I remember the first time I thought about Doug McDermott playing for the Bulls. It was during Polar Vortex 1.0, one of those January nights so cold you couldn't step outside for more than 15 seconds without the air attacking your face and biting your skin. Creighton was in town to play DePaul and McDermott was off to a fast start as a senior, living up to every bit of hype that was laid out as the preseason Wooden Award favorite. I saw this tweet roll across my timeline and nodded to myself:
Every team drafts to fit some kind of model, and McDermott fit the one the Bulls have clearly established. He's a coach's son with a long and productive college career. He passed the grit test with flying colors, we can assume, as the type of high-character player the Bulls love. He was an elite shooter for a team that needed shooting. The fact that he torched college basketball for four seasons didn't hurt, either.
I figured the Bulls had liked him for a long time, so much so that I defended the pick a month before it was made. The fact that it even had to be defended is a criticism in itself, of course. When the trade finally went down last night, the disapproval poured in hard and fast. This was not exactly unexpected.
No one is arguing against what Doug McDermott has done. It's impossible. There are only four players who have ever played college basketball to score more points than he did at Creighton. It's the type of mindblowing accomplishment that got Sports Illustrated to recreate one of its most iconic covers ever, one with no less of a deity on the front than Larry Bird:
The NBA Draft has never been about selecting the best basketball players, though. If it was, McDermott might have gone No. 1. The draft is about projecting where the best 19 and 20 years old in the country will be three or four years from now based off a combination of tools, pedigree and limited time in college. In that sense, McDermott really had no chance to avoid a certain level of skepticism. If he was really that good, he would have declared for the NBA after his freshman or sophomore season.
Every team operates on a different timeline, and the Bulls decided they didn't have time to wait. Doug McDermott can and will help the Bulls next season. The cost of that is that he doesn't have as much long-term upside as several of the players taken after him. Did you want Gary Harris and James Young instead? That's fine, but those guys might not have been able to help until 2017. With McDermott, the Bulls have a ready-made drop-dead shooter that can be plugged into the lineup in a number of different ways. He was taken to spread the floor for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and hopefully give the Bulls the type of fallback offensive option late in the shotclock that they lacked last season.
So, why so much criticism? It isn't too hard to figure out. For one, the NBA is the place where the biggest and most athletic humans in the world go to work. McDermott is not particularly big or terribly athletic. Even worse, he's going to defend those players in high-leverage situations. There's no way of getting around this:
If the Bulls play the Pacers, who does McDermott guard - Paul George or David West? An example of his defensive issues at the 3 and 4.— Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks) June 27, 2014
The analytic models didn't like him, either. Those models operate on the assumption that scoring doesn't translate from the college level to the NBA as well as steals and blocks do. McDermott averaged 0.2 steals and 0.1 blocks every year for four years. It was in part because Creighton largely played a conservative defensive system, but there's no time for context in an algorithm. Immediately, McDermott was a player smart people hated.
@NBAcouchside did you ever try the statistical model of watching him play— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) June 27, 2014
I don't mean to rip Kevin here, because he's a smart dude with a sharp basketball mind you all should be following. I'm not questioning Kevin so much as I am the model. There is really no arguing over how important statistical analysis is that this point, and there never should have been. Stats show you what happened with unbiased accuracy. I am not super convinced they can predict the future just yet, though. Those same models ranked Andrew Wiggins the No. 21 player in the draft. They put Marcus Smart No. 1. They apparently did not have a variable for taking terrible shots, because anyone who has ever watched Smart play knows that's very much part of his personal equation.
The models are great. They are definitely useful. But are we really going to believe they're foolproof when it requires we disregard four years of hard evidence? I'm not sure if it's an equation I would bet my life on, is all. I don't think NBA Twitter, the same people who hate on McDermott, ever really spent their week nights watching random Big East games.
We know the Bulls still want Carmelo Anthony. They're going to do everything in their power to get him. That will almost certainly require trading away Mike Dunleavy Jr. McDermott is a perfect replacement for him. Maybe that's the problem, that the Bulls had two top 20 picks and used them to try to replace Mike Dunleavy. Think bigger! Well, sure, but the immediate value of McDermott is worth something, too. If the Bulls get Anthony, they're chasing a championship in the next two years. McDermott can help them get there.
So much of the criticism over McDermott as an NBA prospect comes down to his defense, both from the scouting community and the analytic one. It's certainly fair. However, if there's ever a team in a position to disregard defense, it our Bulls. Tom Thibodeau will figure out the defense. The Bulls drafted what was in their mind the best offensive player available for the immediate future. And we're sitting here worrying about defense?
I'm not saying I love McDermott either. I would have rather kept the two picks, and hell, he might have still been there at No. 16. Taking on Anthony Randolph makes it seems like even more of a foolish move. I do think Doug McDermott is a good basketball player, though, and that's what we're losing sight of. He'll help the Bulls next season and beyond. You'll like him more when you watch him play, trust me. He'll hit threes and score in ways you didn't think he could. I haven't created an algorithm but I have seen him play. He's good, and he'll be good for the Bulls. There's no point in burying him before he's stepped on an NBA court.