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The Korolev Story - A Comedy of Errors

In the comment section of the 2005 Los Angeles Clippers draft post by citizen peterghost (thanks for stepping up again PG, and to the rest of you slackers, jump on in), citizen Piatkowski asked how it came to be that Yaroslav Korolev was drafted so highly. I started to write a reply in the comments and then realized "Hey, I can stretch this into a relatively cheap front page post during a period when I'm struggling to come up with front page material." Here is that post.

Korolev looked great, maybe even dominant in the 2005 European U18 Championships as a 17 year old. He turned 18 a month before the 2005 draft, and this was before the current age limit, so he was draft eligible as the equivalent of a very young high school senior. His skill set was tantalizing - he had perfect small forward size at 6'9", surprisingly good athleticism and good length. But it was his ball-handling and passing that really intrigued - he was a point forward, and was considered a high risk, high reward pick by draft experts at the time. The word was, if you didn't need help right away and could afford to draft him and hang onto him for a couple of seasons, there could be a big payoff.

Then-Clipper-Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. fell hard for the young Russian. The Freshman Psychology reason isn't difficult to decipher - he saw his son in the kid. Mike Dunleavy Jr. had been the third pick in the 2002 draft. MDjr and YK are both 6'9". They're both coach's sons. They're both highly skilled for their size. Did MDsr regret not getting the chance to coach his own son, and find a surrogate in Korolev? It's a stretch, but it might have been a factor.

Two other names were major factors in the Korolev pick: Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. Nowitzki was the best player in the 1998 NBA draft, while Pau was the best player picked in 2001. Both were big, young Europeans with skill sets that belied their size. The myth was growing that European club teams did a better job of developing skills, and everyone in the NBA started searching for "the next Dirk."

In theory Korolev was an interesting pick. In practice, MDsr and the Clippers made several tragic errors, each of which are completely obvious in hindsight, but were pretty damn obvious at the time as well.

Error Number 1 - They were chasing something that didn't really exist. By 2005, plenty of teams had already stumbled badly looking for "the next Dirk" and it seemed increasingly clear that Nowitzki and Gasol were simply unique talents as opposed to the vanguard of a new wave of European superstars. Some of the most legendary busts in NBA draft history were big Euros drafted in the years between 2001 (Gasol) and 2005 (Korolev). There is no Draft Bust Hall of Fame, but if there were, Nikoloz Tskitilkadsfl;ja (2002) and Darko Milicic (2003) would join Michael Olowokandi and Korolev there. Most teams seemed to have learned their lesson by 2005 - MDsr had not.

Error Number 2 - They ignored level of competition. Korolev had looked great in the U18 Championship. He had dominated the Russian Junior League. What he had not done - ever - was play basketball against men. The two riskiest types of picks in the NBA over the last decade or so have been foreign players and high school players - in Korolev, the Clippers essentially combined two high risk categories. In 2004-2005, he was on the top club team in Russia, CSKA Moscow - but he was playing for the Junior team. He actually got called up a couple of times - but had played fewer than 30 minutes with the Senior team in his career. In this case, Nowitzki is truly the exception - I can not think of any other European player who had any success in the NBA without first playing in a top European league. At the time of the 2005 draft, Korolev had done all his damage against 17 year olds and in an empty gym during pre-draft workouts. Is it any surprise he wasn't ready for NBA competition?

Error Number 3 - They drafted him too high. This is obvious in retrospect, but most draft experts at the time had Korolev as a late first round pick. No one had him in the lottery based on merit. A few of them actually did have him in the lottery of their mock drafts, always going to the Clippers. Word was out that Korolev had a first round promise, and everyone knew it was from the Clippers. The 'draft promise' is something that has never made any sense to me, and this is a great example of where it can really backfire (more on that in the next error). More importantly, although clearly Dunleavy was spooked that someone else was going to snap up Korolev, based on the buzz at the time, it wasn't going to be anyone in the top 20. If YK was really the right guy, fine, but why not trade down and get another asset if no one else is looking at the kid this high?

Error Number 4 - They made a promise. Promises have very little upside, but they have a very specific downside - what happens if a significantly better player drops to your draft position, for whatever reason? Now your stuck drafting the guy you made a promise to and passing up a golden opportunity. When the Clippers draft spot rolled around at 12, there were two players who were universally projected as top 10 picks still on the board - Danny Granger and Gerald Green. Granger is the guy everyone always talks about, since he turned into an All Star. In the interest of intellectual honesty, I like to include Green in the discussion, since he was projected just as high as Granger in 2005. Green of course went on to be just as big a bust as Korolev, so I guess you never know. But Granger seemed to many a sure thing, he played the position the Clippers needed to shore up, and indeed he's turned out to be one of the better players from the draft. But the Clippers couldn't make the obvious pick because they'd made a promise. Here's what DraftExpress said about the pick in their Draft Grades (the Clippers got a D, BTW):

The Clippers showed everyone in this draft why they are the LA Clippers, immediately reserving a spot once again for a favorable place in next year’s lottery. They made a promise way too early to Yaroslav Korolev and paid dearly for that by seeing much better players who fill an immediate need for them go right by them and having nothing they could do to stop it from happening. To add insult to error, they also let the entire world and their mother know who they made a promise to, reminding us again why they’ve become the laughing stock of the NBA over the past 20 years.

Error Number 5 - They didn't leave him in Europe. The Clippers had won 37 games the season before, and had some several positions solidified with Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Chris Kaman. MDsr seemed to think that he could think long term in the 2005 draft and wouldn't need immediate help (he was at least partially correct on this one, as the Clippers had their best season ever in 05-06). Korolev, even in the best case scenario, was too young to contribute right away; he was the long term play. Granger was the NBA-ready guy after four years of college ball. Because they appeared to be thinking long term I just assumed the Clippers would leave Korolev in Russia for a season or two - let him develop on CSKA's dime before the clock started ticking on his NBA rookie deal. Instead, they brought him over right away.


Error Number 6 - They didn't develop him. It now seems evident that it wasn't going to happen for Korolev at any rate. He's kicked around the European leagues and the D-League, he's been in camp with NBA teams, but at the age of 24 now it seems clear he's just not an NBA player. But the Clippers never gave their lottery pick much of a chance. He barely got any burn his rookie season - a measly 127 minutes. Amazingly, he played even less in his second season. For some reason, MDsr didn't even play him much in pre-season games. Rather than send him down to the D-League where he could at least get some all-important game experience playing against real life competition that was after all much better than anything he'd seen to that point in his career, MDsr kept him with the big club the entirety of both seasons. Most of that time was spent wearing a suit during games, and possibly fetching towels during practice. First round picks from 2005 forward received contracts for two guaranteed seasons, with team options for seasons three and four. After just two seasons, Korolev was out of the league, the Clippers admitting their mistake by not exercising his option and finally waiving him in 2007 training camp.

So that's the story of Yaroslav Korolev. One of the worst picks in history, the result of a comedy of errors.