By: Zachariah Blott
Most people were in agreement back in June that the 2009 NBA Draft was a relatively weak one that showcased only one great player. Someone forgot to tell DeJuan Blair that he wasn’t supposed to be the one.
With the preseason underway and rookies finally getting their feet wet against legitimate NBA talent (not the summer leaguers looking for contracts in Greece), Blair has blown the doors off all newcomers so far. Possibly the greatest rebounding force in college history, at least on the offensive glass, he came off the bench last Wednesday for his first preseason action as a Spur. Most rookies would get lost on the plays, revert to a signature move or skill to at least register a few points, turn the ball over too often, nearly foul out, and call it a learning experience. Blair is not most rookies.
He logged 22 minutes and did exactly what he did all through college: grabbed 19 rebounds (8 offensive!), chipped in 16 points while getting to the free throw line six times, committed just 1 foul, and had a third of his team’s steals (okay, 1 of their 3). With San Antonio taking a 99-85 beating, Blair posted a +3 point differential, the team’s second highest mark. I didn’t see the game, but I think he did a lot of this damage against Houston’s starters because four of them had negative point differentials and all their bench players were in the positive. The Heat clearly outclassed the Spurs on the scoreboard, but not for the almost half-a-game that Blair was on the court for.
For his second outing, Blair played 26 minutes, during which he put up an astounding 28 points against the Heat. He added (a personally measly) 4 rebounds—game-high 3 offensive—4 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 steals, and still only 1 personal foul. He put the team on his back and scored 15 of his points in the final 7 minutes to erase an 11-point, 4th quarter deficit on the way to a 95-93 win. He was +20, and the next closest Spur was at +10; Blair was THE reason San Antonio won this game.
DeJuan Blair Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Through two games, the big fella is averaging 22 pts, 11.5 rebs (5.5 offensive), 1.5 stls (something else he excelled at in college), and only 1 foul. All this in only 24 minutes. He’s making 61% of his shots (17-28) and he’s getting opponents into foul trouble (10-16 FT). For comparison, first-overall pick Blake Griffin has 23 points (9-17 for 53%) and 14 rebounds. Looks similar, except Griffin’s numbers are his totals through two games, not averages. Griffin also committed 5 fouls each outing. On the other side, the Clippers’ top pick has attempted only 6 free throws, so he’s definitely not playing more aggressively in a positive way for the Clippers than Blair is for the Spurs.
There is no question that Blair is by far the best rookie in the NBA right now. I’m not declaring him the Rookie of the Year or anything yet, but I think he’ll win it if he plays at least 20 minutes a night—that’s all he’ll need.
More on DeJuan Blair after the break…
So how did this happen? How did someone this supremely talented fall into the second round, right into the Spurs’ (of course) lap with the 37th pick? For starters, he’s an undersized big man at 6-6. Many scouting reports before the draft compared him kindly to Utah’s Paul Millsap (6-8) or Charles Barkley (6-4, according to his own book), not just for their height, but also their husky build (Blair weighs 265). The bigger culprit for Blair’s slide down the draft board were his knees. He had two ACL surgeries in high school, although he never exhibited any trouble in his two years at Pitt.
His college production, however, was ridiculous. He finished 4th in the nation as a sophomore with 12.3 rebounds. He only played 27 minutes a game, however, so he actually had a better rebounding rate than Blake Griffin, who led the country with 14.2 in 33 minutes. Blair was also scoring 15.7 points a game on a team with two other scorers (Sam Young, Levance Fields) and he corralled 1.5 steals a game. All of this domination in the paint came in the Big East, where he regularly destroyed second-overall pick Hasheem Thabeet, Luke Harangody (2008 BE Player of the Year), and a handful of other drafted big men. Occasionally he’d have a so-so game due to foul trouble, but never because someone shut him down.
Here’s the supreme stupidity in what happened on June 25 at the draft. Most picks outside of the top 10 never pan out. They might become career role players, but frankly teams just need to take the best talent they can in that position. Instead, a lot of safe power forward picks were made (Tyler Hansbrough, Taj Gibson, Jeff Pendergraph, etc.) because Blair had knee problems 3 years previous. Every GM knew his immense strength, nimble feet, pterodactyl arms (his standing reach was higher than Griffin’s at the combine), and perfect hands made him a much better talent than all these guys, but they didn’t want the egg on their face if he went down in his second year and local media brought up the ACLs—which supposedly don’t exist in his knees anymore.
Only the Spurs had the good sense to realize that if he does go down, he wasn’t a top-10 pick carrying the hopes and dreams of a fan base on his back. If he doesn’t get hurt, they were getting one of the top two or three players in the draft for a fraction of his value.
So here we are, with Blair destroying NBA bigs just like he did much-taller Big East centers, while safe pick Hansbrough is missing the preseason due to a shin injury. And yet again, the Spurs are draft-day geniuses. Argh. We’ll find out just how amazing the pick was on Wednesday night when the Spurs face off against the Clippers and Blake Griffin.
Zachariah Blott is a teacher in Portland, not an Amish Charles Dickens character.