Age matters in the NBA Draft. That's why the Wesley Johnson-at-No. 3-to-the-Nets rumors never made sense (except, perhaps, as a smoke screen to try to get the village idiot of NBA GMs, David Kahn, to trade up a spot under the assumption that he covets the Syracuse wingman). After all, do you think Johnson is better now than Derrick Favors will be in five years (Johnson is about to turn 23; Favors is 18)?
Which brings us to the small forwards in this year's draft. Much as we're done with the big men and the guards, we came up with a simple model that tries to predict how good a player will be in three seasons based on their college stats (more in depth explanation here). For small forwards, the statistical categories we included were "upside" (relating their marginal age and height), their three-point percentage, their offensive and defensive rebounding rates, their free throw rates (how often they got to the line), adjusted steals and blocks, pure point (a substitute for assist-to-turnover ratio) and their marginal scoring (measuring how well they scored above average production). Looking back at the 2005-07 drafts, it did quite well, tabbing Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay and Jared Dudley as the best small forwards available, in that order (it also would have screamed not to take Adam Morrison or Corey Brewer in the lottery).
We ran the numbers for the 2010 draft, and the results were...surprising. Our model hates Wesley Johnson. Pure, unadulterated hate. And the guys at the top, well, they're mostly in the lottery discussion, but the order may be a bit of a shock. Without further ado, the rankings of the small forwards in this year's class, in descending order.
Gordon Hayward. I admit when I saw Hayward going in the top ten picks in mock drafts, I thought it was borderline absurd. Sure, he'd carried Butler on their improbable run to the NCAA title game as their sometimes lone offensive catalyst, but everyone knows players who reach the Final Four are often massively overrated in the draft (especially the melanin-challenged ones). Then I ran the numbers. While Hayward was horrid from distance last year (dropping off from 45% on three-pointers as a freshman to 29% last season on a similar number of attempts), every other facet of his game was eye-opening. He's a beast on the boards; he's aggressive getting to the line; he's a decent enough playmaker and could fill in as a point-forward in a pinch; and he was outrageously efficient as a scorer. And it's hard to believe he won't rebound from his year-long shooting slump, and return to the form he displayed during his freshman campaign. But really, this is about all you need to know about Hayward; 6-foot-8 guys with moves and handle like that will always have a place in the NBA. Put it all together, and Hayward just might end up being the best small forward out of this year's class.
Al-Farouq Aminu. If Aminu possessed anything resembling an outside shot, he'd be in the mix for one of the top three spots in the draft. As it is, he still figures to come off the board in the first seven picks or so due to his freakish athleticism. Indeed, while some guys test extremely well during pre-draft workouts but have trouble utilizing those talents on the court, Aminu is the opposite; his workouts were respectable but not eye-popping, but his on-court production is stunning. Aminu eats up rebounds, swats shots away and racks up steals at prodigious rates for a wing, and finishes strong at the rack. He's a baby-faced Shawn Marion. And if he ever learns how to shoot, watch out.
Luke Babbitt. My initial intuition about Babbitt was that he was the second coming of Adam Morrison -- big, soft white guy, who can fill it up from distance and little else. Don't fall into that trap. Babbitt is a much more complete player than everyone's favorite unabashed crier ever was, piling up rebounds at a strong rate and exhibiting more variety in his offensive game. Oh, and he can apparently jump 37 inches. Take that, Wesley Snipes.
Paul George. There's a reason he was invited to the Green Room at the draft. He's young, has nice bounce, can light it up from deep and does solid work on the boards. The late lottery sounds just about right.
Damion James. There really isn't anything flashy about James' game. He's a bit of an undersized four, but he's developed a deceivingly decent outside shot the past few years, which should allow him to transition to the wing in the pros. James hits the glass on both ends of the court, gets to the line and scores quite efficiently. He'll be able to step in immediately as a quality seventh man, not too bad for a guy who will probably last until the late first to early second round.
Devin Ebanks, Lazar Hayward and Darington Hobson. Ebanks is a poor man's Aminu: No jump shot, all hustle plays. Ebanks isn't quite the athlete that Aminu is (and is unbelievably a worse shooter), which should push the West Virginia product down to the second round. Hayward, meanwhile, has been overlooked due to his relatively advanced age and small stature. But he has the perimeter game to step in as a wing in the pros, and he showed at Marquette that he's ferocious enough in the paint to mix it up with the bigs for rebounds. Hayward could end up being a sneaky good pick in the mid-second round. As for Hobson, he's a decent playmaker and shooter, although he didn't score particularly efficiently last season. Expect him to get drafted before the aforementioned duo, at the end of the first round.
Wesley Johnson. How could Johnson be this low on the list of swingmen? Well, he'll be 23 shortly, he didn't rebound particularly well last season (perhaps due in part to playing in Syracuse's zone), and he didn't get to the line very frequently. So basically, we're talking about an athletic, spot-up shooter who put up strong numbers against younger competition last season. Does that sound like a top-four pick?
Quincy Pondexter. He's old, short and, despite some marked improvements this past year, still can't shoot a lick. Don't buy into the hype that he's one of the steals of the draft.
Da'Sean Butler and Stanley Robinson. The bad: they're old, not great on the glass, and not too threatening from three-point land.