Ersan Ilyasova is a great example of why it may have been a mistake for the NBA to encourage player development over the four-year college player.
The 2016-17 NBA season has been an interesting one for the Philadelphia 76ers – not least because they may end up in third place in the Atlantic Division, ahead of both the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. This season had a chance of being a playoff year if injuries hadn’t so prominently intervened.
The problem is that these “ifs” can always get in the way. They particularly seem to bedevil a Sixers team that is young and promising. This likely is caused by their being so young and promising.
If you’re old enough to remember when NBA players usually played four years of college before entering the professional ranks, you know that while there was always the possibility of a debilitating injury, it seemed less likely among the hardened veterans who got where they were in the league by reason of their durability as well as their many talents. Now most players arrive at their teams with only a year of college play – and their NBA suitors don’t really know exactly what they’re getting.
And if you’re old enough to remember those good ol’ days of the league, you also remember that the lexicon of basketball punditry was different. “Upside” was not a word, because – as an example – you knew that Kareem Abdul Jabbar had already become the kind of superstar he would be in the league before he arrived in Milwaukee. “Player development” was not referred to either, mostly because development had already happened before NBA teams were stocked with their 12-deep rosters. Now “player development” apparently means first burning through whole rosters of young players who are unlikely to have a career of any length or depth in the NBA.
Player development is ostensibly a phase which is now completed for the 76ers. We know this because 1) the 76ers have said so, and 2) there’s a 30 year-old guy on the roster. And yet old habits die hard. The trade deadline this season meant that there was an imperative for Sixers’ management to do something, anything. Move Jahlil Okafor. Ok, can’t move Okafor? Move Nerlens Noel. But more legitimately, or so we were told, Ersan Ilyasova had to go because we’re in Player Development 2.0. Even though Ilyasova is only 29, has at least a few very good years left in him, and has outstanding talent at both ends of the floor that any team would want, he’s in the way. This is because – silly Ersan! – he’s playing for a contract and because his minutes inhibit those of the developing star and putative rookie of the year Dario Saric.
So why Player Development version 2.0? Because now we’re developing a real player, not a stand-in. The problem with Player Development 2.0 part is that no one has adequately explained how Ilyasova would have kept Saric from playing and contributing for years to come. Whether Ilyasova started or came off the bench, his contributions would have continued to be mighty – and the Sixers would likely have remained well under the salary cap. So what’s the problem? Maybe the answer will present itself when Tiaggo Splitter makes his late-season Sixers debut (don’t hold your breath on that one).
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All of which brings me back to the ol’ days. Both Saric and the dearly departed Ilyasova are players who have well established durability – Ilyasova through his years in the league and Saric through his European years of development. The real problem lies in the way that the Sixers keep circling back to what has come to be known as The Process. Now there are again draft picks in the future and injured guys in the present. Joel Embiid has undergone another surgery, Okafor is having a hard time proving his marketability because of his injuries and inability to play defense, and Ben Simmons will be another second-year rookie. The thesis here is that amendment of the principles of The Process through the retention and/or addition of a few more battle and time-tested veterans might propel it in ways that get the Sixers to winning seasons sooner rather than later. The difficulty now lies in attracting the veterans at this stage of The Process. Trust this process? I hope we can.
The Sixers have been entertaining to watch this season for the first time since the next-to-last season of the Doug Collins era. Another hope is that this season’s excitement and momentum are not drowned in The Process instead of advanced by it.