Two fearless guards are proving there's more to building for the future than Ping-Pong balls. The justified excitement about the strength of the 2014 draft class has spurred unprecedented media speculation about tanking this fall, but the dream of getting the rights to Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins has overshadowed a more immediate benefit of clearing the decks to start fresh: player development. The NBA's opening week provided two reminders that youth movements have value in the short term even as they set up the longer play.
The Sixers and the Suns are the league's most blatant, intentionally constructed Have-Nots. Philadelphia traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, let All-Star center Andrew Bynum leave in free agency and might hold out injured center Nerlens Noel, a 2013 lottery pick, for the entire season. Phoenix traded veterans Caron Butler, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat.
What happened next? The two teams made the most of their pressure-free existences, going a combined 5--1 through Sunday and treating their fans—who many assumed would already be sporting paper bags on their heads—to exciting basketball.
Stepping into Holiday's shoes, Syracuse rookie Michael Carter-Williams shocked the Heat with 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals in an opening-night 114--110 win. That eye-popping stat line hadn't been achieved in an NBA game since 1985, and the nine steals were a record for a first game. The 6'6" Carter-Williams is disruptive when he plays the passing lanes, but it was the timing of his gambles that really gave Miami fits. Diving into the paint from the weak side or swarming big men from the top, he showed a knack for anticipating movements and picking pockets without fouling.
The Hyphen followed that up by leading comeback wins over the Wizards and the Bulls. Against Chicago he set up center Spencer Hawes for a key jumper with five seconds left using a casual flip pass behind his back. It was the kind of play from a 22-year-old that would drive a coach nuts if there were a hint of carelessness or unnecessary showboating. There wasn't.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old point guard Eric Bledsoe has wasted no time making the most of his expanded role in Phoenix. After going one-and-done at Kentucky, Bledsoe spent three years on the Clippers' bench before a summer trade made him a go-to starter in the desert. While Carter-Williams floats and darts, the 6'1" Bledsoe simply bursts, whether he's beating defenses in transition or turning the corner into the paint. An expert at initiating contact around the basket, he uses his ability to get to the line to compensate for an unreliable three-point shot and struggles with turnovers.
In his Suns debut Bledsoe had 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists to spark a 104--91 defeat of the Blazers. He then sealed a win over the Jazz, scoring Phoenix's final 14 points, including a game-winning three over 6'8" Gordon Hayward. It was the type of alpha-dog opportunity that Chris Paul would have handled in L.A. as Bledsoe watched. Phoenix didn't ink Bledsoe to a rookie extension, deciding to evaluate its developing talent for the season. If his start is any indication, a lucrative payday is waiting in July.
One hot week isn't likely to change the bleak outlook facing Philadelphia and Phoenix, as their youth and lack of depth will lead to plenty of losses, but hopefully this early success helps shift the tanking discourse. Jokesters like to suggest that Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and Suns GM Ryan McDonough would gladly hit a video game button to simulate the season and fast-forward to the lottery. While there's no question both executives have the upcoming draft—and the next few after that—firmly in their strategic planning, they also understand better than anyone how valuable the next six months will be to the future of Carter-Williams, Bledsoe and the other young players who are finding their sea legs amid the tank.
Carter-Williams (top) and Bledsoe are remind-ers that youth move-ments can have short-term value.
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (CARTER-WILLIAMS)
D. CLARKE EVANS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BLEDSOE)