The 2016 draft series rolls on, and as it transitions from the NBA back to the NCAA, it seems like a perfect time for an article about, well, the transition from the NCAA to the NBA. Some of this may be obvious to those of you who watch both sports, but as there are a lot of people who only watch March Madness (and maybe some who watch a lot of college but not a lot of pro basketball, like Sixers fans, who haven’t seen pro basketball in years), I did want to write about it and point out some of the differences that make projection so difficult. Let’s get to it.
Different Three Point Line
WHYYYYYYYYYYYY!? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY DOES COLLEGE HAVE A DIFFERENT THREE POINT LINE THAN THE NBA!? WHYYYYYYYYYYY!?!?!?
Ahem, sorry about that. Given how important three point shooting is to determining role at the next level, this is easily the most important difference between the college and pro game. In the NBA, the 3 point line is 22 feet in the corners and 24 feet around the arc. In the NCAA, it’s 20.75 feet all the way around. A college 3 is an NBA long 2. Which means that, as far as using it to project NBA 3 point shooting…it’s actually not all that useful. In fact, many college players shoot better from 3 than they do on 2 point jumpers. There’s a lot of factors that go in to that, but the general point is that players shoot different from different distances, so trying to project how a player will shoot from 22-24 feet by using what they shoot from 20.75 feet, well, it’s less than ideal.
So why does the NCAA use a different line than the NBA? Well, the NCAA, as much as it acts as a feeder league for the NBA, is its own product trying to be worth watching on its own. And if you stuck the NBA line in to the college game, you’d get to watch a whole lotta clank. My general rule of thumb is that players lose roughly 5% off their college 3P when moving to the NBA 3P. Right now, college teams shoot roughly the same as pro teams from 3. Take 5% off that and…well, it wouldn’t be pretty. So we’re stuck with a league that provides most NBA prospects that doesn’t actually help us really determine one of their primary skills. Welp.
No Defensive 3 Second Violation
So if the primary problem in evaluating offense is that they’re literally playing on a court with different dimensions, the primary problem in evaluating defense is that they’re literally playing with completely different rules. Specifically, you can camp the rim legally, which allows all sorts of zone defenses that you just can’t play at the NBA level. You’re also guarding less area, which, means everybody’s job is just easier on defense. What does this mean when evaluating prospects? Well, it means that, quite frankly, it’s hard to evaluate defense at this point without at least a little traditional scouting. The data just isn’t available for college teams yet.
Now, as many of you know, I’m…pretty stridently anti-scouting. I believe it’s a great way to get fooled by your own eyes. If SportVU existed for all college teams, scouting would become pretty unnecessary, but it doesn’t, so there’s no reason to ignore potentially useful data simply because it’s not ideal. Something is better than nothing. What specifically needs to be scouted?
First, and most importantly, a team’s defensive scheme. For example, Syracuse is renowned for their 2-3 zone that seriously boosts steals on the perimeter and blocks at the rim. That’s typical of zones – they boost steals because players can play passing lanes and gamble more and boost blocks because there’s always somebody at the rim and almost always a player close on the weak side. They also do a terrible job teaching players NBA defensive skills, and you often see players come out of zone defenses with a much steeper defensive learning curve as a result. A team that plays man-to-man will typically do a better job teaching NBA defensive skills, but may make individuals look worse compared to other college players. Then there are a few teams out there (2014-15 Arkansas and 2015-16 LSU come to mind) who play incomprehensible defensive “schemes” that are neither man nor zone and quite frankly I couldn’t describe them even if I wanted to. These make it extremely hard to properly evaluate players because it never puts them in a position to succeed at anything.
Second, how a player defends the pick and roll. At the NBA level, you will have to defend pick and roll regardless of your position, it’s pretty much the one defensive skill that every player needs to have. On-ball defenders need to show they can work around screens and stay in front of their man. Off-ball defenders need to show they can work around random screens to stay with their man. Big defenders need to show they can either hedge and recover or drop off and prevent the entry pass. A player who struggles to defend against the pick and roll will struggle at the next level.
Whether a player can play defense is pretty much the biggest factor in determining how good a prospect is. It’s a shame it’s so damn hard to evaluate in college.
Less Games, More Time Between Games
With the exception of pretty much one week (conference tournament week), teams rarely have more than 3 games a week and never have games on back to back days. While they certainly have other responsibilities, it does mean that you very rarely see these players at the level of wear and tear they are at during most of the NBA regular season. This is especially so given that, of their 30-35 regular season games, 8+ are typically against much weaker competition that doesn’t require full effort or minutes.
For this reason, I actually give a small bump up to players with very high minutes and minutes per game. It has come up as a positive indicator in previous years. Basically, players playing really high minutes are closer to the physical state they will be while playing in the NBA, and so they suffer less statistical drop than other players who don’t play as well when they’re not at peak physical condition.
Just a little thing worth noting.
It is easier to play well against bad teams than against good teams. I am really just coming up with the most insightful insight here aren’t I? But seriously, there’s so little actual quality talent in NCAA basketball and it’s spread over a whole lot of teams. There’s maybe 100 potential-NBA quality players in college basketball in any given time, and that may be an overestimate. There’s maybe 20-25 good teams and another handful of teams who are good some of the time. That means that maybe a few times a year, we get to see two teams with NBA prospect quality actually face off against each other. And even then, there are so few guys who are actually even NBA prospect caliber that you can end up never facing off against another prospect who plays your position.
This makes it so much harder to project players and is a large reason I see traditional college scouting as a largely futile exercise, with the caveat above. Anybody will look better playing against somebody worse than them. It’s very easy to mistake “he looks good” with “he looks good compares to guys who aren’t close to NBA caliber”. And it’s a huge jump from college, where you can get by with your natural gifts most nights, to the NBA, where you actually have to be a good player to succeed.
The above factors make the NCAA really resistant to traditional scouting. There’s just a really tiny sample size of usable games, and the game is literally played on a different court than the pro game. Ultimately, this is why I default to using a largely statistical based model. While statistical models have many flaws, they can limit the need for traditional scouting to more general principles that are less reliant on level of competition and large sample sizes. Using statistics allows players to be compared on a roughly level playing field and looks for the types of statistics that have typically correlated best with NBA success. Some things translate and some things don’t, and the goal of myself and all of the other analytics-based draft sites out there is to figure out how best to project.
While most NBA prospects come from the NCAA ranks, the NCAA really isn’t much good as a feeder league to the NBA. While they talk about changing age limits so that teams make less mistakes in the draft (regardless of the rhetoric, that’s what the age limits are all about and I think everybody knows that, even though the limited evidence gathered during the mid-90s to mid-00s showed that high school picks were safer than college picks…I digress), ultimately, teams will make mistakes in the draft as long as the NCAA is so different from the NBA. If the NBA actually wants to make prospect projection more reliable, they should come up with a better system for getting top prospects in to the NBDL for a year rather than having them go to college. If the MLB can figure out how to do it, the NBA can too. But that hasn’t happened yet, so we’re left diving in to the college morass to see what we can find. That’s where we head next week. See you then.