The Step Back

The most premium mediocre players in the NBA


Things come in waves on the internet and lately many of us have been soaked to the knees by slow-rollers of discussion about premium mediocrity. The term, popularized by ribbonfarm’s Venkatesh Rao, covers the mundane wrapped in an upgraded package of often nonsensical labeling and branding. Here’s Rao’s description of premium mediocrity.

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.

Premium mediocre is Cost Plus World Market, one of my favorite stores, purveyor of fine imported potato chips in weird flavors and interesting cheap candy from convenience stores around the world.

The best banana, any piece of dragon fruit, fancy lettuce, David Brooks’ idea of a gourmet sandwich.

Living in this time in human history, chances are you or someone you know is either premium mediocre or a great advocate for certain strains or brands of premium mediocrity. Heck, a great deal of the canon of my own basketball writing could be considered terrific exemplars — I use stats and metaphors in my basketball work the same way I use truffle oil and bibb lettuce in my kitchen.

Read More: The end of untouchable assets in the NBA

Inspired by the rich layers of gussied up mundanity around me, I thought it might be fun to look at some of the most premium mediocre players in the NBA. Here’s the best list I could come up with:

Devin Booker has already been anointed as (one of) The Next Big Thing(s). You may remember him from the No. 7 slot on NBA 2k18’s list of the highest rated shooting guards for their altered reality version of the 2017-18 NBA season. Or perhaps you remember his boyish punim from the highlights of that game last season where he scored 70 points against the Boston Celtics.

Booker seems good, in part because his celestial ascension is repeated like a mantra in certain sun-lit corners of social media. He also puts up a lot of points and has a game and jump shot that’s easy on the eyes. He’s also a bad defender, essentially a league-average 3-point shooter and a fairly inefficient volume scorer (30th in true shooting percentage among the 32 players who had a usage rate above 27 last season).

He’s incredibly young, a big part of his appeal, so Booker may not be in this category for long. But for now he provides so-so impact in a package you can’t take your eyes off of. Premium mediocre.

Andrew Wiggins has a max-contract extension awaiting his signature. He’s a former Rookie of the Year and one of the hottest young players on one of the hottest young teams in the NBA. The young fella can get buckets and make a damn highlight. As you may have heard from your friend who likes radar charts, Wiggins is also terrible.

That radar chart friend might be overselling the point slightly, but Wiggins’ defensive impact doesn’t even approach his reputation at that end. And then there is that thing where he provides a historically thin slate of box score contributions outside the scoring column. Wiggins seems destined to be perceived as a star (if he’s not already). Whether he actually ever impacts the game like one seems open for discussion. Wiggins is a madras curry shrimp taco, served out of a food truck with Picasso’s Guernica reproduced on the side and some old Waylon Jennings pouring out of the speakers. It sounds better than it is.

Andre Drummond is an acquired taste. He looks like he was built in a lab to play basketball. He’s got the size and bulk to power around the paint, and the quick feet and leaping ability to rise above it. He’s one of the best rebounders in the NBA and rolls to the rim like that boulder from the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. His value is also almost completely submarined by his poor free throw shooting and all the post-up possessions the Pistons lavish on him and his mechanical jump hook.

Drummond looks like everything we want in a basketball player. The packaging is breathtaking. Functionally, he’s a little too close to Cole Aldrich to be all premium.

Aaron Gordon won a dunk contest. He almost one a second one. Stupid Drone.

He was a power forward, then he was the second coming of Paul George on the wing. Then it turned out he was more the second coming of Paul Cloyd on the wing. Then he went back to being a mildly effective power forward who was more potential than present.

We can all see what Aaron Gordon could be. He has all these incredible tool, the ingredients to become a crucible of versatility and a mold-busting star at both ends of the floor. But without the technique, those ingredients just don’t really right now. Black raspberry potato chips. Shiso cream cheese french bread pizza.

Dunks and athleticism and promise and possibility and definitely premium mediocre.

 





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