However, NBA analysis tends to be incredibly player-centric because all we see are the games, not the behind the scenes planning sessions and practice where much player improvement actually occurs. When viewed in this context, it’s very silly to take the performance that players have after being drafted by one team and just imagine that same performance would be replicated on another. Each of the players mentioned above were drafted into very good situations, with established veterans and good coaching. Kawhi Leonard shooting above his college three-point shooting percentage in the NBA, with longer three pointers and better competition, while John Wall’s jump shot actually gets worse is a very tangible and clear example where a coaching deficiency seems to be the only explanation for the difference in talent development.

And that might be the most damning thing against Grunfeld: he has failed to create an environment that is conducive to the development of young talent. It might make sense if even two or three of the Wizards young prospects were underachieving. But so far, it’s been all of them. Maybe it’s the lack of locker room veterans – something that Grunfeld has started to address in recent months. Maybe it’s lack of clearly defined roles for most of the young players on the team. Maybe it’s the coaching. It’s most likely a combination of all of those factors and some others ones that I can’t think of. Whatever it is, it’s certainly enough for me to call for Grunfeld’s head.

The GM of a basketball team has a lot of important responsibilities. The responsibilities that get the most coverage are the ones that involve players. But maybe the most important responsibilities are the construction of a coaching staff. So maybe before the next time we watch a young Wizard make a boneheaded play and curse Grunfeld for not drafting someone else, we instead should curse Grunfeld for not developing that player right.

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