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Early NBA Draft metrics and thoughts

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A brief, pre-lottery look at this year's top prospects

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best developments in the basketball metrics movement is that, not only have they filtered down to the college level, but they've sustained there long enough that we can start making comparisons to years prior. Here in 2015, fields like PER, True Shooting percentage, Win Shares and usage now stretch back 5-6 years in NCAA statistics. We have all that information for the college careers of John Wall and Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. This is particularly helpful this year, where the top two projected picks - Jahlil Okafor and Karl Anthony-Towns - are both big men.

Keep in mind that, unlike the NBA, college teams have massive variances in strength of schedule. NBA teams play other NBA teams at least twice every year. In any given season, Duke may play a team two or even three times that Kentucky never plays at all. Still, there's enough data to get a generally accurate impression.

With a top 4 pick guaranteed, there's no need to look at ten or twelve players. I'm confident that Flip's top five, as of this moment at least (and not necessarily in this order) are Okafor, Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Kristaps Porzingis.

Mudiay spent last season in China, which no one has established a realistically accurate NBA statistical conversion for (it's very possible one simply doesn't exist). As for Porzingis, Euroleague charts advanced statistics, and we have John Hollinger's general Euro-to-NBA conversion method, but I don't know how to turn the converted basic stats back into advanced stats for the NBA. I'll give you some impressions of both, but I've got no numbers for you. And also, the Wolves should (read operative word: should) be considering Willie Cauley-Stein, so I'll add him too.

So, Towns, Okafor, Russell, and Trill. I've split them into Bigs and Not Bigs to get more or less an apples-to-apples comparison (like, Honeycrisp-to-Macintoshi-ish)

PER TS% Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% Off WS Def WS WS/48
Anthony Davis 35.1 .654 18.2 7.5 2.5 13.7 5.9 4.2 .314
Karl Anthony-Towns 31.4 .627 18.5 11.6 1.4 11.5 3.5 2.9 .311
DeMarcus Cousins 34.2 .579 22.5 9.2 2.4 7.5 3.8 2.7 .290
Willie Cauley-Stein*** 23.8 .588 14.5 7.4 2.9 7.1 2.6 3.4 .239
Jahlil Okafor 30.7 .641 16.6 9.4 1.5 4.5 4.5 2.2 .235
Nerlens Noel 27.3 .583 16.8 9.5 3.9 13.2 1.6 2.4 .209
Derrick Favors 24.5 .621 16.5 7.9 1.8 7.9 2.3 2.5 .195

Some early thoughts:

First of all, if you want to know why Nate and I were willing to sell the farm (including Kevin Love) for Anthony Davis, now you know. The guy is an unholy monster of the basketball court, leading everyone listed here in both Offensive and Defensive Win Shares by wide margins. His base per/40 numbers look like Duncan and Hakeem. The steals/blocks combination were particularly standout and predictive - Davis averaged 1.4 steals and 4.7 blocks at Kentucky. The only other big time NBA players I could find who averaged those numbers or better in any single college season were Shaq, Hakeem, and David Robinson. Throw in his sky-high TS% - for reference, Tim Duncan's single best TS% at Wake Forest was .629 - and yeah....Davis is going to be the best player in the league and it might not even be all that close.

Karl Anthony-Towns - Seeing Davis' college game put into this context and having now seen his unbelievable dominance at the NBA level should get you really excited about Towns. KAT is right there with Davis in rebounding, blocks, and Win Shares/48 (keep in mind his total Win Shares are much lower because he played far fewer minutes) and Towns hit those numbers while competing with another defensively dominant big as a teammate. He's not likely to actually be as spectacular as Davis at the NBA level because he's neither overwhelmingly big (like Cousins) nor overwhelmingly athletic (like Davis). I added Derrick Favors to the list for this very reason, but as you can see, Favors' year at Georgia Tech came nowhere close to KAT. And if the talk of a legitimate NBA three point shot are true, Towns would trump everyone else on the list in the versatility/utility department.

Jahlil Okafor - Let me start by saying I wouldn't mind Okafor as a #2-4 pick. I'll be unhappy if we take him over Towns, and I'm personally not sure I'd take him over Russell or Trill, but he's a good player. I don't dislike him. He can handle and pass the ball and has possibly the best low post scoring game college basketball has seen since Tim Duncan all the way back in 1997. He's an offensive powerhouse, with statistical comps to Chris Webber, Zach Randolph, and the scoring side of Timmy. There's a lot to like here.

That said, defense is an issue, and the numbers you see here for him defensively are a little alarming. Okafor registered fewer Defensive Win Shares in 38 games than Nerlens Noel did in 24. The rebounding percentage is low, particularly for a big who was the only 7-footer his team put on the floor most of the time. Coach K's system does tend to artificially lower rebounding numbers for bigs, but at the same time, it's been pointed out in countless video sessions that Okafor's problem here is as much just plain poor effort as anything else. And the blocks percentage is virtually non-existent for a 7-footer. Less than half of Towns' and less than a third of Davis and Noel's. Again, steals and blocks tend to be very predictive for bigs; they usually are signs of key basketball intangibles (awareness, timing, etc)

Further, Coach K often resorted to a zone defense to hide Okafor in the pick-and-roll as the season went on; another big red flag. First, the pick-and-roll is the foundation of every non-Triangle, non-Flip Saunders offense at the NBA level. If your bigs can't hedge and contain, the NBA's slew of Steph Curry/Chris Paul/Tony Parker/Russell Westbrook super amazing awesome monster point guards will eat you alive. Like they've done to the Wolves for the past 10 years or so. Second, our track record of Players Who Played Zone Defense goes from questionable to downright destructive: Dieng, Wes Johnson, Jonny Flynn. Yup.

Willie Cauley-Stein - As a first note, the numbers listed above for Trill are his junior season numbers. I had a hard time picking which season to go with. The most accurate comparison to the other bigs would be his freshman year. He wasn't very good his freshman year. He was best this past season, but in some regards, he was better his sophomore year when he wasn't sharing real estate with Towns.

The main reason his freshman year was bad was no one realized how limited a scorer he is. He had the highest usage and lowest efficiency as a frosh. Once Coach Cal realized he wasn't a big offensive weapon, he became the player we recognize now.

As a draft prospect, Cauley-Stein is old and almost strictly defense-oriented, which normally would make him a reach for a top-5 player. However, there's two things working immensely in his favor: he's the most athletic big at the top of the draft by a wide, wide margin, and his defense is just flat out amazing.

Trill is opposite-Okafor. He has almost no back-to-the-basket game and limited handles, so he needs to be set up for all his scoring opportunities. His free throw shooting is bad, and his overall shooting range is shaky at best. Again, normally not a top pick.

However his defense is so incredible, you can make a very good argument that his dead offense is a worthwhile price to pay. Particularly for a team that's last in basically every defensive category in the NBA (oh hey, that's us!) Trill lead the entire NCAA in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box +/-, and was second only to his own teammate (Towns) in defensive rating. His combination of agility and timing makes him a deadly weapon to shut down the pick-and-roll, and allows him to legitimately guard all five positions. And although this isn't tracked, I'd imagine he was one of the leaders in at-rim FG% allowed and the Dwight Howard Effect - how much teams change their shot selection simply to avoid getting near him.

That on-court argument for Cauley-Stein is exemplified in the sheer defensive impact you're starting to see from Nerlens Noel and Rudy Gobert. Stifle Tower is terrifying on defense, already ranking top 5 in the NBA in every defensive metric and forcing teams to drastically alter their play-calling. If you go back and redo that 2013 draft, he and Noel have to be your top two picks. The age factor impacts WCS in player-to-player comparison, but even in his not-great freshman state, he draws statistical comps to Kenyon Martin, Rasheed Wallace and Robin Lopez.

And while I normally wouldn't advocate on spending a top 4 pick on a college junior with limited upside, I'm willing to make an exception here because of the circumstances. If you...

  1. think the team can build a solid future on Rubio and Wiggins, and...
  2. at all believe that defense is a thing that really really really matters...
...then picking a guy to be a high-caliber complimentary player at the top of the draft is pretty okay. I buy that Trill is basically under-30 Tyson Chandler. That's worth a top pick, especially for this team.

Kristaps Porzingis - On paper, Porzingis is everything you'd want in a modern NBA power forward. He's 7'1", athletic, agile, can shoot the lights out all the way past the three point line, and has a bit of a mean streak. If you want to know why he keeps coming up in connection to Flip's draft board, think about all that, then remind yourself that Flip is almost purely an eye test guy.

I should say, I don't think Porzingis will be a disaster in the NBA. He should be able to at least carve out a niche role on offense for a decent team, a la Matt Bonner/Ryan Anderson. He has an amazing shooting touch combined with great mobility and scoring instincts away from the ball. His lack of physical toughness is much more about weight and strength than the stereotypical Euro softness (he'll happily fight, he's just a cruiser-weight right now), and he's a willing defender - he moves and contains in pick-and-roll and contests at the rim.

That said, picking him in the top 4 is an insanely risky reach. Other than his jump shot, there's just not anything really set in his game. Can he post up? Can he rebound consistently? Does he have the awareness to capitalize on his potential? Statistically, he was pretty mediocre. Using John Hollinger's basic Euro-to-NBA stats conversion method, Porzingis averaged something like 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 assist per-36 minutes last season. For comparison, Nikola Mirotic averaged 20 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists per-36 for the better part of three years before coming to the NBA.

There's definitely a crazy amount of potential in Porzingis, but right now it's all locked in that "best case scenario" that the Wolves burn themselves on over and over over. We just posted the worst record in the NBA. We can't afford to spend a top pick on an odds-on "maybe". Porzingis seems to be the player you take in the 8-12 range....that no-man's land where all the young studs with potential to burn are already off the board, so you're left choosing between the high-risk potential guys or proven juniors and seniors who have more or less capped out as players. Not in the top 4.

PER TS% / eFG% Reb% Ast% Stl% Usage Off WS Def WS WS/48
Kyrie Irving 32.4 .697 /  .615 6.7 29.8 3.0 26.4 1.8 0.6 .320
D'Angelo Russell 26.6 .573 / .541 9.8 30.1 2.8 30.2 4.4 2.4 .229
Damian Lillard 24.8 .594 / .527 6.9 23.3 1.9 28.0 4.4 1.0 .202
Marcus Smart 24.0 .532 / .455 9.9 26.8 5.3 27.2 2.5 3.0 .198
Victor Oladipo 21.5 .586 / .571 12.9 10.5 3.6 22.5 1.5 0.8 .145

Some early thoughts:

**Note that all numbers are for freshman seasons

***I picked a mix of combo guards and point guards playing as combo guards

Holy hell, Kyrie Irving is great at this basketball thing. He only played eleven games at Duke, but as you can see, he was beyond dominant in those eleven (and his NBA career is proving it wasn't just a small sample size fluke) He shot the lights out and posted a 30% assist rate on, what for a point guard, was low usage. Had he played a full season, his Offensive Win Shares would have probably exceeded 6.0. Unreal stuff.

D'Angelo Russell - I'm huge on D'Angelo, and you can see why above. But also, there's equally huge reasons that aren't captured in those numbers.

First off, Russell led everyone listed in straight assists per game, despite ostensibly playing the shooting guard position. He was put in that death trap position of having to lead his team in both scoring and facilitating, and came out of it plated in gold.

Russell leads all players in the draft in VJL's Expected Wins Peaks measure (his 11.0 score just barely beats out Towns' 10.8) and thrashes everyone except Muiday in  Star Potential - .67, with the next closest being Justise Winslow's .50.

And beyond those numbers, Russell excels at something that, in the NBA, is an on-court gold mine: he's equally awesome on and off the ball.

I'll get into more detail as the draft gets closer, but suffice it to say, players who can catch-and-shoot as well as they handle and facilitate print money for their teams. And wins. And literally, money. Manu Ginobili. James Harden. Steph Curry. That player type is the all do awesome everything of basketball. If you need Manu to work off the ball as a floor spacer for Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, he can do that. If you need him to be the point guard for Tiago Splitter and Danny Green, he can do that too. That sort of utility is priceless at the NBA level.

For that reason, D'Angelo is #2 on my board, not Okafor.

Emmanuel Mudiay - I honestly don't have a lot of insight on Muiday.

I don't trust CBA stats in translation to the NBA. I don't know if that's at all rational, but Michael Beasley averaged 29 points and 5 assists in China, so you'll have a hard time getting me to psychologically believe otherwise. And I haven't seen enough game tape of him to for any sort of reliable opinion, largely because he only played in 12 games due to injury.

The best I can say right now is, he didn't disappoint. As in, he didn't do anything to make people think he's not good at basketball.

For the Wolves, the appeal is we obviously, desperately need a backup point guard. Mudiay could push Zach LaVine into the shooting guard role he belongs in, as well as provide insurance against another Rubio injury.

But again, I just don't know enough here. I feel like I'm trying to scout a high school kid, who's basketball reality is so far removed from the NBA that it might as well be a different universe.

If you have any insight on Mudiay, please share in the comments.

Final thoughts, for now:

Most of you probably noticed a prominent name is left out here: Justise Winslow.

I love the guy. I think he's going to be a killer in the NBA. But he's not on Flip's radar. Like, at all. And I don't expect him to be. Flip has his type of player. Okafor and Porzingis are it. Winslow and WCS are not.

And in fairness, Trillie Cauley-Stein is barely on the radar himself, but his name has at least come up a few times, and he'd fill such a blatantly critical need that I decided to cape for him anyway. If something changes and Winslow becomes a blip, we can cover him then, but for now, yeah - there's your explanation.

Overall, I think there's really no logical argument for anyone but Karl Anthony-Towns to be number one on the Wolves' draft board. He's pretty much the best player (assuming there's stuff about his defense that isn't going to show up in the stats) and by far the best fit. There's no need to overthink it.

Past that, well, I'm guessing we have a debate. My board goes Towns - Russell - Trill - Okafor. How about yours?