2015 EP Series – A Look at 2015

Sorry for skipping out on last week, I actually wrote about 2/3 of an article before deciding it was utter garbage and unsalvageable and rather than post something that wasn’t quality, I decided to just scrap it altogether. But have no fear, I’m back and ready for action! We’re less than two weeks from the 2015 NBA draft, so now seems like a good time to start talking about the prospects in this draft. When reading this, keep in mind just how hard it is to evaluate prospects. Given that, I want to talk about a few prospects and prospect groups who I have been looking at a little bit more closely lately. Let’s jump to it.

Jahlil Okafor

There are a lot of stats that one can look at and analyze to get a picture of a player. In Part 1, I discussed fit, and how the NBA is moving towards a more homogenized system in which players need to be able to play certain roles. Duke was probably the NCAA team closest to playing the NBA style, with pretty much all of their wings and guards able to hit the 3 at a 37.5% clip or better. When your team can shoot like that, the role of the center is usually to pick and roll and play good defense. As it turns out, Duke was a fairly average team with Okafor on the court. Against ACC opponents, Duke was +0.031 PPP (points per possession) with Okafor on the court. That would have been good for 6th in the conference. With Okafor off the court? They were an incredible +0.358 PPP. Put another way, Duke was over 32 points better per 100 possessions with Okafor off the court.

That’s a red flag, right? It seems like a red flag. When a team is significantly better on both ends of the floor without you, it’s worth taking note. Here, the explanation is simple. Plumlee worked much harder on defense than Okafor, and Duke’s other players were simply more efficient than Okafor on offense because a 3 point shot is worth more than a 2 point shot. It is this last principle that top NBA teams have started building around. This presents a problem: Okafor’s best skill isn’t a particularly useful NBA skill. That is, even if Okafor is the best post-up big in the NBA, he’s still not as good an offensive option as a guy who can hit a 3 pointer. Having a post-up game isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a nice supplemental part of a game, not an ideal only part. To be an NBA player who actively helps his team, Okafor will have to significantly improve on defense. Otherwise, his only role on a quality NBA team is propping up bad bench units where his post game may be more efficient than 4th and 5th wings.

Justise Winslow

Sticking with Duke players, Winslow presents an entirely different conundrum. The typical college player dominates the weak non-conference schedule and then tails off as the competition level rises. Looking at full season numbers is usually sufficient to evaluate players because pretty much all of them follow this same curve, and so this curve is factored in to players’ final season lines. Winslow did not follow this curve. In fact, Winslow didn’t “curve” as much as have two completely different seasons. There was a reported ankle injury that could have been affecting him. It could have something to do with Sulaimon getting kicked off the team. What’s undisputed is that Winslow became significantly better in late January and never looked back.

I decided to run two sets of numbers with Winslow, his full season and his Conference/NCAA Tournament season. By the former, he projects as a low floor, high ceiling freshman project. By the latter, he projects as the clear best player in the draft. Ultimately, what makes this so difficult is that he really thrived playing as a power forward in small ball lineups. He played free safety in the middle of zone defenses and was able to get out on the break very well. Did he succeed because his role changed to one that he’ll never be asked to perform in the NBA? Did he succeed because he simply got healthy? And should we evaluate the whole season or simply his later games? All good questions, no good answers.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles

These two are both PF/Cs in the NBA. They both played SF for Kentucky. Cauley-Stein’s numbers went way down from his sophomore season. Lyles was simply extremely unproductive. How do you project guys who were playing a role they won’t be asked to play at the next level, at least not with any kind of regularity? I don’t think these guys can be statistically projected to say anything other than “don’t draft them to be small forwards”.

Robert Upshaw

Upshaw has been kicked off two NCAA teams who both desperately needed him. Rumors are that he failed multiple drug tests at both schools and that he was immature and had significant off-the-court issues. That’s a problem. There’s significant off-the-court risk with Upshaw. But on the court? Upshaw is tall, big, long, and athletic. He has good hands, good instincts, good quickness. His flaws are things like “polish” and “defensive fundamentals”, things that are very much teachable at the next level. On-the-court, Upshaw is the type of low-risk, high-reward prospect every team would love to have. It’s that pesky off-the-court stuff that’s a little bit harder.

That being said, not drafting a player because it may be a waste of guaranteed money is about the worst reason possible not to draft a prospect. To give you an idea, even the #6 pick in the draft this year will be have a slot guarantee of less than $6M total. That’s nothing. 3M out of 70M this season, 3M out of 90ishM the following season. Outside the top 10, it’s less than 4M guaranteed total. And if he gets suspended due to drugs, the team doesn’t even have to pay the salary. So if any team refuses to give him guaranteed money because of his off-the-court issues, that team needs to re-evaluate. His off-the-court risk is real. Every player has risk though. Evaluate the risk and rank accordingly. You’re wasting guaranteed money if a prospect busts regardless of the reason. You don’t win an award for drafting a guy who busts on the court instead of off it. Upshaw is a top prospect. He has some risk. He should be drafted accordingly.

Players who only shoot 3s

I include in this category players like Devin Booker, RJ Hunter, Michael Frazier, etc. These players excel at shooting 3s, or are at least projected to do so. Shooting 3s at a high rate is an incredibly important skill right now. Being able to do so alone makes a prospect worth considering. But simply shooting well in college does not guarantee future results. At the NBA level, a player must be able to create space and get his shot off quickly. He must also be able to defend his man. The value of these players is directly tied to how well they will be able to do these things at the next level. As much as I value 3 point shooting, I question how highly this specific type of player should be taken, because they simply tend to struggle against better competition at the next level.

Power forwards who don’t shoot 3s or block shots

In this category are players like Montrezl Harrell and Jarell Martin. These players project as power forwards only and project to be inside-only power forwards. Given the evolving role of power forwards, it is not clear whether there’s any place on NBA teams for them moving forward. They cramp the offense and provide no additional value on defense. They can be obtained for very little in free agency year after year. It is not clear that it is worth drafting these types of players at all, much less in the first or early second.

Next week, my full big board!