It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Michael Beasley was thought by some to be the most promising prospect in basketball. It's even harder to believe now that Beasley, after running afoul of the law yet again, is hanging on the NBA's waiver wire.
Albeit with a nifty $7 million buyout from the Phoenix Suns in his pocket. Better than tots, I suppose.
But not much better or worse than a number of other busts who've turned the second slot in the NBA draft into the pit of wasted talent that it's become over the years.
A Likely Story
Like so many of those drafted before and after him, Beasley was expected to go far, to be a star in the NBA in short order. There was plenty of chatter in the lead-up to the 2008 NBA draft that Beasley might be the No. 1 overall pick, ahead of some Chicago-born kid out of the University of Memphis.
What was his name? Oh, right...Derrick Rose.
At the time, the praise for Beasley was anything but unwarranted. He'd dominated during his freshman season at Kansas State, pouring in 26.2 points and grabbing an NCAA-best 12.4 rebounds while nailing 37.9 percent of his threes for Frank Martin's Wildcats.
Beasley lost out on National Player of the Year honors to Tyler Hansbrough, who'd just culminated a decorated career at North Carolina, but was still named a consensus first-team All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year.
More importantly, Beasley had opened eyes among NBA scouts and front-office personnel. After all, guys with Beasley's size (6'8, 235 lbs), athleticism and all-around skill set don't just grow on trees.
(Though, when it comes to Michael Beasley, we might do better to avoid mentioning trees whenever possible, lest we tempt irony too much.)
And thus, after much deliberation, the Chicago Bulls allowed Beasley to slip to the Miami Heat at No. 2, whereupon Pat Riley brought the Beltway native to South Beach. Here are some of the more notable names that Riles passed over with that slot: Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Ryan Anderson, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, George Hill, Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik.
By my count, that's four All-Stars (Love, Westbrook, Lopez, Hibbert), with the rest qualifying as either borderline All-Stars or upper-echelon role players.
In fairness to Riles, Beasley was a near-unanimous choice as one of the top two prospects in that particular draft pool. Moreover, Beasley's breakout came on the heels of the previous season's Big 12 and National Player of the Year, Texas freshman Kevin Durant, topping the 20-point-per-game plateau and earning distinction as the NBA's Rookie of the Year after joining the Seattle SuperSonics as the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft.
If ever lightning were to strike in consecutive drafts, this would've been it.
Bad News Beasley
Needless to say, things didn't turn out that way for Michael Beasley, as they rarely seem to for those taken second in the draft.
In the summer of 2010, Beasley was shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves to make room for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. From a pure productivity standpoint, he peaked the following season, averaging 19.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists under the tutelage of Kurt Rambis.
Beasley dropped off in year two in Minny while rubbing the T-Wolves in more wrong ways than one. He then joined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent on a three-year, $18 million deal last summer.
Beasley struggled to find a proper role on the court in Phoenix as the Suns began their descent into a full-on rebuild. As a result, his performance plummeted, leading new management to reconsider the prior regime's commitment to the troubled forward.
Well, that and Beasley's persistent, marijuana-related run-ins with Johnny Law. As Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby told Paul Coro of AZCentral.com upon parting ways with Beasley:
“The most recent legal issue intervened and that was the end of it,” Babby said, referring to the Aug. 6 arrest on suspicion of marijuana possession after the officer smelled marijuana in his car on a traffic stop. Scottsdale police found narcotics in the driver’s seat area of Beasley’s vehicle.
That was hardly Beasley's first off-court offense.
In September of 2008, the NBA fined Beasley $50,000 for his role in an incident involving marijuana at the Rookie Transition Program. The following August, Beasley checked into rehab, though stress-related issues—not illicit substances—were offered as the explanation for his admission.
The lockout of 2011 saw Beasley cited for speeding, with marijuana allegedly found under his seat, prior to a now-infamous confrontation with a heckling fan at New York City's Dyckman Park:
Now, Beasley finds himself with a chunk of cash and plenty of free time in which to spend it. Chances are, he won't have too much trouble landing a job playing basketball somewhere. He's still largely the same physical specimen he was when he entered the league five years ago and, at 24, is young enough to be considered salvageable.
For now, though, Beasley will be counted as another bust, another bright talent derailed by forces beyond the game.
The Blues and No. 2's
Beyond the individual tragedy of yet another athlete's gifts gone to waste is the troubling pattern into which Beasley has fallen. He's but one of all too many players taken No. 2 in the NBA draft who comprise a shared tapestry of failure.
Here's a look at how the top three picks in the draft have played out over the last 30 years:
The names themselves might not mean all that much. Sure, the most rousing successes (Michael Jordan at No. 3 in 1984, Gary Payton at No. 2 in 1990, Jason Kidd at No. 2 in 1994, Tim Duncan at No. 1 in 1997, Kevin Durant at No. 2 in 2007, to name a few) and the biggest failures (Sam Bowie at No. 2 in 1984, Shawn Bradley at No. 2 in 1993, Kwame Brown at No. 1 in 2001, Darko Milicic at No. 2 in 2003, Greg Oden at No. 1 in 2007 and so on) stand out to the draft historians among you, but the names only mean as much as the accomplishments (or lack thereof) to which they're attached.
When digging into draft picks over the years, you'd generally expect No. 1 picks to outperform No. 2 picks, No. 2 picks to outperform No. 3 picks and so on. That holds true to some extent, at least when looking at career length by slot over the course of David Stern's career as NBA commissioner:
As well it does when honing in on defensive honors:
Granted, the No. 2's are boosted tremendously in this regard by having dynamic defensive performers like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning and Marcus Camby among their membership.
The proverbial playing field levels out between the top three picks when focusing on rookie honors:
No. 2's own the edge over No. 3's in Rookies of the Year (four to three), but they have some catching up to do on the All-Rookie teams (20 selections to 21 for No. 3's).
Among the other major distinctions, No. 3 picks have lapped their counterparts at No. 2, and then some.
No. 3's have racked up nearly 40 percent more All-Star appearances than have No. 2's since 1984-85 (54 to 39).
No. 2's have also lagged considerably in All-NBA selections (24 to 36). It certainly helps the No. 3's to be able to claim Michael Jordan, whose 14 trips to the All-Star Game and 11 spots on All-NBA teams nearly comprise the difference. But even His Airness alone can't explain away the relative mediocrity inherent in the No. 2 slot.
Or, to put it another way, the lack of true "eliteness" among those chosen second during the last three decades. No player drafted No. 2 overall in his year over the previous 30 has taken home an MVP trophy at some point in his career. Jason Kidd (second in 2001-02) and Kevin Durant (second in three of the last four seasons) are the only No. 2's to have cracked the top two in MVP balloting in that span.
Likewise, no No. 2 pick taken since 1984 has earned Finals MVP honors. Isiah Thomas corralled that coveted piece of hardware for his work with the Detroit Pistons during the 1990 NBA Finals, but Zeke entered the league as the No. 2 pick in 1981, three years before our (somewhat) arbitrary cutoff date.
Thomas aside, only six of the last 30 No. 2 picks have even suited up for world champions. Of those six, only two—Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd with the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks—played pivotal roles in their team's run to the top. Gary Payton came close-ish, with 5.8 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 24.3 minutes per game during the playoffs for the 2005-06 Miami Heat.
The other three (i.e. Danny Ferry with the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs, Darko Milicic with the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and Alonzo Mourning with the 2005-06 Heat) might've been more productive had they spent their time handing out water and towels instead of minding their own business on the bench.
Click here for a look at the complete infographic, courtesy of Infogr.am.
Clearly, the "achievements" of No. 2's in the modern era of the NBA aren't up to snuff. You can begin to understand why when cycling back through that long list of names.
Between injuries (Sam Bowie, Antonio McDyess, Jay Williams, Emeka Okafor), tragedy (Len Bias), poor fits (Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams), "less-than-elite" talent (Danny Ferry, Stromile Swift, Darko Milicic, Marvin Williams, Hasheem Thabeet) or some combination of the above (Shawn Bradley, Keith Van Horn), being a No. 2 pick has, by and large, been an experience fraught with misfortune.
To be sure, it makes sense that No. 2's would have some hard luck. The draft itself is a crapshoot, more or less, and becomes even more of one after each pick. If there's a can't-miss, surefire star-in-the-making sitting atop the big board, chances are the next guy up isn't going to be quite so flawless, regardless of what scouts and GMs say.
Not surprisingly, then, most of the best No. 2's of the last 30 years have been paired with bust-worthy No. 1's. That was the case in 1990 (Derrick Coleman at No. 1, Gary Payton at No. 2), 1994 (Glenn Robinson at No. 1, Jason Kidd at No. 2), 2001 (Kwame Brown at No. 1, Tyson Chandler at No. 2), 2006 (Andrea Bargnani at No. 1, LaMarcus Aldridge at No. 2) and 2007 (Greg Oden at No. 1, Kevin Durant at No. 2).
Which is to say, No. 2's don't usually "pan out" unless someone makes a mistake at No. 1.
Those choosing second have made their share of mistakes. Think of all the All-Star-caliber players who've slipped to No. 3 over the years: in 1989 (Danny Ferry No. 2, Sean Elliott No. 3), 1993 (Shawn Bradley at No. 2, Penny Hardaway at No. 3), 2003 (Darko Milicic at No. 2, Carmelo Anthony at No. 3), 2005 (Marvin Williams at No. 2, Deron Williams at No. 3) and 2009 (Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2, James Harden at No. 3).
That's not to mention the choices made between 2010 and 2012, on which the jury is still out, or the myriad other stars plucked from No. 4 on over the years.
On the flipside, all of this goes to show just how difficult it is to win a major award or earn a spot on an All-Something team, and how much of an honor it is for any player to do just that. Remember, there are only so many spots in the All-Star Game (24) and on All-NBA (15), All-Defensive (10) and All-Rookie teams (10) each year.
Among those chosen for the more widespread distinctions are usually those tapped to be regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. It's scarce awards like these that help to immortalize players at a particular place in time and should not be taken lightly when combing through the annals of NBA history.
All told, there doesn't seem to be any cut-and-dried cause that we can readily ascribe to the underachievement of No. 2 picks. Those same forces of randomness that impact the careers of all draftees operate just as strongly on No. 2's.
No. 2's aren't like everyone else in the NBA, at least as far as circumstances are concerned. They may not face quite the same intense pressure that regularly plagues No. 1's, but they're taken high enough to bear much of the same burden and, in turn, catch plenty of their own flak if they fall flat.
Still, the reasons for the underachievement of No. 2's are so many and varied as to place such failure beyond the bounds of a formulaic framework for prognostication.
Who could've predicted that Jay Williams would mangle his leg in a motorcycle accident? Who would've pegged Darko for a flop, when the conventional wisdom in 2003 touted him as the next Dirk Nowitzki? Who knew that Len Bias would fall victim to his own drug-related demons, or that Michael Beasley's far less life-threatening vices would undo his career?
The only thing that could tie together the wide spectrum of successes and failures at No. 2 is plain old luck. You might say that the second spot in the draft is "cursed," but then you'd have to answer for the stars who busted through at such a rate as to be more than just the exceptions that proved the rule.
In any case, the Orlando Magic had better hope that Victor Oladipo, taken No. 2 overall in 2013, turns out better than Beasley's bunch, just as the Charlotte Bobcats are pulling for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's development and the Minnesota Timberwolves for Derrick Williams'.
Otherwise, we may soon see more "proof" to back up the old saying from the late, great Dale Earnhardt, that second place is just the first loser.
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