Why we underrate NBA rookies



Why was Kyrie Irving ranked so low?

ESPN’s NBA Rank is a really cool project, and not just because I got to vote. If you don’t know how it worked, basically a bunch of people who watch a ton of games filled out a very long and somewhat tedious survey giving each player a value between 1-10. There were no prescribed boundaries for judgment (ie- no email advising us with “try to rank most players between 4 and 6) and perhaps more importantly, no conferring with other voters.

So many of our opinions are formed individually then tested in a group setting—whether that’s a bar or a chat room—and either confirmed or challenged and debunked. But this exercise lacked that collaborative aspect, in which we realize “woah! Did we really just rank Matt Bonner ahead of Derrick Williams?” and go back and change a few things.

I kind of like that, because it exposes our prejudices publicly rather than letting us voters self-censor our misevaluations. But, it also means that there are some, err… quirks… to the rankings, a glaring one being that every NBA rookie is expected to be worse next year than Landry Fields, who snuck onto the All-Rookie team but scored a total of seven points in four games (70 minutes) in the NBA playoffs.

Also ranked above every rookie: RIP Hamilton and Vince “The Succubus” Carter.

And would you really rather start JJ Barea for 38 minutes a night instead of Kyrie Irving, a player who played nearly flawless basketball in his one (albeit shortened) college season?

How did this happen, you ask? I’ve got some theories…

Brands Matter

NBA Players like Hamilton and Carter, who have shone brightly under bright bulbs blind us to their fading games. When you think of Carter you instantly associate the best dunks you’ve ever seen. Then some bad stuff, some grimacing, some missed freethrows, some ill-advised 3’s creep into the mind. But at first, it’s a positive association. Sort of like McDonalds: first thought “yum, fries!” second thought “what’s part of the body is “nugget,” anyways… AMIRIGHT?!”

Veteran players’ brands endure in the face of reality. Just ask 75 percent of NBA GMs.

The Baron Davis effect

Baron Davis was putrid last year. I saw him in person and it was an insult to anyone who once punched James Naismith in the face. Davis was fat and hucking 3’s indiscriminately. It was toward the end of the season and I just hoped John Wall would view it as an all-too-real episode of Scared Straight.

But B-Diddy also threw in one of the sickest, most violent spin moves I’ve ever seen. And under a layer of blubber there lurks the potential for Davis, who is 32, to get back to his 2008 ways. Wait, he was last good in 2008? Uhm… nevermind.

Rookies do dumb stuff

Failure is an essential element of learning. A lot of what rookies do in their first season is find various ways to screw up defensive rotations, new offensive systems and even some of the stuff they were really good at in college. Even John Wall, who had a historic season last year would make the best and worst play in a single game (wait, bad example, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche were on the team).

Couple egregious mistakes with still developing skill sets and you end up rating Brandon Bass ahead of Derrick Williams.

Who are these guys, anyways?

Tom Haberstroh put it nicely “Kyrie Irving, 140th in #NBArank? Seems low, but try asking Roger Ebert to rate a movie after only seeing the trailer. In a foreign language.”

Great call. Even after seeing Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter acquit themselves well against Eurobasket competition, it’s still a data set devoid of reliable information. Most voters on this particular panel aren’t nearly as well versed in college basketball as the NBA, so there’s less certainty when evaluating even the American rookies.

Add to that a general ethos of wariness with regards to rookie hype and this draft class’s sub-par reputation.

We’d rather have that unholy McNugget than an unknown meat that may be filet mignon, may be lap dog.

A war of words

What this is all getting at is that the words “rookie” and “veteran” carry tremendous weight. When’s the last time you heard the anit-clichés “savvy rookie” or “inexperienced veteran?” The language that coats these two sets of players bears all the markings of stereotyping. I can think of loads (bushels, even!) of veteran NBA players who make “rookie plays” and even some savvy rookies like the aforementioned Landry Fields.

But when we don’t know much about a player, veteran or rookie, we fall back on these associations to help us make snap judgments. Not every ranking could be made with the aid of the advanced statistical research that enlightens the misinformed and debunks the ignorant generalization.

That doesn’t make us any less wrong, but it does make us, the voters, decidedly human.

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