Wednesday, June 25, 2003 Updated: June 7, 6:19 PM ET
The force of Luke
By Bill Simmons Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This column appears in the July 7 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
After the NBA Finals went over worse than Carnie Wilson's Playboy spread, we all awoke with a grisly hangover, a little like how you feel after a child gets trapped in a well, or when another David Spade movie is released. A shell-shocked country was left searching for answers. And no question was bigger than, "What can I do to make sure this never happens again?"
Luke Walton isn't a savior, but he makes everyone else better. Doesn't that count?
Here's one suggestion: Root for Luke Walton to make it.
You may know him as the last of a dying breed of passers, or as the kid who gets to live out Star Wars episodes with Bill Walton: Luke, I'm your father. But even though the guy makes everyone else better when he's on the floor, NBA brains have him as a longer shot than Nic Cage's chance of staying with Angelina Jolie.
To scouts, he's one of those "tweeners." Walton's college résumé doesn't matter. Neither does the collective success of the roll call of "question marks" who put their stamp on the recent playoffs: Bowen, Wallace, Rose, Parker, Prince. The NBA wants players brimming with Hubie Brown's favorite word: UPPside.
I just finished reading Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the book about Billy Beane and his unconventional methods. The A's GM is considered revolutionary because he targets only productive college players, avoiding high school arms and workout wonders at all cost. In short, he sneers at UPPside. It's just the kind of thinking that won't fly in the NBA, where unproven players like Nikoloz Tskitishvili consistently get tabbed over proven studs like Caron Butler.
The Los Angeles Times called Walton a "marginal prospect except for his exceptional floor game." That's like calling Jim Carrey a "marginal actor except for his ability to be funny." When you see plays before anyone else, when your passing is contagious, when you rise to the occasion ... I mean, doesn't this stuff count?
An example: In March's double-OT thriller against Gonzaga, Arizona fell behind by two in the waning seconds of the first OT. Instead of hanging behind the three-point line like everyone else, Walton set up on the high post, ramming his butt into the defender and calling for the ball. Then he muscled his guy backward, spun around, double-pumped and basically willed the ball into the basket. Best play of the Tournament. I'm not kidding. Arizona needed a hoop, Walton got it. It was right out of MJ's playbook. I'm getting the ball HERE, I'm pushing you down to THIS spot, I'm making my move HERE and I'm either scoring or you're fouling me. A moment like that doesn't show up at those contrived private workouts, the ones that morph 7'5" Russian projects into lottery picks after 30 minutes of posting up the Invisible Man.
Guys with upside will continue to dominate the draft. Right, Darko?
Trust me, this isn't one of those "white guy defending another white guy" columns. I'm not casting Walton as a savior -- that's LeBron. (And, by the way, neither of them could have saved that Nets-Spurs apocalypse.) I just like the way Walton plays. There's an instinctive flow to his game. I felt the same way when I caught the White Stripes in concert recently; Meg and Jack White have chemistry like no one else in music right now. They stare each other down as they pound away in rhythm, their overstuffed personal baggage on display for everyone to see. It's magical.
On paper, a two-piece rock band shouldn't work & just like on paper, Walton shouldn't be a lottery pick. By the time the draft ends late Thursday, somebody will have "gambled" on Walton, but probably no sooner than early in the second round. Because the way it stands now, NBA scouts value what you might do, not what you did. For every Shawn Marion who realizes his considerable UPPside, five Kedrick Browns are breaking hearts. And the Luke Waltons continue to slip through the cracks.
If there's a Basketball God, Walton will be setting up Yao in Houston next season, or zipping no-looks to the boys in Sacramento. He won't be a superstar, but on the right team he'll be fun to watch. More important, a handful of teams will be kicking themselves for overlooking him.
Then, maybe they'll approach the draft a little differently next summer.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.