In 2009, I wrote “The Donte Greene Experiment” and suggested that Donte Greene learn from Trevor Ariza and become the updated Shane Battier/Bruce Bowen: A defensive stopper able to match up with superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul Pierce.
By all accounts, Greene ignored my free advice and remains mired on the Sacramento bench, which does not bode well since the Kings were one of the worst teams in the NBA last season, and his position, small forward, was their biggest weakness.
Three years later, and the same situation exists: The path to an NBA championship goes through Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant in the West and the Miami Heat and LeBron James in the East. Any team with championship aspirations has to find someone to defend these two players (and to a slightly lesser extent, Dwayne Wade and Russell Westbrook). As the 2012 NBA Finals illustrated, it is important for this player also to be able to shoot spot-up three-pointers, as the difference between the shooting ability of Shane Battier versus Thabo Sefolosha was a major factor in the series.
Of potential contenders, the Spurs may have their guy in Kawhi Leonard. The Bulls have Luol Deng and Philadelphia has Andre Igoudala, provided they are not traded. Indiana might have their guy in Paul George. Many of the other contenders, however, could use someone to match-up with Durant or James: the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Clippers, Grizzlies, etc.
Who might be the antidote for James/Durant? Vanderbilt’s Jeff Taylor is a popular choice, and most mock drafts have the Thunder picking him and hoping he is a better shooting version of Sefolosha. There are three potential mid-1st Round picks (and a likely second rounder) who would be smart to become a hybrid defensive stopper/shooter:
Moe Harkless, St John’s: I only saw St. John’s play twice, but I thought Harkless was one of the best players who I saw all season. However, his deficiency is a lack of skill. He is a great athlete and competitor, but he has no great offensive skill. As an athletic 6’8 combo forward, he is the perfect size to match up against Durant or James as a SF or a PF when OKC or Miami goes small. However, he was a 20% three-point shooter. If he can improve his spot-up three-point shooting from the baseline corners, his value would increase exponentially. In today’s NBA, what is more important than someone who can match up against many of the leagues top scorers (Durant, James, Pierce, Anthony) while spreading the court and keeping the defense honest?
Perry Jones, Baylor: Everyone loves Jones’ potential, but he has never produced in any significant way. The lack of production would scare me if I was looking for a potential star. However, his desire is to be a small forward. He has size and athleticism. If he can focus his prodigious natural gifts into being a tough defender and spot-up shooter, he could maximize those gifts. Some may feel that is short-changing his ability, but is it? What has he produced on the court? He’s valued highly because he looks the part (a a lot like Donte Greene). However, becoming the Durant/James antidote could give him the direction to make an immediate impact and an opportunity down the line to expand his game as his repertoire improves.
Quincy Miller, Baylor: Miller was once considered the top player in his high-school class, so it is unlikely that he, his agent, or his future employer would want to constrain his talent to become the antidote. However, he reminds me a great deal of Greene when Greene entered the NBA. Like Greene, Miller could be fighting to stay in the NBA three years hence or he could be signing for the full mid-level exception, or more, as a defender/spot-up shooter. He is considered a good shooter; if he has the desire to defend and make it hard for the top guys, he has a definite future.
Jae Crowder, Marquette: Crowder is the smallest of the group, and the one expected to be drafted last. However, he is also the one most likely to adopt this role. He is probably too small to match up with someone like James or Durant, but his tenaciousness and competitiveness will enable him to compete with anyone. He will give away a couple inches, but he will never back down. He is a more athletic, better shooting version of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute who has been a borderline starter and highly valued defender since he was a second-round pick. If Crowder proves that he can make the corner three-pointer, he has first-round value. He lacks the upside of players who will be drafted ahead of him, but he will make a team better.
I don’t know these players. I don’t know about their competitiveness, desire to defend, or expectations for the role/talent. However, if I trained or represented any of these players, I would prepare to be the antidote. A player like Harkless or Jones probably has more potential, but adopting such a role would lead to immediate playing time and trust from a coach. As he improved, he could try to expand his role. However, at this point, none of these players is being drafted as a superstar or #1 option for his team anyway. By filling this role, one or all of these guys could maximize his value to his team and ensure a nice second contract and long career.