A Lament to Sebastian Telfair
At the ripe old age of twenty-two Sebastian Telfair seems to be on his way out of the league. Now, to be fair, he’s probably got a better chance of seeing serious NBA action again than Shaun Livingston, the other point guard taking in the ’04 Draft straight out of high school. Still, though, it’s hard to believe that just three years ago Telfair was gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, chilling with the likes of Jay-Z, and on the verge of becoming a lottery pick; harder still to believe that scouts and other NBA observers firmly believed he had a bigger upside than that year’s Naismith Player of the Year winner, Jameer Nelson, or that Adidas found him a worthy enough prospect to sign him to a twelve million dollar deal. So, considering his current has been status, who is to blame?If I were Bassy an obvious finger would have to point to the man in the mirror. He certainly didn’t help his cause by being caught in possession of a firearm only to put the wrap on his girlfriend or by speeding (not to mention driving) on a suspended license with a gun under the seat a year later. Telfair was not the first would-be-prodigy to be caught with a gun (remember early A.I.), but he wasn’t averaging twenty-five points per game and the corner stone of a franchise (again, remember early A.I.) either. A second finger could easily point in the direction of the Portland Trailblazers organization for drafting a run-and-gun point guard to operate a slow-down offense anchored by underathletic power-forwards (Shareef Abdul-Raheem, Zach Randolph), aging, chronically injured guards (Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Excel and Derek Anderson), and a hands-of-stone center (Theo Ratliff). What exactly the Trailblazers (coached by a decidedly steady, ball control point guard in Maurice Cheeks) expected a nineteen-year-old to do with that particular group besides finish 27-55 defies me. I could point a third finger in the direction of the media for building Telfair up in the first place, but after so many anti-media harangues you start to ask yourself, why bother?
Once we’ve finished pointing fingers we can start looking at the factors that were actually at the root of the Telfair debacle three years ago. There were several, in fact.
1) The Stephon Marbury Factor: Three years ago Steve Nash had yet to win an MVP trophy and “Starbury” could legitimately lay claim to the Best Point Guard in the NBA Crown without drawing a resounding round of boos. Steph had just been traded to New York. They’d made it to the playoffs on the strength of his play. He was on the Olympic team. Being Marbury’s younger cousin and the star point guard for the same team he’d starred on several years earlier made us all want to believe in Telfair by association. Moreover, Steph had only played a season of college basketball (a meaningless one in that Cremins didn’t coach him much) before landing in the pros, where at nineteen he averaged nearly sixteen points and eight assists a game.
2) The Lebron James Factor: When James was a junior in high school and Telfair only a sophomore, they both landed on the cover of Slam Magazine. Much in the way KG and Marbury once shared a prep-school affection for one another that, if nothing else, bolstered the hype surrounding Steph, Lebron’s love forTelfair certainly helped raise Telfair’s stock. Being linked to Lebron after his stellar rookie season and a time when NBA scouts were drooling over high school phenoms also didn’t hurt. Just as Lebron had lived up to the unimaginable hype a year earlier, it was believed that Telfair, his dear buddy, could live up to a decidedly lesser degree of the same.
3) The Prep-to-Pros Phenomenon: Five high schoolers had been taken in first round of the 2003 NBA Draft. A year later eight would be drafted in the first round, nine overall. It was a free-for-all, a moment in NBA Draft history that will undoubtedly need to be re-evaluated in the same way the years leading up the crash of 1929 had to be once the Depression Era finally ended. Somehow, someway, the NBA Draft had become a speculator’s market in which GMs routinely overlooked steady and proven college stars for players with little more than potential. In conjunction with this point I have to pay deference to a point D-Wil astutely made in a conversation we had the other day. Whereas in the early ‘00s it seemed as though prep-school draft choices were being made with some sensibility (even Kwame Brown seemed to make sense), by the mid ‘00s it seemed as though GMs were choosing prep-schoolers out of fear. Guys were being chosen not because of what teams expected to get out of them, but because of what they feared happening if they didn’t pick them. Sebastian Telfair would be a definite lottery pick if there was ever an NBA Fear Draft.
4) The Busted Point Guard Theory: This might be the most compelling factor of them all. We all remember that the same year Telfair came out Jameer Nelson was named Naismith Player of the Year. Inevitably, then, Telfair was being compared to Nelson, purportedly the best college point guard in the draft that year. To get a sense of what was going through people’s heads at the time read the following excerpt from The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball by Ian O’Connor:
“No way I’d put Jameer Nelson ahead of Telfair; Jameer doesn’t have quickness like that,” said John Nash, the Portland GM. “I have Telfair way ahead of him. Sebastian’s already better than Damon Stoudamire.”
“I just saw Jameer Nelson,” Randy Pfund, the Miami GM, told another executive, “and he’s the best point guard in college and he can’t hold a candle to this kid. Sebastian runs the pick and roll better than most point guards in the NBA.”
Then there were the well-founded doubts scouts had about highly ranked college point guards in the first place. Written three years ago, just after Telfair was selected, Wendell Maxey of Collegehoops.net had this to say:
By examining the last few NBA drafts, there are several reasons why Telfair was lucky number 13. One reason is the questionable durability of past college point guards chosen in the first round of the draft. Last year was the exception however. In the 2003 NBA draft, first rounders like Kansas Jayhawk Kirk Hinrich and T.J. Ford of Texas had equally impressive rookie seasons in ’04. Sorry to say, other college point guards in recent years haven’t fared as well. 2002 brought us Duke’s Jay Williams and Gonzaga alum Dan Dickau, and in 2001 it was North Carolina Tar Heel Joseph Forte. And Michigan State Spartan Mateen Cleaves and St. John’s Erick Barkley were the point guards of choice in the first round in 2000.
So let’s recap, shall we? We have two notables in Hinrich and Ford that actually made a direct impact on their squads, Williams is rehabbing after a brutal motorcycle accident, Dickau and Forte are both current journeyman scrapping for minutes, and the NBDL duo of Cleaves and Barkley are trying to make ends meet in the “D League”. Need I say more?
5) The Credibility/Marketability Factor: Among the NBA hopefuls that year, Sebastian Telfair was seen as the most marketable personality. Not only had he been in the limelight since his freshman year, not only was he the younger cousin of a stud point guard, not only was he from New York City, the subject of a forthcoming book and documentary and fan-favorite of the likes of Jay-Z (who routinely attended his high school games), Telfair had a real charm that seemed to make him a perfect pitch man for some sneaker brand. Just as his pal Lebron had filled the seats in Cleveland, speculators (read, GMs) were willing to gamble on Telfair creating a ripple effect in their arenas as well. While this seems like a tenuous argument at best, at least one report on the matter managed to surface on ESPN.com via the New York Post to this effect:
A report in the New York Post last month suggested that Adidas would pay off the Trail Blazers to take Telfair in the draft. In exchange for the purchase of luxury suite seats and a marketing campaign around Portland, the Trail Blazers would guarantee the pick.
Trail Blazers general manager John Nash denied that such a deal was made and Wulff told ESPN.com that despite the team landing Telfair, that no agreement was ever made.”As we understand, the story came from a former disgruntled adidas employee,” Wulff said. “To suggest that we agreed to give the Blazers some $200,000 to do this is borderline ludicrous. We do some things with them, we will continue to do things with them, but there have been no marketing conversations about next year as of yet.”
Conspiracy theorists could come back with the fact that Telfair’s shoe, designed before he was drafted, was silver and black — two of the Blazers’ principal colors.
So, in the last analysis, what are we to make of Telfair’s career. Was it that really that bad? Well, think about this: no one expected Telfair to make an immediate impact. With a few notable exceptions over the years, point guards rarely do, especially not when they’re barely six-feet tall and haven’t played a day of college ball. So, assuming he wasn’t supposed to be a huge impact player right away, what can be said, statistically speaking. For one thing, his second season numbers weren’t bad. After averaging 6.8 and 3.3 in 19 minutes per game as a rookie, Telfair posted 9.5 and 3.6 in 24 minutes in his second season. While his field goal percentage left something to be desired, his three-point percentage shot up from .246 to .352, and his turnovers went down. Next to Jameer Nelson’s numbers, Telfair doesn’t look so hot. By Nelson’s second season he was averaging 14.5 and nearly 5 assists in 29 minutes of action. In fact, Nelson’s numbers dipped in ’06-07 even as his minutes increased. However, if you put Telfair’s numbers next to Shaun Livingston’s in the same time span you start to wonder if perhaps Bassy got a bad wrap. Livingston’s first year numbers are a joke in part because he only played thirty games so we won’t even bother with them. His second year numbers, however, warranted noting when you consider how much praise was being heaped upon him by his coach and the press. In sixty-one games he averaged 5.8 and 4.5 in more than 25 minutes of action each night. Livinston averaged nearly three turnovers a game and shot a woeful .125 from three. Side-by-side it’s hard to say what Shaun Livingston was doing that Telfair was not doing. Ironically, though, both of them will be hard pressed to find their way on to an NBA court in the ’07-08 season.