As we get into the home stretch of draft season, I figured now would be a good time to start getting some of my draft analysis out. For those of you unfamiliar with me, much like Rubes, I take a stat-based approach, but we don’t take identical approaches to valuing prospects. However, before I start discussing individual prospects or give my big board or anything like that, I wanted to discuss three factors everybody would do well to keep in mind when evaluating prospects. There are no advanced stats here. Regardless of how you personally like to approach prospect evaluation, these factors should always be kept in mind.
I cannot stress this enough: the very first thing you should do with any prospect is look at his age. DraftExpress has birthday listed on each player’s page, so it’s really easy to find. Using class year as a proxy for age is not sufficient. There are freshmen who are two full years apart. Seniors can vary even more wildly. Years of experience can give a larger sample size from which to judge a player, but only their age matters in future projection.
Why does age matter so much? Age is the single biggest factor in determining how much potential a player has. That is, age provides insight as to a player’s ceiling. It actually has little to do with a player’s floor – a player’s floor is based on how good they already are. A player hits his first ceiling around age 23-24. A player is between 90 and 100% as good as he’s ever going to be at age 24 (it’s hard to objectively quantify players, but I looked at my own FP system, as well as catch-all metrics like PER and WS/48 to try to come up with a rough estimate). That means that if a player isn’t a star or close to it at age 23-24, he’s not going to suddenly develop into one. He may improve on what he is, but there’s not going to be a massive leap in the future. I do think there’s some wiggle room with Europeans here, I don’t have enough of a sample size, but I do know there’s a few Euro exceptions.
Just how much does age matter? For each year between age 18 and age 23, the expectation is that a player becomes at least 10% better than they were the year before. For some players, they blow the curve away and improve by 20% or more year by year. These are the upperclassmen who end up getting drafted in the lottery or mid-first, older players who just had massive growth from year to year. Others hit a ceiling before they even hit age 23. These are the drafted players who end up becoming busts and the older college players who were at one point highly-recruited prospects who simply did not pan out.
As an example, let’s take two fictional players and their counting stats. Both played 30 minutes per game. Player A put up 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.5 turnovers, 2 steals, and 1 block per game. Player B put up 10 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2.5 turnovers, 1.5 steals, and .5 blocks per game. Player A has a higher floor – that is, he’s already better. There is no guarantee that Player B ever reaches the stats Player A does, and we don’t need age to know that. However, let’s say Player A is 22 and Player B is 19. Assuming the most common growth curve, Player B is going to be roughly the same player as Player A when he’s 22. The difference is that Player B has a lower floor, that is, there’s no guarantee he actually progresses. But Player B also has a higher ceiling, because he could grow at a higher rate and blow past where Player A has already reached.
TL;DR: In general, younger players have a higher ceiling, older players have a higher floor, and by age 23-24 a player is fully formed.
2. NBA Fit
There are great college players who simply have no clear translation to the NBA. There are mediocre college players who have a great translation to the NBA. Why? The short version is that NBA teams and players are more talented than NCAA teams and players, and therefore the game is played much differently. In college, you can be a good player by simply being bigger, stronger, and more athletic than your competition. In the NBA, that isn’t good enough. In college, the fourth and fifth players on the floor aren’t good enough to make a defense pay. In the NBA, they are. In college, zone defense is legal. In the NBA, it’s functionally not.
As a result of this, the NBA has set roles for players, and being able to fill these roles is more important than overall talent. A center needs to be able to protect the rim. A power forward needs to be able to at least hit from midrange. Wings need to be able to hit the 3, even if just the corner 3. Point guards need to be able to generate open looks off the pick and roll. Everybody needs to be able to defend their position except for the offensively elite wings and guards who can be hidden a bit.
Players who can’t fill one of these roles simply lose a lot of value. Teams with centers who cannot protect the rim often find themselves at the bottom of the pack in defensive efficiency, fighting to make it to the middle of the pack. Teams with two rim-bound big men often find their spacing too cramped to create good looks. Wings who can’t hit the 3 are often just flat-out ignored, creating 4-on-5 offense. Point guards who can’t create off the pick-and-roll torpedo an offense. If a player has one of these flaws, even if the rest of their game is above average, they may not be an NBA-caliber player.
What does this mean? Good rim protectors, already valuable in college, become even more valuable at the next level even if they don’t have much in the way of offense. Great three point shooters, who often get smothered in college, become much more valuable as they get better teammates who can help create good looks for them. Quick point guards who are stymied by zone defenses that pack the paint in college become much more useful as they can warp man defenses and create for better shooters. On the flip side, big men who dominate inside against smaller competition, wings who create midrange looks, and high usage do-it-all point guards become less valuable as they’re asked to do completely different things than what made them great college players.
TL;DR: Just because a player is good in college doesn’t mean he’ll be a good pro, and just because a player is average in college doesn’t mean he won’t be a good pro. Look at the projected position and look at whether each player has the skills necessary to succeed in the NBA at that position.
3. Expected quality
Maybe the most common misconception I see is overestimating how many quality players come out of each draft. As a general rule of thumb, top 10 players should be clear starters, 11-20 should be fringe starters to bench players, and everything past the top 20 is basically a crapshoot, with a couple of starters, a couple of role players, a bunch of fringe talent, and a bunch of misses mixed in. Yet, despite the fact that in any given draft, there’s only at most 10-15 players who project as starters, you will often see players in the teens and even in the 20s projected as future starters. It simply ignores history to do so.
There is no shame in being projected as a bench player. It is HARD to be an NBA-quality player of any caliber, starter or otherwise. There’s only 150 starting spots in the NBA, and many NBA starters play 15 years. Undrafted or draft-and-stash European players come over and take a few of those spots. There’s simply not more than 10-15 starting spots available in any given year. There’s only another 120 players who see regular playing time. Teams are constantly trying to improve on them, so another 30 spots or so may open each year. That means that there’s really only 40-45 spots available for new players each year, and that includes European players coming over, NBDL players who have earned roster spots, deep depth from other top teams who are offered larger roles on weaker teams, and other assorted flotsam.
When all is said and done, there may be only 30 real spots available for rookies to get legitimate playing time, most of those on benches. Projecting a player as a bench player isn’t a knock against that player, it’s actually a compliment. Most guys don’t even project as more than back of the roster or unrosterable. The only guys who should be projected as starters are the guys at the very top of the class. There are exponentially diminishing returns as the draft progresses. It’s simply a numbers game.
TL;DR: Most rookies do not project as starters, and even being projected as a bench player is a very good thing.
I hope this helps you as you look at draft prospects. I don’t expect people will ever agree on prospects, and I don’t think people should. Projection is an inexact science. But keeping these three things in mind should at least help you think about prospects and what they may project to be at the next level.