Since the beginning of last season, the refrain from fans and the media has been constant: The Golden State Warriors blew it by passing on LaMelo Ball in favor of James Wiseman with the second pick of the 2020 draft.
Ahead of the Warriors' game tonight against LaMelo Ball and the Hornets, I took stock of a key question: Did Golden State make a mistake by taking James Wiseman over Ball? https://t.co/cV2GCO6NXI— Connor Letourneau (@Con_Chron) February 20, 2021
With Ball’s Charlotte Hornets coming to the Chase Center, the debate was ignited once again. It looks obvious right now. Wiseman got hurt and played only 39 mostly unimpressive games last year. LaMelo won Rookie of the Year. Wiseman still hasn’t played this year, LaMelo led the Hornets to a hot 4-1 start (now they’re 5-4). While LaMelo led the league in triple-doubles, Wiseman is talking about refining his game in the G League.
But it’s still very early. Ball is a huge talent with tons of promise, but he’s still a slightly below-average shooter overall. His biggest weakness is the Warriors’ biggest offensive weakness; namely, turnovers. And last night, the unheralded Gary Payton II put the clamps on him in a 14-point, four-turnover effort.
However, the main reason the Warriors shouldn’t regret passing on Ball is that their logic was sound, and drafting is imprecise. Often draftniks espouse the “best player available” mantra, but often that leads to situations like the Sixers taking centers in the top six in three straight drafts, or Matt Millen using three straight first-rounders on wide receivers. It’s easy to say that you can simply trade from a positional surplus, but that’s easier said than done in professional sports. (Same goes for trading up or down in the draft, but that’s a separate conversation.) At a certain point, you have to acknowledge the players on your roster, particularly for a team with aspirations to contend.
One of the most famous examples of drafter’s remorse came in 1984, when the Blazers picked No. 2 and chose Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Clearly there’s going to be organizational regret when you pass on the greatest player of all time (apologies to LeBron James and Anthony Randolph), but Portland had drafted a Hall of Famer at his same position, Clyde Drexler, one year earlier. The Warriors had two Hall of Famers ahead of LaMelo in the backcourt. Even with Klay Thompson getting injured on draft day, it’s not that wild that the team believed the center position was a much more glaring need.
Not only that, they have Most Improved Player candidate Jordan Poole, who torched Charlotte’s defense for 31 points and just one turnover last night. It’s doubtful Poole emerges the same way if Ball is on the roster last year. Ball is certainly better than Poole, but it’s another reason missing on Ball isn’t that bad.
The fact remains, drafting is a crapshoot in many ways. Were LaMelo’s highlights impressive? Absolutely. Did he also shoot 28% from three-point range? Yes. Would I have personally drafted Ball? Yes. Do I understand the Warriors’ thinking? Yes. Am I going to keep asking myself questions? No, that was the last one.
The reigning MVP was a second-round pick. The Toronto Raptors won the title in 2019 without a single lottery pick on the playoff roster. Drafting matters, but player development matters a lot more. Warriors fans look back on the choice of Antawn Jamison over Vince Carter in 1998, but would Carter have become a superstar on those dysfunctional Chris Cohan-era teams? It’s certainly no guarantee.
When the Warriors were at their most unstoppable last year, Steph Curry was playing with the ball in his hands. Ball would probably fit alongside Curry, but we really don’t know. There are also factors beyond talent and potential that determine where players get drafted: Tyrese Halliburton dropped to the Kings last year because he only wanted to play for the Kings or Warriors. Todd Fuller went to the Warriors two spots ahead of Kobe Bryant, but the Mamba was never coming to Oakland. Maybe the Warriors were spooked by LaMelo’s father, maybe they were impressed by Wiseman speaking Mandarin - clearly a big priority for their recent drafting.
Bob Myers was impressed Kuminga speaks four languages.— Wes Goldberg (@wcgoldberg) July 30, 2021
So, between Kuminga, Wiseman and Mannion, three of the Warriors' recent draft picks speak a total of eight languages.
But the main reason the Warriors won’t have regret, regardless of whether Wiseman gets it together, is that they’re winning. Why don’t Portland fans gnash their teeth about Bowie over Jordan? Because they went to the Finals in 1990 and 1992 - one year before Jordan got there. The Pistons took Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade - but they won the title the next year! You know who dwells on bad picks? Bad organizations.
So while LaMelo Ball looks great so far, it’s too early to call him the definitive best player in the draft. Minnesota also passed on him too! The biggest factor in the team’s potential drafter’s remorse isn’t even the success and development of Wiseman. It’s the overall success of the team. If this squad goes far in the playoffs, it’ll be “LaMelo who?” At least until he wins his first MVP.