Andre Drummond is quickly becoming a classic example of a player whose RSCI rating seems to be more indicative of his pro value than his freshman performance. Whenever a highly touted freshman underwhelms and his draft stock drops, it’s fair to posit whether that player might experience a career arc similar to that of Drummond. Drummond is an outlier in that his circumstances that caused him to become so undervalued will likely not be replicated, but it is worth trying to learn from his situation to look for signs in 5 star recruits before souring on them too quickly. So first I’ll walk through the qualities of Drummond that caused him to slide and how that changed in the NBA.
1) Unfavorable Circumstances
Drummond joined his UConn team late, and then coach Jim Calhoun was suspended for the first 3 games of the Big East season and later had to take a leave of absence for health reasons. It is difficult to estimate the level of impact these circumstances had on Drummond’s performance, but it is easy to see how they may have been harmful. Perhaps he would have gotten off to a hotter start if he had more time to prepare with his team in the offseason, perhaps he would have had a stronger finish if Calhoun was healthy and present to offer feedback on Drummond’s non-conference performance.
2) Trimming The Fat
One of Drummond’s greatest warts was his 50.9% TS, which is appallingly low for a man with his size and athleticism. Yet as an NBA rookie he was able to skyrocket his TS to 57.8% without seeing a drastic drop off in his usage rate (21.7 > 17.2). How is such a thing possible in a single season after the huge increase of level of competition? Drummond simply stopped trying to score away from the hoop. As a college freshman he shot 130/185 at the rim and 27/107 away from the rim. As an NBA rookie he shot 204/318 at the rim and 4/24 away from the hoop. This simple tweak had a huge impact as it increased Drummond’s eFG from 53.8% to 61.0%.
3) College Defense
UConn entered the season ranked #4 in the polls and 6th by kenpom.com, then losing in the first round of the tournament as an 9 seed. They finished as just the #41 kenpom team with the #65 defense. So it is easy to blame some of the disappointment on Drummond and assume that he did not make the expected defensive impact. But at a closer look, he seemed to do quite well. He had more than twice as many blocks as any of his teammates, and UConn finished the season with the lowest opponent FG% at the rim in the country. They finished with the 3rd lowest 2p%, and the 5th lowest FT:FGA rate, all of which are excellent and largely attributable to Drummond who finished with more blocks than fouls. UConn did have plenty of other size and athleticism, but their weaknesses came from poor perimeter defense, as they finished with the 319th defensive TOV% and opponents hit 34.4% of 3’s on above average volume. Of course sacrificing in these areas makes it much easier to dominate paint defense, but the fact remains that the team succeeded in the areas where Drummond was expected to make an impact barring one:
4) Defensive Rebounding
Defensive rebounding is much more difficult to predict than offensive rebounding since it is largely context dependent, but Drummond’s turnaround is astonishing. UConn had the 276th best defensive rebound% in the country and Drummond corralled just 15.5% of d-rebs, and then went on to rip down 27.2% of defensive rebounds as a pro. Given his 14.2% o-reb rate in college, we shouldn’t be surprised that he upticked defensively as a pro but I am not sure that there was any signal that he would start pulling them down at nearly double the rate. Perhaps this can be attributed to good scouting by the Pistons, perhaps it can be attributed to bad luck or bad assistant coaching at UConn. But it is nevertheless an outlier event that gave Drummond a nice value spike as a pro.
5) Passion Questions
After Drummond’s somewhat underwhelming freshman year, scouts started to question his passion for basketball. His explanation was that he simply was not the type to go out and beat his chest, but he nevertheless loved the game of basketball. Whether it was a poor inference from observers or NBA money ignited his passion, it seems to not be a problem as a pro.
Now let’s look at some of the top freshman and see whether any similar circumstances may apply.
Andrew Harrison: Do any of these conditions apply to Harrison? No, they do not – he is merely horrendous at the game of basketball. We can safely move along.
Jabari Parker: He was likely in the best scenario of all freshman as he was able to play the 4/5 for Duke. This was healthy for him in almost every regard since he was constantly surrounded by ball handlers and shooters and finished with more blocks and rebounds that he would have surrounded with more size. That said he exceeded expectations so it is difficult to gripe.
Julius Randle: His coach normally sets up players for the pros quite well, his defense was horrendous, his defensive rebounding was top notch, and his passion seems to be present. The one area where he may gain is from (literally) trimming his fat and slimming down physically. Also he has trimmed a bit of turnover fat down the stretch which is encouraging.
Zach LaVine: None of these conditions apply to him, although his circumstances were unfavorable in a different way since he was buried behind superior players and seemed to have a poor relationship with his coach. Perhaps he has more to flaunt than he was permitted to show at UCLA, so he may exceed expectations in a different way than Drummond.
Andrew Wiggins: People want to blame Wiggins’ lack of dominance on Bill Self, which is silly. What is most important for Wiggins is that Kansas played an up tempo style and capitalized on his sole offensive strength: transition scoring. The only unfavorable aspect for Wiggins is that he was surrounded by mediocre guards and spacing, which was certainly sub-optimal. But I do not believe that this had a high leverage impact on his performance given his lack of offensive skills in the half-court. And it is worth noting that Self has made past players such as Ben McLemore, Thomas Robinson, and Cole Aldrich look like college studs and consequently over-inflated their draft stock.
Kansas had their worst defensive season under Bill Self’s tenure, and that seems to be everybody’s fault but Wiggins. Embiid was inexperienced and played a lower minute total than prior rim protectors Jeff Withey and Cole Aldrich. The defense suffered with Embiid out and Wiggins appeared to be the only good defensive guard/wing on the roster. I believe his NBA defensive projection is often overstated but he did perform well on this end in college. And since all of his competent teammates were bigs, he was rarely used as a small 4 and may be slightly underrated by his d-reb% among other stats.
Wiggins does have questions with respect to his passion. According to DraftExpress, from age 17 to 18 he grew an inch without gaining a single pound. This would not be a big deal if he had instead focused on developing his skills, but they too are less developed than scouts had hoped they would be by now. In tandem these are red flags that call his work ethic into question. But the flip side is that perhaps he will put passion questions to rest by significantly improving his work ethic given the allure of NBA money. This is the area in which he has the most potential to mirror Drummond.
Overall I do not believe that Wiggins has a boatload of Drummond equity, but he isn’t completely bereft of it either.
Aaron Gordon/Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: I am grouping these two together because all conditions apply identically to them. These two players likely have the most fat to trim offensively because they threw up so many bricks from midrange. Gordon shot 129/177 at the rim and 44/160 on non-rim 2’s. RHJ shot 83/113 at the rim and 36/124 on non-rim 2’s. I am fond of Sean Miller and think he is one of the best college coaches in the country, but he has an curious willingness to permit his players to fire away from midrange. Their top 6 rotation players all took at least 40% of their FGA from midrange, well above the NCAA average of 29.3%. I have questioned Gordon’s BBIQ for his shot selection, but at a closer look it may simply be a byproduct of coaching. Granted, this doesn’t entirely parallel to Drummond as it is much easier to operate strictly around the rim as a center than it is as a forward, but both players can see nice efficiency upticks by passing up long 2’s more frequently.
Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson also deserve a ton of credit for Arizona’s leap defensively. After swapping Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, and Kevin Parrom for them and TJ McConnell, Arizona spiked from the #47 kenpom defense to #2. And while the departed players were better offensively than defensively, Arizona only dropped from the #10 offense to #20. It helps that players such as Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski had an additional year of seasoning, but Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson played large roles in Arizona having one of the more dominant defenses in recent memory. They simply did not allow easy shots, boasting the best defensive eFG% in the country.
I would rate Gordon as superior to Wiggins in terms of NBA defensive potential, as he anchored a truly dominant defense. Give Sean Miller credit for maximizing his talent, but this was by far his best defensive team ever. Gordon appears to play defense with more intensity than Wiggins does, and while he may not be as fast or quick, he is much stronger. It is simply much easier to feel great about the player(s) who led a coach’s all-time best defense over one who led a coach’s all-time worst defense.
Overall I’d say Gordon (and on a slightly smaller scale, Hollis-Jefferson) clearly has the most Drummond equity of any freshman in the class. It isn’t a perfect parallel as shooting is more important for wings and defense is more important for centers. Even if he mirrors Drummond’s arc, the impact will be lower leverage. Again, this goes to show that Drummond is a unique case, so optimism for 5-star freshmen making huge rookie rebounds should always be tempered. But considering both his strong finish to the season and his potential for further upticks, I am quickly reversing my stance on Gordon and once again believe he merits a top 10 pick.