I know it’s been a while since I posted anything, but with the draft coming up next week it seems like a good time to get started again. My plan is to post 3-4 articles leading up to the draft: (1) what you’re reading, or at least skimming, right now, (2) my annual Most Underrated Prospects list, (3) Deep Sleepers, i.e. guys who probably won’t be drafted but could have a decent future in the league, and (4) if there’s time, a recap of the mock draft I’ll be taking part in at Baseball Think Factory.
Today’s article is basically a rundown of my perspective on the upcoming draft and scouting in general.
When I look at this draft, I’m reminded very strongly of 2009. To refresh your recollection, here’s how the 2009 lottery played out:
- LAC Blake Griffin
- MEM Hasheem Thabeet
- OKC James Harden
- SAC Tyreke Evans
- MIN Ricky Rubio
- MIN Jonny Flynn
- GSW Stephen Curry
- NYK Jordan Hill
- TOR DeMar DeRozan
- MIL Brandon Jennings
- NJN Terrence Williams
- CHA Gerald Henderson
- IND Tyler Hansbrough
- PHO Earl Clark
As you might notice, there was a ton of backcourt talent in that draft. The top 10 alone had Steph Curry, James Harden, Ricky Rubio, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, and Tyreke Evans. In contrast, it was an awful draft for big men: Hasheem Thabeet at 2. Jordan Hill at 8. Tyler Hansbrough and Earl Clark as lottery picks. Taj Gibson’s the only starting-caliber big man not named Blake Griffin in the entire draft.
When the draft is so imbalanced position-wise, I think there’s a tendency to fall into a trap of underrating players at the stronger positions and overrating players at the weaker ones. Put another way, you start evaluating each position’s prospects relative to each other rather than evaluating them relative to all prospects or the league generally. In 2009 there was so much depth at Point Guard that Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, and Darren Collison each fell outside the lottery, while Patrick Beverley and Patty Mills slipped well into the second round.
This year may be no different. While everyone focuses on Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox at the top, there’s quite a bit of talent at the Point Guard / Combo Guard position thereafter. None of those other guys has Fultz’s individual shot creation ability, Ball’s combination of size and vision, or Fox’s burst off the dribble, but they’re quality prospects in their own right. [For a few examples, stay tuned for my underrated and deep sleeper columns, presuming I find the time to write them.] To my eye the big men in this draft don’t stack up. I’m not saying that they’ll all be useless, but rather I see a bunch of likely reserves fighting for significant playing time rather than starters or 6th men. Maybe one of them figures it out in a few years and becomes the next DeAndre Jordan, though I’d be hard-pressed to guess which one.
Yet looking at the mock drafts on DraftExpress, nbadraft.net, and ESPN, from the late lottery through the end of the first round the majority of picks are big men. Excluding the foreign guys, Zach Collins, John Collins, Ike Anigbogu, Jarrett Allen, Justin Patton, Harry Giles, Bam Adebayo, and Tony Bradley all appear in the 10-25 range in one or more of those mocks, in no particular order apart from Zach Collins at the top and Bradley at the bottom. At Basketball Insiders, Caleb Swanigan and Ivan Rabb join that group as well. For each of these prospects I’d prefer at least a few Guards, Wings, and Combo Forwards pegged to go later according to the mock draft consensus.
My Scouting Philosophy
To give you an idea of how and why my prospect evaluations differ from the consensus—and to help you reach your own conclusions—here’s a breakdown of player attributes that I tend to value more than most:
I try not to fixate on an isolated strength or weakness. Given all the advance scouting and scheming in the NBA, my view is that a good opposing coaching staff can take away or at least minimize the effect of a single standout strength, and even more so a player’s own coaching staff can develop or work around one particular weakness. All prospects are flawed in some way, and many of the league’s best players have or previously had an obvious weakness that hasn’t held them back much.
Rather I look for prospects who can contribute in a variety of ways. I try to think about the prospect’s skillset as a whole and in the context of how that combination of skills will earn him playing time at the next level, with different types of teammates and opponents on the floor. There’s so much player interaction in basketball, increasingly so in the current era emphasizing movement on offense and switching on defense, that versatility rather than specialization has taken on even greater significance.
In my estimation the hallmarks of a particularly versatile defender are lateral quickness, long arms, quick hands, strength, and explosiveness, roughly in that order. Just having quick feet and long arms is is a huge advantage, though you can make up for a deficit in one of those areas by standing out in others. A year ago Taurean Prince and Paul Zipser made my 2016 underrated prospects list based largely on defensive versatility, and the early returns are promising. Prince’s ability to effectively defend multiple positions led to him being a productive starter for the Hawks by season’s end and in the playoffs, while Zipser’s competence defending wings and forwards alike earned him playing time and a spot in the playoff rotation over more highly regarded rookie Denzel Valentine.
Offensive versatility garners less discussion, but with 5 guys sharing 1 ball, it’s similarly important. I try to consider at least a few different aspects of versatility on that end: (a) effectiveness both on-the-ball and off-the-ball, (b) creating both for oneself and for others, and (c) scoring in multiple ways. Very, very few players are good enough with the ball in their hands to operate as their team’s near-exclusive ball handler (e.g. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron), and most of those guys don’t drop past the first few picks in the draft, so make sure to watch a prospect when he doesn’t have the ball. Being a great catch-and-shoot guy is one way to be effective, but it’s not the only way. Actively screening and finishing around the rim on cuts and putbacks works too. Meanwhile, players who contribute almost exclusively as spot-up shooters in college often lack the secondary skills to be effective pros.
- Like a BOSS
BOSS stands for Blocks, Offensive rebounds, Steals, and . . . Steals. I’ve listed steals twice not only because it makes the acronym better but also because steals are relatively most important. A player with an elite steal rate (3.0%+ for guards and 2.5%+ for everyone else) is likely to be a capable defender regardless of his performance in the other areas, and very good block and offensive rebound rates on top of that speak to potential excellence on that end of the floor. Several of the league’s best defenders stood out by these measures in college but were quite underrated prospects, most notably Draymond Green, Robert Covington, Jae Crowder, and Andre Roberson.
I sometimes refer to steals, blocks, and offensive rebounds as measures of functional athleticism, as contrasted from the athletic measurements taken at the combine. Leaping ability and straight-line speed are nice, but if they don’t translate to the box score there’s a good chance a player lacks the anticipation, awareness, and timing to excel defensively at the next level. At the very least, where a prospect’s combine athleticism measurements don’t jibe with his steal, block, and offensive rebound rates, a closer look is warranted. A low steal rate for a perimeter defender is a major red flag in terms of defensive potential, whereas for a big man it’s not a big deal if the other indicators are positive.
As with any box score stats, context matters. A coach’s scheme can have a tremendous effect on a player’s stats, and certain coaches are predictable in the ways in which they inflate or depress numbers. For instance, Bob Huggins (currently WVU), Mike Anderson (Arkansas), and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) preach defensive philosophies that tend to inflate steals and blocks, whereas Tony Bennett (UVA), Mike Brey (Notre Dame), and John Beilein (Michigan) have the opposite effect by commanding players not to foul or gamble on defense. Bennett in particular depresses the steal, block, and offensive rebound rates of perimeter players with his brutally-effective, discipline-based scheme. Just about every perimeter defender he’s had fares quite poorly by this metric, including Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and London Perrantes. The disciplined approaches don’t have the same statistical effect on interior defenders, whereas as the statistically-inflating methods apply across the board.
I’m more skeptical of claims to discount these numbers on an individual rather than team level. When the Bulls drafted Doug McDermott, lots of Creighton fans said we should disbelieve his non-existent steal and block rates because he was too important to the team to risk getting in foul trouble by defending aggressively. A few years later, he’s posted among the lowest steal and block rates in NBA history and proven himself to be a uniformly poor defender.
Turning our attention to this draft, under the BOSS framework Josh Jackson, OG Anunoby, and my most underrated prospect (to be revealed soon) all look like potentially great defenders. Malik Monk, Luke Kennard, and Justin Jackson, on the other hand, may have substantial defensive limitations.
I believe that scouts tend to give too little consideration to a player’s passing ability, especially when dealing with big men. In today’s NBA, a post player who can’t handle the ball and make the proper pass is an offensive liability. If that player doesn’t see the court and react quickly enough to find open shooters and cutters, possessions will break down whenever defenders apply pressure following the post entry.
From a statistical perspective, even though a high assist rate and low turnover rate is ideal, I don’t mind a lot of turnovers accompanied by a high or even average assist rate. That’s reflective of someone aggressively trying to make plays for his teammates, and typically turnovers will fall over time as decision-making improves. I also don’t consider it much of a flaw to have low assist and turnover rates. Such a player understands his role and plays within himself.
Low assist and high turnover rates, however, demonstrate a major offensive shortcoming. Show me a player with few assists and lots of turnovers, and I’ll show you a player who’s overrated offensively. Current examples include Jonas Valanciunas, Hassan Whiteside, and Enes Kanter. Reaching back a bit, Eddy Curry also fits this description. Low-assist, high-turnover post players often make a lot of money, but they don’t often win.
This is a red flag for both Collinses—Zach and John—as well as Ike Anigbogu. Their AST:TO ratios are all around 1:4, which is Hasheem Thabeet territory. It’s probably most troubling for John Collins, whose calling card is post offense and who isn’t expected to be a plus defender. On the bright side, each of these players is still exceedingly young, so I wouldn’t consider them lost causes as facilitators. They’re just starting from a very low baseline.
Just as there are coaches whose schemes affect steals, blocks, and offensive rebounds, there are coaches whose schemes affect assist-to-turnovers rates. The same coaches who preach discipline-based defense tend to run structured offensive sets predicated on ball movement and limiting turnovers, and Roy Williams (UNC) and Tom Izzo (Michigan St.) usually run this type of offense as well.
- Free Throw Shooting
Research has shown that free throw percentage is a better predictor of outside shooting ability at the NBA level than 3-point percentage. There are a few possible explanations for this. First, free throw shooting places everyone on the same playing field, so to speak, whereas 3-point attempts can vary tremendously in difficulty, from the uncontested catch-and-shoot variety to off-the-dribble, closely guarded bailouts. Second, the sample size for free throws is typically much larger, so that information is naturally more reliable. If you switch a few makes to misses or vice versa and it appreciably changes your view, then the stat probably isn’t worth much. Third, perhaps the skills involved in being a good free throw shooter—most notably focus and muscle memory—more closely approximate the skills required to have a dependable outside jumper at the NBA level. Many players need to diligently re-work their shooting form to adjust for the lack of space and time to get a shot off in the pro game, so I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s true to some extent.
In any event, good free throw shooters are much better bets to see their 3-point stroke translate than poor or mediocre free throw shooters. A couple years ago Andrew Johnson predicted based on free throw shooting and 3-point attempt volume that Devin Booker and D’Angelo Russell would be much better NBA 3-point shooters than Justise Winslow, despite identical 3-point percentages in college. That prediction’s been spot on, and while the relationships between these stats aren’t nearly so strong that we’d expect it to always work out that way, it’s something to consider.
In this draft, Malik Monk, Luke Kennard, and Lauri Markannen project to be the best outside shooters, while Josh Jackson and OG Anunoby may fall off quite a bit from their college numbers considering their poor free throw percentages and lower volume of 3-point attempts. Interestingly, it’s roughly the complete inverse of the defensive metrics, where Jackson and Anunoby look like the best of the bunch.
Stay tuned for the next NBA Draft installment!