Breaking Down The 2010 NBA Draft's Big Men, Using Statistics

It's workout season. That time of year when verticals and wingspans distract from points and rebounds (but seriously, Luke Babbitt jumped 37 inches?) But through all the workout porn, it's important to keep in mind what the players actually did on the court.

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 and eponymous 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 Rebounding Percentage. Somewhat surprisingly, defensive rebounding percentage doesn't correlate that well with NBA production. Too much of it depends on a player's height and team context. A relative stiff like Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray was able to snag an ungodly percentage of opponent's misses in college, likely due to the fact that none of his teammates (or opponents) were tall enough to compete with him for rebounds when he started off with inside position. Offensive rebounding percentage, however, gets at not only how good a rebounder someone is, but is also a solid measure of their athleticism, since they have to beat a box-out to get to the ball.
  • 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, spitting out a per-minute rating. Big guys typically register some brutal numbers here, but quite a few of the best prospects the past few years (Al Horford and Joakim Noah) have distinguished themselves with less-cringeworthy numbers.
  • Free Throw Rate. This is a straightforward measure of how often a player gets to the line relative to the number of field goals he attempts (FTA/FGA). Generally, the higher the better.
  • 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 come up with a clean number.

While certainly far from foolproof, this system did do a good job evaluating the big men from the 2005-07 drafts. Among its hits: ranking Joakim Noah, Greg Oden and Al Horford as the top prospects during that span, with Jason Maxiell, Lamarcus Aldridge and Carl Landry also rating well. It also would have screamed at GMs to shy away from Spencer Hawes, Shawne Williams, Patrick O'Bryant and Hilton Armstrong. All in all, not too shabby, even if it did think quite highly of James Augustine and Sean May.

Given the vagaries of the system, however, the precise rankings and order should not be taken too seriously, but rather used as a more general guide to who looks over or under-rated. Caveats aside, here's the breakdown of the big guys in this year's class.

SURE THINGS

  • Demarcus Cousins. Statistically, Cousins was unequivocally the most productive big man in college hoops last season. He bullied opponents on the offensive glass, hauling in 20% of his team's misses, while scoring at an efficient clip and making frequent trips to the charity stripe. Indeed, at a gargantuan 6-foot-11 and 290 pounds (at 19 years old!), he just might be the most physically imposing big to come out of college since Tim Duncan or Shaq. He was that good. 
    And yet ... he's kind of a bonehead; the euphemisms "enigmatic" and "mercurial" were invented for guys like him. In a world where off-the-court issues don't play a role in the draft process, Cousins would be the indisputable top pick -- which, of course, some extreme statheads will assuredly argue he should be regardless (oh wait, that's already happened). Fortunately, however, we can ask ourselves "Is this guy the next Derrick Coleman or Zach Randolph?" and "How motivated will he be once he gets that second contract?" Yikes. Cousins' immense talent will trump his character concerns around the fifth or sixth pick, but he's the type of player who absolutely petrifies GMs: pass on him and he could fulfill his obvious potential elsewhere, or take him and watch him submarine your franchise with his petulance.
  • Greg Monroe. Forget the supposed questions about his "softness". And his body fat. Few big men possess even an iota of the court sense the Georgetown product does. Monroe might lack the "Type A" personality scouts and fans crave of him and isn't a top-notch athlete, but let's appreciate what he is: a willing passer with the talent to take over a game when necessary. Does that sound like the kind of sidekick teams might be interested in? Indeed, Monroe's preternatural passing ability is the envy of players a foot shorter and figures to make him a fixture in the high-post at the next level. 
    His scoring numbers were muted playing in the still-slow, Princeton set at Georgetown, but adjusting for pace, he was the second-best marginal scorer in this class. Even more impressively, he graded out as one of the top few prospects despite a woeful 8.57 offensive rebounding percentage; likely indicative of Georgetown's offensive philosophy, where Monroe was often away from the basket, more than any lack of ability. His ceiling is a (albeit, much) less physically dominant Chris Webber, absent the mental issues.

SECOND ROUND STEALS

  • Brian Zoubek. After disparaging the Dookies' chances of cutting down the nets in Indianapolis throughout March Madness, I've finally come to grips with at least one fact: Brian Zoubek is a useful player. Forget Singler, Scheyer and Smith, the real key to the Blue Devils' run to the title (aside from some very favorable seeding) was the way their bigs, particularly Zoubek, pounded the offensive glass. Indeed, Duke's gorky big man gobbled up over 19 percent of available offensive boards, second nationally only to Cousins last season. Sure, Zoubek will never be much of an offensive factor (read: he's still a stiff), but in the faux-philosophical parlance of Bill Parcells, he is what he is: a likely career back-up who will scrum for extra possessions and provide decent post defense. For a team picking in the latter portions of the second round, that's some real value.
  • Trevor Booker. Say hello to the next member of the "Paul Millsap/Carl Landry/DeJuan Blair Memorial Undersized And Overlooked Power Forward Club." While the 6-8 Clemson product isn't quite the same caliber of rebounder as the aforementioned trio, his explosive finishing at the rim figures to make him an immediate contributor in the Association.
    Booker made vicious throwdowns like that look routine throughout his standout career for the Tigers. For a team in the late first to early second round, he should find an early niche as a seventh guy, providing energy, athleticism and defense off the bench. Even better: He scored efficiently and avoided turnovers in college, making him more or less the prototypical "takes nothing off the table" players. But the larger story is that, like Millsap, Landry and Blair before him, he's serially underrated by NBA scouts despite posting some eye-popping numbers. His crime? Being an inch or so "too short" for his position. If he were 6'10'' rather than 6'8''-ish, he'd most likely be a lottery player with Chad Ford et. al. salivating over his uber-athleticism and breathlessly reporting on his "freakish wingspan." Instead, a savvy team like the Thunder will pluck him about 15-20 picks later than he should go, right before Adam Silver comes out to emcee the second round proceedings. 

QUESTION MARKS

  • Derrick Favors. One-and-dones can be especially tricky to project. Sometimes it takes them a few months to acclimate to the college game. Or maybe their teammates are sub-par, and drag down their numbers. But as a general rule, if a player is 6-10 and can do this, you should move him up your draft board.
    Of course, jaw-dropping athleticism alone hardly guarantees NBA success (isn't that right, Kwame Brown?), but Favors certainly seemed to figure out how to take advantage of his natural gifts as the season wore on. After a relatively quiet beginning, Favors was routinely posting double-doubles by March, as Georgia Tech scrambled for a tourney spot, flashing the promise that had him ranked as a consensus top two player before the season began. In that context, Favors' so-so season-long stats belie his, if you will, ridiculous upside. Expect Jay Bilas to gush -- justifiably -- about Favors' "length" and "bounciness" when he goes off the board in the top three picks.
  • Daniel Orton. He averaged three points and three rebounds a game. Three points. And three rebounds. A game. Just to be clear. And he still might go in the late lottery. What in the name of Darko Milicic is going on here? Well, Orton is big and young...and that's about all we really know for sure. He got to the line at a high rate in his limited action for Kentucky, and boarded the ball reasonably well, but it's difficult to infer much from his paltry 13 minutes a game. Basically, at this point Orton is little more than a mystery box: he could end up becoming a productive player, but -- especially in the lottery -- wouldn't you rather just draft someone who's, you know, already produced, like his running mate Patrick Patterson? Wait, don't answer that Chris Wallace.

STAY AWAY

  • Hassan Whiteside. They're the white whales of the NBA Draft: raw, athletically-gifted big men unearthed from the unlikeliest of places. Sometimes they hail from Siberia (Pavel Podkolzin). Other times they come from Senegal (Mouhamed Saer Sene). And in a perfect storm of lunacy and hype, they can even manage to go first overall, at least when the Clippers are prominently involved (Michael Olowokandi). But here's the thing -- these guys almost never pan out (unless you're Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There). This year's vintage is Hassan Whiteside. He's a 7-footer out of Marshall, and the extent of what most people know about him is that he racked up some Mutombo-esque block numbers during his one and only season. Aside from his prowess at sending back opponent's shots, however, Whiteside was far from impressive for the Thundering Herd. Consider: he's old for a freshman at 21; he posted a disastrous pure point rating; and he didn't score or rebound particularly well against some decidedly lesser competition. Ah, but the allure of the unknown big man means that Whiteside will likely go in the late lottery, as a bevy of teams will desperately reach to fill their holes in the middle. This is exactly how Hilton Armstrong became a lottery pick, and it's a surefire way for a GM to lose his job a few years down the line. You've been warned.
  • Solomon Alabi. The history of one-dimensional college shot-blockers in the NBA is not good. For every Ben Wallace or Mutombo, there's a handful of Adonal Foyles or Etan Thomases. Alabi, however, certainly demonstrated at the collegiate level that he can control a game without taking a shot -- he anchored the most efficient defense in the nation last season, largely due to his Herculean efforts to shut down the lane. But the combination of his age (22) and his health concerns make it difficult to project that he'll develop into an equally intimidating presence in the pros. And he would have to be a downright dominating defensive force to justify taking him in the first half of the first round, given his utter lack of anything resembling an offensive game. His playmaking is negligible, he didn't get to the line that often, and his scoring was decent, at best. Other than that, he was an offensive dynamo. If a team can snatch him up in the late 20s, he'll be worth a look as a role player, but anything before that will be a bit of a reach.

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