When Balbay was lost for the year, I took a stab at ranking the most important players on the team from that point forward. Atop my list? Damion James.
Now, I'm not above self-congratulatory look-sees (and in this case my position was not universally accepted), but please, hold your applause. I actually re-raise this issue not to remind you that I was on to something, but to explore how we've all perhaps been wrong.
While it's easy to see that my take on James was on point, you need only read on to #2 on my list (Avery Bradley) to begin finding evidence of where I was wrong. And you'll find much more, if you continue to the players ranked #3 (Hamilton) and #4 (Brown). Not that these freshmen aren't critical or that I won't stand by what I wanted from them in the original post, but in retrospect, the reasons I was right to rank Damion James #1 atop the list are the same reasons I was wrong to rank Bradley, Hamilton, and Brown above Gary Johnson (#5) and Dexter Pittman (#6).
Maybe the best way to think about what I'm getting at is to consider what Gary Johnson now means to this team, relative to where he was as a basketball player (and contributor) a year ago. Entering his true junior season, I'll be honest: I was pretty down on Johnson. I really was. Between his shot selection and poor team play, all I could focus on was what, in two years, he had proven unable to do. Fast forward to today and Johnson is, I would argue, the second-most important player on the team. He's neither the second-most talented, nor the second-best NBA prospect, but he's the second-most important to this team being the best it can be.
And yet, heretofore this season the focus has been on what the trio of freshmen have not become; and though I will stand by my thought that Rick Barnes has not handled this season particularly well, I'm starting to think that amongst those of us who care, we've been as flawed in our expectations as we believe Barnes has been in his coaching this year. To get to the point of the matter: I suspect that we've expected too much of these freshmen, too soon.
As much as we've focused on the myriad successes and failures of Bradley, Hamilton, and Brown, I've yet to see a single word of praise for Barnes for Gary Johnson's development. The focus continues to remain on the freshmen, and though I'm as guilty of it as anyone else, I'm arriving at the point where I'm starting to see this very differently.
Think about T.J. Ford as a freshman. Or if you're like me, the frustration you felt when Bill Simmons basically blasted Rick Barnes for not winning a title during Kevin Durant's freshman year. Or if you follow the NBA, think about the difference between Durant as a rookie and where he is now. Think, again, of where most of us thought Gary Johnson was in November of this year and where he is now. Almost without exception, these things -- these players -- take time.
I think the mistake that we've made this year is in our expectations with regard to this year's freshman class. And really, I think that's been the mistake that Rick Barnes has made, as well. We'll see what's ahead for this team, but if they fail to meet everyone's lofty expectations, I'm beginning to think that the problem won't so much have been that Rick Barnes failed to turn these freshmen into superstars, but that he -- like the rest of us -- failed to understand what they could and could not be for us.
I have no idea whether, at this point, this kind of realization can be a useful teaching point for this year's team. What I do know is that, if we fall short of meeting our goals, when this is all over and we sit down to evaluate both Barnes and ourselves this year, I think we'll find that we were all off base a bit.