Never Hate a Player: On Doug McDermott

[Ed. note: This piece originally ran on July 23, 2014 on a site where all traces of my former presence, along with that of all of the other members of the team, has been wiped away. I didn’t want it to disappear from the internet, so I’m reposting it here, where I have control over what happens to it.]

I am dumber than I like to think that I am. From time to time, it’s important to remind myself of this. This article is me doing just that.

It is often easy when writing about sports to fancy yourself just as qualified as anyone else, including say general managers and talent evaluators, to say whether a player might be bad, average, good, or great. This is, for the most part, harmless, and in some cases, it is possible to outperform the average or bad general manager, if you’re pretty good at scouting talent (like all of the armchair GMs among us would like to believe we are). But this attitude can morph into the worst kind of narcissistic hubris, and well, make you (and when I say “you,” understand that I mean “me”) come off as a bit of an ass. Now, front office types do not have a corner on the market for knowledge about the game, and this should not read like an argument or claim that they do. What I’m wrestling with is that none of us has a perfect understanding of the game, and we’re all learning new things every day we’re lucky enough to watch the world’s other beautiful game. It’s easy to be blind to that. It’s so easy, especially in the super overreactionizer that is Twitter, to have a strong reaction to something and spew it out without really stepping back to question your own assumptions.

It’s quite hard to challenge those assumptions regularly; it’s so much easier to allow them to calcify and constrict my thinking. It requires no effort at all to fall back on my default setting: I know this and that and this too about basketball. But, then, every once in a while, I get to take a moment and breathe and really think, and what I always come back to is this quote from Socrates:

I know one thing: that I know nothing.

It is probably the most important sentence I’ve ever heard about the nature of knowledge. I should always be striving to learn and understand better. Whenever I decide I know something, I’m lost, because I’ve stopped learning.

This is all a bit abstract, so let me be more concrete. When the Chicago Bulls, my favorite basketball team, traded a bunch of assets to acquire Creighton star Doug McDermott, I basically had a Twitter meltdown. McDermott is probably one of the best shooters in the world on a team that was terrible at scoring last year, but all of my favorite statistic-based models cast lots of doubts about whether Doug could play at the NBA level. He didn’t pass very much, he basically never got blocks or steals, and his rebounding was merely decent. McDermott’s low block and steal rates and just okay rebounding made me worry about his athleticism, as those three stats have traditionally been pretty reliable at predicting which players will have the athleticism to hang in the league and those who won’t. The concerns about McDermott’s athleticism matched my own eye test concerns about him. So I decided I knew who Doug McDermott was as an NBA player before ever seeing him play in the NBA. I ignored people, like my friend Ricky O’Donnell of BlogaBull, who pointed out Creighton’s ultra-conservative defensive scheme as a reason for his low defensive counting stats. I scoffed off people who told me he was a good body position defender. I disregarded the common-sense idea that when you’re scoring as much as McDermott did and moving all over the court non-stop with literally five defensive players all aimed at stopping you, maybe defense takes a bit of a backseat. I stopped thinking and started ranting. I was lost.

The statistical models I love have had a pretty good success rate, especially when compared with the average general manager in the NBA, but they’re not infallible. There are plenty of misses, just as there are with any attempt to predict the future of very young men making the transition to a totally new atmosphere and level of competition. There are simply too many things we can’t know at the time of the draft which effect how well a player will do at the next level. How they played in college or internationally and their resulting counting stats is a big piece of that puzzle, but it is only part of it. I ignored that, too.

I watched Doug McDermott in summer league, and many of my concerns still linger. He probably won’t score as prolifically as he did in college and his lateral quickness is not great. But McDermott is so, so smart. He makes extremely quick decisions with the ball, which is a still undervalued skill and its value is multiplied exponentially by the threat he represents as a shooter and floor spacer, especially given his lightning quick shooting release. He’s going to bend defenses, just by virtue of these two skills. He’s also a much better passer and decision-maker than his low college assist totals would suggest. Additionally, McDermott is, as I was told, a solid body position defender, who will mostly funnel players towards his help defense- perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls have two of the league’s very best help big men in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Yes, McDermott will give up blow-bys to more athletic players and yes, that will be frustrating when it happens, but it won’t hurt as much as it might on another team because of those two big mobile guys behind him. Context matters very much in basketball, and well, maybe on draft night and after I didn’t think enough about the context in which McDermott will be operating. The defensive warts can be more easily hidden in Chicago than nearly anywhere else and his skill-set is a much needed one on any team, but especially for these Bulls.

Film Crit Hulk is one of my absolute favorite writers, and he has a tremendous piece which centers around a bit of advice given to him by the famed director, Quentin Tarantino. During a conversation in which a younger, perhaps less thoughtful Hulk ranted against a movie he “hated,” Tarantino told him, “Never, under any circumstances, hate a movie. It won’t help you and it’s a waste of time.” Tarantino went on to more fully explain that there is value and things to learn and enjoyment to be found even in the bombs or, for our basketball-watching purposes, busts. Tarantino finished his advice by saying of movies, “They’re gifts. Every f*cking one of ‘em.”

I am much less sure than I was about what sort of player Doug McDermott might be than I was on draft night. Part of that is a function of his summer league play, but a bigger part of it is me allowing myself to embrace that I don’t know nearly as much as I sometimes think and act like I do. What I do know is that regardless of whether he turns out to be a “bomb” or another “hit” for the Bulls front office, I’ll learn from watching him play. I’ll learn from seeing his struggles or successes and the how and why behind them. I’ll be entertained, as I always am, by the process. Doug McDermott is a gift, just like every player which I have the privilege to watch and root on.