Yogi Ferrell and why the cult of significant upside is overrated

This is the ‘raw physical tools vs demonstrated ability’ argument which comes up every year at draft time. It sometimes manifests itself in the debate over whether a team should draft a highly-rated freshman (AKA Jamal Murray) or a proven senior (AKA Buddy Hield).

Buddy Hield - Photo by Max Goldberg - CC-BY-2.0

Buddy Hield – Photo by Max GoldbergCC-BY-2.0

In the NFL, they talk about combine specialists. Players who leap off the page when it comes to 40-yard dash times. Draft stock rises or falls depending on combine results for better or worse. Some people swear by it. Others think the results are overrated. One fact is clear, careers have been launched or destroyed depending on the results.

I call it the cult of significant upside (I may have heard that somewhere else, I can’t remember), because every year, whether it is the NBA or NFL draft, certain players take on a mythical quality based on their athletic potential. Often it is their untapped athletic potential or the ubiquitously sounding term ‘upside’. We often haven’t seen them play (unless they come from our team or one of the big programs) but scouts and journalists have seen them play. We read stories about these players, carefully check their statistics and maybe a YouTube clip or two and then we hope our team drafts the right one.

As an Australian, I spent most of last Basketball season watching Ben Simmons run around for LSU and, setting aside the obvious bias, still thought he warranted a high draft pick based on his athletic ability, explosiveness near the basket (which is a sub-set of athletic ability, I suppose) and other-worldly court vision and passing ability but I had nagging doubts in the back of my mind, based primarily on his jump shot and penchant for not taking over games, that he might turn into a good but not great player or even worse, become the next Darko Milicic. I’m sure he will be a good or great player but I still don’t know which.

That is the risk of the cult of significant upside and it got me thinking of Yogi Ferrell.

In an unintended collision of my random tastes in sport, I’ve followed Yogi Ferrell’s career since the Hoosiers recruited him back in 2012 (apparently ranked 24th by ESPN) and only noticed him again because I have closely followed Andrew Bogut’s career and Ferrell landed on the Mavericks.

BTW still don’t know how I feel about Bogut going to the Cavs after having followed the Warriors for a number of years now. I’m feeling a bit post-Chicago Luc Longley all over again. One thing I know is that if the Big Fella is fit for the NBA Finals and it is round 3 of the Cavs vs the Warriors (not even Rocky and Apollo had a televised third World Title fight) it will be compulsory world-wide viewing.

Anyway, back to Yogi. I was so Ben Simmons’ focussed, I didn’t even realise Yogi Ferrell went undrafted. I was interested to see Yogi suiting up for the Mavericks for a ten-day contract and the Mavericks were just abysmal up till then. So they won their first game against San Antonio at San Antonio which caught my attention and Ferrell got starter’s minutes and 7 assists. Then they backed it up with a home win against Cleveland and he got 19 points and then he exploded for 32 points (tying the rookie record of nine 3 pointers) against Portland. I was all in. Since then he picked up a 2-year contract, was installed as the starting point guard and was named Western Conference rookie of the month.

It got me thinking. It is early days but casting my eye down the list of players drafted before him (including 15 players Wikipedia, that bastion of accuracy, tells me haven’t played an NBA game yet) you have to wonder how he didn’t get picked up on draft night.

I haven’t come across one yet but I would love to see the results of a study pitting the career outcomes of players with significant upside vs those with proven pedigree. How would you even determine the participants? Sounds like a job for Malcolm Gladwell.

Stay Tuned

Next exciting episode will be on Thursday, 16 March 2017 titled ‘I thought relegation would be much, much worse – Tales of an overseas Geordie fan’.