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Clippers Off-Season 2016: Hitting "Reset" On Prospect Development

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Out with the old, in with the new for the Clippers' young players.

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I predicted on May 25th that a youth shakeup was coming.

It happened, but my prediction doesn't mean much.  Anybody could see from a mile away (and many did) the inevitability of moves being made.  With C.J. Wilcox and Branden Dawson on the roster, and picks 25 and 33 coming in, the Clippers would have 4 young players on the roster.  Wilcox wouldn't be in the rotation due to a positional logjam, Dawson wouldn't due to his still-developing skill level, and selections 25 and 33 are far from reliable outlets for adding a role player in year 1.

So, some moves were inevitable, and the Clippers looked at lots of options--trading up, trading down, and trading out of the drat being among them.  Ultimately, they picked Brice Johnson at 25, and then flipped 33 for 39 and 40, selecting David Michineau and Diamond Stone.  Then, over the last few days, the Clippers traded Wilcox and cut Dawson--two unsurprising moves that come with a lot of regret.

It's hard to place any sort of blame on the Clippers' front office for Branden Dawson, even if he turns out to be an All-Star after leaving the team.  They bought pick 56 in the 2015 draft and took a gamble on a guy they liked.  It didn't work out, but again, it's hard to judge the team since nobody selected 57-60 has even played in an NBA game, and they purchased the asset.

Wilcox, however, leaves behind a troubling legacy as a Clipper.  The team picked him 28th overall, which, in all fairness, is far from an area where players are likely to turn into good NBA players.  That said, it was a puzzling selection at the time and any long-term plan never came to fruition.  Wilcox was an old prospect (I don't hate old prospects as much as most on the internet but it's worth noting) who played the only position where the Clippers had no available minutes.  At point guard, the Clippers always have a need for a role player.  Down low, the cast of backup big men is constantly rotation.  And at small forward, the team has needed help forever.

Now, the "misses" in Wilcox's draft aren't anything spectacular.  One name that fans wanted, Kyle Anderson, has shown promise for the Spurs but still has a lot of growing to do.  Another name that fans loved was CleAnthony Early, who has been dreadful in the NBA.  Later on, some notable names drop: Nikola Jokic, Dwight Powell, Jordan Clarkson--probably the only 3 in the second round who have been quality NBA players so far.  It's probably not fair to expect the Clippers' front office to have reached for a mid-late second round guy unless they had a crystal ball.  You can put a lot of hard work and scouting into the draft, but it's still always going to have an element of luck.

Even with all that, it was an odd pick.  I've generally accepted the Clippers' strategy of foregoing long-term "project" picks in favor of experienced players who have a shot at helping short-term to maximize the Chris Paul window... but Wilcox is limited to shooting guard, the only position where the Clippers actually have had two long-term rotation pieces under contract.  Dawson clearly had openings to earn minutes at both forward spots last season, but wasn't good enough.  A 28th pick likely wouldn't have helped anyway, but the Wilcox selection took whatever the chance is of getting a helper at 28, and reduced it drastically.

Reggie Bullock, surprisingly, is starting to look like the best-handled draft pick the Clippers have had in the Doc Rivers era.  He was an experienced player drafted at a position of need, he got some chances (over triple Wilcox's minutes in a half-season less with the team), and he didn't pan out.  Ultimately in January of 2015, Bullock couldn't capitalize on a massive void at small forward and D-Leaguer Jordan Hamilton ended up playing over him.  At that point, it wasn't hard to move on, and the Clippers used him in a trade to acquire Austin Rivers, who has obviously been one of Clippers' best additions in recent years.

A late first-round pick who was drafted at a position of need, given some chances, and moved in year 2 when he looked like he wasn't an NBA player.  That's pretty standard.  Austin Rivers' explosion onto the scene is just a bonus (which also makes it easier to watch Bullock show signs of life in Detroit a year later).

In summary, Dawson is a freebie.  Bullock was a swing and a miss--a fine, defensible miss, but still a miss.  Wilcox was an odd choice that didn't end up surprising us.  Now, two "missed" picks in the late first round doesn't make Doc Rivers' front office bad at drafting.  We're run through the likelihood of finding real players this late in the draft time and time again, and it's not great.  That doesn't mean that the Clippers should start forfeiting their picks--they need to maximize those odds and hit home runs whenever possible.  It just means that we can acknowledge Bullock and Wilcox as losing lottery tickets without having to crucify the front office.

This summer, maybe Doc is learning.  He gave up on Wilcox for a 2020 second rounder (better than nothing?) and cut Dawson.  Bullock is already long gone.

And this year, this while Doc once again picked an older prospect in the first round, he took a project big man in the second round and shocked everyone by taking a French point guard that the team liked.  In my mind, Diamond Stone was a reasonable selection at 33.  He wouldn't have been my first choice, but it would have been fair value nonetheless.  So while David Michineau was a no-name prospect, the Clippers essentially picked up his rights for free.

Now, I've said time and again that I wouldn't have gone down the same exact path as the Clippers in the second round, but that doesn't make the front office bad drafters.  It doesn't mean that I was wrong, either.  I would have taken Demetrius Jackson at 33 and been ecstatic.  After trading down to 39 and 40, I would have been thrilled to come away with one or both of Jake Layman and Paul Zipser as well.

The two Summer League standouts were Patrick McCaw and Tyler Ulis, and while I liked McCaw as a prospect, I wouldn't have taken him at 33, and Ulis was high on my board but behind Demetrius Jackson.  I will remind all of you that Summer League is just Summer League, so McCaw and Ulis dominating in Vegas could still leave them well short of being NBA-caliber players.  How do I know?  I remember Adam Morrison.

My point is that I refuse to spend my summer fretting about the Clippers' second-round choices.  Anyone who says the Clippers should have taken Ulis at pick 33 since he'll "help now" needs to consider that the chances of that are still low, and the chances of him being a better depth guard than Raymond Felton this year are probably pretty low.  I know we all get prospect drunk during the pre-draft process and through Summer League, but it's good to take a step back: the Clippers have put together plenty of "help now" depth in free agency, and now they have a couple young players who they really like under their control.

David Michineau will be the Clippers' first international stash player since Sofoklis Schortsanitis (remember MBFGC?) in the 2003 draft.  Diamond Stone will be the youngest Clipper in over a decade, since Shaun Livingston and Yaroslav Koralev took the court.  How many times did we hear that Doc wouldn't even look at international prospects?  Or that he would never draft inexperienced collegiate players?

Now I don't have a crystal ball.  I can't predict what will happen with these guys.  There's no way to guarantee that Johnson and Stone won't meet the fate of Wilcox and Dawson while Michineau spends his entire career in France.  But there's a lot of reason for hope that the Clippers are turning their prospect development failures around.  They're trying new things, they actually took two long-term prospects, they parted ways with Dave Severns (the old player development coach), and they're seriously looking into starting a D-League team this year or next year.  Lawrence Frank's new front-office vision, featuring stronger scouting departments and a focus on long-term strategic planning, is backed by "significant resources in staff and funding" from Steve Ballmer.

I understand why people are hesitant with rookies given the Clippers' recent draft history, but the small sample size that Wilcox and Bullock fit under, along with the new direction the team seems to have taken, is more than enough for me to rationalize optimism.  Here's to a successful "reset" on prospect development.