I didn’t actually stalk Hasheem Thabeet. If memory serves, he consented to having a diminutive shadow on the night he became the second pick of the 2009 NBA draft (and seemed pleasantly reminiscent of the occasion when we chatted at the rookie photo shoot a month later).
In any event, the 7-foot-3 rookie for the Memphis Grizzlies is back in the news.
As first reported by Ridiculous Upside‘s Scott Schroeder, the Grizzlies will assign Thabeet (along with Lester Hudson, a legend in Celtics fans’ corner of the Interwebs) to the D-League’s Dakota Wizards today.
Good for them.
Scott noted in his piece that Thabeet will own the “dubious” record of being the highest draftee sent to the D-League to date. Others have since intimated that there will be some public hand-wringing over this. Likely so. But as RU staffer Aisander Duda pointed out, there is little reason to be surprised or even disconcerted by this development.
The Grizzlies picked Thabeet when they did knowing full well that he would not be an immediate home run. He entered the league with significant questions about his strength, lateral quickness, offensive post game and ability to stay out of foul trouble. At 7-foot-3, he had great size and had already shown at UConn how his length and shot-blocking instincts could make him an impact presence at the defensive end. But none of that made it any less clear that his game left plenty of room for nuance.
It should not come as a shock that Thabeet hasn’t set the world on fire in his first NBA season, and his getting sent to the D is not some sort of dishonorable discharge. The D-League offers exactly what Thabeet and many young NBA players laboring at the end of their teams’ rotations could use: a chance to get consistent run and fine-tune his game.
One needs to look no further than Bobcats center Alexis Ajinca to see a viable parallel for Thabeet: Another wiry man in the middle, Ajinca went to Maine earlier this season with a reputation for soft play on the interior. Over the course of half a season, he went from routinely settling for 18-footers to posting up with confidence, drop-stepping for dunks and adding a hook shot. Unfortunately, Ajinca’s story isn’t complete as he has been sidelined with an injury since late January and hasn’t returned to Charlotte yet. But while I can’t guarantee success when he returns to the next level, watching his progression through two months in the D-League this season left no question that Ajinca is a much better player than he was in November. Thabeet comes in with more raw ability, a higher ceiling and greater expectations, and I see no reason consistent minutes and daily work with the coaching staff can’t help augment his all-around game the way those benefits helped Ajinca.
Regarding the issue of being the highest draftee ever sent to the D-League, it bears noting that Thabeet found himself in an unusual situation in Memphis. The Grizzlies have exceeded most expectations, recovering from a 1-8 start to pull over .500 and into the playoff race out west. At 29-28, they currently sit three and a half games out of the eighth seed.
Given the NBA’s draft system, it’s no revelation to say most number two overall picks don’t end up in winning situations right away. By playing for lottery-bound teams, high draft picks often get the opportunities to play big minutes, make mistakes and learn from those errors at the NBA level right away. Exactly two other number two picks since 2000 played for teams with winning records as rookies. The Heat picked second in 2008 after losing Dwyane Wade to injury for much of the prior season and rode a healthy Wade to a 43-39 record and first-round defeat in Michael Beasley’s inaugural campaign. The Pistons picked second in 2003 after an Eastern Conference Finals appearance thanks to a prior trade with the Grizzlies. Perhaps you’ve heard of the guy they selected as he has long been the answer to the trivia question “Can you name the one who doesn’t belong: LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwayne Wade?” While the 2003-04 campaign worked out all right for the Pistons, Milicic averaged just 4.7 minutes per game in 34 appearances. Considering how his career has progressed since then, it’s hard to imagine some D-League experience along the way couldn’t have helped.
In all likelihood, the Grizzlies aren’t going to win the NBA championship this season. But after three straight sub-25-win seasons (featuring five head coaches), it’s hard to blame them for looking to do what they can to win games right now and stay in the playoff race. If they think Hamed Haddadi is the best bet to help them do that as far as a backup for Marc Gasol is concerned, then sending their big-time draft pick and ostensible future franchise cornerstone to a place where he can refine his play and get consistent in-game reps seems like exactly the way to go.
Hasheem Thabeet’s assignment isn’t a source of embarrassment. It is a representation of wise management (at this juncture, at least; whether he was the right pick remains debatable) and – hopefully – the growing significance of the D-League.