Ridiculousness of Upside: Analyzing improvement by the 2008 NBA Draftees

Upside is defined in Merriam Webster as an “upward trend” or the “promise and potential” associated with a young star. When I search “upside” on the Canishoopus search engine, I receive 52 stories, 144 fan posts, 30 fan shots, and 2,222 comments containing the term. Clearly this a phrase that gets talked about on this site. But do all Rookies have upside? Do all rookies improve from their first year campaigns? Below the jump, I examine the 2008 draftees and what they tell us about upside.

First caveat, the inspiration of this post came from the Derrick Williams boosters. Without trying to pick on people, the following two comments from the Canishoopus search engine summarize what provoked this article.

First, from VoodooMagic:

“I doubt there will be a SG available in the draft for us that has as much upside as Williams”

Second from Action:

“You’re assuming Love is going to be healthy for the next 4 years. That may be the case, but if he were to go down, it’s nice to have a talent like Williams, who’s only going to get better, to step in. How many people wanted to trade Love after his rookie year? You can’t let Williams go just yet, until you see what you’ve got.”

While I've certainly enjoyed watching Derrick Williams play, and he has surprised me, especially on the boards, but while he does some nice things on the court, is his value as a 15.0 PER .100 WS/48 average player. Or is his value 3 years of compounded improvement based on his rookie campaign. While the answer obviously isn't clear, I hope it gives pause in those rosy projections of super-stardom let alone above average starter.

The 2008 NBA draft was one of, if not the best, NBA draft of this generation. You could make a claim that the 2003 NBA draft, with the James-Anthony-Bosh-Wade quartet, had more high end talent; however, the high end talent in 2008, Rose-Westbrook-Love, was pretty good as well, and the depth of the 2008 draft was far superior.

Surprisingly, the 2008 NBA draft had only three identifiable outright busts in the first round: Joe Alexander, Alexi Ajinca, and JR Giddens. Every one of the 27 non-bust first round picks has logged significant minutes in the NBA, with only DJ White, Kosta Koufos, and Robin Lopez failing to log 1,000 minutes in any season. For White and Lopez, injuries have been a problem. Koufos has been traded around; however, he has been productive at several stops, which takes him out of the bust category.

Rare is the draft where 27 1st round players log significant NBA minutes. Even rarer is the draft that contains three potential Multiple All-NBA’ers in Rose, Westbrook and Love. Subjectively, if there ever was a draft that contained a ton of “upside,” 2008 was that draft. Now that the large majority of the 2008 NBA draftees have completed 4 seasons, it may be appropriate to gauge who really had upside, who didn’t, and what this may mean for projecting improvement in other young players.

Gauging improvement is difficult. Players can generate less turnovers, shoot better, take better shots, become better teammates, become better defenders, etc. Not all improvement can be measured statistically as not only are defensive statistics in their infancy, changing team chemistry and team performance may impact individual performance. That being said, when the comment board fills with Derrick Williams upside posts, I don’t think people are projecting Williams’ upside as cerebral impact in team defense, rather, the argument seems to be that they are projecting him to get better in all facets of the game.

To measure improved performance, I looked at both PER and WS/48 for each season of the player’s career. Some players did follow an upward projection where they showed improvement each year, while other players see-sawed back and forth from improvement to regression. Without getting too technical, I looked for categories of improvement that helped separate groupings of players. I think these categories of improvement are instructive in the type of growth patterns players have in the NBA game. Those categories are (1) players who improved every year; (2) Players with a significantly improved 4th year versus 1st year; (3) Players who never got any better; (4) players who got worse; and (5) Players whose injuries clouded my judgment of their improvement. Let’s take a look at these groupings of players.

First, let’s take care of the last list and talk about who’s injuries affected the analysis. Two players here are removed from the study due to injuries suffered in the 4th year: Darrell Arthur and Eric Gordon. Both Arthur and Gordon posted little or negative improvement in their 2nd year, only to improve by leaps and bounds in their third year. For Gordon it was a well documented hot shooting month. For Arthur, it was a stratospheric rise in TS% in his 3rd year. Both suffered injuries in their 4th year rendering it impossible to determine whether their third year performance was a trend or an aberration. Because these players are removed, that leaves 25 players who fell neatly into one of the remaining four categories.

Improved every year both PER and WS/48 - (7 players out of 25 or 28%)

Derrick Rose

Russell Westbrook

Kevin Love

Danilo Gallinari

Brandon Rush

Ryan Anderson

Serge Ibaka (3 years)

Notes: Westbrook’s 4th year per is a little less than his third year PER; however, his improvement in WS/48 in his 4th year kept him on the list. Ibaka only has three years of play, but he has improved in all three years so he remains.

Improved 4th Year versus 1st year (5 out of 25 players or 20%)

Jerryd Bayless

Jason Thompson

Roy Hibbert

Nicolas Batum

George Hill

Notes: Nicolas Batum has increased his PER significantly from his first year, but beyond his second year which looks like a small sample size anomaly, his WS/48 have been good, but showing little improvement. He is still included.

Players who never got any better (8 out of 25 players or 32%)

OJ Mayo

Brook Lopez

Anthony Randolph

Robin Lopez

Javale McGee

Courtney Lee

Kosta Koufos

Donte Green

Notes: McGee’s PER was between 17 and 17.4 for his first three seasons, his WS/48 was between .105 and .115 for his last three seasons. You could argue he belongs in the “improved 4th year versus 1st year" category, but his play has been pretty consistent over all his 4 seasons and as this is my list, this is where I put him.

Players who got worse (5 out of 25 or 20%)

Michael Beasley

DJ Augustin

Mareese Speights

JJ Hickson

DJ White

Notes: You can argue that Beasley changed positions and that Hickson was propped up by LeBron for a few seasons, but the numbers don’t lie, all of these players showed regression in PER and WS/48.


In one of the best drafts of all time, 27 first round picks earned significant minutes. Even if you want to include Arthur and Gordon as those who improved, it is still relatively even odds that a player from the 2008 draft saw any improvement over their rookie season. Only 20% of the players improved year after year, which includes every stud member of the draft class. What does this mean for Williams and Rubio? Nothing is definitive, but counting on both of them to improve from who they were their respective rookie seasons may already be a losing statistical proposition. Thus, any mention of Upside needs to be hedged with the concept of Downside. Downside and stagnancy exists in numbers equal to compounding or gradual improvement. Rookies do not always get better, and counting on Kevin Love improvement or even Brandon Rush improvement, by any rookie, is asking for team building failure. Is a 20% chance that Williams develops into an All-Star PF worth more, today, for the Timberwolves, than a league average SF over the next 4 seasons. I'd argue No.

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