Saturday, March 22, 2014

7 "Busts" who are better than you thought they were

"Space Jam" had it right - Shawn Bradley was a "star!" 
Every year, NBA teams devote massive resources in order to make the right selections in the draft. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, most drafts yield underachievers and even some “busts” - players who produce considerably less ROI than would be expected from their draft slot and ultimately go on to lead unproductive careers (see, Bargnani, Andrea for more information).

Occasionally, however, highly-drafted players will be misbranded as busts simply because the player blossoms later in his career or because his contributions don’t align with what the fans and media perceive as valuable (points). For this poor NBA soul archetype (1), any successes will bear a scarlet footnote denoting that the player was drafted early.

Here are 7 examples of players who have been unfairly mislabeled as “busts” as well as a few honorable mentions who may not be deemed busts, but nonetheless took more flak than they deserved.

Shawn Bradley – Pick #2 (1993)

Gangly? Yes. Goofy? Absolutely. A bust? Hell No!
No, I’m not kidding.

Although he’s best remembered for manning the lower half of posters, serving as Tracy McGrady’s in-game dunk prop and having his hysterically oversized bicycle stolen by a thief who clearly has a better grasp for humor than he does for pawn-shop demand, Shawn Bradley actually put together an admirable career as a productive center who rebounded and blocked shots at high rates while shooting a high percentage.

In fact, from 2000-2004, Bradley was 80% more productive than the average NBA player, including one year (2003) in which he produced 2.6 times the number of wins per 48 minutes compared to the average NBA player! That’s legit star-level production from an alleged “bust!” (2)

Shawn Bradley was a lot of things to a lot of people. Most notably, as a 7-foot 6-inch goofy looking, German-born, white, Mormon, he was every NBA player’s favorite trophy for the NBA version of Slam-Dunk Buckhunter. One thing he was not? A bust.

Tony “El Busto” Battie – Pick #5 (1997)

Poor Tony Battie never overcame his "premature bust" problem.   
Former Nuggets star Dan Issel loved shooting so much, that when he retired and had to stop shooting hoops, he opted instead to shoot himself in the foot. In one of the more charmingly short-sighted interviews of all time, Issel, the soon-to-be new GM of the Denver Nuggets, went on a local radio station and referred to rookie Tony Battie as “El Busto.” Besides hilariously torpedoing the trade value for what would soon become his own asset, Issel labeled Battie a bust prematurely (pun could not be more intended).

In his prime years from 2000-2003, Battie was a strong performer, boasting a Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) that was 75% higher than the average NBA player. Although he didn’t score frequently, Battie made his shots at a very high percentage and collected a high percentage of offensive rebounds (a highly undervalued skill, as it’s of the only ways to “create” a shot).

Eddie Griffin - Pick #7 (2001)

Jeff Van Gundy wonders aloud whether Eddie's headband is restricting blood flow to his brain
More well-known for his tragic, premature death and for being a headcase who missed team flights, Griffin had a short and inconsistent career. However, he was actually a league average player who even produced at a 40% above average clip in 2005, after missing all of 2004...while enrolled at an alcohol rehabilitation center.

True, Griffin did not produce as many wins over his first few years as can be expected from the average #7 pick: per the inimitable Arturo Galletti, the #7 pick can be expected on average to produce 15.3 wins over their first 4 years (the length of their rookie contract) while Griffin only mustered 10.33. However, when you take into account that Griffin did this in only 3 years (he was in rehab for his 4th year) and that his WP48 during this time frame was identical to what could be expected from the #7 overall pick (.098), I find it an exaggeration to call him a “bust.”

Finally, can you really consider a player a bust when he fails for the exact reason he was considered a risky pick in the first place? Calling Griffin a bust because his well-documented questionable attitude and “off the court” issues caught up to him is the equivalent of labeling Royce White a bust because his anxiety and fear of flying made “NBA basketball player” possibly the worst occupation he could pursue, right behind “pilot.” There’s a difference between high-risk/high-reward players that don’t work out and flat out busts who never lived up to the hype. Griffin is one of the former.

Josh Childress – Pick #6 (2004)

Once his teammates introduced him to Google Hangouts, J-Chill cut his cell phone(s) bills by over 75%!
Josh Childress temporarily held the title as the most divisive player between basketball purists and statheads like yours truly. True, his “range” is basically offensive rebounds and backdoor cuts, he has trouble staying healthy and he kinda looks like a flamboyant, stoned T-rex when shooting. But, J-Chill regularly posted strong True Shooting percentages and leveraged his long arms and athleticism to put up great rebounding numbers (particularly on the offensive glass where he was a monster) and generate his fair share of steals while seldom fouling.

Add up all of Childress’ undervalued contributions and you get a player who produced 46.7 wins over his first four years. That’s a shade over 3.5 times as many as the average #6 pick has historically produced!

Unfortunately, Childress then wasted the rest of his prime in Greece when he opted to sign a lucrative contract with Euroleague’s Olympiacos Piraeus during the 2008 NBA lockout. When he finally returned stateside, everyone remembered why they hated him in the first place and stopped giving him minutes. Now he’s out of the league, leaving one of the NBA’s all time silliest ‘fro wearers at home waiting for a call on one of his numerous phones :(

Martell Webster – Pick #6 (2005)

Martell Webster is the only known example of a player who improved once joining the Wizards
Martell Webster is better known in Portland as the guy who should have been Chris Paul/Deron Williams (the Trailblazers traded down from the #3 pick to take Webster, despite having a glaring need at point guard, one they called Sebastian Telfair) and the guy who became the center of one of the biggest legal settlements ever between two NBA teams when the T-Wolves sued the Trailblazers for trading Webster without fully disclosing the extent of his back injury.  

Yes, Webster’s first 7 years in the league vacillated between being injurious (to his own team) and injury-ravaged, but times have changed. Call it what you will – a mid-career epiphany, a much needed change of scenery (again) or simply the results of some late blooming – but there’s no disputing the fact that Martell Webster has been ballin since he got to Washington (3). However you choose to define it, the source of his improvement is irrefutable: he’s shooting the lights out and sporting a robust 59.9% True Shooting percentage over the past two years by taking more than 50% of his shots from behind the arc and hitting them at a healthy 41% clip.

In fact, over the last two years, Monsieur Webster has been producing 50% more wins per 48 minutes than the average NBA player and given that he’s still only 27 and has found his niche as 3-point shooter who can guard bigger wings (a skill set that tends to age like a nice Yellowtail, if not a fine wine) all signs point to his producing at an average or above level for the next few years.

Brandan Wright – Pick #8 (2007)

A candid shot of Brandan as he goes through pre-game stretching 
If you want to call Brandan Wright a bust, be my guest. If you’re the type of person who values accuracy, however, call him injury-prone or unlucky.

Wright has averaged just fewer than 38 games per year (not including this year) and missed the entire 2009-2010 season to injury, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been extremely good, producing 2x as many wins per 48 minutes as the average player throughout his career.

So how has Wright, when healthy, generated so much value? It really comes down to two areas in which he excels: blocked shots and shooting percentage. Wright is routinely one of the leagues better shot blockers and annually reigns among the league leaders in shooting percentage. Naysayers will point out that Wright should lost points because he’s assisted on a high percentage of his field goals attempts (86% according to but these folks are missing the forest for the trees: there’s great value in having a tall guy with super long arms who:

A) can finish at a high clip and
B) doesn't take shots he likely won’t make

There’s a reason not many guys, including other centers who only take shots around the hoop, shoot that percentage - it’s really freakin’ hard to do!

Al-Farouq Aminu – Pick #8 (2010)

The best player on the Nigerian national team,
Al-Farouq Aminu has never actually been to Nigeria. He wants to go real bad though!
Aminu is yet another example of a productive player whose is constantly undervalued because he can’t shoot. And yet, for all the folks who complain about the spacing he’s ruining (without citing any data or studies, mind you) as if he’s some child abductor, no one seems to mention the fact that he’s a rebounding machine who plays good defense without fouling (4). For God’s sake, in the last 2 years alone, Aminu’s produced nearly 5 more wins than the average #8 overall pick does over his first 4 years! Oh, and did I mention the fact that at 23 years old, he still has him prime years ahead of him?

As an aside, could the Chris Paul trade look any worse now? If the Pelicans realized at the time that Aminu would be the only good asset they would receive in return for the prime years of one of the world’s top 3 players, they likely would have just held on to CP3 and let him walk as a free agent. Well, at least their mascot no longer looks like this!

The Honorable Mentions

Although these players avoided the scarlet letter "B," they still got a bad rap despite producing some pretty damn good seasons.  

Raef Lafrentz - Pick #3 (1998)

Raef Lafrentz had the misfortune of suffering a number of injuries that forced him out of the league by age 31 and of being selected in the draft before superior players like Vince Carter, Kansas teammate Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki (who was acquired by Dallas in one of the sillier draft day trades that have ever taken place). Objectively speaking, however, Lafrentz went on to have a fine if unspectacular run, capped by a late career renaissance in Boston.

Drew Gooden – Pick #4 (2002)

Drew Gooden was not a strong performer in his first couple years and was, for the bulk of his career, a slightly below average NBA performer. However, I find it an exaggeration to label any player a bust when they produced at the level Gooden did foe a three year span: from 2005-2008, Gooden produced at 180% the level of the average NBA player.

What I find most intriguing about Gooden’s case is that he was involved in just about every smart
move the Cleveland Cavaliers have made in recent memory: Cleveland acquired Gooden and the highly productive Sideshow Bob (going by Anderson Varejao now) in a steal of a deal with the Magic in which they gave up only a couple 2nd round picks and fellow mislabeled bust Tony Battie. The Cavs subsequently resigned Gooden to a bargain of a deal (3 years for $23 million) and traded him at the tail end of his prime for a perennially undervalued Ben Wallace. These Gooden-related transactions represented perhaps the only underrated moves the franchise has made in recent history (ever?), particularly amidst a flurry of myopic transactions that typically proved fruitless but were glossed over by the magnificence that is Lebron James.

Nick Collison – Pick #12 (2003)

Nick Collison is not only not an underachiever - he was kind of a steal.

The average #12 pick is expected to produce 10 wins over his first four years, while Collison produced 12.9…in 3 seasons because he missed his rookie year with injuries to both shoulders. Moreover, throughout his career he’s produced at roughly 20% better than the average NBA player.

Jordan Hill – Pick #8 (2009)

Hill is yet another player who is more accurately described as injury prone than unproductive, having produced very well, but only averaging 47 games per year (not including this year). In fact, over his last two years with the Lakers, Hill has produced more than 2 times as many wins per 48 minutes compared to the average NBA player.

Hill blocks shots and shoots at a slightly above average rate, but his productivity really boils down to his spectacular rebounding numbers, particularly on the offensive end. To wit, the average power forward this year is averaging 11.7 rebounds/48 minutes, 3.5 of which come on the offensive glass. As for Jordan Hill? He’s pulling down a cool 17 boards/48 minutes, 6.3 (!) of which come on the offensive glass.

Tristan Thompson – Pick #4 (2011)

With all this talk about Kyrie Irving trying to bolt the Cavs (ain’t happening, by the by) everyone seems to have neglected the Cavs player whose really deserving of an extension. I’ll give you a hint: he’s Canadian, switched shooting hands during the 2013 offseason and gets his shot blocked nearly as frequently as any player in NBA history. That’s right, it’s Ontario’s pride and joy, Tristan Thompson!

Thompson is yet another example of a player whose skill set (rebounding) simply doesn’t align with the casual fan’s concept of productivity. That said, over the past two seasons he’s been far more productive than his highly touted pick and roll partner and is far more deserving of an off-season extension.

Let me know who I left out in the comments section or via twitter!

All Wins Produced numbers are cordially borrowed from or


1. They’re quite rich, actually, until they spend it all 3-D diamond renderings of their own Predator-like faces (or Whoopi Goldberg, depending on your movie preference).

2. Unfortunately, because he was so goddam big, gangly, etc… Bradley rarely played an injury-free season and couldn’t play typical starter minutes, thereby decreasing his absolute productivity. Alas, such is life when you’re in the .00000001% of the population in terms of height.

3. This very well may be the only known time any player has significantly improved since joining a Wizards team that is hardly renowned for its player development (or for its front office acumen…or for its players skill level…). 

4. Why do critics speak so dismissively about players who have limited shooting ranges? Sure, it’s a problem, but it can be overcome by contributing in other ways, as evidenced by the number of highly productive players who were considered offensive burdens due to their limited range (Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Dikembe Mutombo, etc…). You’d think these players had forced themselves on a female hotel worker in Colorado or something.