Wednesday, October 7

Proximity is Everything

SN's Bethlehem Shoals previewed the Bobcats yesterday and one particular line stuck out, "Felton's a distant third to Paul and Williams, but third nonetheless.' Now, it seems more and more like he's darn lucky, through an accident of history, to still get discussed in those terms." Felton certainly benefits from being in the same breath with two of the best PGs in the game (who wouldn't accept a bronze in that race), but there are two sides to the proximity coin as has been illustrated over and over in sports.

Ryan Leaf has become the ultimate straw man for NFL busts, but not solely due to his nearly 1:3 touchdown to interception ratio, but also because of who he was drafted immediately behind. The NFL draft was just beginning to receive widespread attention when the Colts selected Peyton Manning, who would go on to win 3 MVPs (edit: 4 if you read this after February 2010) and a Super Bowl instead of a guy whose most notable contribution was his "Don't Talk to Me" rant. Because of the debate of who to pick and how laughable it has become in hindsight Leaf remains at the forefront of people's minds when discussing busts. In actuality, Alex Smith and (based on his current career arc) JaMarcus Russell could easily be considered bigger busts because of the financial investment the Bay area teams made in both young men. Perhaps as these young men finish up their careers we'll look back on them as the biggest busts, but Art Schlichter and Heath Shuler suggest they will fade away into the sea of failed draft selections. While Smith, Russell, Schlichter and Shuler were all top five picks, none have the stigma of being drafted ahead of or in close proximity of a great. With the other quarterbacks selected around them having largely negligible careers, they too become forgettable. Donovan McNabb and to a lesser extent Daunte Culpepper have had solid careers but not on par with Manning and so as a result the three QB busts: Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cade McNown largely get a pass for their failings. Smith's 5 touchdowns and 13 interceptions are right on pace with Leaf's 14 and 36 respectively, but due to a lack of proximity to greatness Smith avoids the spotlight.

This proximity to greatness or lack there of can also create the illusion of an inflated performance level. There's always a kid who's the most athletic in the neighborhood, but if your cul-de-sac is occupied by pudgy, slow kids, how good they are on the greater scale can be skewed greatly. Look at NBA drafts of the early 2000's. There were so many high schoolers selected because they looked tremendous competing against inferior competition. Consider this the Darius Miles effect. After a solid rookie season, GM's convinced themselves that diamonds in the rough were all over the place, in high schools, international leagues and small colleges. The 2001 draft stands as a beacon of overrated talent with eight international and high school players taken in the first round as well as players from UNC-Charlotte, Okaloosa-Walton Community College, Southern Methodist and Pepperdine. Of those twelve only Pau Gasol and Tony Parker lived up to their draft position (with all due respect to Tyson Chandler who is a distant third). This is not to suggest that great players cannot come from high schools, over seas or small schools, but the lack of great players around them can make them artificially more appealing. Players from powerhouse schools also enjoy a benefit from playing not just against but with superior talent. As a result, many have been drafted much higher than they deserved. I'm looking at you 2005 national championship team. Marvin Williams, Sean May, Rashad McCants and to bring things full circle, Raymond Felton were all drafted high by virtue of playing together.

Some will remember Chris Webber's running mate in Sacramento, fewer will recall Reggie Miller's in Indiana, but everyone remembers MJ's running mate in Chicago. That's the effect of being in the proximity of greatness. We remember the best of the best and being linked to them can be a blessing or a curse. Just ask Wally Pipp, Burt Ward, or Pete Myers.

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