We hear it all the time. "Better to be safe than sorry." Thursday night, while a lot of other teams were making small little deals or selecting high-upside players, the Los Angeles Clippers opted for C.J. Wilcox, the 6'5" shooting guard out of Washington. In terms of "safe or sorry", the Clippers played it safe. There's nothing wrong with safe, per se, but later on in the draft, is safe really what you want to go for? I think not.
The Clippers did this last year, as well. They selected 22 year old small forward Reggie Bullock out of North Carolina with the 25th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Ever since the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin, a sophomore out of the University of Oklahoma back in 2009, the Clippers have relatively avoided high-upside, low-ceiling players outside of one (Eric Bledsoe). This is starting to become a theme for them. The Clippers have decided to play it safe and get a couple of roleplayer years out of a guy rather than swing for the fences and go for upside.
In 2008, the Clippers took a pair of freshmen, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, and both turned out to be well worth the risk. When they took Shaun Livingston, a high school point guard, in 2004, he showed the potential he had before a devastating knee injury ravaged his career. In 2005, they took high upside Russian wing prospect Yaroslav Korolev and he played a grand total of 168 minutes for the Clippers. In 2007, they took Al Thornton out of Florida State. Thornton was a 23 year old senior. In 2010, they opted for Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe. Both players did not make it to their senior year. Bledsoe left after his freshman season and Aminu left after his sophomore season. But Aminu was viewed by some as a solidly finished product by the time the draft rolled around.
If you're counting, since 2007 the Clippers have acquired seven players from the first round. Of those seven players, three made it to their senior year and four left college early. Of the three that completed college, they were Al Thornton, Reggie Bullock, and C.J. Wilcox. The four that left early were Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Eric Bledsoe. The only one in that quartet that didn't produce a very good season was Al-Farouq Aminu. We've still yet to see what Reggie Bullock and, obviously, C.J. Wilcox have in store for their careers, so it's too early to judge them. But Al Thornton never panned out and is now a 30-year old out-of-work small forward. He hasn't played since the 2010-2011 season.
The problem with drafting players who stay all four years is that, more often than not, their potential is maxed out. Staying four years isn't really a bad thing necessarily, but it's not a good thing either. Throughout the course of four years in college, or sometimes even five years, a player is molded into what that specific college coach wants him to be. It's like clay that has already hardened, making it tougher for you to mold into the bowl you'd prefer. With younger guys, there's no such issue whatsoever. They're still putty and still able to be transformed into what you want.
The redeeming quality about the guys who stay for all four years is that they're perceived to be more mature, both physically and mentally, for the NBA. This isn't always the case. Every person, and player, is different. Every single one has a different mindset, different work ethic, and different skills. They handle themselves differently. If the NBA draft were easy, everyone would nail it and no one would fail. This is not to say that C.J. Wilcox is not a quality kid and has no future in the NBA. Like I said, every draft prospect is different in this regard.
With C.J. Wilcox, however, it's good to remember that while he is a knockdown shooter in catch-and-shoot situations and has the athleticism to always compete on both ends of the floor, he lacks the upside you'd want out of a normal draft pick. He's going to turn 24 years old before the NBA season turns the calendar to 2015. That's never a good thing. Older prospects can work out, but most turn out to be middling roleplayers or wash out of the league. Especially ones that get taken this late in the draft.
Doc Rivers usually does not play rookies all that much in the first place, so it makes little sense to me why selecting C.J. Wilcox was actually a thing. His shooting skill is the reason he got drafted, and I have no problem with that, but we know Doc Rivers isn't going to play him that much. Reggie Bullock, who fit the same mold as C.J. Wilcox, barely got any playing time this season. Do you really see C.J. Wilcox trumping that? I'm not comfortable saying yes. Especially when the Clippers still have J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford on the roster, as well as Bullock, who has a year in the system already, who can play spot minutes at the two spot. That doesn't even factor in the Clippers signing someone to backup Chris Paul, either. That'd mean even fewer minutes for Wilcox.
Skills pay the bills, or so Floyd "Money" Mayweather says. Wilcox's skill is shooting. But on a team with enough shooters and not enough perimeter defenders, or even enough upside guys to build the "farm system" with, weren't there more prudent selections on the board? Every team's draft board is different, obviously, so it's hard to fault them entirely for going with the guy they wanted, but the Clippers could have done things a little differently and gotten a large payoff in the end.
If the Clippers were to have selected a young international prospect, for instance, they could have saved valuable money by stashing him overseas and also having someone to groom for the future. Damien Inglis comes immediately to mind, the small forward from France that the Milwaukee Bucks selected with the first pick in the second round. You could stash him, save him, let him develop, and still go after your goal this season; a championship.
The selection of C.J. Wilcox was just a tad head-scratching. Especially with some of his deficiencies as a player. Wilcox isn't an above-average ball-handler, more or less average in this regard, which leads to him having problems getting around defenders on the perimeter. His first step is good, but he gets deterred on his way to the rim because of his frame. Strong defenders can wall him off and keep him from getting where he wants to go. This is also a ball-handling problem, as well as a strength problem.
Another thing Wilcox has to work on, which is tough for him being older, is that he's primarily just a jump-shooter. 356 of his 435 shots (81.8%) came on 2-point or 3-point jumpers. Only 79 shots were deemed at the rim. Because of this, he settles a lot against defenders when he sometimes has a lane to attack. He, basically, trusts his jumper too much. It'd be better if Wilcox got to the rim at a higher rate instead of the rate he does. This hurts his free throw numbers. Wilcox averaged 0.24 free throws per possession and 0.27 free throws per field goal attempt. Other shooters, like Joe Harris (0.29 FTA/POS, 0.34 FTA/FGA) and Spencer Dinwiddie (0.58 FTA/POS, 0.91 FTA/FGA), were above these marks. Even others like P.J. Hairston (0.33 FTA/POS, 0.36 FTA/FGA) and Jordan Clarkson (0.33 FTA/POS, 0.42 FTA/POS) were above Wilcox.
When you're not getting to the rim a lot and you're shooting a ton of jumpers, you're basically a one-trick pony. That's okay if that trick is really, really good. And Wilcox has a really good trick. But it's a problem when you can't combine that trick with another skill that's at least an adequate level. And I question whether he has any other skills at an adequate level. His athleticism helps him on defense but his frame hinders him. He doesn't take well to contact, both offensively and defensively, and you can really see it at times. He struggles off the ball, gets beat on the ball if a guard attacks him, and really can't deal with getting bullied by bigger guards. Wilcox's wingspan will help him but the lack of bulk and strength will kill him.
C.J. Wilcox is a one-dimensional player. He's a catch-and-shoot shooting guard that doesn't handle contact well, can't defend consistently, isn't a good ball-handler, and needs others to create for him off the dribble in order to be effective. On the Clippers, that's not a truly bad thing but there were slightly better options out there as far as upside and projection go. One-dimensional players can help, but only for a short while. With his age, lack of physicality on the wing, and one skill, I question how long he can last. If you were building the shooting guard version of Reggie Bullock, C.J. Wilcox would be it. They're both "help you now" players but they won't play that much now. That's where the problem with this particular pick lies.
You'd hope that a team that has had some success in the past going with high-upside, high-risk guys would go back to that route. Even though some of those available high-upside guys were international prospects, there's nothing wrong with taking one of them and sitting on him. You have to let young guys develop. You have to give them the minutes to see what they have and what they can do. Last season, Reggie Bullock never got those minutes. And it was perfectly understandable. But, as we all know, C.J. Wilcox isn't going to get those minutes this year, either, unless trades are made and someone is sent out for him to get more playing time.
But this is Doc Rivers. Rookies don't get playing time under him unless there's extreme circumstances. So why not use that pick on someone who won't take up valuable salary cap space, who will actually get playing time somewhere, and who will have a higher chance of getting better over the years? It just did not seem prudent to use a first round pick on a 23-year old shooting guard whose only valuable quality is his shot when the Clippers had bigger needs and better strategies out there.
This was the equivalent of hitting an iron off the tee on a Par-5 in order to safely land on the fairway rather than taking out the driver and mashing one over the lake. Sometimes safe works. Sometimes your circumstances allow you to take a risk, though. Safe can also be sorry.