Six years ago on this very draft site, we hosted a community draft board to rank the top prospects in the 2009 NBA Draft. DeJuan Blair went 6th on our board, ahead of guys like Ty Lawson, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings and some fella by the name of Stephen Curry. This may have been influenced by our incessant campaign to show that DeJuan Blair was underrated, but it happened.
Why all the love for Blair? He was a productivity machine at Pittsburgh. He didn't have NBA height or hops, and he didn't have ACLs, but he gobbled up rebounds and could still score effectively inside. In a draft filled with plenty of question marks (Hasheem Thabeet went second overall!) there was no doubt about whether or not Blair had skills that translated to the NBA level. Problem is, the NBA Draft is a lot like House Hunters, people only care about size and high ceilings, so Blair fell all the way to the 37th before the Spurs took a chance on the draft's safest bet.
Not surprisingly, Blair immediately exceeded expectations and became one of the Spurs best producers. Over his first three seasons, he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes with a 17.5 PER. Only 14 players have put up those numbers while starting at least 150 games in their first three seasons. Five of them are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, two more of them (Shaq and Tim Duncan) are locks to make the hall as well.
But then in year four, as Blair prepared to hit free agency, a weird thing happened. He fell out of favor in San Antonio. His numbers were a hair lower than his first three seasons, but still quite good. Good enough to make his drop from 21 minutes per game to 14 minutes per game a bit confusing. Looking back though, it's easy to understand why Blair didn't fit with the Spurs' direction. San Antonio was starting to realize the power forward position was about more than just reinforcing the center's presence in the paint and started giving more minutes to Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner, who could make plays and create better spacing.
Since Blair wasn't going to find more time with the Spurs, he decided to head to Dallas where he could serve as a counter to the strategy San Antonio was beginning to unleash on the NBA. When teams went small, the Mavericks could use Blair to exploit their opponent's weaknesses inside. It worked well in the playoffs when the eighth-seeded Mavericks pushed the eventual champion Spurs to seven games, as Blair averaging 6 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals in just over 13 minutes of action per game. If nothing else, it seemed to show Blair could carve out a role as a change-of-pace rotation player in the NBA's evolving landscape.
It looked like DeJuan Blair would fit into this role perfectly when he came to Washington last summer on a 3 year, $6 million deal (with the final year unguaranteed), but the only change of pace Blair helped with this season was when the pace of the game changed from competitive to non-competitive. Blair only played 180 minutes over 29 games, and 24 of those minutes came in the last game of the season, where both teams emptied our their bench for most of the second half and overtime.
But unlike previous seasons, this wasn't just a case of Blair being a bulky, square peg trying to squeeze into a positionless round hole. Blair simply wasn't as effective as he's been in the past. Every area he excelled at before is now an area where he's average at best, if not below average, and nothing he was bad at has gotten better. As you can see here, nothing is trending in the right direction:
The thing is, these are all things you would expect to see as Blair as loses the bounce in his step that allowed him to make up lack of height and speed. He still has a great frame for rebounding, but it's harder to turn those offensive rebounds into points without that extra burst to get shots back up before the defense can recover. If he dedicates himself, maybe he could develop a jumper to help diversify his game somewhat, but the more he improves there, the less opportunities he'll have to make a difference on the offensive glass. So even if he can develop a jumper, it takes him away from his greatest strength.
What's even more concerning is his defensive struggles. Early in his career, you could argue his ability to clean the glass and end possessions negated his defensive shortcomings. Now, that's not really the case. Blair averaged a foul almost every eight possessions last season which tends to happen you're an inch too short and a step to slow. Perhaps Blair can slim down a bit over the summer to get some of that bounce back next season, but again, he has to find the right balance so that he doesn't give up his rebounding advantages to make it happen.
If it the outlook sounds bleak, it's because the outlook is bleak. For as much optimism as we had about how DeJuan Blair would start his NBA career, there aren't many reasons to believe things will be much better next season.