“Amazing tools, amazing skills, amazing potential but still doubts about his game. That’s the current status of Yaroslav Korolev. In a perfect world, a kid like him wouldn’t be thrown into the NBA so early” -Luis Fernandez of DraftExpress, August 23rd, 2005.
Unfortunately for Korolev and the Clippers faithful, the world in the year 2005 was yet to be “perfected” by David Stern, as the age limit had not yet been established. This was a time where foreign players had started to cash in on their new found respect from GM’s across the league who had laid witness to Team USA’s Summer Olympic smackdown. The 2005 draft ended up being the not so perfect storm for Clippers management. The college draft class depth was unusually shallow, and in part due to the “Euro Craze” pandemonium hitting full stride, Korolev was regarded as not only the best foreign prospect, but one of the best prospects period. All of this resulted in Korolev being infamously taken before collegiate stud Danny Granger at pick 12.
At the time, stashing players in Europe and letting them develop was still a relatively new concept, and stashing lottery picks was downright unheard of. Of course, the NBDL was no place for a lottery pick either. Korolev simply had to join the Clippers big league squad, regardless of whether he was ready for it or not. In the span of a few short months, Korolev went from playing against Russian teenagers to grown men, all at the tender age of 18.
The scouts at DraftExpress considered Korolev’s ceiling to be a Toni Kukoc/Andrei Kirilienko type hybrid. Considering the definitions of a “glue-guy”, wouldn’t a realized Korolev become a damn good one? Unfortunately, while Kukoc and AK-47 had time to develop their games and mental toughness overseas, Korolev did not. That is not to say that Korolev could have ever sniffed either of those players’ careers or talent level had he stayed overseas a few years, but it would have at least given him a fighting chance. As it was, Korolev entered the league as an overwhelmed, underdeveloped 18 year old with a fragile state of mind and a clear lack of confidence. From DraftExpress, August 23rd, 2005:
“But still, he rarely could find the proper rhythm to extend the dominance for longer periods, committing mistakes, particularly in the form of silly personal fouls, not being focused enough and looking even frustrated at times. Right now, his mental strength remains a question mark, not being clear at all how he will react playing at a higher level of competition.”
Korolev’s brief 2 year, 34 game, 168 minute career did little to prove those doubts wrong. 168 minutes is hardly enough to judge a player’s talent to it’s full extent, but in two years Korolev never once looked like an NBA player while he was on the floor.
It’s worth noting that the 2005 draft was pretty awful, with the exception of the first few guys off the board. Other than Granger, who was passed on by 16 teams before he fell to Indiana, no player taken after Korolev has reached an all-star game, and most look to be career role players at best. Korolev was undoubtedly one of the biggest mistakes and worst busts in recent draft history, but the alternate players the Clippers were looking at selecting if Korolev was off the board, Rashard McCants and Antoine Wright, likely wouldn’t have turned out to become great picks either.
The reason the Korolev disaster is brought up is because Dunleavy has usually responded well to his worst mistakes as a GM. The ensuing revelations from the 2005 draft disaster led to the praised 2007 selection of the anti-Korolev in the form of a college tested, NBA ready Al Thornton. The acquisition of Zach Randolph was largely rectified with the moves made this summer. Of course, the book is still open on the Baron Davis signing, which just may turn out to be Dunleavy’s biggest mistake of all.
To avoid general pain and suffering, I always suggest that Clippers fans try not to play the “what if” game when it comes to draft picks. With Korolev though, the game is entirely too tempting. What if the Clippers took Granger instead of Korolev? Do they make multiple playoff appearances?
As for Korolev, what if he was stashed in Europe and didn’t come over until he was 22 years old and confident, with a new found path to playing time and a polished point-forward skill set?
Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that question. Sadly enough, neither will he.