Chisholm: Why would the Raptors draft Jan Vesely?

Tim Chisholm
6/9/2011 3:01:19 PM
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I don't get Jan Vesely. Or, more accurately, I don't get the attraction to Jan Vesely as it pertains to Toronto's number-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. The team was scouting him overseas on Wednesday, ESPN's Chad Ford has had him penciled in as the Raptors' pick for weeks and Ford even tweeted an "informal GM poll" where Vesely narrowly topped Enes Kanter and Jonas Valanciunas as the best international player in this draft.

I don't get it.

Look, I want to make this perfectly clear from the outset. I'm NOT saying that Vesely is a bad player or that he is destined to bust in the NBA. I'm not saying that his inherent gifts (his size and athleticism) won't eventually translate into a compelling NBA skill-set. I'm not even saying that if Toronto, or any other team, were to draft him that they'd be throwing their pick away. What I am saying, and what I'm about to to elucidate on, is that I don't get Jan Vesely.

Of all of the international prospects that are expected to go in the lottery in this draft, Vesely is the one that reminds me most of the players that effectively ended the Euro invasion in the middle of the 2000's. He's got scouts drooling over his size and athleticism, he's filling their heads with ideas of what he could be molded into with their organization, but it seems like they are ignoring his obvious lack of skill and polish while allowing themselves to get carried away with his 'upside' and potential.

That was the same thinking that got Nikoloz Tskitishvili drafted fifth overall in 2002. It's the same thinking that got Darko Milicic drafted second overall in 2003. It's the same thinking that got Yaroslav Korolev drafted 12th overall in 2005. It's the same thinking that got Yi Jianlian drafted fifth overall in 2007. It's also the same thinking that got Joe Alexander drafted eighth overall in 2008, lest anyone think that this is a phenomenon that only affects international prospects.

The way that scouts and general managers saw those players was like a perversion of Michelangelo's infamous process for carving The David. When they see guys like Vesely, what they see is a beautiful piece of untouched marble. They look at his 6-11 frame and marvel at the matchup problems they could create at small forward. They could turn him into the new Kirilenko if they focused on defence or the next Blake Griffin if they harnessed his athleticism. They could sharpen his three-point shot or maybe his passing game, making him into a more traditional swingman. They look at the raw materials and convince themselves that what they'll carve, in some form, is their The David.

That's not how Michelangelo did it, though.

When Michelangelo stared at his beautiful piece of marble all he could see was The David, already fully-formed. He saw it in uncarved marble in 1501 the same way we see it today in 2011. It wasn't a matter of interpretation since, as he saw it, The David was already inside the rock and it was his job as the artist to free him.

A good GM acts the same way (not to oversell the GM's job by comparing him to one of history's greatest artists or anything). A good GM doesn't let himself get carried away by what he could mold a player into, he sees what a player actually is. Fans marvel how good drafters seem to keep drafting good players when it's really as simple as being able to separate the specifics of The David from the indefinite qualities of the marble.

So I wonder, what are the specifics of Vesely? Well, we know that on his side, he has a 6-11 frame that isn't going anywhere, and jaw-dropping athleticism and boundless energy are surely qualities that would translate well to the NBA game. That all sounds good, but what else? Well, despite being 6-11, he's a pretty paltry rebounder. In Euroleague play last season with KK Partizan Belgrade, he averaged just 5.1 rpg per 40 minutes. As it pertains to a Raptors team employing Andrea Bargnani, they are going to need more rebounding potential out of their small forward spot.

As a three-point shooter, he's only marginally better. He connected on 33.3% of his threes in Euroleague play this season and just 28.2% in Adriatic League play. He's also a wretched free throw shooter, connecting on just 43.8% and 54.2% in the two aforementioned leagues, respectively. While his mechanics look fine, it's distressing that he has such a hard time using them to make shots.

Also distressing are his turnover and foul rates. He has a very hard time holding onto the ball and his lack of lateral quickness should only raise his foul rate in the NBA when he's asked to check one-name wonders like LeBron, Carmelo and Durant.

That aside, however, there are two things that really concern me about him as a prospect. One, that he doesn't seem to have a go-to skill. People often talk about young guys needing some kind of skill to define them early because that skill helps coaches keep them out on the floor. Be it three-point shooting, rebounding, playmaking, penetrating, shot blocking, screen setting - something has to keep that player on the court so that they can develop the other areas of the game.

What's Vesely's skill? What is the one thing you can put him on the floor to do feeling relatively secure he's going to be able to do it? He can't hold position in the post, he can't handle the ball, he can't really do any one thing at an elite level, even against Euroleague competition. For him to develop as a player, he needs court time, but a coach can't keep handing him court time unless Vesely gives the coach something tangible to game plan with when he puts him out there. If length, athleticism and energy were all it took, James Singleton would still be in the NBA.

The other concern I have is in regards to his position. Or, put another way: "Small forward? Really?" Centre and point guard are not only two of the most important positions in the NBA, they are also the two greatest holes on Toronto's roster and two very hard positions to fill. Teams with solid centers and point guards don't tend to let them go, which is why they are so coveted in the draft.

Small forward? That is the easiest position in all of the NBA to fill. Small forwards of all shapes and sizes are always available via trade or free agency. Think of it this way: if you had an elite centre or an elite point guard in today's NBA, would you trade either one for an elite small forward (not counting LeBron James, who you should be willing to trade basically any player for)? Would you trade Dwight Howard for Carmelo Anthony? Would you trade Derrick Rose for Kevin Durant? Take it off the elite level, even. Would you trade Marc Gasol for Stephen Jackson? Or Jrue Holiday for Danilo Gallinari? The correct answer in every case was no, by the way.

The Raptors have a chance to land a really solid centre (Kanter or Valanciunas) or a really solid point guard (Brandon Knight or Kemba Walker) in this year's draft, an opportunity they haven't had in a long time, so why chase a small forward instead? Furthermore, why chase a small forward with such an incomplete skill-set like Jan Vesely? I just don't get it. I get taking a risk on a centre, and I get playing it safe with a point guard. I do not get pursuing a small forward like Vesely.

I fully realize that this sentiment could make me look really, really stupid down the road, especially if Vesely breaks out as a member of the Raptors, and like I said I'm not saying he's bad or will be a bad pick for whoever takes him. All I'm saying is that I just don't get it.

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