Lonzo Ball: Point God or No Points Guard?

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Lonzo Ball is an incredibly polarizing prospect as he boasts elite passing, basketball IQ, and PG size at 6’6″.  But he induces skepticism with merely decent athleticism and ball handling ability, and infrequently creates his own shot inside in the arc. There are doubts that a guard with his scoring limitations can merit a top 3 selection in such a strong draft, let alone #1 overall.

Efficiency Seeker Extraordinaire

The most unique aspect of Ball’s game is that he seeks efficiency and attains it to an unprecedented degree. This manifests in Ball’s 66.8% eFG, which is higher than any drafted NCAA player who averaged 5+ assists per game in the past 25 years (junior Kirk Hinrich comes closest 63.1%).

When the range is narrowed to major conference freshmen who averaged 8+ points and 5+ assists, Lonzo really shines (averages shown are per 40 mins):

Pts eFG% 2P% AST TOV
Lonzo 16.6 66.8% 73.2% 8.7 2.8
Baron 14.9 57.5% 62.4% 6.4 3.9
CP3 17.7 57.0% 51.1% 7 3.2
Lawson 14.1 55.5% 56.9% 7.8 3
Conley 14.3 55.2% 57.9% 7.7 2.8
Bibby 16.5 54.4% 49.7% 6.3 3.6
DRussell 22.7 54.1% 47.9% 5.9 3.4

All players listed went on to varying degrees of successful NBA careers. This chart suggests that the intersection of shotmaking, passing, and youth is a strong predictor of NBA success.

Ball has more assists and fewer turnovers than anybody in the group while also being the tallest. He stands out as a player likely to have a great NBA career before even considering that he waffle crushes everybody in eFG% and 2P%. His advantage over Baron Davis’s eFG% is similar to the degree that Baron is above average. This alone conveys that Ball is special in a way that has not been seen in any prior prospect.

More Than Just An Assister

Ball isn’t efficient with his own shot selection– he also assisted his teammates to elite efficiency.

This past season UCLA posted the best team eFG% of the past 12 years. That means that they had the #1 offensive eFG% out of the past 4,147 NCAA offenses.

And this is for an offense that was barely above average in 2015-16, ranking #147 out of 351. Ball and TJ Leaf are the only newcomers, and they elevated the team eFG% from 58th percentile to 99.9 percentile.

Ball set up his teammates with elite shots by making lightning fast reads and sharp decisions. He moved the ball quickly, and delivered passes to teammates in their hotspots with pinpoint accuracy. His fingerprints are all over UCLA’s offense, as the team saw massive spikes in 3PA rate, 2P%, 3P%, and much faster average possession length.

Ball’s passing is amazing to the eye test, and every shred of statistical evidence suggests that it is special. He clearly has upside to become the best passer in NBA history.

But He Has No Mid-Range Game!

There is some prevalent notion that Ball only attempted 8 two point jumpers on the season because of an inability to get his funky shot off in traffic. This is hands down the silliest narrative of the 2017 draft. The numbers make it abundantly clear that he refrained because he values efficiency and was consistently able to create a better attempt for his team than the least efficient shot in basketball.

But He Can’t Drive and Finish!

The more reasonable concern is that he infrequently created his own shot at the rim. But to his credit, he did not struggle on a per possession basis. Summing Synergy’s PnR Handler and isolation statistics, here is how he compares to his peers:

Poss PPP
Ball 82 1.000
Fultz 222 0.950
Fox 233 0.884
DSJ 286 0.846

He attacked MUCH less frequently than his peers, but he was more efficient than anybody else. And it’s not like he abused the weak teams and then shied away when the defenses tightened up, as he created clutch scores at the rim twice against Oregon— the conference’s top team.

Ball’s handle is analogous to his shot: it is much more effective than it appears it should be. He excels at passing, shooting, and finishing off the dribble to an extent that should be impossible for a player with a severely limited handle. Further, there is no discernible negative impact in his own or team statistics, as his lightning fast instincts prevent his handling limitations from leading to many mistakes.

His infrequent scoring cannot be dismissed entirely, as there is inevitably some mystery in how his unique style will translate to the NBA. But without it manifesting in any discernible struggle as a 19 year old playing a major conference schedule, it is not reasonable to treat it as a major issue.

Upside Comps

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Further mitigating Ball’s lack of volume scoring is the fact that most all-time great PG’s do not relentlessly assault the rim like Russell Westbrook. Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steph Curry, and Steve Nash are all greats defined by their unique skill, vision, and intelligence rather than ability to get to the rim.

There is a common aversion to comparing Ball to all-time great PGs, and it is not rational.  Imagine the converse scenario where Ball had already completed a hall of fame NBA career, and a young Nash or Stockton was being compared to him. Neither comparison would withstand a moment of rational scrutiny given their vastly inferior physical profiles and NCAA performances.

Even Paul and Kidd would struggle to keep up. I already showed Paul’s inferior NCAA efficiency while being six inches shorter, and he went on to the most efficient NBA career ever of any player shorter than Ball. Kidd’s is two inches shorter, and he suffered a boatload of additional bricks and turnovers to accumulate similar freshman point and assist totals as Ball.

Curry is a different animal from Ball, as his shooting super power gives him upside that nobody fathomed was possible for a player with such frail physical tools. Ball doesn’t have Curry’s super power, but he has a different super power that might yield similarly surprising upside.

All of these players had strengths that Ball lacks, and people will be quick to point these out when a comparison is drawn. But it is impossible to match every strength of an hall of famer, and Ball’s advantages are even more glaring. It is painfully obvious that he belongs with this group, as he has superior prospect profile to all of the aforementioned except for maybe Magic. If he outperforms expectations as much as these players did, there is no cap to his NBA upside.

Downside Comps

If Ball does not deserve to be compared to hall of famers, there should be other examples of players similar to Ball who failed. But if we look at young passing PG’s who made shots with competency let alone otherworldly efficiency, flops are hard to find.

Jason Williams and Mark Jackson both passed and made shots and neither was great. But they were both 6’1″ with comfortably inferior NCAA performances to Ball, and both had decent NBA careers. If Ball outshines their NBA careers as much as he outshines their pre-draft profiles, he will be a star.

After that negative comps are scant. Kendall Marshall, Tyler Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams, and Ricky Rubio were all incorrigible bricklayers, posting well below average eFGs. Javaris Crittenton and Drew Barry were both 6’5″ but nowhere near Lonzo’s production level.

It is simply not possible to find any young NCAA player who comes close to matching Lonzo’s strengths while disappointing as a pro. The intersection of passing and shot-making in young NCAA PGs tends to be a reliable predictor of NBA success, and Ball happens to be outlier elite at both.

Weaknesses
Ball Handling
As I have already stated, this is an issue but not a major one. It is difficult to predict exactly how it will affect Ball’s NBA translation, but his intelligence and instincts will likely enable him to overcome this limitation much like he did at UCLA.

Shooting
His funky shooting form is overstated, as Kevin Martin had a similar form and a long career of successful shooting and scoring in the NBA. But Ball was not reputed as a great shooter before his arrival at UCLA, and his 67% FT makes it further unlikely that his 41.2% 3P% is indicative of his true shooting ability.

If he had only made 35% of his 3PA, his eFG% would take a big hit to 61.5%. But he would remain a massive positive outlier relative to other freshman passing PG’s, and he does not require an elite shot to be an elite prospect.

Defense
His physical profile as well as good rebound, steal, and block totals imply that he has pretty good defensive upside. But he also had downside, as his steal rate is not elite and his defense at UCLA was inconsistent. This is an area where he is unlikely to measure up to Kidd, Stockton, and Paul.

Bottom Line

Ball has a number of outlier strengths in extremely high leverage categories: intelligence, passing, and efficiency. He has genuine equity to be the GOAT in all three categories, and his physical tools are excellent for a player in this mold.

His shooting, ball handling, and defensive consistency present small but non-trivial weaknesses that create enough uncertainty to preclude him from being a god level prospect. But all of the criticism directed toward him massively overstates the relevance of these weaknesses, while glazing over his super powers that have not been sniffed by any prior prospect.

My only unique and confident take for this draft is that Ball would be the correct selection at #1 overall in most drafts, and this year is no exception. I would be shocked if he is not at least an all-star, and he is likely going to become an all-time great.

 

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Big Board Update 5/25

Now that the draft pool is set, here is my updated top 50. Note that I am ignoring the internationals who do not project to round 1:

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Just missed: Kyle Kuzma, Devin Robinson, Jake Wiley, Malcolm Hill, Jeremy Morgan, PJ Dozier, Wesley Iwundu, Jonah Bolden, Dillon Brooks

Lonzo Ball has unsurprisingly emerged as my #1. He is such an outlier of IQ and passing I find it overwhelmingly likely that he will be an NBA star.

Markelle Fultz is nevertheless a strong #1 pick if the Celtics choose him as expected. I expect him to become a star playing for Brad Stevens

Josh Jackson has aroused skepticism due to his poor shot and inability to be a #1 scoring option, but he’s holding strong as my clear choice at #3. He posted elite statistics, has elite athleticism for a 6’8″ player, and his competitiveness bodes well for good development. His poor shooting places him clearly below Ball + Fultz, but he has clear star upside.

Lauri Markkanen, Jonathan Isaac, De’Aaron Fox, and Jayson Tatum could be arranged in any order. Markannen is my big sleeper in the late lotto because it is understated how exceptionally rare it is for a 7’0″ to be such an elite shooter.

Zach Collins, Dennis Smith Jr, and Malik Monk form the next tier. Although I was a fan  of Monk throughout the season, it is difficult to overlook the fact that he has a PG body without PG skill and is also allergic to defense and rebounding. There is hope of him developing into a Lillard type on offense, but he may not be much more than a spot up shooter who is a disaster on defense.

Beyond the top 10, the pickings get slim. OG Anunoby is a major risk to be a disaster on offense, but his elite tools, defense, and youth make him worth a gamble once the freshman are off the board.

Donovan Mitchell lacking PG skills at 6’3″ inhibits his upside, but his 6’10” wingspan enables him to guard SG’s and gives him a good chance of becoming a valuable 3 + D combo guard.

Harry Giles is a challenging prospect to assess, as he has significant injury flags and his basketball instincts looked awful at Duke. But his physical tools are stellar, and he was once upon a time the top prospect in this loaded class. DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard prove that top notch basketball IQ is not a pre-requisite to thrive as an explosive giant, and I believe Giles has the most upside of any non top 10 freshman.

Frank Ntilikina is another challenge. He lacks both skill and athleticism for a guard, and his statistics do not imply any hope of future stardom. But his 7’0″ wingspan, and reported elite intangibles and intelligence offer hope for strong development in the youngest player in the draft.

Caleb Swanigan is one of the funkier prospects in the draft. He is too short to protect the rim, and too slow to guard the perimeter. Yet he anchored a top 25 defense for Purdue, and posted stellar scoring, passing, and rebounding statistics. He is an awkward fit into NBA lineups, but if he fits in on defense he could be a late 1st or 2nd round steal.

Josh Hart is my senior sleeper. Hart would be exciting if he had a bit more height, burst, or shooting ability, but as it is he is still decent enough in all of the categories. And he had an excellent NCAA career, as he makes winning plays and led Villanova to 4 years of immense success. He has no special upside but has a solid chance of becoming a useful rotation player.

Luke Kennard is a fine selection in the late first for his shooting and offensive promise, but I am surprised that he is rated as a possible lotto choice in spite of his poor physical tools and defense. He could find NBA success similar to JJ Redick, but ranking near the lottery feels a bit too optimistic.

Justin Patton is an explosive big man who can finish lobs and do little else. He is soft on the boards and defense, and drew surprisingly few free throws for such a physically gifted interior scorer. If a team wants a young big outside of the lottery, Tony Bradley is a much better choice as his monster 18.7% ORB rate crushes Patton’s measly 8.0%.

Justin Jackson is another fraudulent Justin, and I am not sure how he even entered the lottery conversation. He offers a nice combination of size and basketball IQ, but excels at nothing. His frame and athleticism are limited, he is not an offensive centerpiece, and did not develop reliable NCAA 3 point shooting until he was a senior aged junior.

Terrance Ferguson is young with good tools, but has been awful statistically everywhere he plays. He does nothing but shoot 3’s at an average rate, and his draft hype seems predicated on the mystery of not knowing how he would play alongside his peers at the NCAA level.

Reggie Upshaw is my deep undrafted sleeper. He led Middle Tennessee to back to back seasons with NCAA tournament wins, and with a shooting leap could become a useful NBA small forward.

Is Luka Doncic The Best Prospect Ever?

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17 year old Luka Doncic is currently projected to go #2 overall in the 2018 draft, and it seems absurd to discuss whether he may be the best prospect ever. But when I say best prospect ever, I really mean “best prospect of past 35ish years” because I honestly have no idea how to retrospectively rate prospects like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, or Wilt Chamberlain.

It is not that probabilistically unlikely that any given draft will contain the best prospect of a 35 year stretch. It is akin to winning a bet on a specific number in roulette, which happens all the time. And in 5 drafts since my blog has existed, this is the first time I have raised the question. The odds of the top prospect existing in a 5 year stretch is 1 out 7, barely lower than the odds of rolling a particular number with a die. It stands to reason that in 1/7 of the sample of drafts that at least one player should raise the possibility, so this should not taken as a hyperbolic question, but rather a level headed, rational analysis of an impressively outlier 17 year old.

Why Is Doncic Special?

At age 17, Doncic is already one of the best players for the best team in the best basketball league outside of the NBA. Playing for Real Madrid in Spanish ACB, Doncic is likely the team’s 3rd best player behind Sergio Llull and Gustavo Ayon. Among the 12 man rotation, here are his per 40 minute ranks:

MP PTS 2P% 3P% FT% REB AST STL BLK
5 6 4 3 4 6 2 5 3

Seeing that 6.5 would be the median, he rank as above average at everything. And this is a roster full of former NBA players, mostly in their primes (age in parentheses): Gustavo Ayon (31), Rudy Fernandez (31), Anthony Randolph (27), Jeff Taylor (27), Andres Nocioni (37), Othello Hunter (30). And that does not include best player Sergio Llull who is a former #34 overall pick likely good enough to play in the NBA if he wanted. Or Jaycee Carroll, an exceptionally skilled Utah State grad who did not have the physical tools to draw NBA interest.

Yet this 17 year old kid is average or better relative to these players at EVERY PHASE of the game. It is one thing to be a good professional player at age 17, but to also lack any notable weakness in the profile puts him on an entirely different level.

Doncic also has elite qualities, and it starts with his skill level. He has the vision and ball skills to run Real Madrid’s offense, and is also an elite shotmaker converting 56% 2P, 41.9% 3P, and 83.8% FT. If you append with his 16 y/o ACB + Euro samples his numbers become 59.5% 2P, 39.1% 3P, 78.4% FT. These are elite percentages for a medium volume scoring 16/17 year old, and he also has great passing ability as evidenced by his assist rate. By all indications, his skill, feel package is transcendent.

He supports his incredible skill level with a great physical profile. He is already 6’8″, and has a solid frame and athleticism. This may not sound impressive on its own, but most super skilled players are much smaller (i.e. Chris Paul) and often less athletic as well (Steve Nash, Steph Curry). His height should make it easy to translate his production to the NBA, and everything else is good enough such that there is no reason to fear that he may fail.

How Can Luka Be The Best Without Elite Athleticism?

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The answer is simple– elite skill level is AT LEAST as important for upside as elite physical tools. Let’s take the example of Stephen Curry, who was so frail physically that he did not even draw major conference recruiting interest as a high school prospect. Then after nearly singlehandedly carrying Davidson to the Final 4, he still went just 7th in the NBA draft because his tools were so worrisome. He is the most polarizing example of outlier skill and poor physical tools, yet he won back to back MVP’s that were both deserved. This proves that an outlier skill level can yield elite upside with even a poor physical profile.

The polarizing example of outlier physical tools and poor basketball playing ability is Andrew Wiggins. He was the #1 RSCI recruit and was picked #1 in the draft, and in his 3rd season he is only performing at a replacement level. This proves that elite athleticism is not an automatic ticket to greatness when skill is lacking.

There are other examples of players with supreme physical profiles failing, as well as questionable physical profiles flourishing due to elite skill. I could list other examples, but these two alone are enough to disprove the notion that elite athleticism should be valued greater than elite skill. Further, they strongly suggest that skill level should be valued as the top input for upside valuation with athleticism being secondary.

One may counter that for every Curry success story, there are multiple Jimmer Fredette or Doug McDermott types who flop completely. But McDermott and Fredette had nothing resembling special skill level, they merely developed enough to dominate mid-major NCAA competition as 22 year olds– a common and trivial accomplishment. Their draft hype is a failure by NBA GM’s to identify the nuances between a commonly good skill level and outlier great. This may explain why scouts gravitate toward athleticism– because they actually can detect the nuances that separate the elite from the commonly good without any statistical expertise.

As we develop increasingly good analytics to help us predict skill level with greater confidence, we should increase the importance of skill as the most valuable input and decrease the value placed on athleticism.

Doncic vs LeBron

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LeBron is the gold standard for prospects in the lottery era, and it is sacrilegious to suggest that any young player may be on his level. At this point you may be thinking that his skill cannot possibly be that far ahead of LeBron, because LeBron is amazing at everything which is why he is the best.

But is LeBron really THAT skilled? He is a career 34% 3P 74% FT. His shooting is average, and there is no evidence that his passing touch is special either. He nevertheless makes a big impact with his passing because he has great vision as well as feel for when to attack vs. dish.

LeBron’s transcendent physical profile paired with great vision and IQ overpowered him as a player, and just having an decent skill level was enough to make him arguably the greatest player ever.

To compare him to Doncic, let’s consider the following:

  1. Is LeBron’s physical profile more transcendent than Doncic’s skill level?
  2. Is LeBron’s vision and IQ for an elite athlete rarer than Doncic’s height for a point god?
  3. Is LeBron’s skill level a stronger “weakness” than Doncic’s athleticism?

For #3 I would say no because LeBron’s shooting splits prove that his skill level is not special, and Doncic is already a decent athlete at age 17. For #2, it is hard to measure vision and basketball IQ but Doncic is approximately Magic Johnson’s height which is as tall as point gods have been made thus far. Again, no seems to be a reasonable response.

The challenging question is #1, mostly because it is difficult to isolate Doncic’s skill level from his statistics which are still a relatively small sample. And if his performance declines this season and then he does not improve at age 18, his skill level will seem less transcendent. But based on what he does so far, it is not clear that any prospect has a much better skill level than Doncic.

Granted, the top point guards such as Curry and Chris Paul are more skilled than Doncic, but that’s about as relevant as Shaq or Dwight Howard having physical tools superior to LeBron. Because Doncic’s physical profile is so far ahead of Curry and CP3 and LeBron’s skill level is so far ahead of Shaq and Dwight, it doesn’t really detract from the transcendent quality of either player involved.

Ultimately the answer to question #1 is inconclusive. And with my earlier argument that transcendent athleticism does not yield greater upside than transcendent skill, there is no clear reason to rate LeBron as the superior prospect. This is especially true without the hindsight bias of LeBron’s greatness, as he did not have any pre-draft statistical sample validating his greatness like Doncic does.

Of course this is all intuitive analysis from afar. I could be wrong, and perhaps if they were compared side by side during the draft process LeBron would clearly outshine Doncic. But it is extremely easy to argue that LeBron waffle crushes most #1 picks– you cannot assemble any compelling logical argument that Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, or Andrew Wiggins are superior talents.

I am not arguing that Doncic is necessarily superior, rather that he appears to be in the ballpark of LeBron’s greatness. I have no idea which one actually should be rated higher. But how many other prospects can you say that for? That is the best possible assessment for a prospect, as no teenager will ever be conclusively better than teenage LeBron.

What About Ricky Rubio?

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As Doncic hype builds, Ricky Rubio will be a popular cautionary tale for getting too excited over Doncic’s young production. Rubio was also a great ACB player at a young age. At 8 months younger than Doncic, he posted a similar PER (18.5 vs 18.7) and then at 4 months older he had a superior PER at 20.5 as well as more pace adjusted points per 40 (17.0 vs 16.2) all while winning ACB defensive player of the year and breaking statistical models with elite steal and assist rates.

If Ricky Rubio can do all of that and not even become an NBA all-star, am I not a psychotic maniac for comparing Doncic to LeBron? Nope, I am not!

A big key of both Doncic and LeBron’s profiles are that they have no clear weaknesses, which is awesome for players with such overpowered strengths. Rubio, however had one glaring weakness that he could not put the biscuit in the basket. During his 18 y/o DPOY season, he shot 39.1% inside the arc with the next worst 2P% on his team among regulars being Jan Jagla at 48.3%. Not only did he have a weakness, but he had an scary outlier bad weakness.

 

This weakness has translated to his NBA play, as Rubio simply cannot score against NBA defenses. His passing and defense have been as great as his ACB sample implied, but there is an upper bound to the defensive impact a 6’4″ player can make to counterbalance an inability to score. Thus while he was an attractive gamble that could have panned out better, it should not be a surprise to anybody that he never came close to blossoming into a top 10 player.

The counter would be that statistics do not prove that Doncic is bereft of weakness. Maybe in spite of his good but not great rebound, steal, and block rates, he proves to be an awful defensive player. Let’s go as far as to say he is as bad defensively as James Harden. Is that really a terrifying flag? Harden is shorter and showed much less skill at the same age, yet is performing at an MVP level in spite of the mixtapes of bad defense that exist. If significant defensive flags for Doncic arise prior to his draft, it would diminish his value as a LeBron type prospect but he would still be the clear choice at #1 overall.

Doncic’s strengths are so special that he needs some extremely negative gravity to preclude him from becoming great. Even if he has a poor work ethic, Tracy McGrady is an example of natural super talent with poor work ethic and he still had an excellent prime.

Perhaps I am missing some key perspective here, but I cannot envision a single rational reason why Doncic may fail to become great. The best argument against is that he is 17 years old and there is plenty of time for things to go wrong. But that can be said for any prospect, and there is nothing specific to his profile that inspires a sliver of doubt for his ability to achieve greatness. At this juncture, all signs point toward piles and piles of upside and not much downside.

Bottom Line

It may seem like a hyperbolic question to ask if a 17 year old could be the greatest prospect of all time, but the same narrative arose for LeBron at the same age. So why not Doncic? It is because the people who drive the consensus wrongfully give athleticism a significant edge over skill and statistical production, when the latter is likely more important.

And the fact of the matter is that we NEED to ask ourselves hyperbolic questions about prospects to gauge how they should be valued. Most of the value of draft picks is packed into the upside tail, and any analysis should start with whether the answer to a hyperbolic question might be yes.

If the Chicago Bulls have the opportunity to trade Jimmy Butler for the Nets 2018 1st round pick, the difference between Doncic being in the ballpark of LeBron vs an average top 3 pick makes the difference at to whether they should accept a trade with the 2018 Nets pick as a centerpiece. The difference between expecting an average #1 and a possible LeBron type prospect immensely swings the value of that pick. My take is that it would be a clear mistake to pass up a 5-10% chance of Doncic for 2.5 more underpriced years of Butler based on signals thus far.

It is possible that I am wrong, as I have only watched Doncic sparingly in highlights and he is only 17. Also it is possible that I will change my position between now and the 2018 draft, as there will be an abundance of new information to have a clearer grasp on his goodness. But based on current information, it is not an absurd question to ponder whether Luka Doncic is a transcendent prospect on the level of LeBron James, and there is no clear logical reason why he cannot blossom into the greatest basketball player we have ever seen.

Dennis Smith Jr: Great or Merely Good?

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Dennis Smith Jr. is receiving hype as a possible top 3 pick in this year’s draft, and he recently  greased the wheels of his hype train with a 32 point performance in a road win at Duke. This gives us a glimpse of his NBA upside, so let’s dive deeper into his NCAA performance to assess exactly how high his ceiling extends.

Why He Is Good

The reasons for Smith’s appeal are straightforward– he is a great athlete who can dribble, pass, shoot, and score. He checks off all of the boxes that people look for in a star point guard, as it is rare for a player with his athleticism to be above average at all of the aforementioned skills. This gives him the potential to take on a massive role offensively, and if he develops his skill level and decision making well, he can make a big positive impact as a lead guard.

Smith’s talent is undeniable, and he is definitely a good prospect. But he also has some flaws that make me skeptical of his ability to become great.

Why He Is Not Great

While he has a number of good traits he is not elite at any one thing. He is great athlete but is nowhere near an explosive freak like Russell Westbrook, John Wall, or Derrick Rose. He is an above average shooter but not a great one, and he can create a high volume of offense for himself and others but with merely good but not great efficiency. While he checks a number of boxes as being above average, he does not qualify an outlier at any one thing.

This is not problematic on its own, as being well rounded with few weaknesses can sum up to a highly valuable player. But DSJ’s profile is rife with flaws:

–He has average height and short arms for a PG
–He projects to be poor defensively
–His game is not smooth and lacks polish
–He is not the best floor general. He makes questionable decisions and his passes are often inaccurate
–His motor and toughness are questionable

These weaknesses are not trivial. They are all concerning on their own, and taken in tandem there are some heavy flags weighing down his goodness. This is not the profile of a player on the path to NBA stardom, but one of an enigmatic talent who will be wildly hit or miss as a pro.

T-Rex Woes

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Smith measured 6’1.5 with a 6’3″ wingspan in 2014. He is currently listed at 6’3″ and should have at least a 6’4″ wingspan by draft time, but that pales in comparison to most of the freaky PG’s like Westbrook (6’7.75″) Rose (6’8″) and Wall (6’9.25″). This detracts from his athleticism, and overall his physical profile is (surprise) good but not great.

This is problematic on both ends. Defensively, he will not have the reach to effectively contest shots for anybody but small point guards.  This issue becomes magnified as NBA teams employ defensive schemes that entail heavy switching with increasing frequency. Kyrie Irving has nearly identical dimensions (6’3.5″ height 6’4″ wingspan) and is one of the worst defensive starting point guards in the NBA in large part due to his poor reach. Kyrie is also lazy and over gambles on defense, but the same could be said for Smith.

This is also problematic on offense, as his short arms make it difficult to finish in traffic. Kyrie makes his defense worth stomaching with his elite shooting and finishing, as his incredible body control and coordination gives him a unique ability to make tough, off balance shots. Smith does not have this superpower, which makes his short arms a greater obstacle to overcome.

Kyrie’s profile is largely similar to Smith, as they share similar bodies and both are great ball handlers and shot creators. But Irving is widely considered overrated by advanced stats and intelligent fans because of his poor passing and defense, as he is merely a solid starter rather than an actual star. And this is for a player that offers elite shooting, finishing, and efficiency– all areas where Smith is merely good.

To become a solid starter like Irving, Smith needs to have a more well rounded game to atone for his shotmaking disadvantage. And to become a star, he needs to have a huge edge in both passing and defense. Smith has a good chance of becoming better defensively than Kyrie given how low the bar is, but I would not bet on his defense as his ticket to greatness. So let’s see if his passing offers more hope of goodness:

Passing

Passing is slippery to quantify, as not all assists are created equally and passes that are not assists matter too. Smith has a high assist rate, which is a good start for his passing upside. But the truly great passers make a big positive impact on their teammates, which intuitively makes sense since that is the whole point of passing.

Smith’s teammates are not that bad. Entering the season, Dan Hanner’s excellent statistical model projected NC State as the #10 offense and #18 team overall. This was close to UCLA’s projection of #12 offense and #16 overall. Meanwhile UCLA has the #1 offense by a comfy margin and NC State’s offense is just #47, and both defenses are bad but NC State’s is worse.

This is a HUGE signal for both players’ passing abilities. It cannot be stressed enough that great point guards make great offensive impacts. They are being flanked with similar talent– TJ Leaf is much better than Omer Yurtseven but this only explains a small fraction of the gargantuan offensive gap. And outside of their 5* freshmen PG/big duos, the rosters are largely similar. I believe the majority of the difference between UCLA and NC State’s offensive goodness is due to Ball being a vastly superior passer to DSJ.

This aligns with my eye test, as Lonzo crisply moves the ball, makes great decisions, and delivers passes with pinpoint precision. Meanwhile DSJ over-dribbles, makes questionable decisions, and blows a fair amount of assist opportunities by delivering passes off the mark.

Smith’s vision seems good enough and it is plausible that he will eventually develop into a good passer. His athleticism and handling ability gives him the capacity to take advantage of this skill if he ever develops it. But the best predictor of future passing ability is current passing ability, and right now Smith is merely average.

Naturals vs Beasts

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Some elite NBA point guards such as Chris Paul and Steph Curry showed clear signs of natural offensive excellence in college. But others such as Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry played limited roles as freshmen and were not clear stars as sophomores, yet developed into NBA stars over time because they are great athletes who progressed well.

Why not gamble on Smith following the Westbrook or Lowry path since his athleticism and skill level are good enough? He is not a freak like Westbrook but if Lowry can be a star, why not DSJ?

That is a great question! Glad you asked it. Both players are fiercely intense competitors who complement their great athleticism with non-stop motors and toughness that enable them to make a huge impact on the game. Motor is tough to quantify, but there is one stat that does a sneaky good job for guards: offensive rebound rate! Let’s just take a quick look at how DSJ stacks up vs the top 5 current NBA lead guards NCAA ORB%:

Lowry 5.9
Harden 5.4
RWB 5.2
Curry 2.6
CP3 2.3
DSJ 1.8

There is no subtlety to this signal– Lowry and Westbrook clearly displayed their deep desire to dominate in beast mode in their NCAA performances as elite offensive rebounders with approximately triple the rate of DSJ.

Harden showed signs of being a natural lead guard in college, but for good measure he also posted a great ORB%. His motor is not quite up there with Lowry and Westbrook, but he is helped by superior height and length which are also lacking in DSJ’s profile.

The offensive naturals in Curry and CP3 are closer to DSJ, but still higher. Considering DSJ’s massive edge in frame and athleticism– how much internal drive to dominate can he have if he grabs offensive rebounds less frequently than the physically frail Curry?

Go back further and you will find most favorable DSJ comps were vastly superior NCAA offensive rebounders: Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, and Dwyane Wade provide further examples.

It is a reasonable hypothesis that either elite skill and smarts or elite offensive rebounding are pre-requisites to become a superstar lead guard in the NBA. Because DSJ is neither a natural floor general nor a beast in the paint, it is difficult to fathom how he could become great.

But He Can Still Be Good!

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies

The fortunate news for DSJ is that offensive rebounding is not a pre-requisite for goodness. Here is a list of reasonable upside comps for him who were in the same ballpark of NCAA ORB%:

Conley 2.6
Kyrie 2.3
Bledsoe 1.9
DSJ 1.8
Lillard 1.7

Stephon Marbury would also make the list as his total NCAA rebound rate was pitiful, but I cannot find his offensive split. He really is the best DSJ comp.

Mike Conley is one reasonable upside scenario. They share similar physical profiles, and Conley was not clearly on the path to greatness as an NCAA freshman or even in his first few years in the NBA. But with hard work and steady improvement, he eventually became a very good two way point guard. Smith’s game is more centered on explosiveness and volume whereas Conley leans on smoothness and efficiency, but they can be similarly valuable overall.

Eric Bledsoe is another reasonable upside comp, as he showed no statistical signs of goodness in college and developed into a solid NBA PG with the aid of great physical tools.

Damian Lillard is an example of what DSJ may look like as a pro if he makes an outlier leap into a great shooter.

These are all good players, they are all happy outcomes for a pick outside the top 3 in most seasons. But if you are aiming for Kyrie, Lillard, or Conley in this year’s LOADED top 5, you are aiming too low.

Conclusion

You could argue that I am overrating some of these flags. Perhaps my eye test is too harsh, I could be giving his short arms too much attention and his great athleticism too little, and I could be overestimating the relevance of his poor team performance and poor offensive rebound rate. But taken in tandem, they cannot be collectively trivial. At least one of these will weigh heavier than expected, and Smith just does not super powers to become great anyway.

This draft has 10 freshmen dripping with talent and draft hype. They are not all going to become all-stars, and some of them will disappoint severely. Some will disappoint due to unforeseeably poor development, but others will because their strengths received too much attention and subtle but significant flags went overlooked. If I had to single out one player with less impressive strengths and more significant flags than commonly perceived, that player is clearly Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith is still a good prospect, as he has the skill and his athleticism cannot be overlooked. He is already a good NCAA player, and if he develops his game at a good rate he will become a good NBA player. But he does not have the skill or smarts to be a naturally elite floor general, and he does not have the reach or motor to use his athleticism to physically dominate. These are significant problems, and they will preclude him from becoming the transcendent star that teams are seeking with a top 3 pick.

How Good Is This Year’s Draft?

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It is a common exercise to rate prospects in the class against each other, as this drives the selections made on draft night. But this class is being hyped as historically good, and it is worth discussing how this crop collectively compares to an average draft class.

The Short Answer:

This draft is completely loaded at the top. I count 8 players who normally belong in the top 3, including 2 above average #1 picks. There are also 3 high risk elite talents who are just outside of most top 3’s, and then after that the draft becomes normal as the upperclass is fairly thin.

I estimate that this draft is similar to an average draft, but with three times as much top 3 talent as normal. To demonstrate, let’s stack the top 11 talents from the past 3 drafts up against my top 11 rankings:

2014-16 2017
1 Embiid Ball
2 Towns Fultz
3 Simmons Jackson
4 DAR Monk
5 Porzingis Lauri
6 Gordon Fox
7 Ingram Isaac
8 Jabari Tatum
9 Okafor Giles
10 Exum Ntilikina
11 Wiggins DSJ

These lists are well balanced, each side has similar prospect value.

I tried to match current prospects with similar ones from prior drafts while also having a reasonable rank of prior prospects, and it all worked out surprisingly well. The prior prospect list is almost a perfect ranking of how they would be valued today with the aid of partial hindsight.

The only improvement to be made with respect to pairings are swapping non-shooters to match primary handlers (Fox and Simmons) and off ball SF athletes (Gordon and Jackson). It is arguable whether this means that Gordon is underrated, Jackson is overrated, or simply that they are not the same exact prospect. But they are deeply similar, and I have more to say on this comp later.

Obviously the 2017 prospects will not all have parallel fates with their parallel prospect, but I feel this accurately conveys my perception of this draft’s goodness: It is amazingly good, and has clear potential to be the best top 11 of all time.

The Extremely Long Answer:

I am going to break this down into 4 classes: transcendent stars, possible stars, risks, and the non-elite.

Transcendent Stars (Strong #1 picks)

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1a. Lonzo Ball– 6’6″ PG, UCLA
1b. Markelle Fultz– 6’4″ PG, Washington

Fultz is a transcendent physical talent, Ball is a transcendent mental talent. They are extremely close, and I have a difficult time settling on one as superior to the other.

For now I put Lonzo in the lead because he glows with goodness that has captured my attention in a strong way. I cannot stop watching him, I cannot stop writing about why he is great and why his flags are of little concern. Fultz is amazing in his own rite, but I’m giving the edge to the guy who is aggressively pinging my intuition with signs of greatness.

Among historic point gods, I believe Lonzo Ball is most similar to Steve Nash. He may never match Nash’s off the dribble shooting ability, but he also might. Even if he falls short, he can atone for it with a much lower turnover rate and better physical tools to hold his own on defense. It is difficult to envision him becoming less good than Nash. But his incredibly assist:TOV ratio and elite eFG% reminisces of Chris Paul, and Ball has clear potential to be that good. And with his massive 6″ height advantage over Paul, there is wiggle room for Ball to become even better.

Fultz is a hybrid of Dwyane Wade and James Harden with potential to be better. It is almost easier to see him becoming better than those two than worse. His combination of slashing, finishing, and vision at such a young age is exceptionally rare and he is clearly on the path to greatness. Perhaps he develops at a poor rate and falls well short, but how bad can he be at developing his game if he is already this good this young? His biggest question mark is whether his basketball IQ trails his intuitive instincts by enough to preclude him from greatness. It is plausible, but he is so insanely talented that he is definitely going to be good.

I do not think either of these players measures up to Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid in terms of raw pre-draft talent. But they are likely both top 5 prospects of the past decade, as they both have strong cases to be rated superior to Karl Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, John Wall, and Ben Simmons. I’d rate them as similar to KAT and superior to the latter 3.

Possible Stars (Strong #2 picks to weak #3 picks):

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You can rank this tier in almost any order without getting an objection from me. All of the players have clear star upside, but also have flaws that could render them ordinary NBA players.

3. Josh Jackson– 6’8″ SF, Kansas

Jackson offers loads of goodness, as he is elite at everything but shooting and creation off the dribble. But the worries with Jackson are mounting

  1. His 26% 3P and 56% FT are major flags. It’s fun to imagine him making a Kawhi level shooting leap, but Kawhi shot 74% FT in college and had a much better starting point.
  2. Aside from spacing issues– can he be a point forward? As per synergy, he is averaging 0.59 PPP as P&R Handler and 0.46 in Isolation, good for 24th and 9th percentile respectively. This is largely correlated with his shooting woes, as when he does not get to the rim he will often pull up and brick, as he his shooting 29.3% eFG off the dribble (23%ile)

I still have him at #3 because he has such great strengths, and still manages to produce on offense thanks to excellent passing, cutting, and touch near the rim. He reminisces most of the awesome and underrated Shawn Marion with a worse shot and better passing and athleticism. But I also said the same thing about Aaron Gordon in 2014. Gordon appeared to be on the path to stardom after his sophomore NBA season, but now has an unclear upside in the midst of a third year slump.

As mentioned earlier, they are deeply similar prospects who are excellent at everything but shooting and shot creation. Gordon bricked harder on NCAA FT’s at 42%, but he was 1 year 7 months younger as a freshman. His average NBA age is similar to Jackson’s NCAA age, and he has shot better on FT’s (66% vs 56%) and 3’s in spite of longer distance (30% vs 26%). Jackson is a different person and player with his own share of advantages (better rim touch, more steals/blocks, better cutting) and he could develop at a faster rate. But are his advantages enough to outweigh his inferior shooting by a significant enough margin to make him a star? Should we be encouraged by Gordon’s promising sophomore season, or are his third year struggles a sign that it is crazy to take Jackson #3 overall? It’s tough to say–  Jackson is an extremely weird prospect.

I am erring on the side of optimism for now because Jackson’s intangibles are reputedly excellent, as he is a fiery competitor with 3 technical fouls on the season. He is not the type of player I am in a rush to bet against, and placing him outside of the top 3 feels like it would be such a bet. So for now Jackson leads my second tier, but he may creep down to the 4-6 range by draft night.

4. Malik Monk– 6’3″ SG, Kentucky

I normally am opposed to drafting one dimensional shooters with defensive question marks too early. My first post on the site was about Doug McDermott being an overrated prospect, and last season I singled out Buddy Hield as the clear dud of the lottery. But Monk and Lauri Markkanen are outliers, so they get special consideration.

I already wrote about Malik Monk’s elite shooting, and I am not sure why has not received more comparison to Steph Curry. Let’s compare pace adjusted per 40 stats from their freshman seasons:

2PtA 2P% 3PtA 3P% FTA FT%
Monk 9.6 59.3 8.9 41.4 4.6 83.3
Curry 7.8 53.6 10.4 40.8 5.1 85.5

The differences in 3PA rate and FT% such that Monk is not a Curry level outlier in either accuracy or trigger, but the fact that he is even in the ballpark is exciting. He has a chance of becoming the 2nd best shooter in NBA history. And he does far more damage than Curry did inside the arc. Granted, much of that is in transition which translates poorly to the NBA, but Monk’s additional production and athleticism cannot be ignored.

Pts Rebs Asts TOs Stls Blks
Monk 26.3 2.9 2.7 2.3 1.4 0.4
Curry 25.5 5.5 3.3 3.3 2.2 0.2

Curry’s comfortably superior steal and rebound rates in spite of comfortably inferior athleticism imply some drastic instinctual advantage that likely precludes Monk from becoming as good as Curry.

But Monk’s athleticism is evident in his higher block rate, and his ability to avoid turnovers is another feature that helps counter-balance the comparison a bit. And most importantly– Monk’s assist rate is surprisingly close considering that he shares the backcourt with two traditional PG’s in De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe. He has shown flashes of impressive vision and passing ability, and it is feasible that he develops into a great distributor like Curry.

Overall Monk’s inferior shot, instincts, rebounding, and ball handling likely preclude him from achieving Curry’s level of greatness. But his athleticism and ability to avoid mistakes give him a shot of coming close. Even if he falls short of Curry, he can still be as good as another hyperefficient shooter who was allergic to rebounds: Reggie Miller.

He could also fall short of Miller, but I would be surprised if he fell on his face altogether. His combination of elite shooting accuracy, volume, athleticism, and offensive feel for the game is too much to not become good offensively. I would be surprised if he is not at least as good as the 2016-17 version of Bradley Beal.

Monk’s flaws are real, and they cannot be ignored. His defense and rebounding will almost certainly be bad as a pro, and it detracts from his value. But offense is much higher leverage for guards, and he has such a high floor high ceiling offensively that I suspect his defensive warts will be well worth stomaching.

5. Lauri Markkanen– 7’0″ PF, Arizona

Markkanen is shooting 83.5% from the line, and the only 7’0″ NBA player with a greater career FT% is Dirk Nowitzki. If you include 6’11” players: Mike Gminski, Jack Sikma, and Bill Laimbeer all check in between 83.7% and 84.9%. Gminski only made 6 career 3P, and Sikma and Laimber shot 33% from 3 on low volume, yet the latter two collectively appeared in 11 all-star games. Then Yao checks in at 83.3%, and the combination of being tall and great at FT’s continues to look like a strong combination.

You need to go below Lauri’s current FT% to find the discouraging comps of Channing Frye, Andrea Bargani, and Meyers Leonard in the 82-83% range for their NBA careers. But their pre-draft FT%’s all pale compared to Lauri as they were all in the 73-76% range, and Bargnani and Leonard were rife with flaws that precluded them from NBA goodness. A better shooting version of Frye would be a reasonable floor for Lauri, which is good for a non-top 3 pick.

Now let’s consider the meaning of his elite FT%. First it loudly suggests that he has a chance to become the best 6’11″+ shooter in NBA history, especially taken in tandem with his 50% 3P. It also hints that he has an outlier level of coordination, which gives him potential to develop an elite creation ability to complement his elite shooting. This is why the Dirk comparison is so pertinent, especially when he has the ability to pull off a move like this off the dribble.

Most are not convinced of the Dirk comp, as Markkanen does not score high volume for Arizona and is consensus rated outside the top 7. But given his hyper efficient 137 O-Rtg and how well he eye tests, I believe his Dirk upside is more attainable than commonly perceived. If nothing else he will be a highly efficient complementary scorer who physically can hold his own on defense, as he does not have lead feet like Steve Novak. He may nevertheless be a poor NBA defensive player due to lackluster instincts and length, but at least he has a chance of competence.

Markkanen’s range is a better version of Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson to the second coming of Dirk. I believe he is underrated by consensus.

6. De’Aaron Fox– 6’3″ PG, Kentucky

With a strong start to SEC play, the quick De’Aaron Fox jumps over the lazy Dennis Smith Jr. in my rankings.

Fox may seem high at #6 considering his poor shooting from all levels: 3P (5/37), mid-range (4/20), and short range (6/21). But he has super powers that cannot be ignored:

  1. His unique combination of quickness, coordination, and ball handling enables him to get to the rim at will, and his touch near the rim enables him to finish efficiently.
  2. He has an elite assist and turnover rate for a volume scorer

His 69% FT suggest that his shot is not hopelessly broken, and it is worth gambling that he makes an outlier leap. One sneaky benefit is that he is so adept at getting to the rim he does not pull up for bricks as often as other bricklaying PG’s, and is shooting 55% on 2P thus far. It is feasible that he becomes a good offensive player even if his shot stays broken, and if he makes a big leap he will become a full fledged stud lead guard.

Most will want to compare him to past Kentucky guards like Rajon Rondo and John Wall, but Rondo is more cerebrally gifted, Wall is more physically gifted, and neither has Fox’s ability to smoothly navigate through defenses.

The best comparison for Fox is Rod Strickland, who shared similar dimensions (6’3″, 175) and had a good statistical prime in spite of limited shooting range. Isiah Thomas has similarities as well. The most optimistic upside comp if he makes the shooting leap is Gary Payton. Although Fox is an extreme long-shot to match Payton’s shooting AND defense, he is a much more advanced scorer at the same age. Yes, it is the pinnacle of optimism, but it is hard to find pertinent comps for Fox since he is such a special snowflake.

The fact that most Fox comps inspire optimism is a good sign, as it is difficult to find a past guard who offered scoring, passing, and limited mistakes while amounting to little in the NBA. In spite of the poor shot, #6 may be too low for Fox as he arguably has as much upside as anybody outside the top 2.

7. Jonathan Isaac– 6’10” SF/PF, Florida St.

Isaac is the defensive specialist of the draft, as his profile is highlight by a rare combination of height and quickness that gives him elite versatility to guard multiple positions. He fits especially well into a heavy switching scheme, and considering his awesome steal, block, and rebound rates he has potential to be an extraordinarily valuable defensive player as a pro.

His biggest warts appear on offense, as he is limited off the dribble and a long windup on his shot results in a low 3PA rate. Consequently, he has a medium usage that does not have great upside to be stretched, and his limited ball skills show in his poor assist:turnover ratio. But he is not a complete disaster on this end– his 38.5% 3P and 82.4% FT imply that he should be an acceptable NBA floor spacer, and he moves well off the ball with great efficiency on cuts (95%ile per synergy) and put backs (97%ile).

Isaac is a one of a kind super role player. There is one strong upside comp who mirrors his physical profile and skill set: Andrei Kirilenko.  Kirilenko is highly underrated and would be an awesome return on any draft slot. Isaac is far from certain to be as good defensively as AK47, and his passing is far behind. But he his a much better shooter and has a reasonable chance of matching Kirilenko’s overall peak value. But Kirilenko is an extremely special snowflake, and Isaac may end up closer to the strikingly similar Marvin Williams. Pace adjusted per 40 freshman stats:

Pts 2P% 3PA 3P% FT%
Isaac 19.9 63.2 4.6 38.5 82.4
Marvin 18.1 52.2 2 43.2 84.7

Isaac converted more shots inside the arc and displayed more comfort shooting from 3 point range. But at 8 months older, there is not much separating their NCAA offensive output.

Rebs Asts Stls Blks TOs PFs
Isaac 11.7 1.6 1.9 2.3 2.6 2.9
Marvin 10.5 1.2 1.7 0.8 2.5 4.1

This is where Isaac sets himself apart, with slightly better rebounding and steal rates and much better block and foul rates. And while he also has an assist:turnover flag, it is a lighter shade of red than Marvin’s.

Overall Isaac is clearly the superior prospect, and a better defensive version of Marvin Williams is not a bad floor. But Williams is a cautionary tale for Isaac’s offensive warts, as his lack of NBA 3P range and ball skills depressed his offensive output early in his career. If Isaac runs into similar translation problems, his offensive weakness may offset his defensive goodness.

Marvin Williams to Andrei Kirilenko presents a wide range of outcomes, but Isaac’s upside and ability to fit in almost any NBA lineup is highly attractive for a non-top 3 pick.

8. Jayson Tatum– 6’8″ SF, Duke

Tatum is the top 8 player that I have the toughest time grasping. On one hand– he has clear two way star potential as his scoring instincts and 85% FT give him offensive upside, and his steal and block rates imply great defensive upside.

Conversely, nothing is guaranteed on either side of the ball. Offensively his FT% is extremely promising, and he also has the ability to score volume and the vision to whip an occasional great pass. But there is also a laundry list of warts to fret over:

  1. Does he have NBA 3 point range? Only making 30% of 3’s on low volume for Duke and seems to be more comfortable in the mid-range.
  2. He gets stripped and swatted a ton for a player of his talent. His high turnover rate and 48% 2P makes his overall efficiency meh in spite of his free throw dominance.
  3. He is a poor offensive rebounder for his size, and pales in comparison to similar players such as Jabari Parker and Carmelo Anthony in that regard.

So he is a mystery box. Maybe he will always be a black hole of inefficiency with limited spacing gravity, or maybe the rest of his skill level will catch up with his elite FT% and he becomes a star on this end. I don’t know.

Defensively the steals and blocks are exciting, but he was never reputed as a lockdown defensive player and Duke as a team has been underachieving on defense relative to their talent level. So maybe he is a sieve, or maybe he makes a positive impact on this end. Again, I don’t know.

His range is roughly an overrated mediocrity like Glenn Robinson to a suped up version of Carmelo Anthony. I am slightly more pessimistic regarding Tatum than consensus, largely because his mold presents a more worrisome downside tail than the other prospects in this tier. But he definitely offers enough goodness to have star upside, thus he occupies the final slot in the tier.

Tier 3: Risky Talents (Standard #4-7 picks):

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9. Harry Giles– 6’10” PF/C, Duke

On top of injury flags, Giles has also looked like a disaster since entering Duke’s rotation as he appears completely lost on defense. His instincts look bad, and he also may have some lack of physical confidence as he appears surprisingly prone to bullying for a player of his physical profile.

It is hard to project his NBA future, as he could so easily be a zero. But prior to the injuries, he was a front-runner for the #1 overall pick in front of all of these studs. His AAU stats are awesome, his physical profile is awesome, and he is a rare enough talent to be worth a shot in the dark gamble in the back end of the lottery.

His downside is Andre Drummond with injury flags, his upside is a better version of DeAndre Jordan. Once the tier 1 and 2 players are off the board, it is likely worth it to take a shot on him and hope for the best.

10. Frank Ntilikina– 6’5″ PG, France

Ntilikina is a complete mystery box. His profile suggests that he has clear star potential, but without any reasonable gauge of statistical production we must reduce the odds of his upside being attained and fatten up his downside tail.

Most people will point to Giannis Antetokounmpo as an example of an upsidey mystery box being underrated in the draft, and yes he was an incredible steal who is much better than all 14 players drafted ahead of him. But for every Giannis that binks, there is a truckload of Bruno Caboclos that come nowhere close. How do we tell the difference from afar? We cannot, we can only accept the uncertainty and try our best to rank him at a level headed slot considering his wide error bars.

Ntilikina is playing professionally in France, but due to low minutes and a limited offensive role as an 18 year old string bean, it is nearly impossible to gauge his level of goodness. If he played NCAA we would at least have an idea of how he looks as a primary handler, but as is he averages 3.2 pts per game with more turnovers than assists. He has some home run potential, but is more likely to be a complete whiff.

He cannot go ahead of elite freshmen who solidified their appeal with great NCAA production, but once they are all off the board it is reasonable to gamble.

11. Dennis Smith Jr.– 6’3″ PG, NC State

I rate DSJ as the clear fraud of the lottery, as in spite of his great athleticism and statistical production his team continues to rack up losses. This is because he has poor basketball IQ, makes inaccurate passes, and over gambles on defense.

And while his talent is good, it is not great. He has great athleticism, but isn’t an explosive freak and his poor wingspan and reach diminish his physical profile. And while he is a capable shooter, he is not great. His intersection of handles, shooting, athleticism, and vision are nice, but not special or outlier enough to make him an exciting gamble in the top 5 given his losing tendencies.

I have a hard time seeing Smith as a star that helps his NBA team win games, although he may post nice fantasy stats as a pro. His upside is Stephon Marbury and his downside is just bad. Maybe I am underrating him– I do not feel quite as pessimistic for him as I did for Andrew Wiggins. But I have a hard time getting excited for him relative to the other studs in the class.

Tier 4: The Rest (standard #8-16 picks)

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12. Isaiah Hartenstein
13. Rodions Kurucs
14. Ethan Happ
15. Ivan Rabb
16. Miles Bridges
17. TJ Leaf
18. Robert Williams
19. Andrew Jones

20. OG Anunoby

After the top 11, the draft starts to lose appeal as the non-freshmen are fairly weak this year. But there are a few players who deserve mention.

Interationals:

Hartenstein is a rapidly rising international who is gaining appeal based on his great physical profile and balanced stat stuffing in FIBA U18 play. I just skimmed his DX profile and know little about him, but it is possible that after further analysis he should belong a tier higher. He is highly appealing at a glance.

Kurucs is a young, versatile, international wing who may not declare for this draft.

NCAA non-freshmen:

Happ, Rabb, and Anunoby are my super sophomores and the only NCAA non-freshmen I have in my top 21. The ones who just missed the cut are Dedric Lawson, Bryant Crawford, and Josh Hart.

Happ is the underrated gem of the draft, as he excels at everything but shooting and has potential to be a Draymond/Millsap level steal when he declares.

Rabb will likely be a solid NBA player similar to the Zeller bros, but it is difficult to see his path to stardom. Anunoby is a one way defensive beast who recently underwent season ending knee surgery. I believe he is too much of an offensive zero to justify a lottery selection as he is currently projected.

The Other Freshmen:

Bridges is the consensus next best freshman after the elite group. He has the athleticism, smoothness, and balanced production to sum to a quality NBA player, although his questionable efficiency and steal rate hint at him not being a future star.

TJ Leaf has significant appeal as a skilled and smart PF that offers versatile scoring and passing. His downside is his limited athleticism and defense. I would have an easier time getting excited over Leaf’s offense if he shot better than 62% FT, but he nevertheless pings my intuition as a player whose upside is underrated.

Robert Williams is a weirdo who pairs great length and athleticism with a unique skill set, as he offers great passing, cutting, and rim touch for a pogo stick. But his shot is a work in progress, and his offensive creation ability is sorely limited.

I wrote about Andrew Jones as Diet Russ, and since then he has committed many turnovers. He still piques my interest as a player who has nice upside if his skill level improves at an outlier rate, but right now he is incredibly raw.

Bruce Brown is my top freshman to miss the cut. He is an unheralded athletic freshman SG for Miami who is a nice athlete and does a little bit of everything.

Does Lonzo Ball Hard Enough?

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I have already written why I believe Lonzo Ball has immense upside as a possible transcendent NBA star. But for his upside to be attained, he needs to not have any major obstacles in his path that offset his strengths. In this article I will look for a negative comparison to see if there are any frightening signals in Ball’s performance thus far that should cause any assessment of his upside to be skewed downward.

A common narrative on basketball twitter is that Lonzo Ball cannot create offense for himself, and we should be extremely worried about it. The best way to assess the validity of this narrative is to look at historical pass first point guard prospects who struggled to score. Let’s start by making a list of guards drafted in the top 10 during the lottery era who were better at passing than scoring:

Year Pk Player
1994 2 Jason Kidd
2005 3 Deron Williams
2005 4 Chris Paul
2007 4 Mike Conley
2005 5 Raymond Felton
2009 5 Ricky Rubio
2016 5 Kris Dunn
1987 6 Kenny Smith
1998 7 Jason Williams
1999 8 Andre Miller
2003 8 T.J. Ford
2013 9 Trey Burke
1989 10 Pooh Richardson

That’s a pretty good list, as there are few busts and many of these players were as good or better than their drafting teams hoped. The first lesson to be gleaned is that it’s rare for pass first PG’s to be badly overrated in the draft. But there is the occasional Trey Burke or Kris Dunn, so let’s dive further and see how these players compared to Lonzo as freshmen. Stats are pace adjusted per 40, with an * for the players that are not pace adjusted due to lack of pace data:

Player Pts eFG% AST TOV
JWill* 18.4 58.5% 8.7 3.7
Burke 18.3 50.5% 5.7 3.5
Paul 16.6 57.0% 6.6 3.1
Kidd 15.6 50.5% 9.1 4.7
Lonzo 15.0 65.9% 8.5 2.5
Conley 14.6 55.2% 7.9 2.9
Felton 13.9 48.9% 7.3 4.0
Miller* 13.4 54.9% 7.2 4.1
Ford 13.2 42.3% 10.1 4.8
Smith* 12.6 51.9% 6.8 4.3
Pooh* 12.5 49.2% 7.3 3.8
Deron 9.1 50.6% 6.6 2.7
Dunn 8.8 41.5% 4.8 2.9

If there is a signal for disappointment it likely comes in assist rate. Dunn and Burke come in at the bottom as the two biggest busts.

Dunn was a completely disaster all around as a freshman, and was even worse in 4 games as a sophomore before finally putting it together as a junior. Trey Burke never had natural point guard skills, and was also plagued by his diminutive size and poor athleticism. Neither of them can be seen as pertinent comps for Lonzo.

Next– where are the scoring flags for Lonzo? Raw point totals are not precise measures of creation ability, but he has easily the highest eFG% on the list and could easily have the highest scoring rate if he attempted more inefficient shots. Based on how basketball twitter rails on his lack of scoring, you would expect him to be dead last on the list. Yet here he is with the best scoring stats of the bunch.

Also let’s take a moment to appreciate that to match Jason Kidd’s freshman offensive output, Ball would merely need to add a truckload of bricks and turnovers to his profile.

Forget Creating Shots, Let’s Talk About Making Them!

On average, the high eFG% prospects panned out well, with Paul, Conley, and Miller all providing great values for their slots. Jason Williams is the only questionable one. But he was a 20 year old freshman playing for mid-major Marshall, only 6’1″, and seemed more in tune with making mixtape highlights than racking up efficient attempts for his teammates. And he still had a still has 71% percentile career win shares for all time #7 overall picks, which is rather good for the most negative example of the bunch.

Perhaps people should be less worried about Ball’s lack of elite creation and more impressed with his outlier ability to never miss.

Speaking of missing shots– this chart excludes Ricky Rubio, who never played NCAA basketball. Rubio struggles to score simply because he cannot convert shots from any part of the court, and he has been plagued by a career of low usage and horrific eFG%. Yet he is still considering a good point guard. Even if Ball does not measure up defensively, his passing and shotmaking ability completely dwarf those of Rubio, and I would say that a more offensively gifted (and overall better) version of Rubio is his absolute floor.

Reaching Deeper For Comps

Outside of the top 10 you are looking at talent that is badly dwarfed by Ball, but it is still difficult to find any sign that an elite passer who can make shots busts. I am not going to be as comprehensive here, just going to offer a balanced list of players who offer both positive and negative outcomes. Also not pace adjusted for anybody but Lonzo, and I used career stats for all:

Player Pts eFG% AST TOV
Lonzo 15.0 0.659 8.5 2.5
Stockton 15.9 0.559 6.6 3.5
Nash 19.9 0.537 6 4.1
 Jackson 13.3 0.537 7.4 3
Marshall 10 0.505 11.1 3.7
Bogues 11.1 0.494 8.8 3.3
Williams 12.8 0.455 10.4 4.7
Ennis 14.5 0.453 6.2 1.9
MCW 13 0.445 8.2 3.7

I included Kendall Williams and Marcus Williams because they are players with outlier assist rates who busted. But you can see that Williams had a horrible eFG%, and Williams had a horrible scoring output with a mediocre eFG%. They provide examples of what REAL scoring flags look like, and you can see Lonzo is light years ahead of them.

And some non-scorers don’t fall on their face: Muggsy Bogues shows that you can have serious scoring flags and still have an NBA career at 5’3″ if you are good enough at creating for teammates and avoiding mistakes.

This chart agrees with my earlier theory that Lonzo’s shot making deserves more love. The three best slot values in Stockton, Nash, and Mark Jackson all had the best eFG%’s of the group, and the brickiest players busted the hardest.

Conclusion

Given the way some people talk about Ball’s scoring flags, you would think that there would be SOME historic comp that offers a scary downside scenario. But there’s nothing there. Scoring is the most easily quantified statistic, and there is no example of a pass first point guard who has busted without having a scoring output that is light years inferior to that of Ball.

This analysis does not completely assuage concerns, as a significant portion of his scoring comes off the ball or in transition. Further, his 43% 3P% may not be sustainable. Some of the better NBA players may have had some offensive advantages that are not directly perceptible by simply looking at the numbers. But he passes the negative comp test so comfortably, it is difficult to see how his limited creation could prove debilitating.

If anything this analysis suggests that he has an outlier scoring edge in his completely awesome eFG%. I believe this deserves more attention than his lack of high scoring volume. After all, his scant attempts at creating have been highly efficient– perhaps he would assuage creation concerns if he was not such a genius at avoiding low quality attempts.

Ball’s strengths are clearly elite. His basketball IQ is through the roof, he makes insanely difficult passes with pinpoint precision, he has made 43% of his 3PA with most coming from NBA range, and his physical profile is stellar for a player with his combination of skill and smarts. He has limitations in his game much like every other prospect, but where is the evidence that they remotely weigh as heavy as his positive strengths?

Putting too much emphasis on Ball’s weaknesses qualifies as getting lost in details. It is akin to arguing that a beautiful woman is not attractive because she has pointy elbows– it’s great that you noticed a flaw, but giving this flaw too much attention is only going to lead to faulty conclusions. The bottom line is that Lonzo oozes star potential, and there is no quantifiable signal that suggests he has serious downside risk. He is probably going to be awesome, and I cannot fathom that it is correct to draft any prospect other than Markelle Fultz ahead of him.

Is Markelle Fultz a Loser?

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Markelle Fultz seems to be losing traction as the clear cut #1 overall pick due to a lack of team success, as his Washington Huskies have struggled badly. Let take a look at some stats to analyze the veracity of the narrative that Markelle Fultz is a loser.

Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Tenure

Let’s start at looking at the simple O-Rtg, D-Rtg, and kenpom rank during Lorenzo Romar’s tenure at Washington.

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First you can see that this is his worst team since his first season as Huskies’ coach in 2003, and for a major conference team with an allegedly transcendent prospect that is definitely bad.

You can also see that the culprit is largely bad defense, as the #248 rank (out of 351) is far worse than the 2nd poorest at #167. There are a number of factors that go into this, and the worst conclusion that can be made is that Fultz gives a Harden-esque effort in spite of good rebound, steal, and block numbers. It is plausible that he does, but great point guards make their biggest impact on offense which deserves the most attention.

And on the bright side, the offense has been pretty good, as Romar has not had a more efficient offense since 2011. Romar did have a number of more efficient offenses from 2004-2011, but those were all LOADED with NBA talent. Here is a chart of the NBA talent that passed through Washington during that stretch:

Year Rank NBA 1 NBA 2 NBA 3 NBA 4
2004 29 Brandon Roy Nate Robinson
2005 5 Brandon Roy Nate Robinson
2006 14 Brandon Roy Jon Brockman
2007 45 Spencer Hawes Jon Brockman Quincy Pondexter
2008 75 Quincy Pondexter Jon Brockman
2009 35 Isaiah Thomas Jon Brockman Quincy Pondexter
2010 45 Isaiah Thomas Quincy Pondexter Justin Holiday
2011 13 Isaiah Thomas Justin Holiday Terrence Ross CJ Wilcox
2012 62 Terrence Ross Tony Wroten CJ Wilcox

You can see his best offenses were LOADED with NBA talent, and often had quality role players who were a notch below NBA caliber. It is somewhat amazing that Washington never peaked higher with all of the talent that passed through over this stretch (especially with 4 years of Roy and 3 years of Thomas), but it goes to show that Lorenzo Romar is the king of doing less with more.

Modern Day Huskies

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Let’s peep the 2015-16 roster with minutes played, offensive BPM, and total BPM:

Player Mins OBPM BPM
Andrew Andrews 1150 8.2 8.9
Marquese Chriss 848 2.8 5.9
Dejounte Murray 1139 1.8 4.3
Matisse Thybulle 819 1.2 5.1
David Crisp 728 0.8 1
Malik Dime 720 0.7 6.1
Noah Dickerson 736 -2.2 -0.3
Dominic Green 337 -2.8 -3.2

It is well known that the Huskies lost Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA draft, but graduating senior Andrew Andrews was by far the team’s best player statistically, especially on offense. Collectively these three carried the load offensively, and were likely the top 3 players on the team overall.

The other five players in the chart all returned, not that this is particularly good news. The only returner who is probably useful is Matisse Thybulle. Malik Dime had a strong total BPM, but that is largely derived from his gaudy block rate which is heavily overrated by BPM at the NCAA level. Suffice it to say that Fultz stepped into a rough situation.

Fultz & Friends

Fultz was tasked with replacing both Andrews and Murray’s production offensively. He was given Washington’s 5 weakest players from last year’s team, plus two incoming freshmen who were lowly 3* recruits in Sam Timmons and Carlos Johnson. Let’s see how BPM rates this year’s team:

Player Mins BPM
Markelle Fultz 587 9
Matisse Thybulle 464 5.2
Malik Dime 321 4.6
David Crisp 535 1.7
Noah Dickerson 442 -0.3
Dominic Green 385 -1.5
Sam Timmins 218 -4.8
Carlos Johnson 227 -5.3

Timmons and Johnson have been so bad that their badness exceeds Chriss and Murray’s goodness. If there was a draft for bad high-major rotation players, they would both be lottery picks. One may argue that a good PG should make bad players presentable, but they have respectable eFG% at 53% and 52% respectively. BPM dislikes them for poor passing, frequent turnovers, and poor defense, which are all beyond Fultz’s control.

But in spite replacing the 22 year old star Andrews at age 18, and in spite of two NBA 1st round picks being replaced with low major caliber talent, the offense has still gotten BETTER under the guidance of Fultz, leaping from #86 to #54 in national rank

If anything we should be impressed with Fultz keeping this sinking ship afloat on the side of the floor that point guards are meant to impact. He walked into the perfect storm of horrible coaching and horrible teammates, and even Lonzo Ball would struggle to win in this environment.

The Real Loser of the Lottery

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Dan Hanner does a fantastic job modeling the NCAA for SI.com based on player statistics, recruiting ratings, and coach data. His ratings provide a reasonable baseline for expectations, and because point guards have such significant offensive impact, let’s see how the top point guards’ team offenses are faring in comparison to his projections:

Team Projected Actual Diff
UCLA 116.7 123.9 7.2
Kentucky 119.2 122.4 3.2
Washington 110.3 111.3 1
NC State 117.6 112 -5.6

UCLA dropkicking expectations is hardly a shock with both Ball and Leaf being great. Kentucky performing well is also not a surprise with both Monk and Fox playing well. Washington is surprisingly performing ABOVE expectation offensively in spite of everyone and everything outside of Fultz being awful.

But the lead guard whose team is completely failing to live up to expectations is Dennis Smith Jr. Hanner highlighted NC State as a sleeper based on myriad of quality talent surrounding Smith, including multiple good shooters and an underrated offensive coach. Omer Yurtseven busting does not help, but the model did not rate him of integral importance to NC State’s offense. He was projected to rank just 5th in both minutes played and O-Rtg.

The more important point is that Smith was a highly rated PG surrounded by great shooting and multiple talented role players. Everybody outside of Yurtseven has been fine, and it’s clear that the lion’s share of the blame goes to the guy who always has the ball in his hands.

As of now NC State has the worst ranked offense in Mark Gottfried’s 6 years as head coach at #44. Over the prior 5 years, he has had 2 NBA draft picks: Lorenzo Brown and TJ Warren. Brown and Warren combined for the #10 offense in their season together. Since Warren’s departure, NC State’s best players have been Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber who both declared for the draft as juniors and went undrafted, yet were enough to muster the #25 and #33 offenses as lead guards.

The problem is that Smith’s poor decision making and questionable passing accuracy have led to a much higher than usual turnover rate. And for good measure, they also have the worst defense under Gottfried’s tenure. This is why Dennis Smith will never be as good as Ball or Fultz– he is a talented player, but his impact on his team’s success will always trail his individual statistics.

Bottom Line

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Washington is an overall worse team than NC State, but Fultz is playing with much worse teammates for a much worse coach. Point guards should be able to make a positive impact on their team’s offense, and in that regard Fultz is succeeding and Dennis Smith Jr. stands out as a loser.

In fairness, I somewhat glazed over Washington’s defensive woes in this writeup. Fultz does have an impact on D, and he likely is worse on that end than his gaudy steal, rebound, and block rates imply. But even if he is as bad on Harden on D, does it really matter if he is as good as Harden on offense? Smith has even greater defensive concerns as his lack of reach makes him a liability on switches, and he doesn’t sniff the offensive upside of the other point guards in the draft.

Lonzo Ball is a winner, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are likely winners, and Markelle Fultz could be a big time winner once placed in the correct environment. If NBA teams are worried about drafting a loser to lead their offense, they should steer clear of Dennis Smith Jr. and select literally any other lottery freshman instead.

Lonzo Ball Is a Basketball Genius

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Lonzo Ball has drawn massive hype as an NBA prospect, as he is now in the conversation for the #1 overall pick in spite of Markelle Fultz’s existence. He has become a polarizing figure on basketball twitter as some perceive him as Basketball Jesus, whereas others see him as a non-deity who cannot create his own shot at the rim or play defense.

Scouting Report

It is common to evaluate prospects based on which boxes they check off, and Lonzo is considered a big risk through this lens. Neither his handle nor first step is elite, and he rarely creates his own shot at the rim. And while he is shooting 43% from 3, his 68% FT’s and low release on his jumper raise concerns for his ability to consistently make NBA 3’s. And because he is a non-elite athlete who struggles to defend at the point of attack, we are left with a point guard who cannot get to the rim, can only maybe shoot, and cannot defend. When you view it that way, Lonzo sounds far from awesome.

But the counterpoint is that Lonzo has strengths in his game as well, and they are spectacular. It starts with his supreme basketball IQ, which has potential to be the best basketball IQ in NBA history. He constantly pushes pace and dishes picture perfect passes to set up his teammates with high quality shots in their hot spots. This is his one big strength which has captivated the draft world.

Aside from smarts, Ball has elite size for a PG at 6’6″, and even though he is not an explosive freak, he moves well and is a pretty good athlete. Height is an extremely important tool for a PG, as it gives him the ability to see and pass over defenses as well as switch onto wings defensively. Overall his physical tools are a significant positive, as they enable him to rack up good rebounds, steal, and block totals for a PG.

The Checkbox Fallacy

The problem with grading a player based on checkboxes is that it will penalize a player for multiple minor flaws and an outlier strength. Let’s play devil’s advocate to Lonzo’s flags:

While Ball does have downside on defense, his physical tools, rebound, steal, and block rates offer just as much upside on that end. If nothing else his height gives him the ability to fit in well with a heavy switching defense. And while he is flawed, nothing is broken in a way that precludes him from being great defensively as a pro.

His shot is a minor concern, but if he ticks up his FT% it becomes trivial. He is currently at 68% in an extremely small sample. In 2015 AAU play he shot 24/31 from the line, and if you sum that with his UCLA sample he is up to 71%. He is shooting 43% from 3 on nearly twice as many 3PA as FTA with the majority of his makes coming from NBA 3 range, and he rarely misses badly. His shot is not perfect, but is a clear positive in my eyes.

The greatest concern is his ability to create for himself, but there are a number of mitigating factors:

  1. As per synergy, he ranks 91 percentile as both a PnR handler and isolation scorer. He attacks infrequently, but is efficient when he does.
  2. His off the dribble shot qualifies as creation, and while he only has 14 attempts he has 20 points ranking him 99%ile. Small sample yes, but he often takes this shot from NBA 3 range and rarely misses badly.
  3. There have been elite NBA PG’s such as Steve Nash and John Stockton who did not put significant pressure on the rim in college. It is not nearly a fatal flaw given the skill set.
  4. He moves well off the ball, and often dunks home lobs off of cuts. Even if he needs creation help, he can still be a dynamite off ball player with size to defend wings.

Overall Lonzo has a handful of pink flags in his game, but no glaring red flags. Meanwhile, he has the one outlier strength of being a basketball genius that should carry exponentially more weight than the weaknesses in his game.

Basketball IQ and Point Gods

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Let’s take a moment to look at the most successful players drafted outside of the top 3 in NBA history:

Year Pick Player WS WS/40
2005 4 Chris Paul 150.8 0.251
1984 5 Charles Barkley 177.2 0.216
1985 13 Karl Malone 234.6 0.205
1978 6 Larry Bird 145.8 0.203
1998 9 Dirk Nowitzki 198.8 0.201
2009 7 Stephen Curry 77.7 0.200

We have a couple of non-athletes who dominated with smarts and skill in Bird and Curry on the list, but the player I want to focus on is the guy at the top: Chris Paul.

Chris Paul was drafted after Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams, and Deron Williams because 6’0″ players never become superstars. But Chris Paul bucked that trend, and is likely the best player in NBA history 6’5″ and under. He did so by being a basketball savant with parallels to Lonzo Ball, as his efficient PG play led Wake Forest to the #1 offense in both of his NCAA seasons.

Now let’s see the best players drafted outside of the top 14:

Year Pick Player WS WS/48
1984 16 John Stockton 207.7 0.209
1996 15 Steve Nash 129.7 0.164

Oh hey, it’s two more basketball genius PG’s that like Ball were neither elite athletes nor scorers.

Basketball IQ is an incredibly important trait for a point guard. The PG has the ball in his hands the most, and is constantly making decisions that affect his team’s scoring output. Consistently good decision making can add up to a tremendous amount of value, therefore it should not be a surprise that three of the biggest draft steals in NBA history had an elite basketball IQ to overcome their flaws that caused them to slide.

Now consider that Lonzo’s pre-draft flaws are more trivial, as he is has a much better physical profile than any of Paul, Stockton, or Nash, and he also has far more draft hype than any of the three as well. The additional hype does not make him necessarily better, but imagine: what if he overachieves his draft expectation as much as the aforementioned trio? He would be in the conversation for the best player in NBA history.

To me it is incredible that people care more about the ability to put pressure on the rim than his basketball IQ. There is only one Russell Westbrook, and there will likely not be another. Most all-time great PG’s are more cerebral than athletic, with Steph Curry, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson, and pre-injury Penny Hardaway as further examples. If you look at the athletic scorers with average IQ outside of Russ, you are more likely to end up with a Stephon Marbury or Allen Iverson who are not causes to tank for.

But How Do We Know Lonzo is a Basketball Genius?!? 

Great question! After all, it is awfully aggressive to rank him up there with the creme de la creme of basketball IQ’s in NBA history. First, let’s look at UCLA’s team offensive success under Steve Alford via kenpom.com:

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Steve Alford is not a great coach (without Ball he clearly undervalues 3PA), but he does attract great talent. In 2014, he took over a loaded roster featuring Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, Zach LaVine, and the efficient Wear twins. This resulted in easily his best offense in 21 pre-Ball seasons as a college head coach at #11 in NCAA, as his next best ranked #38 for Iowa in 2005.

Now Lonzo, Leaf, and company are waffle crushing that team with the #1 offense in the country. Lonzo’s impact is noticeable in a few ways: 1) UCLA is posting a historic eFG% as he creates elite shots both inside and outside the arc, 2) The team has a massive spike in 3PA rate as he understands that 3 pointers are better than mid-range, and 3) the team’s tempo and average possession length are faster than ever because he knows to push pace and move the ball crisply.

Not only does Lonzo create elite shots for his teammates, he does so with an unprecedented ability to avoid turnovers. Let’s compare his NCAA per 40 stats to other PG’s. Note that Nash and Stockton were late bloomers so I used their senior year stats, and career samples for the others:

PTS AST TOV AST:TOV
Ball 16.5 9 2.6 3.5
Paul 18 7.5 3.2 2.3
Stockton 22.2 7.6 3.5 2.2
Kidd 17.8 10 4.9 2.0
Nash 20.1 7.1 4.2 1.7
Penny 21.8 6.5 3.9 1.7

You could mention that a bust like Tyler Ennis had a nearly as good assist:TOV rate (3.2), but he did so by making low risk, low reward passes for a team with a below average eFG%. To be a risk taker like Lonzo and create monster eFG% for his team and STILL avoid turnovers is nothing short of godlike.

Chris Paul is the gold standard for NBA assist to turnover rate, and Ball puts his numbers to shame. Granted, Ball benefits from a lower scoring volume (I did not adjust for pace so his volume is even lower than it appears), but the point is clear: we have never seen a player create shots for his teammates while avoiding turnovers like this ever before. Not even close.

So Lonzo is going to better than all of those studs?

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Not necessarily. There are areas he pales in comparison to this group, even outside of scoring volume. Looking at career per 40 rates for everybody (again, not adjusted for pace):

Player STL FT%
Nash 1.7 86.7%
Paul 3 83.8%
Stockton 3.1 71.9%
Penny 2.7 71.7%
Ball 2.1 67.8%
Kidd 4.1 67.7%

Again, not pace adjusted so Lonzo’s steal rate is slightly inflated here. The only player who gets fewer steals is Nash, who makes up for it with a much better FT%. Kidd is the only player who is as poor at the line, but he makes up for it with double the steal rate. Meanwhile Chris Paul crushes him at both, so perhaps he has some subtle cerebral and skill advantage that will prevent Ball from reaching his status as a point god.

The steal rate also lends credence to his defense being a problem, as in spite of his tools he is much closer to Nash the sieve than the the great stoppers like Stockton and Kidd.

While there is some evidence that Ball is in a league of his own as a point god, there is other evidence that he is a notch below the creme de la creme. It is possible that he peaks as the best of the bunch, but he also could be the weakest link.

Conclusion

There are enough flaws in Ball’s game to stop short of calling him a guaranteed hall of famer, which is how I felt about Joel Embiid when he played at Kansas. But there is much to love, and nothing to strongly dislike. He is definitely going to be a good NBA player, and is likely going to be great one.

I have watched him play more than any other prospect in this class, and every time I see him I feel as if I am witnessing greatness. He runs UCLA’s offense as perfectly as a 19 year old can, and it is mesmerizing to see him consistently set up his teammates with amazing shots with such infrequent mistakes.

This draft class is so loaded, it is still early to come to many hard conclusions. But I have seen enough of Lonzo to come to a few:

  1. He is clearly a top 2 prospect on my board. Josh Jackson has great upside, but his shot is a much bigger wart than any of Ball’s, and I do not think he has as much overall goodness as Ball’s basketball IQ offers.
  2. Ball deserves consideration at #1 overall. Markelle Fultz is an incredible talent in his own rite, but it is plausible that Ball is the better prospect. I am not sure who will end up #1 on my final big board, right now they are super close to me.
  3. Dennis Smith Jr. has approximately 0% odds of becoming a better NBA player than Ball. He is the inverse of Lonzo as he passes the checkbox test, but his limited basketball IQ and size make him a poor gamble in the top 5.

Big Board 2.0: Going Deeper

Now that I have really dug into the 2017 draft class, it is time to post a complete big board of my top 60 prospects (and 1!). Age is as of draft night, and the only internationals I am including for now are Ntilikina and Kurucs because I just don’t know anything about the others:

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I wrote that Malik Monk is not overrated, but I still rate him a hair lower than DX/ESPN. This is mostly because Lauri Markkanen is my one way shot maker of choice, as having an elite shot is more likely to be overpowered for a player who is 7’0″ and coordinated than a 6’3″ athlete. And I still do not want to glaze over Monk’s warts, because they are bad.

Harry Giles has not been ready to contribute his first two games after missing more than a year of action with an injury. He may not fully showcase his potential this year, and with his injury flags he will be one of the most challenging prospects in the draft to evaluate.

I’m aggressively sticking my big sleeper prospect Andrew Jones at #8. This may look silly  if he falls flat in Big 12 play, but it is more likely that he does not and he ascends to the lottery where he belongs.

Dennis Smith Jr. has been playing better lately but still has not shown the big upside curve to go top 5.

De’Aaron Fox is a challenging prospect to rate. On one hand, he is extremely pleasing to my eyes, as he is ultra quick, a pest on defense, throws laser passes in transition, and has smooth touch near the hoop. On the other hand– he cannot shoot, he has a frail frame, and he has poor awareness. Against Louisville he lost track of the shot clock twice, resulting in violations both times. He already had concerns about his ability to be an effective offensive player, and mistakes like this suggest that we should err on the side of pessimism.

If you are wondering why stat models love Ethan Happ, it’s because he can make plays like this. He’s too similar to Draymond and Millsap to slide to round 2 just because he does not fit the traditional PF archetype.

Bryant Crawford is another sophomore that nobody is talking about. He has good height (6’3) and length (6’7) for a PG and has revitalized Wake Forest basketball as the leader of a very good offense.

Creighton redshirt freshman big man Justin Patton is 6’11”, athletic, and hyper efficient on offense. He’s similar to Bam Adebayo, except he is actually tall enough to play center and better at everything other than offensive rebounding. And if you want a young offensive rebounder, Tony Bradley is posting a whopping 22% ORB% that is almost as high as Patton and Bam’s rates combined. Bam is not bad, but he just is not special relative to the other young bigs on the board in the late 1st.

Shamorie Ponds and DeAnthony Melton are statistical darlings of the draft with major scouting flags. Melton is a combo guard who can neither dribble nor shoot, and Ponds is a combo guard in a diminutive 6’0″ body. Both are so young with such outlier stats that they should not be dismissed entirely for their flaws, but Michael Weathers of Miami Ohio is the stat beast who has the best shot of becoming a good NBA player. He is quick with legitimate vision and creation ability, as he is posting Westbrook level stats for his woeful mid-major team.

Omer Yurtseven has not looked great in his first 3 games for NC State, but it is still too early to judge him firmly.

Ike Anigbogu is an infant aged pogo stick who is difficult to project given how young and raw he is.

PJ Dozier and Dazon Ingram are a couple of 6’5″ SEC lead guards who do a little bit of everything. They may not be athletic and skilled enough to be lead guards in the NBA or shoot well enough to play off the ball, but are intriguing 2nd round gambles nevertheless.

Jarrett Allen has strikingly low rebound, steal, and block rates for a player of his size and wingspan. He was portrayed as a defensive prospect and he may be broken on that end, which makes him not that much of a prospect after all.

Edmond Sumner hype sounded reasonable pending a big junior season breakout, but thus far I am skeptical. He is completely out of control when he drives to the basket and does not make accurate passes or layups. He seems like a poor man’s Mudiay to me, which is just poor.

Thomas Bryant is adored my the numbers, and hated by my eyes. It is possible I am underrating him, but I just don’t see him fitting in defensively in the NBA and I don’t see him as any sort of special offensive player.

I really do not buy Tyler Lydon as a 1st round prospect. He is a good but not great shooter, as he makes 41% of his career 3’s but has a low 3PA rate and cannot rely solely on his shot to succeed in the NBA. He’s a decent athlete and passer, but unless he can switch onto NBA wings on the perimeter (I suspect he cannot), I do not see enough versatility in his game to complement his shooting.

I cannot fathom that a player who cannot score, rebound, assist, steal, or block is a first round pick, but Terrance Ferguson is consensus top 20. He is super young and most of the other 5* prospects in the class have turned out well, so maybe he is somehow good. But more likely he’s a weak 3 + D prospect with average 3 and average D and terrible everything else. Bruce Brown is older, but seems much better at everything else other than his inferior shot.

Markis McDuffie is my deep mid-major sleeper. He is baby aged for a sophomore, and he is 6’8″ and smooth and could become a good role playing wing as his frame fills out.

Chandler Hutchison is my deeper mid-major sleeper, pending discovery of his birthday. He is a 4* junior 6’7″ SF with a 7’0″ wingspan who does it all for Boise State. If he is reasonably young for his class, he becomes an intriguing second rounder.

Mikal Bridges is an elite NCAA role player who is often miscast as a sleeper 1st round prospect. He is a zero on offense without outlier tools or defense to make him an exciting gamble. His physical profile is nearly identical to Hutchison’s, except he has far less offensive creation ability.

Grayson Allen has a consistent habit of turning into a brick and turnover machine whenever he faces any sort of athletic defense, and it is hard to see him amounting to anything in the NBA without becoming an elite shooter.

I included Sindarius Thornwell as a 61st prospect because a number of people have asked me about him. I am skeptical of his ability to make the NBA as he is not particularly athletic, quick, skilled, smart, or tall. But he does a little bit of everything statistically, and appears to have an improved shot. He merits attention if he continues to shoot well whenever he returns from his suspension.

Marques Bolden being unranked may seem harsh after he missed games with an injury and has barely played since returning. But he sounded like a dud coming in, and it looks like he will be sparsely used for Duke. I do not see any reason to cling on to hype until he actually starts performing, as he will likely be back at Duke for his sophomore year.

Malik Monk Is On Permanent Fire

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For every incoming freshman class, it is fun to make predictions based on the biases of traditional scouts. Malik Monk’s scouting report was that he was an athletic scorer who did not play defense and took poor shots. Scouts highly value athleticism and scoring and are willing to overlook poor defense and basketball IQ in prospects that have both strengths. Given that Monk was only rated #9 RSCI, he seemed like a strong candidate to bust. After all, he had a similar profile to Malik Newman who was similarly rated and completely flopped last year.

But this year’s class apparently only includes good prospects, and Monk has led Kentucky to a great start with his surprisingly efficient scoring. Basketball twitter is still abound with skeptics of his NBA upside, as his lack of size, point guard skills, ability to get to the rim, and defense seemingly preclude him from becoming an NBA star. After all– how valuable is elite athleticism if it does not lead to good defense or slashing ability?

The common comparison for Monk is JR Smith as a player who is mostly a floor spacer in spite of his great athleticism, as he lacks the ball skills and smarts to capitalize on his physical ability. I was initially on board, as they share similar strengths and limitations and it overall felt reasonable.

But Monk kept making shots and Kentucky kept playing well. When outcomes badly fail to align with a prediction, there is often an outlier force that my initial prediction underrated. Intuitively it felt wrong to continue to fade Monk, and that more attention should be given to what he can do rather than what he cannot do.

Let’s Not Be Redickulous

Monk had an elite combination of volume and efficiency in AAU, he has an elite combination thus far in NCAA, so why would he not continue the trend in the NBA?

There are a few reasons– first his NCAA sample is small against many weak teams, and it he may not continue to shoot fireballs against superior competition. He heavily relies on transition scoring, and those opportunities wane as competition levels increase. But then you compare his freshman statistics per 100 possessions to those of another common comp: JJ Redick:

REB AST TOV STL BLK
Redick 4.4 3.6 2.8 2.0 0.1
Monk 4.3 4 3.4 1.9 0.6

They are strikingly similar. The main difference is that Monk has more blocks due to his greater athleticism, but Redick used his smarts to keep pace on steals and both players are allergic to rebounds. Now shooting and scoring:

2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% FTA FT% Pts
Redick 6.6 43.9% 12.8 39.9% 6.0 91.9% 26.6
Monk 14.3 58.8% 14.6 39.4% 4.6 83.9% 37.8

Redick has the better FT% and surprisingly FT rate. But Monk has a slightly higher 3PA rate, and then there is the glaring advantage in 2 point volume and efficiency. This is especially impressive in tandem with Monk’s turnover rate.

Yes, much of that goodness will wane as he translates to NBA competition, but there is a whole lot of goodness there, and it will not go away altogether.

For starters, Monk will be one of the best transition scorers in the NBA. He will not be able to solely depend on this, but his athleticism, instincts, and shot making mean that he will be as productive as anybody in the league and this will pad his overall efficiency. This may in part explain his low defensive rebound rate, as he is likely leaking out a ton, so it comes at a cost. But it is nevertheless a feature that should not be ignored.

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The interesting part is that Monk may become the 2nd best pull up jump shooter in NBA history behind Steph Curry. His synergy shooting splits are a wonderland (C&S = catch and shoot):

Poss Pts PPP Pctile
C&S Guarded 43 62 1.44 88
C&S Unguarded 16 20 1.25 56
Pullup Jumpers 39 44 1.13 88
Short J’s (< 17′) 14 14 1.00 81
Medium J’s 17 22 1.29 98
3 Point J’s 72 99 1.38 87

He is fireballs from everywhere, except unguarded catch and shoot jumpers where he is merely average on a smaller sample.

Some of the difficult shot making is not sustainable, but even with a fair bit of regression he is still clearly special talent. The percentile ranks are in comparison to players with a lower volume of attempts on average, and there is no precedent of such a young player playing such an inefficient style with such an efficient outcome.

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Meanwhile, coach Cal says: “I’m trying to say get to the foul line. Go to the line more, don’t just shoot all perimeter jumpers. He’s such a great athlete and he’s so good with the ball, why settle? I know it’s easier and he goes on a run of making 7 in a row, but they can’t guard him when he goes to the basket.”

Calipari also wanted Monk to drive it down 2 with 20 seconds left, but fortunately his player was smart enough to shoot a 3 that went in to give Kentucky the lead and eventual victory. His coach is somehow completely ignorant of his player’s strengths and optimal usage, which only makes it more exciting to imagine Monk in the hands of a good NBA coach.

But Can He Create?

Monk cannot create offense by slashing to the rim like most guards, but he can create it by converting shots that are inefficient for mortal guards. This is where his athleticism *might* serve its greatest function, as it gives him the *possible* ability to get off a high volume of attempts without a drastically lower percentage of conversions. I include the qualifiers because I am not certain that a player of his limited handle can continue to shoot so well off the dribble, but his athleticism could be the key ingredient to make it sustainable.

Monk’s playmaking ability remains in question, but he does have a decent assist rate for a player who shares the backcourt with two pure point guards in Isaiah Briscoe and De’Aaron Fox. His pass button and vision do not appear to be broken, so it is feasible that he does develop into a solid playmaker at the NBA level.

If he can 1) create offense for himself and others in the half court 2) be a blur in transition and 3) be a dynamite floor spacer, that adds up to quite the offensive weapon. And given his fantastic athleticism there is some hope for him to develop a semblance of a slashing game.

Limitations

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The downside is that it cannot be taken for granted he will continue to make shots at an insane rate. In 2015 AAU he only shot 35% from 3 and 79% FT. His Kentucky sample is still extremely small, and even after a full season his NBA shooting will be difficult to predict. Buddy Hield just had a full NCAA season of elite volume shooting and is struggling to convert 3’s in the NBA. And with Monk’s defense and rebounding likely being bad, there is significant pressure on him becoming great offensively to justify a top 10 draft selection.

If Monk proves to be a good but not great shooter, then he is merely JR Smith, except shorter, worse at rebounding, and probably worse on defense. Not an ideal outcome.

Even if he is an elite shooter, there are no guarantees for his playmaking and creation abilities. It is possible that his off the dribble shooting thus far is a fluke, and will never be great because of his limited ball handling ability. He could be JJ Redick with more athleticism, less intelligence, and overall similar value.

My favorite comparison is Reggie Miller with less height and more athleticism. They both share elite shooting, terrible rebounding, and a knack for overall efficient offensive play. Reggie Miller was never a mega-star, but he was the best player on some good Pacers teams and a highly favorable outcome outside the top 3.

And Miller is not his absolute upside. There is some scenario where his shot improves at an outlier rate and he becomes almost as good of a shooter as Stephen Curry, with his athleticism compensating for his inferior skill level. This is an unlikely outcome, but there is some happy medium in between Miller and Curry that is attainable if things break right for Monk.

Bottom Line

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Monk is nowhere near guaranteed to become a star, and even if he does his upside is not quite boundless. His warts are real, and they cannot be ignored as they would be a deal breaker for lottery consideration for almost any other similar prospect. Thus I do not believe he belongs in the top 3 conversation with Fultz, Ball, and Jackson.

But if anybody is going to overcome those warts to attain greatness, it will be somebody with outlier strengths like Monk with his elite intersection of shooting volume, shooting efficiency, and athleticism. There is no precedent of a prospect with a superior combination of these traits, and they could synergize to create an upside tail that exceeds any reasonable projection.

Ultimately Malik Monk is a unique talent, and if he remotely sustains his early shooting performance, he will clearly deserve a top 10 selection and could rank as high as the #4 player in the draft. This is a rare case where the hype for a one dimensional athletic scorer may actually be justified.