The Curse of Being a Young, Great NBA Player

Kevin Reyes
NBA Analyst

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. 

With another week of NBA action in the books, let’s talk about some of the things that happened during the past week. Once a week, I’ll be releasing an article on some takeaways I had from the previous week of NBA basketball. Normally, I would talk about a variety of topics around the NBA. But for this week in particular, I wanted to briefly discuss one of the many problems I have with the discourse surrounding NBA players: the negative side of a player being great at the start of his NBA career. Let’s talk about it.

The NBA has the most young talent it’s ever had, but…

Basketball is in a good place at the moment. The level of talent that is developing around the world is at an all-time high, with the NBA consistently breaking records on international players being drafted. All the work the NBA has done to globalize the game has paid dividends. At the national level alone, basketball talent has never been more abundant than it is right now. A look at multiple lists about the best players in the NBA 25 and under will be pretty quick in convincing you of that. The more talent to go around there is, the more competitive the league is, and the more great basketball there is to watch on a nightly basis. Just look at this season, where choosing All-Star Reserves seemed like a daunting task for coaches, with a lot of the candidates for those positions being players 28 years old and younger beginning to blossom. Some of the league’s best players (Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, among others) are 26 or younger. Players have never come in and been so developed and supremely talented from the jump at any point in history.

The NBA has the most young talent it’s ever had, but they are also scrutinized more than at any point in history as well. There seems to be a growing obsession over players having a championship, and with that comes the heightened expectations of great players having to carry their teams to winning one. Lack of postseason success, for whatever reason that may be, is treated as the defining trait of certain players. That’s somewhat understandable if you’re talking about players that have had numerous postseason “chokes”, but not for players that are still growing and, in most cases, aren’t even in their primes.

Throughout NBA history, most star players that come into the league have been given space to grow, with their respective front offices having time to make moves and build a contender around their franchise cornerstone, but such liberties aren’t given anymore. Nowadays, star players come in and are already expected to be competing for a championship by their first three seasons, and they’re damned if they don’t. And with so much talent to go around, more players are constantly exposed to this unwarranted criticism.

Why this criticism exists

The obvious presence and continued growth of social media is one of the main reasons this talk is so prevalent. Everyone having the ability to voice their opinion, based on research or not, leaves more room for the unwarranted criticism to exist and be mainstream. That, and the era of content being published primarily for clicks or to have people talk (positively or negatively), has allowed the negative talk about players to dominate the airwaves. Besides the obvious, the historical achievements from other all-time greats from the jump has incorrectly set a precedent for how things should be.

Magic Johnson won his first championship in his first season at 20 years old, having one of the greatest Finals performances in the closeout game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Kobe Bryant began a three-peat when he was 21. LeBron James led his team to the Finals in only his fourth season at 22, already tasked with being “The Chosen One”. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led his team to a championship in his second season in the league. Kevin Durant was competing head-to-head against LeBron in the Finals at 23 in only his fourth season averaging 25+ points. These players, and others not mentioned, have been able to pair their generational talent with a combination of a good system, coaching staff and front office. These are special cases that happen once in a blue moon. All great young players shouldn’t be held to this standard that the vast majority can’t come close to achieve.

Generally, a player goes through the process of entering the league, developing steadily, and then being able to compete at the highest level possible. The achievements of the players stated above are anomalies, not the norm. They should be celebrated, but they shouldn’t be the standard for all great young players that set the league on fire.

How is this relevant this season?

At 26 years old, Giannis is in his fifth season since first becoming an All-Star at 22, has already won two Most Valuable Player awards and last year became the third player in NBA history to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season, among other accolades. Pretty great, right? Well, not according to most, because apparently Antetokounmpo is already at the “championship or bust” stage of his career without even entering his prime yet. Luka and Trae Young are already being criticized for complaining, getting favorable calls from referees and not leading their teams to the record most expected in only their third season. The New Orleans Pelicans are already being pressured by many to build a contender around their star, Zion Williamson, when he played his fiftieth career game two weeks ago. Does any of this not sound wrong to you? It should, because it is.

Let me be clear: the ultimate goal in professional sports is to win a championship, no doubt about that. My point isn’t that there shouldn’t be certain criticism towards stars that don’t lead their teams to a title. My point is that players are thrusted into these “if you don’t win, you’re a bad leader / you put up empty stats / you don’t impact winning” situations with no reason. At the end of the day, context is key, and no situation is the same. Young stars are far too often judged by the context of what other legendary players have achieved, rather than their own individual and team context. Basing judgement on young stars by how much success (regular season and playoffs) they have, without considering context, is a practice that needs to stop.

There’s a process to building a contender. Whether it be negotiating the right trade, signing the right players, putting together the right blend of people in a locker room and establishing a good culture and system, putting together a team that can compete for a championship requires time. No great championship team, all things considered, is built overnight. All the teams that have reached the Finals have gone through multiple seasons of putting pieces to build said contender. Taking that into consideration, there’s no point criticizing those guys’ lack of success when the process for those franchises has barely begun.

Player Empowerment is, to a certain point, part of the problem

Player Empowerment has brought many good things. In general, the idea of players having the complete choice to play wherever they please is a good thing. I for one have no problems with the two moves that started the Player Empowerment era: LeBron taking his talents to South Beach, and Durant choosing to play with the Golden State Warriors. Having said this, it has a negative undertone in terms of team building: teams can’t go through the full process of building a contender because there are so few players that are willing to wait, and instead try to build a contender in one fell swoop. No player, up to this point, has won a championship doing that (James Harden can change that this summer).

While the move hasn’t ultimately paid off for those that have done so, players are still going to be doing it. And with the prospect of players having the ability to want out whenever they please, the process of building a contender is accelerated times a dozen, if it even happens. See the Atlanta Hawks, for example, who made big offseason splashes in hopes of being a playoff team earlier than what they were projected to be. So far, things aren’t looking too good for them, and other teams could follow suit if they favor short term success over long term success. And as of writing this, they fired their head coach, Lloyd Pierce… *frustration intensifies*

Just appreciate greats being great

Being great at a young age is fantastic: players are in elite company with the best of the best, and they give their front offices a cornerstone to build around, among other perks. But, it also gives them the curse of being criticized, warranted or not, for lack of success early in their careers. The more greatness one achieves, the more people will expect. And while NBA players can raise their game to a higher level, attaining a certain level of team success requires much more than individual greatness.

Great young players aren’t exempt from criticism. One can judge their games and what they bring to their teams on a nightly basis. What one can’t do is mindlessly say they’re not at the level of *insert player* or that they aren’t as great as they seem because they haven’t led their teams to playoff success. Just let these players grow, and let their teams grow around them. Don’t expect them to be an anomaly that wins a championship early in their career just because another did, every case is different. Evaluate what they can and can’t do objectively, and don’t just base your unjustified negative takes just because they don’t win what you think they should without even reaching their primes.

In general, just appreciate great young players. Look at their growth without the need to find fault in whatever they do (or don’t), and appreciate the entire arc they go through.

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