One of the most destructive fallacies in sports is that the highest draft picks in the NBA, NFL and MLB can quickly transform their previously awful teams into champions — or near champs — in their first half-dozen years as pros. Just the opposite is true. The yardstick with which Washington and other towns measure their most conspicuous and often most criticized young talents is calibrated all wrong.
Washington gets indigestion when it tries to enjoy or evaluate the wonderful young pro athletes who’ve come to town hyped to the heavens and picked at the top of the draft. We can’t figure out whether to praise or blame — and in what proportion — John Wall, Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper for the levels of success their teams have reached in the postseason in recent years.
In the past five calendar years, Strasburg (2009 draft), Harper (2010) and Wall (2010) were picked No. 1 overall in their sports, and Griffin (2012) was one of the most-hailed No. 2 overall picks in NFL history, accompanied by far more anticipation than most “1-1s.” How much should they have done by now?
On Thursday night at Verizon Center, RGIII led sideline cheers for Wall and the Wizards as they were knocked out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals — the round of eight — by Indiana. Conference semifinals? That’s one round beyond where Griffin was injured and his team defeated in the NFL playoffs after the 2012 season.
This weekend, the Nationals are back in town, limping at 22-20 after Saturday with Strasburg a sub-.500 pitcher (11-12) since the beginning of 2013 and Harper injured rather badly for the second straight spring. The round of eight? Yes, that’s where the Nationals were knocked out in 2012.
In fact, only one D.C. pro team from the four major North American sports (the 1997-98 Capitals) has gone past that conference semifinal level in the postseason since 1991, approaching a quarter-century. No matter how well the Capitals played in the regular season with superstar Alex Ovechkin — yes, a No. 1 overall pick in 2004 — they haven’t won in the round of eight since he arrived.
What should we expect? What is normal progress for a phenomenal talent? Over the past half-century, how far have such players — anointed as team saviors the day they arrived — taken their teams in the postseason? How quickly have they reached championship games or won the titles that were predicted when they were picked atop the draft?
All over America in major cities, this problem recurs as individual careers, team histories and fan pleasure are all impacted enormously by the vague, fact-free “expectations” that accompany such stars.
But there actually are facts. Yet few ever look at them. If we did, we might enjoy ourselves far more and damage our prodigies much less. Wall, RGIII, Strasburg and Harper have all been all-stars — not a bust in the bunch — and all have helped take teams to the postseason. Seen in context, that actually puts them at the very successful end of the young star spectrum. Get off their backs. Enjoy.
In the past 50 seasons, how many athletes have been in draft spots comparable to these four D.C. players? And how far did they take their teams in their first four years as pros?
Besides Wall, nine other guards have been taken first overall in the NBA since 1965. Besides RGIII, 25 quarterbacks have been picked first or second overall. Besides Strasburg, 15 pitchers went No. 1. Besides Harper, 11 other power-hitting outfielders or first basemen were drafted first.
In all three sports combined, that’s 60 “comparable” players.
Only one of them won an NBA Finals, Super Bowl or World Series in his first three pro years — as in “one” (1). Earvin Johnson. Yes, he was Magic. (He won titles in his first and third seasons.)
Only one other player, pitcher David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, reached a championship level in his first three years. He was a late-season call-up reliever who pitched briefly in the losing 2008 World Series.
Of the other 58, here are those who played for a title — not won it, just played for it — for the team that drafted them in their first four pro seasons: Eli Manning, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Drew Bledsoe. (Manning and Aikman won Super Bowls their fourth seasons; Elway and Bledsoe lost Super Bowls in their fourth.)
That’s it. That’s all of ’em.
Quarterbacks have the best chance to transform franchises; NBA big men are next. But an NBA guard such as Wall, even with a wingman such as No. 3 overall pick Bradley Beal (2012), has a tough time driving a team further than the Wizards just went this week. In baseball, where no pitcher starts more than once every five days and no hitter is more than one-ninth of a lineup, players have the hardest time being destiny-changers. No first-pick pitcher comparable to Strasburg (out of college or high school) has developed into a major contributor for his original team, then helped them to the World Series. Among those comparable to Harper, the earliest to help his first team to a World Series was Darryl Strawberry with the Mets in 1986, his seventh professional season.
Who are some of those among our 60 who never reached a title game in their first four years for the team that drafted them? In the NBA: Derrick Rose, Allen Iverson, John Lucas, David Thompson and Austin Carr. In MLB: Ken Griffey Jr., Justin Upton, Josh Hamilton, Harold Baines and Andy Benes. In the NFL: Michael Vick, Peyton Manning and Archie Manning.
Here’s the other side of the coin, one that Washington often forgets: How many of the 60 qualify as busts? My criterion: totally wasted pick. About 17 of them, plus a bunch who ended up mediocre.
We’re always going to look at each player’s career individually. But sometimes they get knocked as a group because none have shot the moon yet. That’s backward. As a group, Washington’s top picks are exceptional so far.
After the Wizards’ 93-80 loss to the Pacers, in which Wall and Beal shot a combined 12 for 35 from the field, Indiana Coach Frank Vogel said, “My hat’s off to everything they are doing here. . . . I have so much respect for that team. I watched what they did to Chicago. That was scary.
“I got to know John [Wall] at the All-Star Game. He’s so young to play at such a high level on such a big stage. John is a special guy, and Beal is, too. Their future is very, very bright.”
It’s easy to forget that Beal, Harper, Wall, Griffin and Strasburg are only 20, 21, 23, 24 and 25, respectively. Also, improving performance is sometimes hidden, temporarily. For example, advanced metrics say Strasburg is second among National League pitchers in Wins Above Replacement and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, a hair behind Miami’s (injured) Jose Fernandez.
Ovechkin, drafted a decade ago, is almost in a different athletic generation. However, his and the Capitals’ failure to go past the round of eight, while definitely a serious underachievement, is perhaps easier to understand, if not excuse, when we see how few elite first-overall talents ever even play for a title.
Washington has had only one team that even got to the final four in its sport in the past 23 years. That’s not Wall’s problem, nor should it be Griffin’s, Strasburg’s or Harper’s.
Before we get cranky watching Indiana play the Miami Heat instead of Washington, let’s remember that these young standouts are doing just fine — individually and in a team context. Even for the highest draft picks, individual greatness and team glory usually arrive slowly.
If they ever arrive at all.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.