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The Korolev Pick - In Perspective

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Although there is still nothing official from the Clippers, it has become clear that 2005 first round draft pick Yaroslav Korolev will not be back.  After declining his third year option, the Clippers allowed the 20-year-old Russian to become a free agent.  It then appeared that he would be back with the team with a new, cheaper, contract.  He was added to the summer league roster, and both the LAT and OCR reported that the two sides had reached an agreement for him to return to the team.  But something squirreled the deal, and Korolev never actually signed.  After signing Brevin Knight, Josh Powell and Ruben Patterson, and with the team now carrying the maximum number of contracts (and well over their fair share of forwards), there simply is no room for him at this point.  Indeed, the rumor mill now has him being pursued by Turkish league power Fenerbahche and possibly working out for the Phoenix Suns next week.

Update [2007-9-14 12:36:28 by ClipperSteve]: Korolev was mentioned as possibly working out for the Suns by Paul Coro in an Arizona Republic story on Tuesday.  Phoenix is looking to add one more front court player on the cheap.  However, Thursday's Republic mentions pretty much all of the same free agent bigs as being of interest to the Suns - but completely omits Korolev's name.  FWIW.

With his days in a Clipper uniform now over, it seems appropriate to look back on his brief tenure with the team.  

Of the 30 first round draft picks in 2005, 26 have had their third year options exercised.  Fran Vasquez, picked 11th by the Magic and Ian Mahinmi, picked 28th by the Spurs, have remained in Europe for two seasons and have yet to sign an NBA contract (there's a novel idea).  That leaves two players drafted in the first round in 2005 who signed a contract, but were allowed to walk after the two years guaranteed to all first round picks by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Of those two, Korolev is the only one who didn't almost die from loss of blood after a drive-by shooting in Denver (which is what happened to Julius Hodge, the 20th pick).

In two NBA seasons, Korolev logged ridiculously little game time:  168 minutes in 2 seasons, including a paltry 41 minutes in his second season.  Only the aforementioned Hodge played fewer minutes.  In fact, no one else even comes close.  And of course there are also about a dozen second round picks from 2005 playing and playing well.

That's all pretty unremarkable of course.  Every year, someone has to be the biggest washout from the first round, and in 2005 it was Korolev.  And being a lottery pick is no guarantee of success either.  Finding the bad picks after the fact is not difficult.  In 2004 Rafael Araujo was picked 8th and Pavel Podokolzine was picked 21st.  In 2003 Mike Sweetney was picked 9th.  And of course you had Skita Tskitishvili picked 5th in 2002.  

What makes the Korolev situation special is the fact that no one, and I mean no one, had him rated as highly as MDsr.  Until word leaked that the Clippers would take him with the 12th pick, he was not considered a first rounder, let alone a lottery pick.  Mock drafts went from having him nowhere, to having him locked into the 12 pick.  I never saw another team mentioned as having an interest in the guy.

He had just turned 18, and wasn't even playing on the Senior squad for his CSKA Moscow club.  I'm a pretty big proponent of the quality of European hoops, but I can't stress this enough.  He was not playing for the senior team.  If the top European Leagues feature stronger competition than D1 NCAA hoops, well, their junior teams are maybe a little better than big time high school ball.  Tskitishvili famously played very little for Mike D'Antoni at Benetton in the 2002 European Final Four directly before he was drafted.  But at least he was on the team!

There's a saying in the IT industry (a saying that will date me a little):  no one ever got fired for choosing IBM.  If you make the safe choice, the one that everyone expects you to make, your butt is covered.  If it doesn't work out, who can blame you?  It's what everyone else would have done given the same situation.  MDsr went way out on a limb drafting Korolev, and it didn't work out.  Not even close.  If Korolev had turned out to be another Nowitzki (still the ONLY example of a European that made it in the NBA without playing at the top levels in Europe first), then MDsr would have been a hero.  He deserves to be the goat given that Korolev turned out to be another Skita.  

At the time I remember looking at the Clippers roster and surmising what MDsr was thinking.  He felt pretty good about his team.  He didn't see a lot of immediate help available picking 12.  He had apparently seen something in this guy Korolev that he really liked.  Given that it was common knowledge that the Clippers were picking him, he must have been planning to draft him and leave him to play for CSKA's senior team until he had developed further.  It was a gamble, but maybe he'd have a big time player, for a rookie's salary, in three or four years when Korolev was 21 or 22.

Basically, the Clippers did almost everything wrong on this pick.  

  1. They wasted a lottery pick on a guy that no one else would have taken in the lottery.  Picks have value - to someone else if not to you.  If the Clippers had their hearts set on Korolev, why not trade down into the 20's and pick him there, maybe netting a future second rounder in the process?
  2. They wasted a roster spot on a guy who wasn't ready.  Korolev was 18, and had never played against top competition.  The couple of times he got into games that mattered, he looked completely overwhelmed.  He may have talent, but he wasn't ready for the NBA - not even close.
  3. They did nothing to develop the guy.  He played 127 minutes his rookie season, 41 minutes his second season.  He played zero minutes in the NBDL.  Hell, he barely even got minutes in pre-season.  He was essentially a practice player for two NBA seasons.  He's now 20, and no one has much more of an idea of whether he can play than they did when they drafted him.
  4. They didn't leave him in Europe.  If nothing else, you can leave him in Europe and not waste your time and money if he never develops.  By signing him to a rookie contract when he was 18, the Clippers started the clock ticking on a final decision.  At the age of 20, 4 years younger than rookie Al Thornton, the Clippers are forced to part ways with their lottery pick.  
  5. They could have drafted for immediate help.  Danny Granger was available at 12 when they picked Korolev.  Widely expected to go in the top 10, Granger was a polished college senior who most thought would be able to play in the NBA right away.  Indeed, he started 17 games as a rookie and 57 games in his second season, when he averaged almost 14 points a game.
  6. They could have drafted for spectacular potential.  Gerald Green was at one point projected into the top 5 and somehow plummeted on draft day, when he was still available at 12.  Still yet to live up to his potential, he nonetheless has shown almost limitless range (he made 37% of his threes last year) and completely freakish athleticism (he won the slam dunk contest at All Star weekend).  He's been something of a disappointment, but was still an important element in the Kevin Garnett trade.  
So it seems to me that Korolev is a uniquely poor draft choice.  Not only did he not work out (it happens), none of the pundits thought he would be good in the first place.  Many other players were rated higher (Granger, Green) and a couple are now budding stars (David Lee, Monta Ellis), which makes it all the more painful.  But finally, the fact that the kid should have been home in Moscow learning the game instead of languishing on the bench in LA, is the most painful.  ClipsNation should be dreaming of great things to come from a young Russian instead of wondering if maybe he can make the Suns roster.