An aspect often overlooked by traditional scouting is the way in which a player’s physical tools and skills can feed off of one another to create a multiplier effect on production. Today I will explore this concept using an unheralded prospect as an example.
Utah guard and younger brother of NBA player Dorell, Delon Wright is slowly creeping onto the draft radar with a surprising junior season after transferring from junior college. He’s currently ranked 59th on DX’s top 100, and not yet on ESPN’s big board. His rise is particularly surprising, because JUCO transfers simply are not a healthy source of NBA prospects. Of the 2011 and 2012 top 100, only Pierre Jackson (#1 in 2011) became an NBA prospect as he was drafted 42nd overall in 2013 and is now leading the D-League in scoring after two good seasons at Baylor. Some successful examples of NBA players who started off at the JUCO level are Jimmy Butler, Carl Landry, and Jae Crowder. It is possible to become a useful pro while starting with the JUCO route, but it’s not a common occurrence. The most surprising aspect of Wright’s ascent to prospect is that he wasn’t even considered the prize of his JUCO class, as he was ranked 17th in the 2013 class, behind 16 players who are not recognizable to most basketball fans.
It is fair to wonder why he was so unheralded as both a high school recruit and JUCO transfer. He is a 6’5 PG with lengthy wingspan and an NBA brother, so it seems that should translate to some positive attention. Delon’s warts likely turned scouts off, as outside of his height and length his tools are not good. He is rail thin and is not particularly quick, fast, or explosive. I estimate that he is below average for an NBA point guard in all of those categories, although lack of strength is his only glaring wart. And while he is a good mid-range and FT shooter, his shot does not extend to 3 point range. If you want to not be noticed by scouts, being a guard without 3 point range and questionable tools is the perfect foundation to be entirely glazed over.
Now it is fair to wonder how he can be an NBA prospect with all of those warts. The answer lies in his arms- they are his everything and he uses them to accomplish far more than most would expect. While I cannot find an official listing of his wingspan, it would not surprise me to see him measure out around 6’10. Regardless of the precise measurement, he plays as if he has a wingspan greater than 7′. He uses his length to create steals, block shots, pass in traffic, and finish over bigs at the rim, and consequently he stuffs the statsheet. After discarding Utah’s 2 games vs Division II teams, he is averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.8 steals, and 1.1 blocks on 65.5% TS, largely driven by his amazing 65.9% 2P%. This has come against a middling schedule as Utah played a number of non-conference doormat teams, but it has translated to team level overachievement. Utah started off ranked as the #150 team in kenpom.com’s pre-season rankings and has risen all the way up to #44 behind Wright’s strong play.
There are not many frames of reference for Wright’s mold of play, as he is so unique it is difficult to find an apt comparison for him based on past prospects. Perhaps the closest statistical comparison is fellow non-toolsy Utah point guard in Andre Miller. Miller accrued his stats playing vs. a similarly middling schedule, and did so while being 13 months older than Delon:
Andre Miller took on a higher volume of scoring, and Delon has had greater efficiency. They shared similarly poor 3 point shooting (Delon 26.3% on 38 3PA, Miller 26.5% on 83 3PA), although Wright showed better touch at the FT line. Miller has a clear edge in his assist stats, which is his most significant advantage over Wright. Wright is a solid passer and occasionally makes an impressive pass in transition, but many of his assists stem from simple passes that find open teammates for 3. His point guard skills are not on par with those of Miller.
Defensively, both players stand out with their exceptional steal and rebound totals. Most impressive for Delon is that Utah does not play a gimmicky gambling defense. They play man to man with a better rank in opponent eFG% than TOV% in spite of Delon’s playmaking, and none of his teammates accrue steals at even half the rate that he does. Further, he uses his length to block more shots than Miller. Miller does have the advantage of being significantly stronger to aid him in fighting through screens on the perimeter, but Delon is 3 inches taller and has a clear advantage in wingspan.
In spite of the similarities statistically and athletically, there are reasons to be skeptical of Delon’s ability to translate to the NBA as well as Miller did. Miller had an incredibly rare combination of handles, passing, and basketball IQ to become a successful pro in spite of his lack of quicks and explosiveness. Also it’s not clear that Wright could simply take on an offensive role the size of Miller’s without a drastic hit to his efficiency. Wright’s efficiency stems largely from his transition play, which does not translate to NBA play as effectively as half court offense. 43.8% of his points scored from the floor (i.e. not free throws) have come in transition where he sports a stunning 81.1% eFG as per hoop-math.com. In the halfcourt, he sports just a 52.4% eFG which is rather pedestrian given his lack of volume. This does not mean that his transition scoring should be ignored altogether- he created many of those opportunities with steals and the ability to score with such efficiency in transition isn’t worthless. But it is a major damper on the goodness of his statistics, and a good reason to not get too carried away with the Andre Miller comparison.
Being a clearly inferior prospect to Andre Miller is not a gross condemnation. Andre Miller was drafted 8th overall and has the 4th most career win shares for his draft slot, as he has had a fantastic NBA career. Delon can be inferior by a considerable margin and still merit a first round selection. While he does not have Miller’s floor general skills, he isn’t lacking in this regard and he is a good decision maker as he rarely forces up bad shots and protects the ball fairly well. And between his FT% and solid 41.3% FG’s on non-rim 2′s, there is an inkling of hope that he may eventually extend his range to the NBA corner 3. It’s difficult to project him defensively with such a unique collection of tools, but he has the potential to be solid on this end. One feature is that he can situationally cross match onto SG’s, although this is somewhat inhibited by his lack of strength. It is difficult to predict Delon’s future with confidence, he may never cut it as a useful NBAer, or he might become a sneaky solid player. I currently believe that he is a worthwhile gamble somewhere in the late 1st or early 2nd, and he still has some tough games on the schedule to alter his perception.
If nothing else, Delon Wright is the perfect example of the leak in the mental approach commonly taken by NBA scouts. It seems that they create a checklist of tools and skills, and then rate a prospect based on how many boxes are checked. Consequently a prospect like CJ Wilcox, who likely does not have upside to be better than a dime a dozen SG such as Willie Green, receives more attention than Wright. Scouts are generally more attracted to significantly watered down protoypes of NBA players such as Wilcox than more productive offbeat molds such as Wright. Wright exemplifies an underrated concept, which is the importance of synergy between tools and skills. For instance, Julius Randle has excellent touch around the rim but this skill is diminished by his short arms, and the poor synergy reduces his value as a prospect even though his tools are not bad overall. Wright is the opposite in that his primary skills are quick hands, excellent anticipation instincts on defense, and touch around the rim, all of which mesh perfectly with his length to create an awesome blend of production, at least at the NCAA level. Instead of perceiving tools as a checklist of physical traits, we should focus on how a player is able to employ them on the basketball court. Steal rate is an indicator of NBA success, as it often tells a story which may be overlooked by scouts. Delon’s story is that while his overall tools may be suboptimal, we shouldn’t write them off as inadequate because he can do more damage with his length than even expert observers would expect.