The End of “Upside”?

As the speculation about a trade involving Carmelo Anthony continues to swirl (in case you happen to have missed it, click here or here for recent examples), one of the things that amazes me is the continued mention of Derrick Favors as a centerpiece of the deal.  Yes, he of the 6.5 ppg and 5 rpg.  I guess the theory is that he has tremendous “upside.”

Well, yeah… if by “upside” you mean the amount of miraculous improvement we’d have to see for the guy to become an impact player.

For years, I’ve been unable to understand how so many NBA GM’s get intrigued by false “upside” so regularly.  To be clear, when I’m talking about players who were highly valued because of their “upside,” I’m talking about guys who went to college and didn’t perform at a star’s level.  Sorry for being all lawyerly, but, when I say “perform at a star’s level” I mean that the guy either started on a Final Four team, or was named to at least one of (i) his all-conference team or (ii) the All-American team.  That’s a relatively simple way to separate the guys who distinguished themselves in college from the guys who didn’t; only the first group contains guys with real achievements.

For all the talk of “upside” that we hear around the NBA Draft and the trade deadline, I can’t think of a single star who represents an example of someone with no track record of success but lots of “upside” who turned that “upside” into consistent performance.  Literally, not one.

Think of the top 15 players in the league today.  We could argue about who’s in that group, but it’s generally safe to say that it looks something like this (in no particular order)

1. Kobe

2. LeBron

3. Wade

4. CP3

5. Deron Williams

6. Amar’e

7. Howard

8. Dirk

9. Derrick Rose

10. Carmelo

11.  Durant

12. Pierce

13. Ginobili

14. Westbrook

15. Pao Gasol

When testing my statement that nobody who went to college and failed to distinguish himself wound up becoming a star, the guys who never went to college do not weigh on the analysis.  (I guess some might say that it’s a copout for me to make an argument about how young players get analyzed without addressing the stars who didn’t play in college.  But I’m not arguing that untested young guys never amount to anything — I’m arguing that the guys who played in college but didn’t do much don’t deserve to be treated like valuable assets.)

Working from that list of 15, let’s see what the data tells us:

1. Kobe – No college.

2. LeBron – No college.

3. Wade – Carried Marquette to the Final Four

4. CP3 – First Team All-American as a sophomore at Wake Forest

5. Deron Williams – Led Illinois to the Finals

6. Amar’e – No college.

7. Howard – No college.

8. Dirk – No college.

9. Derrick Rose – Led Memphis to the Finals

10. Carmelo – Led Syracuse to a championship

11.  Durant – AP player of the year as a freshman at Texas

12. Pierce – First Team All-American as a junior at Kansas

13. Ginobili – No college.

14. Westbrook – Played on a UCLA team that went to the Final Four

15. Pao Gasol – No college.

In sum, each of the guys on this list who went to college did some BALLIN’ when he was there.  There isn’t a single guy on the list who went to college and failed to assert himself.

Against that backdrop, let’s return to Derrick Favors.  A “power forward,” he was only the second-leading rebounder on his Georgia Tech team during his only year there.  (And it’s not like he was part of a dominating front-court tag-team with the next Moses Malone — the guy had fewer rebounds than someone named Gani Lawal.  Then again, maybe it’s possible that Lawal has tremendous “upside,” too, and that this was actually the most talented big-man tandem in the history of college hoops.  Ahem.)  That Georgia Tech team, a #10 seed, lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Some guys look at that track record and, because of something about Favors (his height?  his jumping ability? his carefully trimmed goatee?) see reason to get excited about his “upside.”  I look at Favors, and see a guy who hasn’t done much to get excited about.  (Though I must admit that his goatee is well-maintained.)

The Nets were wrong to draft him at #3.  The Nuggets would be wrong to accept him as the main piece in a trade involving Carmelo Anthony.  All he’s got is “upside,” and history suggests that “upside” is nothing more than a wish that a guy who hasn’t accomplished much will miraculously get much better.

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