Entering the NBA as the 2017 draft’s second pick, Lonzo Ball was—whether because of his volatile father, comparisons to NBA greats, or a laughable signature shoe—one of the most talked-about players to ever enter the league. After a stellar Summer League in which he won MVP honours, Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka called him “transcendent.” Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd dubbed him a future Hall of Famer who would do for passing what Stephen Curry had done for the three-point shot, proclaiming Ball was destined to “make passing cool again!” After the first 22 games of his career, however, NBA analysts, including ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, are “petrified” for Ball, the most recent in a line of young players to be considered a bust.
The term ‘bust’ has become ever present in the NBA fan’s vernacular. While it might reasonably describe a player, like Kwame Brown or Darko Milicic, who failed to reach their potential, it is instead applied ever-freely to rookies 20 games into their first season. This premature representation is perpetuated by the often-cited argument that certain NBA greats excelled in their rookie campaigns: Michael Jordan averaged 28 points per game, Wilt Chamberlain won league MVP, and Magic Johnson delivered a Lakers championship.
For every Mike, Wilt, and Magic, however, there is a Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, or Gary Payton. For these legends, once-disappointing early indications have long since faded, as have memories of their horrendous shooting percentages and sub-double-digit point averages. Instead, what remains are their MVP awards, Hall of Fame inductions, and championship rings.
Many of the players who have made an instant impact in the league spent four years in university, developing physically and mentally before entering the NBA. Alternatively, Bryant came straight from high school. His rookie play clearly reflected this. In the modern NBA, players often spend a similarly-brief single year in college before making the jump to the pros, skipping valuable opportunities for growth and maturation beforehand.
Draft picks are now selected with an emphasis on their ceilings—in other words, their best-case career scenarios many seasons down the line—yet the corresponding shift in the mindset of fans and analysts has failed to materialize. This disconnect frustrates fans and reduces their enjoyment of the game, as the idea that entertainment is reflected in the wins column prevents them from appreciating the play of a 20-year-old still-developing rookie.
Moreover, as the term ‘bust’ is used, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the pressure and criticism it causes in the loud social media age can damage a player’s confidence. In this way, fans can force the loss of an exciting up-and-comer while perpetuating the bust cycle.
When, however, the game is approached from a mindset of excitement over new, developing players, the outcome is the opposite. A good game shouldn’t be characterized by wins and losses, but by growth—of the team as a whole, but particularly of its individual players. While each extra shot a rookie makes may not rival the joy of winning a championship, appreciating individual improvement allows every good play to truly be exceptionally fun—a promise of successes to come. It is a perspective that makes for better, happier sports fans.
And so, a year on, when—as with Lonzo’s all-too-similar second pick teammate Brandon Ingram—Smith and co. confess that “[they] may have been wrong,” true Lakers fans will enjoy knowing that they have an eye for real upcoming talent, which will make those eventual championships all the sweeter.