Eric Bledsoe or Avery Bradley? James Anderson or Dominique Jones? With the 2010 NBA Draft all but upon us, these are the questions confronting GMs and fans. But rather than wait the requisite 3-5 years to figure out whether your team made the right choice, let's try to figure out in advance which prospects are likely to make fanbases rejoice or get their GM canned. After all, who doesn't like immediate gratification?
And with that in mind, we've turned our attention to creating a simple model to project how good the current batch of big man prospects might be three years out in the league, based on their college stats. Of course, this is a task fraught with enormous difficulty; sometimes good college players just can't find the right fit, lose motivation, or succumb to personal issues, and other times players just work their way into the league.
Setting aside those concerns, we regressed the player's best single-season win shares from their first three seasons against a handful of college statistics, with adjustments for pace and strength of schedule gleaned from the indispensable kenpom.com. After testing different combinations of variables, we arrived at the following six as the best predictors:
Upside. A simple number relating a player's marginal height and age. Or put more clearly, relating how tall they are relative to their position to how old they are for the draft. It turns out this number is a relatively decent proxy for the actual draft order.
Offensive/Defensive Rebounding Percentages. How can you tell if someone has ridiculous upside? Well, they tend to rebound the hell out of the ball, even guards. If a player can't post respectable rebounding rates in college, that's a major red flag for whether they have the athleticism to create their own shot and play big minutes at the next level.
Steals. Adjusted for pace, competition, and minutes played, steals are a seeming throwaway stat that actually gives a decent idea about how athletic/how much basketball IQ a player has.
Pure Point. This is John Hollinger's baby. Because assist-to-turnover ratio puts turnovers in the denominator, it can reward players who don't take many chances. Pure point rating solves this by adjusting assists to be roughly equal to turnovers, and then subtracting turnovers from assists, dividing by minutes played and adjusted for pace, spitting out a per-minute rating.
- Marginal Scoring. This gives an idea of how well a player scores relative to an average player. Lots of players can score an average amount at high efficiency (i.e. at a high true shooting percentage). And lots of players can score a high amount at average efficiency. Clearly, the best players both score and shoot at a high rate. The Marginal Scoring rate tries to capture this, combining how many more (adjusted) points than average they score, and how much better than average they shoot to put up those numbers.
- Three-Point Shooting Percentage. You know how basketball purists bemoan the fact that today's backcourt players either jack it up from distance or (often futilely) try to get all the way to the rim? There's a reason for this -- both shots have the highest expected-value in basketball. Of course, a mid-range game is nice, but if you can't shoot the three-ball in today's NBA, it's awfully hard to make it onto the court.
Without further ado, let's take a look at how some of this year's most highly-touted (and some under the radar) prospects stack up against each other.
John Wall. He's easily the best point guard prospect since Chris Paul, which is even crazier praise than it sounds like at first blush, considering Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and a slew of talented lead guards from last season -- Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, et. al. -- have come into the league in recent years. Wall simply has the tools to eclipse them all: Stunning athleticism, a high motor, impeccable court vision and a certain je ne sais quoi about him. What's not to like? Well, if we're going to nitpick, his jumper still needs work, and his decision-making last year left a bit to be desired (witness the four turnovers a game). Still, those are skills that can be learned through playing and repetition, while plays like this, not so much. Thankfully, the Wizards aren't overthinking this one; just
Eric Bledsoe. When, exactly, did everyone decide that Bledsoe was a lock for the mid-first round? January? February? It feels like it began in a fit of contrarianism, when hoops aficionados wondered Is Kentucky better off with Bledsoe at the point instead of Wall (answer: no) after Bledsoe put together a few eye-opening performances, and that cascaded into assumptions that Bledsoe was perhaps destined for the late lottery. Sure, Bledsoe looks like an NBA point guard and he possesses a reliable outside shot (regional final against West Virginia excluded), but he wasn't particularly adept at actually running a team. Indeed, Bledsoe actually turned the ball over more than he assisted his teammates for an abysmal Pure Point rating that submarined his numbers in our projections. Now, it may be that with another year as the unquestioned starter for the Wildcats, Bledsoe would make a pronounced improvement quarterbacking a team, but at this point it's something of a leap of faith that he can go from being a trainwreck with the ball to better than average. Wouldn't you rather have someone who's already produced -- like a certain combo guard out of South Florida?
Mikhail Torrance and Ben Uzoh. Say hello to this pair of relatively anonymous guys who just might be the second and third best point guards in this admittedly weak class of lead guards. Though neither boasts the tool set of ridiculous athleticism that tantalizes NBA GMs, they're both big point guards, who rebound well and make good decisions with the ball in their hands. Torrance and Uzoh will both have to refine their somewhat shaky shots, but for teams in the late first to early second rounds, either should be able to jump in as capable backups.
Scottie Reynolds, Courtney Fortson and Sherron Collins. Of the aforementioned trio, only Fortson figures to draw serious draft consideration -- and with good reason. Reynolds is too athletically limited and poor a playmaker to transition to point guard in the pros; Collins is too old (23), short (5'11'') and heavy (reportedly 229 pounds) to project well in the Association. Fortson might get a look in the second round, but that would be a mistake: his horrific pure point rating, even worse efficiency (sub-50 TS%) and advanced age for a college sophomore (22) all augur a very prompt trip to the D-League and little else.
Evan Turner. He's Brandon Roy 2.0. Similar size, similar skills, similar production. If anything, Turner was been the more versatile collegiate player, racking up points, rebounds and assists at a prodigious rate. Regrettably, Turner also piled on the turnovers at nearly as staggering a pace, one of the few chinks in his otherwise invulnerable metaphorical armor. Scouts also question whether he possesses the same "ridiculous upside" as some of the other talents that litter the top of the draft, but with Turner it comes down to certainty: There is little doubt he'll be a good pro, an All-Star even. That's got to be worth the second overall pick...right?
Xavier Henry. Remember when Henry burst onto the college scene with a series of clinical shooting performances, seemingly threatening to overwhelm the veritable tsunami of (entirely justified) John Wall hype? Well, Henry took a back seat to his more experienced teammates much of the rest of the season, with the buzz around him subsequently becoming much more subdued. Well, it's time to rekindle your love affair with Henry. After all, he's young, has an NBA body and a devastating outside shot. While he might never be an All-Star caliber player, he can most certainly be the third-best player on a contending team. Someone in the late lottery is going to be very, very happy when he falls to them.
James Anderson. Can we just agree that he's James Harden, sans the passing ability? Yes? Done and done. Anderson certainly won't wow anyone with his ups, but he's been enormously productive the past few seasons for Oklahoma State, putting up some preposterously efficient scoring numbers as the focal point of the Cowboys' attack. His niche might be nothing more than as the fourth or fifth option as a longball specialist on a good team, but there's decent value in that, especially for a playoff team drafting in the late teens or twenties.
Jordan Crawford and Elliot Williams. This duo are both instant offense; Crawford is more of an outside threat, while Williams' lightning-quick slashing, particularly to his strong left hand, can be borderline unstoppable. The question for both is whether they're a little too one-dimensional. Neither is much of a presence on the boards, neither creates many shots for their teammates, and neither is quite a good enough scorer to justify a high usage rate at the next level. Crawford looks like a marginally better prospect than Williams, but it's not clear either is a much better bet than some of the two-guards who figure to be available in Round Two. Guys like...
Manny Harris and Sylven Landesberg. Thought experiment time: What if Harris or Landesberg had played for tournament teams? Would they be first round locks? Sure, both of them deserve some blame for not being able to shepherd their teams to the Big Dance, but should draft evaluators punish them for having subpar teammates? (You're supposed to say no). Both are decent-sized guards with more than adequate doses of athleticism. Harris' multifaceted game is only missing a reliable jumper, while Landesberg showed a marked improvement from long range, though he's not nearly the same caliber of playmaker as Harris. Is either of them substantially worse than Jordan Crawford, Elliot Williams or Terrico White? No -- and they just might be better.
Lance Stephenson. There are cautionary tales and then there are cautionary tales -- the type who scare off every major college program due to their "enigmatic" personalities and bark at teammates every time anyone else has the gall to shoot the ball. Lance Stephenson is the latter kind. While his Tyreke Evans-esque frame allowed him to bully opponents in the paint, Stephenson simply wasn't good this past year. A putative "scorer", Stephenson recorded some absolutely atrocious efficiency numbers -- and not a whole lot of points to show for it, either. Calling his shot a work in progress is being generous (25% from three-point land), and his playmaking "skills" are nearly nonexistent as well. Cliffnotes version: Stephenson is a ball hog with indefensible shot selection, absent the talent to make it work. Stay away.
Dominique Jones. He's a beast. If you put up 20 points per game in last year's loaded Big East, with little or no help from your mediocre teammates, that goes without saying. South Florida's burly guard was particularly masterful at muscling his way into the paint, often with an assort of spins, and getting to the line. Offensively, his only hole is a somewhat suspect outside jumper, although his underrated passing and monstrous work on the boards mitigate some of those concerns. He was also a willing, and very able, defender, a trait that should endear him to his future NBA coach. The big question, as with all combo guards (read: undersized two-guards) is whether he can slide over to the point, where his size and strength would be an even greater asset. If he can, some team is going to get an absolute gem in the latter portions of the first round.
Avery Bradley. He's too small to be two-guard in the Association but he doesn't exactly have an innate point guard mentality. He's stuck in that limbo known as being a "combo" guard. Still, there's no denying Bradley's lockdown defense, sweet touch from outside and relative youth make him an enticing prospect for teams in the mid-first round. After Xavier Henry comes off the board, Bradley figures to be the best backcourt option left.
Willie Warren. And this is why players should bolt for the NBA as soon as they're projected to be lottery picks. A year after serving as Blake Griffin's sidekick en rote to the Elite Eight, Warren returned for a sophomore campaign in a bid to boost his draft stock into the stratosphere of the lottery. Oops. After a catastrophic season revived many of the old concerns about Warren, including the inevitable Is he a true point guard or a two-guard trapped in a point guard's body?, his stock has gone into freefall, to the first round fringe. And honestly, that's probably where he deserves to be. Despite his good size for a one-guard, his rebounding rates were meager; he registered a troubling number of turnovers and his shooting is average at best. Is that something you might be interested in?
Matt Bouldin. Who will he check in the pros, ones or two-guards? How about: Neither. But that doesn't preclude Bouldin from finding a spot on an NBA roster as a big guard who can flip between both backcourt spots and provide a steady hand. Because if there's one word that aptly describes Bouldin's game, it's "steady". He has a solid handle, a solid shot, he's big enough to post up smaller point guards, and he's crafty enough to get his own shot at times (notice how we didn't mention defense again?). In the right system, he can be a valuable role player.
Jon Scheyer. I know. Believe me, I know. You see "white guy from Duke" and your gut instinct is to gloat that he's just not athletic enough to make it in the pros. It's a nice consolation for those times the Dookies are actually good. Unfortunately, those stereotypes aren't kosher here (see what we did there?). Scheyer was insanely productive for Coach K last season, not only filling it up from distance, but running the point proficiently as well. Add in that Scheyer is bigger than you realize (6-foot-5), and he has the makings of a quite useful bench player, versatile enough to bounce between both guard spots as needed, and deadly enough from distance to penalize teams from doubling off of him. As a self-avowed Duke hater I can't believe I'm saying this, but Scheyer could very well end up being one of the steals of the draft. Excuse me while I go watch this ad infinitum. Much better.