Oscar Tshiebwe was recently named the AP and Naismith men’s college basketball Player of the Year. And he deserved it– he had a monster year for Kentucky, posting elite statistics including the most rebounds per game (15.2) in NCAA D1 since 1979. He led a not so great Kentucky cast to 6th best kenpom team in the country.
While Kentucky had a disappointing round 1 upset loss to St. Peter’s, it was anybody but Tshiebwe’s fault (mostly TyTy Washington’s), as he posted 30 pounds, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks on 11/16 FG.
He is currently projected to go round 2 at #44 on ESPN’s latest mock, which at a glance seems reasonable given his limitations. Tshiebwe is 22 years old and while he was dominant inside the paint and on the glass, he is not a true rim protector at 6’9 and he lacks the passing and shooting to project as a perimeter player at this age, so he does not have a clear niche in the modern NBA. He is somewhat of an obsolete old school power forward, so it makes sense that his NBA draft stock does not align with his NCAA dominance.
Best Round 2 Steals:
Let’s analyze who have been the best round 2 picks in the lottery era dating back to 1985. We can start with most career win shares of round 2 picks over that time:
Internationals (Jokic, Ginobili, Gasol) and high school (Lewis) provided some of the best value because the NBA struggles with the lower/different information and drafts these types less efficiently than domestic college players.
Unfortunately this year’s international crop is incredibly weak, and it is unlikely that there is any sort of elite hidden gem in either round this season. So if we focus on domestic college players, that leaves these 9 plus active players Khris Middleton and Draymond Green, who could eventually reach this group and even if not had better peaks than some of the players on the list.
Carlos Boozer was never as useful as his box score stats implied because his lack of mobility made him a defensive liability. Cliff Robinson and PJ Brown had long and productive careers, but neither peaked high with one all-star appearance combined between the two of them.
So if we replace those 3 with Middleton and Green, that leaves a reasonable top 8 domestic round 2 picks with college experience. Perhaps we could include Gilbert Arenas to make 9 because of his 3 year peak of excellent box score stats, although he had no longevity and it is not clear that he helped his team win as much as his box score numbers suggested.
Among those 9, only 5 have 2%+ Hall of Fame Probability according to basketball-reference: Dennis Rodman (75.3%) is the only person actually in with Draymond (59.7%) having a solid chance of making it eventually and Arenas (21.6%), Price (18.3%), and Millsap (5.5%) all projected to be a buck short.
If we are looking for patterns, two guys who consistently show up as elite steals from any angle are Dennis Rodman and Paul Millsap. They share the commonality of extreme outlier NCAA rebounding, as well as surprisingly good steal rates but slid due to limited passing and shooting for undersized bigs. Interestingly, this description fits that of Tshiebwe.
The monster rebs + high steals + low skill is a distinct brand of prospect that 5 prospects clearly fit, with the two others being Kenneth Faried and DeJuan Blair who were drafted 22nd and 37th respectfully. Perhaps I am missing another example, but it is rare enough to find guys who rebound at this rate let alone guys who can rack up steals to boot.
Here are per 60 possession stats of their final college season:
Note that Rodman’s minutes + pace are unavailable, so I just used his per game stats. He was a 24 year old man playing D2 basketball, so it is difficult to directly compare to these other guys, but you can see the similarity in his output.
Another odd (and perhaps meaningless) similarity is that Rodman, Millsap, and Tshiebwe all had lower steal rates in their first two seasons before seeing a big spike in their 3rd season.
Faried + Blair had relatively disappointing outcomes, but they did not flop completely. They had solidly productive careers relative to draft slot, but couldn’t find a niche to make an impact as their length and steal rates did not translate into NBA caliber perimeter defense and they were too small to guard bigs. And while their garbageman skills translated, they did not have enough shooting or skill to overcome their defensive warts.
Rodman and Millsap did prove to be good, versatile defensive players, with Rodman winning two defensive player of the year awards and Millsap making NBA all defensive 2nd team once. Millsap also became surprisingly good on offense, as he became a competent NBA 3 point shooter and developed some point forwards skills.
Collectively box score production has translated to NBA for all of these guys, and the biggest factor swinging outcome is whether they hit their low end defensive outcomes (Faried, Blair) vs their high end (Rodman, Millsap).
Now let’s look at measurables:
Being 2″ taller than any of these guys is an interesting advantage for Tshiebwe’s defensive versatility. He is still too short to defend star bigs like Jokic or Embiid, and is not a true rim protector, but that extra height does give him potential to play at least situationally as a small ball center.
And if he develops into a quality perimeter defensive player like Millsap or Rodman, he has the size to match up with big star wings like Giannis, Durant, and Luka.
This gives Tshiebwe an easier path to finding a defensive niche than these guys, as well as a bit more defensive upside outside of Rodman who was more athletic.
Next Closest Comps
This super long, super rebounder in a thick wing body mold is so distinct that there are not many other guys who even loosely pass for it. Let’s throw out some of the closest examples to be found:
Thomas Robinson had all sorts of disadvantages. He was a worse rebounder, especially offensively which has more predictive gravity, and his steals and blocks were curiously low. He played a slightly bigger offensive role, but was a fairly inefficient scorer. And this was after he played a small bench role for his first two seasons. It’s curious that he seems like a poor man’s version of the mold, but he went 5th overall when these types typically go late 1st or round 2.
Jared Sullinger was a much worse rebounder and slower with fewer steals and blocks but had more skill. Not really the same.
Mitch McGary was a fascinating weirdo. He was taller at 6’10 and didn’t have a monster wingspan at 7’0, but still had a crazy steal rate. But he had other holes in his numbers, and he couldn’t stay healthy enough to be an informative data point.
Ben Wallace is the best undrafted free agent of all time, and these are his numbers guessing a 65 possession/game pace for his D2 Virginia Union team. It is surprising that he was not a bigger rebounding outlier playing D2, but he continually improved his rebounding rates in the NBA until leading the league in rebounds per game in his 6th and 7th seasons. He also had a higher steal rate in the NBA than his final year in college, although he did get more steals in his prior NCAA season.
But he had his differences from OT, as he was a vastly better shot blocker while being unskilled to a tragic extent. That turnover rate and 2P% for a relatively small offensive role at D2 makes it easy to see why he went undrafted, and he never leaned to make free throws shooting 41.4% for his NBA career.
Ultimately Wallace and Tshiebwe are different players, but it is fairly encouraging that Wallace shares the outlier rebounding trait to provide another example where it led to major draft overachievement.
It is interesting that how outlier rebounding has been a commonality in some of the best domestic prospects to slide out of round 1 in the lottery era. Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman are the only two Hall of Famers over that time that played college basketball and did not get picked in round 1, and Paul Millsap has one of the better hall of fame cases even though he likely will not make it.
It’s not quite fair to compare him to Rodman and Wallace who are better athletes and multiple time winners of defensive player of the year. But it should be encouraging to know that Tshiebwe has some commonalities with them and with more offensive skill could become a better offense, lesser defense version– essentially Paul Millsap.
Granted it is a bit of a longshot that he both becomes a Millsap level defensive player and develops his perimeter skill, but the similarities between them are too strong to rule it out like we can rule out similar upside for most second round prospects.
And even if he does not hit his full Millsap ceiling, there are a number of other outcomes that are a happy return on a late 1st round pick or early 2nd rounder.
If he posts Kenneth Faried or DeJuan Blair box score production with a more competent but still not great level of defense, that’s a good return on a draft pick. Faried and Blair both accumulated top 20% career win shares for their draft range, and bad defense is the only thing that precluded them from being particularly useful toward NBA team success.
Of course he could also be “just” a Faried or Blair type role player who doesn’t really add value outside of eating regular season minutes at a passable level, but everybody outside of the top 3 could be bad this year. It’s not a scary floor outcome.
Where Does Oscar Fit in 2022 Draft?
Tshiebwe seems to be somewhat obviously the highest upside prospect currently projected to go in round 2. The other compelling options are mostly guys who could be quality role playing wings who cannot honestly be compared to past prospects who became multiple time all-stars.
He definitely is a first round value, but how high in round 1 does he go? This is where it gets tricky because he is so weird with such few similar past examples. Perhaps Blair + Faried are the more likely outcomes for this mold, and Millsap is an outlier with a career arc never to be replicated again. Or perhaps the mentality that goes into that level of rebounding is predictive of success in other aspects.
But he has obviously better upside than a number of 1st round guys. For instance, 6’5 SGs such as Johnny Davis, Malaki Branham, Ochai Agbaji, and Blake Wesley are all projected top 20, but none of them fit anything resembling a high upside NBA mold. It is difficult to fathom how it is correct to pick any of these guys ahead of Oscar.
Looking in Tshiebwe’s height range, internationals Ousmane Dieng (#19) and Nikola Jovic (#23) are younger, but have no interesting selling points toward their NBA upside. It seems clear that neither should be valued higher than OT.
Or if we compare him to a fellow old with elite college stats, Keegan Murray is only 9 months younger and projected at #5 overall. Keegan had slightly better PER (37.8 vs 35), WS/40 (.311 vs .297) and BPM (15.7 vs 13.3) and fits a more traditional 3 + D mold, so it is understandable that he is ranked higher.
But Tshiebwe has a much better wingspan (7’4 vs 6’11), better on/off splits, and outlier rebounding has been more predictive of late draft steals than Murray’s outlier low turnover rate historically. And even though Murray is the much better 3P shooter, Tshiebwe is not too far behind in career FT% at 69% vs 74.9%. There is some chance Oscar learns to make NBA 3’s and their shooting peaks relatively close, with Tshiebwe being much better defensively where Keegan appears to be soft.
So it seems like it should be fairly close between the two. Perhaps Murray belongs in the back end of the lottery and Tshiebwe right outside of the lottery. It is difficult to say because both are fairly weird and unique prospects. But it is curious that for older guys with gaudy box scores that Murray is getting every benefit of the doubt while Tshiebwe is stuck all the way back in mid round 2.
What is clear that Tshiebwe has upside, and when he hits he is going to hit harder than anybody else in round 2 and a number of round 1 prospects in a weak class. It is difficult to see 20 guys that belong ahead of him, and he has potential to be steal of the draft.