Up Next: DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson

Thirteen years after Kobe Bryant was drafted and then traded in 1996, nine years after he won his first title at the age of 21, DeMar DeRozan was drafted by the Toronto Raptors. The kid from Compton who was a Bryant devotee had an advantage others didn’t: he knew Bryant. He’d attended his skills academy camps and Bryant had taken an interest in him. So on draft night, DeRozan quietly carried with him on the stage to shake David Stern’s hand the internal confidence of knowing Kobe Bryant thought he was a special talent.

DeRozan, a wing out of USC who turned down North Carolina, was drafted 9th. Steph Curry was in that draft class, selected 7th. Blake Griffin was in that draft class, the first pick. But then so was low hanging fruit like Hasheem Thabeet, no longer in the NBA, drafted 2nd. Johnny Flynn, no longer in the NBA, was drafted 6th. DeRozan was the second wing taken in the draft. James Harden was drafted 3rd.

Here was what was written about DeRozan pre-draft:

DeRozan’s offensive limitations are pretty significant if trying to project him immediately to the NBA. He struggles to change directions with the ball and possesses very little explosion first step, making him almost completely unable to create his own shot. If forced to dribble the ball more than once or twice, he is liable to get stripped or look out of control. The fact that DeRozan’s jumper doesn’t have much range, he cannot play pick and roll, is not a great passer, possesses just an average basketball I.Q. and his understanding of how to operate in the half-court is limited, makes him a clear-cut project for the NBA. (Jonathan Givony, Draft Express, February 2009)

Two years after DeRozan was drafted, another Bryant disciple, another Californian who also knew Bryant personally, entered the draft. Bryant knew Klay Thompson through Klay’s father, former Laker Mychal Thompson who made the introduction. On more than one occasion, Bryant spoke to Klay about his game, explaining in detail what Klay needed to do to put himself in the best position to be a quality pro. Klay had the luxury of watching Bryant practice in the repetitive way that defined his career.

But on the June draft night in 2011, there was disappointment for Klay Thompson and his family.  Jimmer Fredette was drafted before him. Derrick Williams, Bismack Biyombo, Jan Vesely were drafted before him. The only logical explanation was that Klay was buried on television. His Washington State games were on way too late for the scouts. His personal workouts exhibiting his shooting skill weren’t the kind to wow GM’s and he didn’t have the Jimmer resume of College Player of the Year and his team didn’t get in the NCAA tournament even though he had an impressive 21.1 ppg his junior year.

This is what Draft Express said about Klay pre-draft:

There are many questions surrounding Thompson’s game and how it will transition to the next level due to his lack of great athleticism and struggles on the defensive end. Thompson’s lack of great athletic tools is somewhat concerning. Transitioning from a first to likely third or fourth option will help, while his high motor, constant off-ball movements and feel for getting open, likely will be his biggest assets. His first step is underwhelming and he lacks much in the lane of advanced ball-handling. While there are some concerns about Thompson’s athleticism hurting his offensive game at the next level, the bigger concern lie on the defensive end, where he is noticeably lacking in lateral quickness and is taken off the dribble often. His lack of greast athleticism will likely always limit him from becoming an offensive focal point.” (Finding a Niche for Klay Thompson, Joseph Treutlein, Director of Scouting/Analytics, Draft Express, May 24, 2011)

Draft Beauty Contest Year Drafted Draft Selection Biggest Bust from Draft Class (1st Round)
Kobe Bryant 1996 13 Dontae Jones, # 21 (Knicks) 15 NBA games
DeMar DeRozan 2009 9 Christian Eyenga #30 (Cavs) 51 NBA games
Klay Thompson 2011 11 JaJuan Johnson #27 (Nets) 36 NBA games

As the teacher, Kobe Bryant enters his last days as a professional player. His students, DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson are stepping into the Bryant absence with a flourish. It causes Bryant to exhale. There had been a drought for awhile. The position wasn’t being replenished at the rate of past draft classes. There was Dwyane Wade in 2003, and then who else? It was striking, the average shooting guard talent when there had been so much domination. Micheal Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Tracy McGrady. Dwyane Wade. Vince Carter. Clyde Drexler. Reggie Miller. Ray Allen. George Gervin.

But DeRozan and Thompson have reached maturity as veterans and have dominated their positions the way Bryant taught them. Yet, they do it differently.

DeRozan has replicated one part of the Kobe Bryant game. He is Kobe 2.0. He leads the league in drives to the basket. He’s an iso player that can beat anyone off the dribble and finish through contact. He can post-up in the paint. He has Bryant’s usage rate of nearly 30%. He’s a good mid range shooter. He isn’t as good a playmaker as Bryant but he makes big shots and this year he has 9 games in which he scored 30 points. He is scoring a career high, 23.3 points a game, and has a career high PER of 21.3. He isn’t shy about talking about how Bryant has affected and influenced his game. “He told me what he did when he was young in his career.” Score. Watch film. Score.

Kobe System, Year 7 Age Points FG% 3-Point% Assists # of 30+ Point games
Kobe Bryant, 2002-03 24 30.0 45.1% 38.3% 5.0 42
DeMar DeRozan, 2015-16 26 23.3 44.3% 33.7% 4.0 9

Klay Thompson has perfected everything that didn’t define Bryant. He leads the league in catch and shoot points. He isn’t an iso player and rarely beats his man off the dribble to get to the rim. He doesn’t post-up. His usage rate is 26%. He is in constant motion, has a quick release and is an extraordinarily efficient scorer, making 46% of his shots, 41% of his three-pointers. He excels from every area of the floor except the Bryant specialty, 3-10 feet. And he has the Bryant championship narrative, a first NBA title in his fourth season. Trying to defend it in year number five. Idolizing Bryant has helped him now. “I just remember watching him workout, how methodical and attention to detail he gave to every drill. It inspired me.” And when college junior Thompson was caught with marijuana, Kobe sent him a text. Thompson recalls it by saying, “just go out there and kill.”

Defending Champions, Year 5 Age Points FG% 3-Point% Assists # of 30+Point Games
Kobe Bryant, 2000-01 22 28.5 46.4% 30.5% 5.0 30
Klay Thompson, 2015-16 25 21.6 46.9% 41.8% 2.2 10

With Bryant’s Hall of Fame career pretty much wrapped up, it is now the turn of the young scoring wings to willfully step in the void. Their impact will be different since Bryant changed an entire generation. They’ll never be as big as he was as far as popularity and global adoration. They will never be as dynamic as he was, nor as gifted at scoring points with a variety of shots to demoralize opponents. But their careers can be defined by the same historical significance as it relates to winning titles, making big shots, impacting the game and making the NBA better by their presence. So when they leave, they will have exacted every possible drop of their talent.

When MJ was still around but fading fast, the way Bryant is now, Kobe being who he was, took the torch from MJ and ran with it. Klay and DeRozan don’t have his level of aggressiveness. They don’t play with rage and intensity and desperation. From afar, they watched Bryant do everything. And now kids are watching them do everything. That’s how the world works. The young copy and dream. Ten and eleven year old iso scorers and ten and eleven year old three point shooters  won’t remember Kobe Bryant. They won’t imitate him.

They’ll imitate DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson. They’ll remember them.

 

photo via llananba