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Kyle Anderson and the rule of realistic expectations

The Spurs bench has hardly lit the world on fire, yet the team still won't play their well-regarded rookie. So what gives?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Popovich sure seems to have his hands full at the moment, even for someone with one of the deepest and most experienced rosters in the league. He seems to have settled on the starters, with Tiago Splitter reclaiming his job after a month-long trial run with Aron Baynes that was somewhat successful for him but fairly disastrous for the team as a whole. Pop also seems to have gone back to last year's rotation, now that the Tony Parker of old is back, meaning that Patty Mills is the backup point and Cory Joseph once again finds himself on the outside looking in, a spot guy at best. Boris Diaw has been highly disappointing, to the degree that sometimes Matt Bonner checks in for him and other times with Kawhi Leonard getting minutes at the four in a small-ball lineup. Popovich has steadily maintained that when he goes small it's to match-up with what opponents are doing, but you don't necessarily have to twist his arm most nights when Diaw isn't engaged on the floor.

So when someone asked him a while back what he expected out of rookie Kyle Anderson, when the rookie was called up from the D-League, Pop's blunt answer was hardly surprising.

"Nothing," he said, adding, "He's not going to play."

The point is that the last thing Pop's thinking about is some rookie's development. And that's as it should be.

Anderson, picked 30th out of UCLA last summer, was immediately pegged as a typical Spurs draft steal, as in, "Oh no, the Spurs have done it again." A multi-faceted talent, he led the Bruins in rebounds and assists, was first-team All-Pac 12, leading the conference in assists and finishing third in rebounds and steals. He was named third-team All-America by both the Associated Press and the Sporting News. And he was the first Division I player ever with at least 500 points, 300 rebounds and 200 assists in a season (sounds like something Magic Johnson probably did, but the NCAA didn't count assists until 1983-84).

So what's the problem? Why did he last until the 30th pick? Well, the kid is nicknamed "Slo-Mo" for a reason. He's not a classic NBA athlete. One pre-season scouting report noted that in terms of footspeed, Anderson looked slower than Tim Duncan. Would he be able to get his shot off in the league? Would his other skills be so good -- Anderson was billed as the next Diaw -- that he could compensate for not shooting much? There was off-season talk that Slo-Mo could eventually crack the Spurs rotation in his rookie year and legitimately contribute, even on a club that had won the title and brought everyone back.

Since it was the Spurs that drafted him, many pundits gave Anderson the benefit of the doubt. Surely if R.C. Buford saw something in him, he can play, right? Well, it's not quite that simple.

Here is a list of the people picked 29th -- one slot ahead of Anderson -- in the previous 20 drafts, ranked by career Win Shares, and I also listed their career PER.

Year       Name                                  WS         PER

2003      Josh Howard, F                 38.0       16.7

1998      Nazr Mohammad, C         34.2       15.0

2001      Trenton Hassell, G            13.8       8.4

2009      Toney Douglas, G             9.1         13.1

2000      Mark Madsen, F                 8.2         8.1

1996      Travis Knight, C                 7.9         11.4

2011      Cory Joseph, G                  7.4         14.0

2008      D.J. White, F                     3.8         14.5

2004      David Harrison, C              3.2         10.9

1995      Cory Alexander, G             3.0         12.4

1994      Antonio Lang, F                 1.7         8.8

2010      Daniel Orton, C                 1.0         11.9

2005      Wayne Simien, F               0.9         10.5

2007      Alando Tucker, G              0.4         13.0

2013      Archie Goodwin, G             0.4         11.1

1999      Leon Smith, F                     0.2         14.3

2002      Steve Logan                       N/A        N/A

1997      Serge Zwikker                    N/A        N/A

2012      Marquis Teague, G           -0.8        4.8

2006      Mardy Collins, G                -1.6        7.9

The list reads off like some expansion draft. 20 years, one All-Star appearance, by Howard in 2006-07 for a Mavericks team that went 67-15 before being bounced in the first round by the "We Believe" Warriors. Howard had a few good years but never developed into the star he was hyped to be and eventually knee injuries and personal issues wrecked his career. Mohammad has been a serviceable back-up big for nearly two decades now, and the Spurs wouldn't have won a title in 2005 without trading for him. Hassell was terrible, but he lasted in the league a long time as a "defensive stopper," a homeless man's version of Bruce Bowen, at a time when the NBA had a real talent drain. The other names you recognize were end-of-the-bench guys.

Joseph, who's been somewhere between 10th and 12th on the Spurs depth chart, already ranks as having had the seventh-best career out of the 20 in terms of Win Shares, and will probably shoot up to fourth by the end of next season and third by the time it's all over for him. His career will represent the 85th percentile of reasonable expectations for teams who draft 29th.

Granted, the Spurs drafted another point guard 28th who's fared considerably better than Joseph. They retired the jersey of a point guard who wasn't drafted at all. A fellow they drafted 57th overall one year is fifth in franchise history in assists, first in three-pointers, and will be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. And yes, the guy drafted one pick after Joseph in 2011, available to the Spurs and everyone else, is turning out to be a pretty decent player.

If you ranked the drafts for first overall picks since 1980, the average player you'd wind up with is somebody like Derrick Coleman or Andrew Bogut. For every Duncan, LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal, there was a Greg Oden, a Michael Olowokandi or an Anthony Bennett. In fact, there were more busts than Hall-of-Famers, and that's the pick with the best odds of success we're talking about. At 30, if you wind up with someone like Joseph, a solid guy you can plug in for a few minutes and won't wreck the game-plan, you thank your lucky stars.

Anderson has been tearing up the D-League in Austin and was named Player of the Month in February, but what does that mean? Yes, he's averaging 22.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists, but he's compiling those numbers over 41 minutes a night in a league where the pace is faster than the NBA and there are more possessions. What's alarming is that he's shooting just 44.4 percent in the D-League and only 31.7 percent from three. Anderson doesn't have Diaw's girth and craftiness to score in the post and he's sure not gonna go by or over anybody, so he's gonna have to hit threes at a pretty good clip to survive in the NBA, especially with his slow release. So how can we be encouraged by these empty calorie numbers, especially when guys like JaMychal Green and Bryce Cotton had better stats in Austin before being called up to NBA gigs?

Popovich spent some time before the Cleveland game stressing the importance of having veterans who can create a culture with their habits on and off the floor and mentor young and inexperienced players, so I asked him how Anderson fits into that, since they've made the decision to send him to Austin rather than have him around to learn from Duncan, Diaw and so on.

"It is a trade-off, but when you're a kid and there's no spot for you to play on the team, you need to play," Popovich explained. "You need to become a better player first. If he sat on the bench, it wouldn't do much for his development, so I think first thing's first and that's his development in that situation. He comes down whenever possible to be with the team and he's come on a couple of trips, he's around us as much as we can have him be around, but it's more important for a young man like that to play initially."

Anderson is playing, but I'm not so sure he can play. I'd probably feel more comfortable if Quin Snyder was still coaching in Austin, since Snyder has shown an ability to work with and develop young players (he reminds me of Doug Collins, a fantastic teacher and motivator but someone who runs too hot and burns out after three years). He's having tremendous success in that regard in Utah, though to be fair he has talented kids over there, which is the most important thing.

I could be wrong and it could just be an issue of not having the patience and trust to live or die with a rookie when a team is trying to win a title, but my sense is that Pop and his staff weren't all that impressed with Anderson in the time he got to play a bit while the team had a bunch of injuries in December. He certainly could've improved since then and he probably has, but you get the feeling that with the Spurs bench as underwhelming at it's been most of the year, if PATFO felt he could contribute, even for a few minutes, he'd be with the team.

I hope he winds up beating the odds, but for now the only link Anderson has to Josh Howard is that Howard also played for Austin -- just last year -- in an attempt to resurrect his career. It didn't work out.