The 2011 NBA Draft has now come and gone, and despite the assertion by nearly everyone invested in the drafting and scouting process that this was an unusually weak class. Fans had moments of outrage and disgust when their teams drafted players they knew nothing about. This was arguably the first truly connected draft, as sports fans around the world are rapidly realizing that using social media is the ultimate destination for second-by-second analysis of their favorite players and teams.
But the issue with social media is that it not only allows fans to consume constant information, but they can contribute to the discussion as well. This can turn ugly come draft time when the average fan knows a fraction of what pro and amateur scouts do about the players being drafted. But they can quickly type their name into a search engine and become armchair analysts.
This happened on several occasions this year when players were drafted by teams with devoted fan bases who instantly took to their phones and computers to express their frustration with their team taking a player that they heard of for the first time just minutes ago. The first case was when the Toronto Raptors selected Lithuaninan big man Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall. Despite being regarded as one of the premier talents in the draft, and filling a need in the paint that the Raptors sorely need, the initial reaction was almost entirely negative regarding Big Val.
One of the main reasons that so many Raptors fans were outraged at the pick was due to the instant comparisons that they drew up in their minds to enigmatic big man Andrea Bargnani. The Italian big man has been the subject of much hatred from the Toronto fan base due to his reluctance to bang for rebounds despite his seven foot frame. So due to the European heritage of Valanciunas and the similarity in physical makeup, it was automatically assumed by the xenophonbes that they were mirror images of each other.
The reality is that the big Lithuanian loves to play defense, alter shots and work in the paint, essentially the polar opposite of the volume shooting Bargnani. But the fans jumped on the Raptors management immediately and let themselves be heard. Even those serving in an official capacity as media members covering the Raptors had some very serious skepticism about the pick. General Manager Bryan Colangelo was asked in a post-draft interview how this pick compared to former franchise busts Rafael Araujo and Aleksandar Radojevic.
The ridiculousness of this question cannot be understated, especially coming from accredited media. Valanciunas is one of the most talented big men in the class, while Araujo and Radojevic were questionable picks from the moment their names were announced. But Colangelo defended his players vehemently and scoffed at the thought that a college guard on a roster already loaded with guards who have been a better fit.
Colangelo acknowledged the skeptics and he has an exceptional team of scouts around the world who clearly are much more informed than those tuning into the draft at home and even those who claim to cover the team for a living.
Professional sports teams around the world are under more pressure and are forced to be accountable for every move they make as their electorate have been given a way to directly voice their opinions and displeasure in a way like never before. But rather than caving to the pressure, teams must remain resilient and continue building their teams in accordance with their internal modus operandi, rather than the sentiment of the experts sitting behind their computers criticizing their every move.
Another interesting case at the most recent draft was the New York Knicks. It is always an event to see how the masochistic Knicks fans will deal with their latest member of the team. This year it was exacerbated by New York’s “own” Carmelo Anthony tweeting from his phone while he watched the draft. The Knicks picked 17th overall, and picked combo guard Iman Shumpert out of Georgia Tech, a player that very few people were familiar with.
Carmelo wanted the Knicks to pick fellow Baltimore native Josh Selby, a freshman out of the University of Kansas. He tweeted about it in the minutes leading up to the Knicks pick, but once Shumpert was announced as the selection, ‘Melo sent out a short and concise tweet.
“Goodnight. I’m out.”
That was his reaction to the newest member of the New York Knicks. While he quickly got back online to assure his followers that he was simply saying that he was going back to what he was doing, rather than expressing any dislike for the pick, the damage was already done.
The Knicks have enough issues trying to build complimentary players to play around ‘Melo and Amar’e, but now they have to worry about the players instantly questioning the picks along with the fans. The draft is the culmination of their work, and they have to deal with constant criticism for a pick they made in one of the most pressure packed environments in sports.
Shumpert had relatively little buzz surrounding him in the lead up to the draft from a casual fans perspective. He played three years at Georgia Tech, and has ideal size to compete and defend on the biggest stage at Madison Square Garden. But you would have no idea by reading the instant reaction that rippled through the stratosphere immediately following the selection.
Both of these situations serve as evidence that front offices are under an unprecedented level of scrutiny in todays media environment. But rather than caving into the pressure that is mounting, they must remain resilient and continue on the path that they have chosen to pave. It may be more difficult to maintain a semblance of job security in an age when franchises operate more like business than ever before, but front offices need not let this deter them from acting in the long-term best interest of their team.
The prefect example of this is Bryan Colangelo. He was given just a two-year contract extension this summer for the Raptors, which is a relatively short term deal for such an important part of the franchise. But he weathered the Valanciunas storm and the questions that arose about why he did not make a pick that could guarantee himself better immediate results.
Scouting and drafting in basketball is an extremely complicated process. No matter how much you follow it from the periphery, the intricacies of determining which player would best fit with the family of players that you have on your roster is difficult to fathom. Football, baseball and hockey are much different beasts with such large rosters, but basketball teams have a very intimate feel to them. Finding a player that will be able to enter the locker room without scuffling any feathers is a difficult task.
This process is made much more complicated by the slew of smoke screens and rumour mongering that exists as fans continue to head online in search of the latest tidbit of information regarding the player that they, in their expert opinion, believe their favourite team should draft.
But teams need to follow the lead of the likes of the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks. Despite their ravenous fan bases attacking their most recent picks, they stood strong and backed up their decisions to make the picks that they did.
The advent and rapid increase in usage of social media has been a great way for teams to interact with their fans. But when the fans start questioning the moves that are fundamental to the development of the team, it is necessary for the teams to stick to their guns.