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Testing SMILODON: 2016 Draft

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How did SMILODON evaluate this rather underwhelming draft?

NBA: NBA Draft Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 draft was widely maligned at the time, and has fallen into deeper disrepute since. The main contenders for rookie of the year were a player from the 2014 draft who appeared in less than half his team’s games and a mid second round rookie who proved a reliable 3&D guard off the bench. The #1 pick missed the entire season due to injury and the #2 pick was one of the least productive players in the league. How would this draft have been viewed through the lens of SMILODON? In contrast with the 2015 draft, it would not have been viewed as a promising class, despite the presence of several potential steals in the second round.

For those new to the series, SMILODON is a skills based draft projection system that attempts to translate college production into statements about player skills. If a prospect is flagged as a “steal”, that means that he has either a blue flag, multiple green flags, or all of his skills save one are at least at the level of a yellow flag. A prospect flagged as a “bust” will usually have multiple red flags without the corresponding green flags for balance.

Some flags are more important than others. Age is crucial; a player with a red flag for age needs proficiency in at least two of the three “s” categories: size, shooting, and shot blocking to be taken seriously as a prospect. The general profile for a successful older perimeter player is that of a player with good size for his position who can shoot and shows another advanced skill. Robert Covington, a small forward with a nearly 7’2 wingspan and elite defensive numbers, and Malcolm Brogdon, a shooting guard with a nearly 6’11 wingspan and excellent passing, are two examples. Undersized 22 year old seniors posting good numbers should be heavily, heavily discounted. Shooting is also crucial for perimeter players. Guards who can’t shoot need to be All-NBA defenders to be worth a first round pick. Point forwards who can’t shoot are also likely to be far less valuable in the NBA than their projections might suggest.

As in the last article, I sorted players by Draft Express’ mock draft to lessen hindsight bias and provide an accurate basis of comparison for pre-draft projections.

2016: 1-10

Ben Simmons has a weird profile. It’s as if Aaron Gordon or Kevon Looney could run the point. I think he’s a big, but as a small forward his flags become POOR for shooting, GOOD for driving, ELITE for passing, ELITE for defense. That’s an alluring profile, but it’s always possible the lack of shooting could negate most of the good he accomplishes on the court. He does seem to possess the highest upside of any player on this list and should have been the first pick, considering the competition.

Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray are the next best prospects by this method, each with green flags for youth and another skill. Neither has a profile that screams “star,” but “useful player.” Buddy Hield is what would happen if Damian Lillard was an even older prospect who couldn’t pass, and Jaylen Brown is a player whose only strength is getting to the basket. I would rank both in the bottom half of the lottery.

Chriss, Dunn, and Poeltl all have something to tout. In Chriss’ case, it was youth and athleticism, showing in his block rate. Dunn’s profile was all about defense. Poeltl did not have any red flags, but overall was probably the weakest of the eight NCAA players in this category.

2016: 11-20

“Skal looks pretty good” is something I never expected to write about a statistical projection system. He looks to be on the same level as Chriss by this system. He might be even better, as block rate is very important for big men.

I’ve written before about the danger of overrating older, less athletic wings who can shoot and pass, but not drive or defend. Denzel Valentine is the ultimate apotheosis of that player type, and is not nearly as impressive as the initial blue/green combo would have us believe. The full list of players in my data with at least a green for shooting and passing, but orange or lower for the other three categories is: Valentine, Tyler Ulis, Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock, Tony Snell, and Darius Miller. Trey Burke barely had enough steals & blocks to escape this category and Tyus Jones fits in every respect save age.

None of the other six NCAA prospects in this section of the draft look very promising by this method. Let’s see how the next ten prospects look.

2016: 21-30

Not much better, apparently. Bembry is the only one of these six prospects with a green or blue flag and he fits the profile of “point forward who can’t shoot.” Using SMILODON, I probably would have been forced to include most of the first round international prospects in my projected lottery. I had already placed Zubac and Korkmaz there without the advantage of this system showing the mediocrity of the rest of the class.

2016: 31-45

It’s in the second round that our eyes become reintroduced to the color green. Ulis has the group’s solitary blue flag, but is an example of the problematic player type discussed earlier. Malcolm Brogdon is the only other player with two green flags, but is the type of old player I have been discounting throughout this series. What made Brogdon different? It’s all about school context. Virginia played a very conservative, plodding style. Brogdon had the percentages (40% on jumpers, 90% on free throws) of an ELITE shooter, but lacked the volume. Had he played on a faster team, he probably would have hit those thresholds. Had Virginia also played a different defensive system, one not notorious for limiting defensive events in the name of superior positioning, Brogdon, who averaged more steals/36 minutes in the NBA than the NCAA, would have had an unmissable profile despite his advanced age (something like ELITE/OK/GOOD/OK/POOR). Syracuse and Virginia are two of the most extreme examples of a coach’s system playing havoc with my system.

Diamond Stone could shoot free throws and block shots at an acceptable rate despite his youth. The reasons he fell to the second round mostly had to do with his horrendous defensive acumen and perceived potential for improving said acumen. Stone is like Christian Wood in that the talent is clearly there (He shot 51/37/83 in 13 D-League games this year), but his flaws may keep him off the floor (0.3 A/TO and 5.7 PF/36 in those same games). Chinanu Onuaku projected as a good defensive big, earning the same flags as, for example, Steven Adams. I think he might have a lower upside than Stone, but he has a much easier path to realizing that upside.

Isaiah Whitehead and Patrick McCaw both projected as rotation wings who should not have fallen so far. Subjectively, I liked McCaw better at the time. As a wing whose defensive value was based around steals, not blocks like Whitehead, I thought he was a better bet to translate. (In SMILODON 2.0, I’m considering devaluing block rates for wing players. It seems to result in many false positives.)

2016: 46-60

There are three players flagged as prospects in this group: Caris LeVert, Michael Gbinije, and Kay Felder. LeVert was drafted in the first round despite a scary injury history and has exceeded expectations. Gbinije had the deadly combination of “really old & couldn’t really shoot”, and Felder is very small for a NBA player. I’m still holding out some hope for Felder, but LeVert’s 9” advantage in height massively outweighed Felder’s small advantage in shooting percentages at the NCAA level.

2016: Undrafted

There are four players in this group with elite flags. Daniel Hamilton was a point forward with a large athleticism deficit. Derrick Jones Jr was a super athletic defender with no offensive skill. Kyle Wiltjer was a great shooter who couldn’t defend anyone. Jarrod Uthoff had the same flags as Robert Covington, albeit on the strength of his strange ability to block jump shots rather than his ability to steal the ball. He’s such an odd player, and a skilled enough one, that he was worth taking a chance on late in the draft.

Isaiah Taylor, Marcus Paige, and Troy Williams were also flagged as possible steals. Paige has a very unpromising player type, as I mentioned when discussing Denzel Valentine. Taylor has a very slight build, which might prevent him from succeeding, but is worth a two-way contract in the new CBA era. Troy Williams is the most interesting player in this group. He needs a relatively small shooting improvement to become a useful rotation wing. It may not happen, but it’s worth a small contract. Obviously, we won’t be able to judge many of these players for several years.

Next time, I will begin to use this system to analyze the prospects in the 2017 draft, combining these flags with my own scouting observations and SMILODON based player comparisons.