Draft Theory: Leftover Food for Thought

There are a few things I wanted to cover but did not have enough material for a full article. These things are as important as the ones getting their own articles, they’re just not going to take as long to explain. Let’s dive right in.

Injury Risk

I covered injury risk to some extent in my Bol Bol profile, but I wanted to draw attention to it and simplify it a bit. The labels “injury prone” and “injury risk” are thrown around far too much. I’ve gotten a shocking amount of pushback when saying this, but nothing with any actual support behind it. So let’s go through the facts:

  1. First and foremost, every team would rather have an “injury prone” higher quality player than a “healthy” lower quality player. Nobody would pass up Joel Embiid or Kyrie Irving because they can’t stay healthy for a full season. This is the biggest reason this issue is overblown – the fact is that unless you’re looking at two players of equal quality, the better player will always be taken over the healthier player.
  2. Everybody gets injured. According to a peer-reviewed study in Sports Health, “player demographics were not correlated with injury rates.” Height, weight, body type, doesn’t matter. You will see a lot of people saying otherwise. If there is another study debunking this one, I am not aware of it. Height, weight, body type, etc. have no bearing on injury risk. Just because it’s been repeated forever doesn’t make it true. It’s not true.
  3. There are exceedingly few injuries with bad long-term effects or that cause retirement, especially for young players. Greg Oden is probably the prime example, but his legs were two different lengths, which is not an issue we’re likely to see again. Brandon Roy had to retire due to his knees in his mid-20s. Occasionally, there’s players like Shaun Livingston where you can play the “what if” game, but the fact is, even major injuries don’t really affect NBA players long term until later in their career.
  4. There are exceedingly few injuries that don’t result in a full eventual recovery, and medical advancements are reducing those with each passing year. Injuries that would have been career enders in the 70s or 80s are 8 month injuries now. Advances in medical science are real.

Ultimately, people stick to conventional wisdom and pull out single examples of players, but there’s absolutely no evidence that one type of player is more injury prone than another. It is memory bias and outdated wisdom. Sure, big men had more problems 40 years ago, but why does that matter today? It doesn’t.

Now, there are players the “injury prone” label should apply to, but those are few and far between. Jontay Porter is the poster child for an “injury prone” player. He has torn his ACL twice. His brother can’t get healthy. Both of his sisters had to retire from basketball due to knee injuries. That’s what an injury risk looks like.

Short of something like that, “injury prone” or “injury risk” just isn’t a real thing. Getting injured in college doesn’t make somebody a future injury risk. Being tall doesn’t make somebody a future injury risk. Playing basketball makes somebody a future injury risk. Everybody gets injured. Absent a truly brutal history like Porter, nobody should be treated as more of an injury risk than anybody else. Don’t let yourself get fooled otherwise.

The G-League Standard

28 of 30 NBA teams have their own G-League affiliate (get on it, Denver and Portland!). With the rise of an actual functional minor league using NBA rules, we can now ask a very simple question of every prospect:

“Is he better than a G-Leaguer?”

Did you know that last season alone, 64 players played 15+ games and shot 38% or better on 2+ 3PA per game? 22 of those players were 22 or 23 years old. And that’s the NBA 3 point line. 12 players had 2+ BPG, 7 of whom were 23 or younger. 23 players had 6+ APG, 8 of whom were 23 or younger.

Now yes, some of these players are under contract, but most of them were on 2-ways or not under NBA contract at all. There’s a lot of former NBA players who fell out of the league but who are now in their mid-late 20s and may be ready for another shot. There’s a lot of younger guys who deserve a first look. The G-League has a large pool of cheap, untapped talent available for NBA teams.

But it also shows how hard it is to make the jump to the NBA. Many of the guys who try to make the jump from the G-League to the NBA simply don’t succeed. The good shooters don’t suddenly become bad shooters. The good shot blockers don’t suddenly become bad shot blockers. The good point guards don’t suddenly become bad point guards. The NBA is just a lot harder.

If you’re drafting a “ready-now” player, he needs to be better than the available G-League talent. If you’re drafting a future prospect, he needs to have higher upside than what the available G-League talent is already doing.

I look forward to the G-League becoming a bigger and bigger player resource moving forward.

On Defense

Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that “long and athletic” meant “good defense” or at least “good defensive potential.” As if somehow, basketball offense requires skill, but basketball defense requires only physical attributes.

That’s…not true. I shouldn’t have to point out the obvious, but it’s such a common and pervasive belief.

Being long and athletic amplifies good defensive skills. But 100 x 0 is still 0. The NBA is full of good long athletes. If you were to make a list of good defenders and bad defenders, you would find little if any correlation between length, athleticism, and defensive quality. Gobert and Embiid are elite athletes at center. But veterans like Chandler, Pachulia, and M. Gasol still get the job done at a high level too. Covington, George, and Kawhi are long, elite athletes and elite defenders, but a very average athlete like Porter and maybe the worst athlete in the NBA Kyle Anderson are also elite defenders.

Better athletes are typically better defenders, again, because good athleticism can enhance skills. The skill bar gets lower as the athleticism level gets higher. But if a player lacks footwork, awareness, reaction speed, and the other mental and physical technical abilities, all the athleticism in the world won’t help them.

So when a scouting report says “bad defense but has potential and upside due to length and athleticism,” it’s generally just wrong. What gives a player defensive potential and upside is being a good college defender and showing the defensive abilities needed at the next level.

For guards and wings, the best starting point for this is last college season (LCS) STL%. There are almost zero functional NBA defenders who had a LCS STL% under 1.5% – around three in the entire NBA last I checked, and they topped out at mediocre. An LCS STL% under 2.0 indicates a ceiling of average at best. Once you get above 2.0, higher is better, but there are guys in the 2.1-2.5 range who are elite defenders and guys in the 3.5-4.0 range who are merely average defenders. But if you don’t meet that minimum requirement, you’re almost definitely not going to succeed. Tape scouting can help separate after that initial barrier, but that initial barrier can really help contextualize what you see on tape. The best defenders typically had a combination of a 2.0+ STL% and a very good defensive reputation. Tape + stats. The way the best scouting is done.

For bigs, there’s not as easy a test for various reasons. A BLK% over 7.5 or so is good, but there are ways to be a good rim protector without a high BLK%. Centers in college are often like goalies, constantly cleaning up mistakes made by perimeter defenders, which means they’re often playing in disadvantageous positions. For most of them, you really just need to do some tape scouting and see how they hold up in a large sample. There will be good plays and bad plays – if you expect perfection, even the best of the best in the NBA will disappoint you.

Finally, effort matters, but usually not as much as people seem to think. Work smarter, not harder gets a lot of players a long way. Like with anything else, if you give max effort to do something incorrectly, you will be less successful than if you give moderate effort to do it correctly. Off the ball, all the effort in the world won’t be better than awareness and spatial understanding. On the ball, proper positioning of feet, hips, and arms will go a lot further than lots of movement just for the sake of movement. This is the same as length and athleticism – without the base level skills and abilities, you won’t succeed no matter what you do.

Don’t get suckered in by long limbs, high jumps, and floor slaps. Find the guys who know how to defend. They’re the guys who will defend.

Size Matters

For years, I was an advocate that anything you need to know about a player will be reflected on the court.

I was wrong.

Looking back, one of the most common categories of players I missed on were undersized, highly productive players. So I did some base level research (I may revisit this in more depth next year). I looked at something very simple – do NBA positions have “you must be this tall to ride” signs?


At the outset, let me state that I use height without shoes. The most common response I get to this is “what, is basketball played barefoot?” No, of course not. Nor is it played in the exact same shoes game to game, season to season. No matter what pair of shoes you’re wearing, your height without shoes will remain consistent. For all I know, players wear special shoes to the combine measurement to juice their measurement a bit – it wouldn’t surprise me. You can’t juice the no-shoes measurement. So I use that measurement because it’s simply a more reliable metric. Everybody wears shoes. If you think the shoes measurement is such a big deal, add an inch and a quarter to every no shoes measurement.

Anyway, I looked at all players drafted from 2010 to 2018. I found four players who measured under 6’ who had any success – Shabazz Napier in 2014, Trey Burke in 2013, Isaiah Thomas in 2011, and Kemba Walker in 2011. Thomas was the only one to measure under 5’11″. Going back further, you can find players like Ty Lawson, Patty Mills, DJ Augustin, and Mike Conley. They exist. However, they’ve gotten more and more rare with each passing year. Why? Because PGs are getting taller each year.

It’s a vicious cycle. More tall PGs are sticking in the league. As more tall PGs stick, the short PGs face an even greater struggle. As the shorter ones struggle more, they’re replaced by taller ones. Don’t take the sub-six footers off your draft boards, but approach with extreme caution.

At power forward, I was able to find exactly two who succeeded measuring under 6’6″: DeJuan Blair and Draymond Green, none since Green. At center, the only starters I could find under 6’9″ were Horford, Love, and Adebayo. Horford and Love both played or play power forward for a significant chunk of their career, and the jury is still out on Adebayo. The rest of the list is guys like Tristan Thompson, Khem Birch, and Kevon Looney. Fine backups, but nothing particularly special (and also they were generally projected as PFs too). The wing spots are a bit harder to nail down, for various reasons.

A good player at the college level may not be nearly as successful at the pro level simply because they’re short. Sucks, but them’s the breaks, I guess. Something important to keep an eye on.

And now some quick hitters…


Words have meaning. It’s amazing how often that meaning is lost in the draft process.

“Young and bad” does not mean “low floor, high ceiling.” It means young and bad. A young, bad player might be low floor, high ceiling. But it just may mean that they’re young and bad. Those concepts are often conflated. They’re not related!

“Old and good” does not mean “high floor, low ceiling.” It means old and good. They may have a high floor and a low ceiling. They may have a low floor. They may have a high ceiling. Old and good just means old and good!

I’ve harped on it for years (and at the end of yesterday’s article!), but it is amazing how many scouting reports just contradict themselves. A strength is also a weakness. A conclusion doesn’t follow from what came before it. A player is ranked highly, but the scouting report is highly negative. A player is ranked low, but the scouting report is highly positive. I’m not going to call out a specific website or analyst because it’s a common issue – you can find things like this pretty much everywhere.

Be aware of things like this when reading scouting reports.

The Eye Test

I wrote about how I watch prospects a few years ago. If you want to know how I watch prospects, that’s still a pretty good summary. There are two things I notice often in how “the majority” watch prospects that I think sometimes leads to bad outcomes.

The first is that a lot of people just watch YouTube or other highlight breakdowns. You can’t get anything useful out of a 3 minute YouTube cut-up. These are hand-selected plays, often the best and/or worst a player has to offer. But these plays tell little about a player. It’s all those other plays that really define who a prospect is. The measure of the quality of a player is not how good they are at their best but how often they are good. You can’t get that from a YouTube reel.

The second is that plays that are eye-pleasing are often not winning basketball and vice versa. Midrange jumpers, hooks from the post, step-backs, stop and pops, these plays are aesthetically pleasing but offensively inefficient. A player can look really good at these plays, but that doesn’t make them a good player. On defense, the focus is typically on good on-ball defense (as defined by the outcome) and off-ball steals, but the vast majority of defensive plays don’t involve either of those and get overlooked despite being more important by sheer volume. Much like in football, the focus is on the skill players and the ball, but the vast majority of the action takes place away from those areas.

Regular Season vs. Playoffs

“The playoffs, it’s a different sport.”

I can’t put it any better than Brett Brown. Regular season basketball and playoff basketball are two different sports. There are players who are great in the regular season who become nearly unplayable in the playoffs due to some limitation that doesn’t matter as much until teams can gameplan specifically to abuse that one weakness. Moderate efficiency, high volume scorers are the ones hurt most, as when you’re playing top teams, moderate efficiency just isn’t good enough. Guys who struggle on defense are forced to the bench.

Basically, you can find players who will get you to the playoffs, but you can’t win with them. Those are dangerous players. This is typically more of a worry in free agency, but when looking at non-shooters, non-elite scorers, and defensive sieves, it’s a concern even at draft time.


One of the most common issues I run into when discussing individual prospects is “well what about….” Every rule has its exceptions. We’re not dealing with universal, unbreakable laws here. The response to an assertion of “but what about Player X and Player Y” is simply unhelpful. Yes, Draymond Green and Isaiah Thomas succeeded despite being too short. Yes, Greg Oden and Yao Ming suffered career ending injuries. Yes, Russell Westbrook turned into a superstar despite a completely non-descript two years in college.

If you can only name a few players who fit a certain criteria, you’re just dealing with exceptions. Over 350 players play 500+ minutes each NBA season and over 450 players see the court. If you can only name a few players over the course of a decade or two who fit certain criteria, you’re dealing with exceptions.

There are positive exceptions, and there are negative exceptions. But if you put any weight in them, or you start chasing them, you’re gonna have a bad time. Treat exceptions for what they are. Nothing more, nothing less.

Previously: There Are Levels to this Game | Next up: The Making of a Big Board

Draft Theory: There Are Levels To This Game

The title quote comes from current UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. He said it to remind people that there exists a massive gulf between the truly elite and the hot prospects who look great but haven’t faced the top level of competition, even if it’s impossible to see it until they face off.

I don’t think I need to explain how that applies here.

I have written about cognitive biases and fallacies many times in the past, but this isn’t a bias or a fallacy. This is simply a natural flaw in human thinking. Humans excel at creating heuristics to quickly categorize and process a massive volume of information in a reasonable amount of time. In the vast, vast majority of situations, this way of processing information is greatly beneficial. But in the pursuit of expediency, fine precision is lost.

Draft Tiers

It is interesting to see how that manifests in draft analysis. It is generally accepted that a big board has tiers, everybody in a higher tier should be taken over everybody in lower tiers, and that the tiers should remain as objective as possible from year to year.

Zion Williamson is a #1 pick quality prospect. Nobody disputes that. But there are levels to this game. Some #1 overall prospects (Simmons, Davis) are better than other #1 overall prospects (Towns, Irving, Wall) are better than other #1 overall prospects (Ayton, Wiggins) are better than other #1 overall prospects (Bennett, Bargnani). You may not agree with the placement of each guy there, but however you had each guy ranked heading into each draft, the point remains that not all #1 prospects are created equal.

That’s the easy part though. Zion? Morant? There can be quibbles about where they fall on the top prospect scale, but they are top prospects in some form. There’s a big difference between being Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kemba Walker, but if you get any of those guys, you’ve had great success. You have a max franchise player, and you just need to figure out how to build from there.

However, when it comes to draft projection, Tier 1 encompasses all of these guys typically. It’s a huge range, but very few people make the fine distinction between “top 5 player,” “top 15 player,” and “top 30 player.” I am guilty of not doing it. There are huge differences in these categories, yet top prospects are top prospects regardless of just how top they are.

The Challenge After Tier 1

It gets much dicier as you move down the list. Only 0-3 players each year fit that mold of “unquestioned top prospect.” Everybody is going to hit or miss on those guys together. The moment you move down even one rung of the quality ladder, all hell breaks loose. Again, this is a matter of making these “tiers” that are buckets that are too big, inconsistent from year to year, or otherwise just don’t do a good job of accurately reflecting the prospects.

There are really fine distinctions between good, average, mediocre, and bad players. The difference between a good player, average, and bad player could be something easy to spot like 3-5% shooting. But 5% really isn’t much – that’s one in twenty. A 40% 3P shooter needs to display the barest of other skills to see the court. A 35% 3P shooter needs to show many other skills. A 30% 3P shooter needs to be either a point guard or a center, or else they’re unplayable. 3P% is notoriously difficult to project. Why? The difference between great, average, and bad is the difference between 8/20, 7/20, and 6/20.

The difference could be something much more difficult to spot. Off-ball/help defense. On-ball defense. Boxing out or rebounding. Shot release speed. Off-ball movement. Handling or passing. Ability to understand and execute principles. Ability to operate and process at NBA game speed. These are all little things, but they all matter. A shooter who doesn’t understand off-ball movement and doesn’t have a fast release is not a shooter at all, even if he hits a high percentage when he does shoot. A defender who doesn’t react to off-ball movement quick enough isn’t much of a defender at all, even if he is a quality on-ball defender.

There is a major difference between Buddy Hield’s terrible defense and Devin Booker’s non-existent defense. There is a major difference between Al-Farouq Aminu’s inconsistent, below average 3P shooting and Semi Ojeleye’s plain bad 3P shooting. And the problem is that just a 3-5% difference in quality can be the difference between a player being a solid roleplayer and a player being pretty much unplayable.

There are levels to this game

We’re not talking about one made or missed shot every five games. We’re not talking about three or four defensive plays a game. That is the literal reading of 3-5%, but that is not the true effect. An offensive player who can’t shoot is ignored. Yes, his personal production isn’t good enough, but it also affects everybody else’s production because they’re now playing 4 on 5. A player who isn’t good enough defensively isn’t good enough defensively on every play, meaning the help is not there when it should be and extra help needs to be committed when the attack is direct.

For the top level players, these things don’t matter as much. They have top level skills that overwrite the normal rules. Joel Embiid’s defensive fundamentals are severely lacking, but his size and athleticism make that moot. JJ Redick can’t pass, can’t dribble, and can defend at the barest minimum level, but his off-ball movement and shooting speed and accuracy are so high that he just doesn’t really need anything else. For players with elite skills, ignoring their talent because they have some weaknesses is pointless. For other players, every little thing needs to be dissected because it just takes one or two skills to not be up to snuff for the whole package to be unappealing.

Elite Skills

The ultimate result of this is a severe misunderstanding of which prospects are safe and why. The safest prospects are not the ones with the most well-rounded skill sets but the ones with elite skills. If a prospect doesn’t have an elite skill, it just takes one or two things to be just a tiny bit worse than projected for him to go from good to bad to unplayable. If an elite skill is a bit worse, it’s still a great or a good skill. Yes, the other skills have to be a little better, but there’s simply more wiggle room.

Most prospects don’t have any elite skills, and that’s why it’s so difficult to project them. Take a bunch of 18-22 year olds. Predict how they’re going to develop. If you’re 3% too low or 3% too high, you’ve missed badly. 5%? Forget about it. And if a prospect is 3% worse at just one thing, they may be just a fraction of a percent worse than expected, but depending on what it is, that could still be enough to put them on a much lower level. And because of the nature of draft projections, it can be extremely difficult to put prospects in the same context as previous years’ prospects or NBA players.

Efficiency and Reputation

That last part is where a large majority of disagreement comes from. Objectively evaluating something subjective is, well, difficult. Even after a lot of tape study, two people can see entirely different things. No two big boards should ever be the same, and this is the primary reason why. If two people are projecting the same player to improve but are starting from very different points, the end result is going to end up in two very different places.

The players that generate the most disagreement are inefficient scorers. There is a tendency to handwave away obvious glaring flaws with prospects and players who score a lot of points and look good on highlights but who do not score efficiently and do not provide enough other value. Andrew Wiggins is a prime example. Ask of every player, “If he took less shots and he scored less points, would he still be considered a good player?” Unless you are Lillard-level good on offense or better, if the answer to that is no, then there’s major danger. In this year’s draft, RJ Barrett and Romeo Langford stand out as guys who may fail this test at the next level.

The other major category of players that end up with wildly different rankings are those who have a reputation not supported by the scouting reports. If a player is touted as an elite defender, but the scouting report is “While a good defender, he does tend to get smoked by quicker, explosive players—which he’ll see far more of in the NBA” and “Lacks defensive playmaking skill; doesn’t log many explosive plays in the blocks or steals columns,” he’s probably not an elite defender (those are from De’Andre Hunter’s scouting report on The Ringer). Basically, sometimes players get reputations that are not supported by their scouting reports. If the reputation doesn’t match the scouting report, you’re going to end up with wildly different valuations based on which you put more stock into.

And remember, having just a 5% different opinion on a player is wildly different. Good luck!

Previously: On Patience and Probability | Next up: Leftover Food for Thought

Draft Theory: On Patience and Probability

Unknown probabilities are a finicky thing. But to approach the NBA Draft without an understanding of probabilities is to fail right from the start. There are no 100% or 0% probabilities when it comes to the NBA Draft. Using words like “guaranteed” or “always” or “never” should be completely refrained from.

The tricky thing about unknown probabilities are that it becomes increasingly difficult whether a certain occurrence was likely to happen and did or was unlikely to happen but did. That is a massive distinction. A player with a 90% chance to hit can miss, and a player with a 10% chance to miss can hit. Does that mean the initial evaluation was wrong? The chances of those two things happening at the same time is 1 in 100, or 1%. That may sound small, but a 1% chance should happen once every two years in the NBA Draft. That doesn’t sound so small, right? #1 overall pick Michael Beasley failed. #60 overall pick Isaiah Thomas succeeded. These things were exceedingly unlikely, but they happened.

Danger of Instant Gratification

The NBA is a results-based league, and NBA Draft projection is a results-based analysis. Let’s be real – nobody cares why you were right or wrong, only if you were right or wrong. Which means we have to deal with one absolutely massive problem right off the bat: NBA fans (and teams) declare players to be busts or stars right away because there has to be an immediate right or wrong, but NBA player development doesn’t work that way.

As explained yesterday, player development isn’t linear. A player could be terrible at age 21, a bench player at age 22, and a starter at age 23. Or they could be mediocre at age 20, mediocre at age 21, mediocre at age 22, and great at age 23. Judging players too early leads to a lot of bad judgments. While this is understood to a large extent in the MLB and NHL, where the average fan doesn’t even pay attention to the draft or prospects until they are potential call-ups, it is completely lost in the NBA. And it’s not just a fan problem – it’s a team problem as well. The league is littered with good or even great players who were discarded by their initial team because they weren’t good enough fast enough.

If a team drafts a player under the belief that he has an 80% chance to pan out, they need to stick with him long enough to make sure he has actually failed. If they are not willing to stick it out, they should not draft the player. Yet teams do this every single year.

Two Prime Examples

Two players that most recently demonstrate this are D’Angelo Russell and Bruno Caboclo. Russell was a playable player at age 19, which is always a great sign for overall upside. By 20, he was a good backup. And then he was traded as a salary dump because he wasn’t a superstar yet. Russell developed into an actual all-star this year at age 22. Which is what was expected when he was drafted #2 overall! Why draft a player #2 overall if you’re not willing to see him out through at least his rookie contract? Shockingly, Russell isn’t considered a lock to get a max contract this offseason. A 22 year old lead guard who is already an all-star and has a ton of growth left in him, and people still aren’t buying him because…he wasn’t good immediately as a super young player? I don’t get it.

Bruno Caboclo is a different version of the same story. Caboclo was famously “two years away from being two years away” when he was drafted, and everybody laughed about it because it was a funny joke. Only it wasn’t a funny joke, it was a statement of reality. Despite being drafted in 2014, Caboclo is less than five months older than 2019 Draft prospect Cameron Johnson. So it turns out the super young Caboclo was five years away instead of four years away, but if you draft a guy who you know has upside but could take a long time to reach it, why are you abandoning him right as he’s starting to hit the period where he might pan out? Caboclo will likely be starting for the Grizzlies next season and could be in line for a very nice contract when he hits free agency thereafter.

Importance of Probability

And this brings us back to probability, and why it is so important. Almost every player drafted is younger than 23, and most are younger than 22. The top players and many international players are 20 or younger. That means that for many players drafted, teams will not know if they are good or not for years after they draft them. While being patient is of critical importance, of equal importance is not wasting a roster spot, time, and money on a player who is unlikely to develop into anything of value.

Waiting on a player who has a 10% chance to develop into a nice backup is a waste. Waiting on a player who has an 80% chance to develop into a star is necessary. What about a player who has a 40% chance to be a starter, 40% chance to be a bench player, and a 20% chance to wash out? Or the player who has a 50% chance to be a star and a 50% chance to bust? And how do we know these probabilities to begin with? And is a player who is “safe” better than a player who has a chance to hit a higher ceiling? At what point do the probabilities tilt in favor of one or the other?

This quickly turns into a tangled mess. How it manifests is something like “there are 10 guys who each have a 10% chance to hit.” None of them are good prospects, because 10% is low. But one of them will hit, or sometimes two or maybe even three, or maybe they’ll all miss. And as it’s a results-based business, the larger response isn’t “wow, a low percentage player hit,” it’s “why did you not know that this player was going to hit?”

So Many Unknowns

As stated in the first article of this series, this unpredictability is maddening. Watching this year’s playoffs, it’s easy to ask how everybody missed on players like Draymond Green, Pascal Siakam, and Malcolm Brogdon. And while different people could say different things, the most reasonable explanation is that those guys hit their top 1% outcomes. Again, once every two years, a player will hit their top 1% outcome. You can drive yourself mad trying to figure out what links all of them together, but the answer is frustratingly probably nothing at all.

So in the draft, you’re dealing with unknown probabilities, with unknown outcomes, that won’t be known for sometimes four or more years, and you are judged only on actual outcomes, often in far less than four years. This is pure masochism.

What’s the point of all this? It’s twofold.

First, it’s a really long plea to everybody to stop judging players so soon in their careers. NBA prospects are much more akin to MLB prospects than NFL prospects, who all come out after their junior or senior college seasons. If you believe in a prospect when he’s a 19 year old, believe in him when he’s 21 or 22 and hasn’t quite gotten over the hump, and stick with him long enough to allow him to do that.

Second, it’s a reminder that nobody is going to project the draft completely correctly, and once you get outside the top few prospects who have reasonably high probabilities, there’s just a lot of educated guesswork. If a player has a 20% hit chance and hits, a lot of people are going to look stupid based on the result. But over the long term, a good process should lead to better results. The goal of draft analysis should be to find processes that result in overall better accuracy. Not good accuracy, because that may not be possible, but better accuracy.

Previously: On Age, Development, and Value | Next up: There Are Levels To This Game

Draft Theory: On Age, Development, and Value

In 2017, I did significant research into age and development curves. I have continued to do the necessary research each year just to confirm the initial findings. At the outset, let me state that I do not rank, analyze, or in any other way deal with international prospects. As such, the vast majority of this research is on players who played in college.

The big takeaways:
  1. Stars played their first NBA game at all different ages. There is no evidence that only young players will become stars, and there is no evidence that older players cannot become stars.
  2. There is no evidence that college year matters in any way whatsoever. Almost every draft site uses college year rather than age despite the fact that age within a draft year can vary wildly. Age curves held steady regardless of what age a player exited college at. They did not map on to years out of college at all. Based on limited research, it appears that international and non-college players followed the same curve.
  3. With very rare exceptions (mainly offensive big men), players were bad before age 20, developed into better players between ages 20 and 22, took a big leap at age 23, showed steady growth through their mid 20s, then took another leap sometime between age 26 and 28. Players occasionally took their first leap at age 22 or 24 instead of 23, but judging any player before they turn 23 is a bad idea. Bad players really can become good almost overnight.
  4. Age growth curves held steady regardless of final college year or international status, bad players, good players, etc. These curves held for the vast majority of players of all types.

So, when approaching the draft, it is highly important to look at each player’s age. An 18 or 19 year old will not be as good as a 20-22 year old will not be as good as a 23+ year old. If you don’t properly put their college seasons into context, you can end up far too high or low on a prospect. You can also think they are closer or further from contributing than the actually are.

Project Players

One thing I have been particularly interested in is how often college “project” players panned out. From 2012-2015, 13 players were drafted outside the top 5 who played their first game before they turned 21 and have made any kind of impact. Those players are Looney, Jerami Grant, Winslow, Myles Turner, Booker, Gary Harris, Randle, LaVine, Steven Adams, Drummond, Harkless, Barnes, and Caldwell-Pope.

Looney: Drafted 30th overall. Barely played his first three seasons. Fourth year option was declined. He re-signed with the Warriors after getting no interest in free agency. Took a big step forward this year, when he will be a UFA. Age 23 is next year.

Grant: Drafted 39th overall. Played poorly for two seasons for the Process Sixers before being shipped out for the expiring Ersan Ilyasova. Took an age 23 leap big time for the Thunder.

Winslow: Drafted 10th overall. Took a big leap forward in his age 21 season after missing most of his age 20 season. Age 23 is next year. Signed a 3/39 extension.

Turner: Drafted 11th overall. Took a big leap from age 19 to age 20. Age 23 is next year. Signed a 4/72 extension.

Booker: Drafted 13th overall. Took a big leap at age 21. Signed a massive extension last offseason that already looks like a major albatross unless he takes multiple steps forward on both ends of the court. Age 23 is next year, so there’s a chance.

Harris: Drafted 19th overall. Took leaps forward at age 21 and 22. Got a big extension prior to his age 23 season, but he has regressed in each of the past two seasons, and that contract doesn’t look very good anymore.

Randle: Drafted 7th overall. Steadily improved leading up to his age 23 leap. Lakers renounced his rights after the season, and he signed elsewhere. He will be hitting free agency again this season.

LaVine: Drafted 13th overall. Appeared to be improving before tearing his ACL. Traded as the centerpiece in the ill-fated Butler trade. The Bulls allowed him to hit RFA before matching a contract. Took an age 23 leap, but needs to improve significantly (and stay healthy) to live up to his contract.

Adams: Drafted 12th overall. Took his leap more at age 24. He worked out. Good!

Drummond: Drafted 9th overall. Also took his leap at age 24. He also worked out!

Harkless: Drafted 15th overall. Traded in 2015 for a 2020 second round pick. Took an age 23 leap and has earned the extension he was given.

Barnes: Drafted 7th overall. Made his leap at age 22. Warriors declined to match the contract he was offered in RFA. Barnes is picking up his player option because he has not lived up to it.

Caldwell-Pope: Drafted 8th overall. Also made his leap at age 22. Had to settle for two one year contracts after his rookie contract expired and will be back in free agency this year.

Why do I bring this up? With each passing year, more and more young players are drafted highly, and the hit rate on them outside the very top prospects is extremely poor. These are the best of the bunch. Of the thirteen, seven didn’t sign an extension with their original team due to being traded, renounced, non-renewed, or non-matched (though this includes LaVine who was part of a major trade). So far, only Adams and Drummond have lived up to their extensions, and Harkless has lived up to his smaller one. Winslow and Turner could join that list, and Booker and LaVine could still grow into theirs, but we don’t know that yet. Only Harris, Grant, and Looney had any success outside the lottery – Grant for his second team, Looney after being non-tendered, and Harris hasn’t lived up to his extension.

Missing What The Draft Is All About

So why are there so many young players being drafted when they almost never work out? Either because they’re not good enough in the short term or because they need to be extended before their actual value is established, these players just never seem to work out quite right. The centers did have a higher hit rate among players who worked out at all, but only the lottery ones worked out at all.

One of my favorite draft quotes actually comes from the NFL Draft: “It’s obvious to me right now that the Jets just don’t understand what the draft’s all about.” NBA teams just don’t understand what the draft’s all about, it seems.

Many of the players I have been too low on over the years have been these non-top 5 U-20 prospects (though I had both Winslow and Turner top 5). Their hit rate is low, and when they do pan out, the second contract problem is an absolute nightmare, leading to average players getting well above average contracts. Excluding international prospects, I am aware of only two star players who played their first NBA game at age 20 and were drafted outside the top 5: Paul George at 10 and Kawhi Leonard at 15. Both were elite mid-major prospects who were good enough to get drafted top 15 out of small schools.

These players are just traps, pure and simple. You never get anything positive from them in their first season. You occasionally get decent or even good play from them over the next 2-3 years. And then you either have to overpay them or lose them. Once you get outside the top 15, you rarely get anything at all. Prior to Gary Harris, the last college player who played his first NBA game at age 19 or 20, was drafted outside the top 15, and signed an extension with the team that drafted him was Avery Bradley, who was drafted 19th in 2010. The last one drafted outside the top 20? DeAndre Jordan, drafted 35th in 2008.

These aren’t projects. These are ticking time bombs. The ones that work out, which again, are already the minority, end up getting overpaid. The only ones who don’t are the true stars and superstars, who can’t be overpaid because of the max contract limit, and centers, who tend not to get overpaid simply because there is not a huge need for centers across the league.

“It’s a dangerous thing to think you are smarter than everyone else.”

This was recently said about the Mets’ draft, but it applies equally to the NBA draft. In taking a young college player outside the top 5, a team is saying, “Yes, everybody else has gotten burned, but we won’t.” In taking a young college player outside the top 20, a team is saying, “Yes, every single one of these has failed for the past decade, but this is the one that won’t.” There can always be exceptions. Drafting for the exception is bad drafting.

From 2008-2014 (the last year that has hit free agency off their rookie contract), seven European players and ten older players drafted outside the top 20 signed extensions with their original team, with another two signing extensions but after shorter rookie contracts. So this isn’t an “all players fail” thing. This is specific to one type of player.

As a final note on development, most non-centers improved their shooting in line with the rest of their development, especially taking leaps around age 23 and age 25. Most centers improved their defense in this time. It was far more rare to see non-centers develop their defense in meaningful ways. Centers developing outside shots didn’t appear to follow a pattern, though the ones that do tend to develop it later in their careers. That may change as younger centers practice shooting far more than they used to.

In Sam Vecenie’s most recent mock draft, 11 of the 40 selections outside the top 20 are college players who will be 19 or 20 on opening day. Last year, there were five. The year before, there were eight, only two of whom are notable in any way (Jarrett Allen and OG Anunoby). In 2016, the only notable one was Dejounte Murray. Again, it is practically impossible to hit on these guys, and even when you do, you tend to get a roleplayer who you will have to overpay when they finish their first contract, if they even finish their first contract with you.

When it comes time to do my final big board, this issue will be reflected. Again, there can and will be exceptions. You will occasionally find a playable young player. But even when you do, you still run headlong into the second contract issue. This is an easy to avoid trap, and the fact that teams still fall into it year after year after year is truly mind-boggling.

Previously: The Past, The Present, The Future | Next up: On Patience and Probability

Draft Theory: The Past, The Present, The Future

I have been projecting the NBA Draft since 2014. Each year, I update my methodology to try to more accurately predict the draft. However, the base principle remains the same: look at the players who are currently successful and unsuccessful in the NBA, look at how they played in college, then find players who match those molds. This leads into…

The eternal tug of war

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Past results do not predict future performance.

In a nutshell, the best way to learn is to look at history, but just because something happened previously does not mean it will happen again. That is a difficult place to be. Last year, I became so frustrated by the unpredictability of it all that I wrote just a single article asking if there’s any way to predict this or if the draft truly is pure variance.

Now, I’m a big believer that the draft must be approached in the most objective ways possible. One of my biggest issues with most big boards is that they completely lack internal logic. When there are no strong, coherent principles underlying a big board, they become more and more vulnerable to both emotion and fallacy. There is no way to be successful in the long term relying on emotion and biased thinking.

My other big issue is how much consensus there is. The top 15 players from the 2014 draft, as of right now, are Embiid, Gordon, Smart, Randle, Saric, LaVine, Nurkic, Caboclo, Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Anderson, J. Harris, Dinwiddie, Jerami Grant, and Jokic, in some order. Those players were drafted 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 12th, 13th, 16th, 20th, 25th, 27th, 30th, 33rd, 38th, 39th, and 41st. The top 15 players from the 2015 draft, as of right now, are Towns, Russell, Porzingis, Cauley-Stein, Winslow, Turner, Booker, Rozier, Wright, Nance, Looney, Harrell, Richardson, Connaughton, and Powell. Those players were drafted 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 16th, 20th, 27th, 30th, 32nd, 40th, 41st, and 46th.

Now, there have been some injuries (most notably to Jabari Parker), and some players may still improve (especially the very young players drafted in 2015). You may disagree with 2-3 guys. But the point is, when you look at the draft slots, it becomes obvious that NBA teams themselves clearly struggle just as much projecting these guys as the rest of us. And most media big boards tend to roughly reflect the actual draft order. It remains to be seen how 2016 to the present will pan out, but at least in 2016, the three best players so far were drafted 1 (Simmons), 27 (Siakam), and 36 (Brogdon).

Is the system working?

I take a look at past drafts each year, comparing them to my previous big boards. And each year, I have tweaked my system to reflect the lessons that I was learning. Over the past year, I have stepped back and re-evaluated my entire approach to the draft, and I came to one very obvious conclusion: by tweaking my system, I was starting with the assumption that my system was actually working. Sure, it was working for the very top players, but for everybody else, it was no better or worse than the consensus big board or actual draft.

I will never guarantee perfect accuracy. It would be impossible to do so. My goal is always to do better than the actual NBA teams. If we both hit, or we both miss, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s hitting the ones they miss and not missing the ones they hit. In 2014 and 2015, I was better in the top 10 but that was about it. In 2016…the 2016 draft just sucks so far. It’s hard to draw any conclusions from that. 2017 and 2018 are too recent.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who learn the wrong lessons don’t fare any better. That’s where I was at last year – I was learning the wrong lessons. I still think that past drafts and present players significantly help in projecting the future. Nobody will ever be perfect – these are unique human beings who will grow at different rates, who will be shaped in different ways by different teams, and no two will develop the same way. But good draft projection doesn’t need to be perfect.

Past results do not guarantee future performance. This is true. But past results are still a good indicator of future performance. There are certain archetypes of players that are drafted highly consistently and fail consistently. Identifying these players is a good start. Identifying who will actually succeed is a much more difficult challenge.

The Fail Point

In approaching the draft this year, my primary goal was to figure out where the fail point was. And the fail point was essentially twofold. First, I was applying the same standards to all players regardless of how good or bad they were and regardless of what position they played, when doing so clearly wasn’t working. And second, I was making a big list instead of a big board. This point will make more sense when I unveil it.

So this year’s draft series is all about how I have updated the theory behind my big board. Will it lead to a better outcome? Hopefully. When will we know? Oh, about five years from now.

Why don’t we start there? Tomorrow: On Age, Development, and Value.

2018 NBA Draft: Big Board

As you can tell from the lone article preceding this, I have not spent as much time with this draft as previous drafts. Part of that is due to my general disenchantment with NBA Draft analysis. But perhaps a bigger part of it is that, in no uncertain terms, this draft is bad. That doesn’t mean that nobody will pan out, but it means that it’s even more of a crapshoot than normal. This is much like the 2013 Draft, where two college guys have reached max level (Oladipo and Porter), but where most of the draft just didn’t amount to much more than roleplayers other than two internationals. It also means that, more than normal, big boards should absolutely not agree, and that’s perfectly okay.

This year’s board will be done a little differently than the past few years. I am adding in non-college players again. This board will also reflect not just positional value, but also the exponential value in finding a star quality or better player. This board will also reflect eye scouting a little more than normal, if only because stat scouting provides little more than “this draft isn’t very good”. Also, due to the general poor quality of this draft, I am not going as deep as normal. There’s simply no reason to. My entire college spreadsheet ended up with 43 total players on it. Adding the guys who didn’t play enough or played internationally still doesn’t get it to 60. And, as usual, players are not ranked within tiers.

With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

Tier 1


There is not a single player this year who reaches the prospect quality of even Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz from last year. Again, this does not mean that nobody in this draft will be better than them. It just means nobody is as good a prospect as them.

Tier 2

Trae Young, lead guard

Luka Doncic, secondary wing

Michael Porter, big wing

Jaren Jackson, stretch center

Jaren Jackson projects as the safest player in the draft and an ideal 3-and-D center at the next level. However, has been noted in many places (including on this website), the value of bigs is lower than ever. Therefore, he falls as part of this group. Trae Young is the best PG in the draft, leading all draft-eligible players in FPG and second in FPM. However, he struggled down the stretch and his defense and turnover numbers leave a lot to be desired. His ceiling projects as more of a second tier PG at the next level – more Kemba Walker than Chris Paul. Doncic and Porter are more unknown. Eurowings have had success in the NBA but have rarely been superstars. Doncic will need to prove he can hang with elite NBA athletes, and maybe more importantly, that he can hit the NBA 3 (only 31% from the shorter international line this season). Michael Porter basically didn’t play this season and probably won’t be healthy until 2019-2020, but the value of 6’10 wings has never been higher, and while he’s a lottery ticket, he may be the biggest jackpot in the draft with careful development.

Tier 3

Wendell Carter, stretch?/rim center

Mo Bamba, rim center

Deandre Ayton, rim center

Robert Williams, rim center

Marvin Bagley, stretch forward

Mikal Bridges, wing

How much you like non-core players will determine how much you like this draft. These are all supporting and role players. Carter looks the most promising of the bunch, showing the best 3 point touch at this point. Bamba is the classic rim big, and how much you like players like Capela and Jordan will determine how much you like him. Ayton and Bagley both showed plenty of promise on offense but not nearly enough on defense to be confident that they can fulfill their primary role at the next level. Robert Williams is undersized, but as the center position shrinks, he may fit the role perfectly. Mikal Bridges is the best 3-and-D prospect in the draft and should be able to contribute right away as an Ariza-type.

Tier 4

Jevon Carter, lead guard

Jalen Brunson, lead guard

Jordan McLaughlin, lead guard

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, secondary wing

This category splits on whether you’re looking for a ready-now backup or a potential future starter. Carter grades a tick above Brunson and McLaughlin based on his defense, but all 3 are your classic senior PG types who should be able to jump into the NBA in a backup role and run an offense competently. Gilgeous-Alexander showed promise, putting up a very solid FPM number. He played PG at Kentucky and whatever team drafts him will have to determine what his best role is – I currently project him moving to a secondary role. He is probably a few years away from making a real NBA impact at either position but could be a very solid starter.

Tier 5

Collin Sexton, lead guard

Isaac Bonga, secondary wing

Miles Bridges, secondary wing

Dzanan Musa, wing

Mitchell Robinson, rim center

Ajdin Penava, rim forward/center

Ray Spalding, rim center

A weird, somewhat catchall tier. Sexton put up solid enough per minute numbers as a freshman to warrant consideration, but his peripherals are scary, showing not quite enough 3 or D or PG skills. Tough to see him as more than a 6th man as of right now. Miles Bridges has shown less 3 and less D than Mikal by a decent margin. Musa is a shooting wing who could follow in the footsteps of guys like Bojan Bogdanovic. Bonga is a bit of a riddle – he appears to have some tools and some skills and is actually playing PG right now. A team willing to be patient and develop him could have a real steal, as tall guys with PG skills tend to be a consistently undervalued asset for some reason. Robinson, Penava, and Spalding are rim protectors of varying flavors. Robinson is basically a lottery ticket who you hope is more Hassan Whiteside than Robert Upshaw. Penava is undersized but was the most productive draft-eligible player by FPM and simply understands how to play defense. He’s basically this year’s Jordan Bell. Spalding is a bit of a do-it-all tall forward who could stand to put on 20-25 pounds to play center at the next level.

Tier 6

Tony Carr, lead guard

Devonte’ Graham, lead guard

Donte DiVincenzo, secondary guard

Zhaire Smith, wing

Josh Okogie, wing

Desi Rodriguez, wing

Bonzie Colson, ??

Kenrich Williams, stretch forward

Omari Spellman, stretch forward

Khadeem Lattin, rim

Anas Mahmoud, rim

And we’re already into basically roster filler territory. Carr and Graham are 3rd PGs right now, with Carr having a bit more upside. DiVincenzo projects as a 4th or 5th guard. Smith, Okogie, and Rodriguez have all shown flashes of being 3-and-D guys but didn’t really put it all together this year. Colson has consistently been one of the most productive players in college basketball, but his shot has fluctuated wildly from year to year and he projects as an undersized big, which isn’t ideal. Williams has one of the stranger statistical profiles in the draft, showing a little bit of everything other than blocks, most intriguingly a near 2:1 A:TO. Spellman is real young and needs time to develop but showed 3-and-D characteristics that could play at the 4 or 5 – could arguably be a tier higher. Lattin and Mahmoud both profile as end of the bench bigs who could step in and play 10-15 minutes as rim protectors if needed.

Tier 7

Aaron Holiday, lead guard

Elie Okobo, lead guard

Kevin Huerter, secondary guard

Lonnie Walker, secondary guard

Kevin Knox, wing

Keita Bates-Diop, wing

Wenyen Gabriel, tall wing

Gary Clark, stretch forward

Mo Wagner, stretch center

Holiday should make a good living in Europe but will probably get a shot in the NBA thanks to Jrue and Justin. I…don’t really know much about Okobo, but he appears slightly better than “the rest”. Huerter, Walker, and Knox all just grade out terribly in my system. Huerter profiles as a 3-no-D guy which is more of a 5th guard, Walker didn’t rebound, didn’t shoot particularly well, and had low usage. Knox was pretty abysmal across the board except for rebounding and probably wouldn’t’ve made my board at all if he wasn’t a projected lottery pick. Bates-Diop makes the board as Big 10 PotY, as the small bump pushed him up into “worth at least a look” territory. Gabriel is intriguing in a “you can see something if you squint” way but definitely should not go undrafted – anybody who shoots 39.6% from 3 and puts up the defensive numbers he did deserves a real chance. Clark is undersized but could make it as a back of the bench forward. Wagner doesn’t play enough D and isn’t good enough with the ball to warrant more than a 3rd C role.

The Rest

Chandler Hutchison, Brandon McCoy, Melvin Frazier, Chris Wray, Zach Thomas, Kendrick Nunn, Jairus Lyles, other prospects not listed here that are projected top 20 picks, the other international and non-college guys who declared

The first 7 guys are low and mid major guys who made the cut on my spreadsheet. I have no great insight on them other than they’re probably worth a summer league look and maybe a second rounder. Projected top 20 prospects who did not make the cut are still worth a look based on the eye test even if they fail the stat test. I have not spent enough time with internationals and other guys who did not play much, but because they can be stashed easier, they’re usually worth burning a 2nd round pick on.

2018 NBA Draft: Searching for Answers

Just in time for the 2018 NBA Draft, it’s my 2018 Draft (Mini)series! For those of you who follow me on twitter and the like, you may have noticed that I did a 5 part NFL Draft Series. As a result of that, I spent a lot of time digging into NFL theory. Much like how the Super Bowl champion Eagles’ GM Howie Roseman spent a year talking with executives in other sports and came away with a better understanding, so too have I spent time digging into another sport and come back with new insight.

Maybe we’re all going about this NBA Draft prospect projection stuff all wrong. See, when I dove into NFL QB analysis, one fact was so glaring, so completely undeniable, that it became a necessary asterisk next to every prospect: a QB’s chance of success in the NFL is so significantly dependent on the head coach and offensive coordinator that with the exception of the truly elite, the best QB prospect in a bad system had a lower chance of success than a mediocre prospect in a great system.

In other words, with the exception of the best of the best (Wilson, Rodgers, Brees, younger Tom Brady/Peyton Manning), there isn’t so much a “true talent level” as much as a baseline set of mental and physical tools which can manifest extremely differently based on coaching, scheme, and system. What made this so obvious was QBs going from good coaches (Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan) to bad coaches (Matt Cavanaugh, Steve Sarkisian) and vice versa (most notably, not having Jeff Fisher as your coach).

Jared Goff had a truly dreadful rookie season under Fisher, but put up great numbers under McVay. Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins both significantly declined after losing their great OCs. Nick Foles put up one of the best seasons ever under Chip Kelly before the rest of the league caught up to that offense, declined when Kelly didn’t adjust, cratered under Fisher, and then blossomed again when the Eagles built an offense specifically for him.

In the NBA, there are a few truly can’t miss prospects – LeBron, Durant, Anthony Davis. These guys come around once every five years or so. The problem is figuring out the other 99.9% of prospects.

Typically, draftniks approach analyzing prospects in a combination of two ways. One is developing and using a stat-based model to map out what stats have typically predicted success at the next level, then seeing which prospects best fit the model. The other is seeing which prospects have the best tools and projecting that the better the tools, the higher the ceiling and therefore the better the prospect. Both methods use historical data to project in different ways – the former using historical statistical data, the latter using historical biometric data, but both are ultimately just projecting, which is a fancy way of saying educated guessing.

Under this two pronged projection strategy, the onus of a player being successful is on the player – either he was good in college and therefore will be successful in the pros or he has all the tools to be successful and therefore given time to develop, will be successful. But either way, the assumption is that the player will succeed or fail primarily based on his own merit. And if that’s not true, then, well, everybody is doing it really really wrong.

See, some strange things happened in 2017. Jayson Tatum had the best 19 year old season since LeBron James. Jaylen Brown and Dejounte Murray both significantly outperformed every college statistical indicator. Donovan Mitchell turned into an offensive star. Going back to 2012, none of these things had happened. 19 year olds have been bad, bad college players have been bad pro players, and college defensive dynamos haven’t been pro offensive dynamos. So what happened?

One explanation is that there is something unique mentally about these players, something that online draftniks would never be exposed to or have access to that explains why certain players develop better or quicker than others. But every team would have access to that, and other than Jaylen Brown, there’s been no indication that these guys are somehow completely different than everybody else. Another explanation would be that these guys are special athletic specimen, but that’s hard to judge because 3 of the 4 did not attend the combine. Mitchell’s measurements don’t seem to indicate truly out of the ordinary – he had an elite sprint time and leap but below average agility and shuttle, and other guys with great sprint and leap didn’t pan out, so I’m not sure that’s a real indicator either.

As you can tell from the beginning of this article, I came to a different conclusion: that coaching and scheme matters much more than we give it credit for. Basically, when it comes to evaluating NBA Draft prospects, we typically do so with a passing wave that, yeah, somebody coached by Pop will turn out better than somebody in Sacramento, but it’s not treated as a big factor. Should it be though? What if, in fact, for all but the absolute best prospects, the most important factor in their success is what coaching staff they end up with?

Um…well…digging in, that’s actually not right either. While it’s easy to remember the hits, there’s plenty of misses for every coach too, even Pop and Stevens. And quite frankly, most players just follow the standard model of moderate progression year by year regardless of coach. Which is rather frustrating really. While there is certainly some element of scheme and coaching present, there’s no consistent effect. Much like the other explanations, it’s a factor, but not a defining one.

That leaves us with one final explanation. The most likely explanation. The most unsatisfying explanation: projecting most prospects is little more than pure, random variance combined with opportunities to play NBA minutes over a span of many years with quality players. That’s not an explanation that can be used for any useful purposes going forward. But sometimes, shit happens for no apparent reason and there’s nothing more to it.

Back in 2016, I did a Big Board that was a little more detailed in the breakdown of chances of success at the next level. While that breakdown wasn’t perfect, the larger overall point holds as true today as it did then – most prospects will fail. And after spending 5 years trying to refine and analyze my way to answers, I am no closer now than I was 5 years ago.

I am not saying that the draft is truly random, because it’s not. But in terms of determining which players will blossom into actual starters or better? Predicting failure for every player is still highly effective. By my count, players drafted in the lottery have blossomed into unquestioned starters at about a 35% rate. Some drafts are a little higher or lower, but that’s the rough rate. And while top 3 picks tend to be superstars more, in terms of finding starters, they’re pretty evenly distributed throughout the lottery. The 5-9 range has been less productive recently than the 10-14 range, but again, that appears to be variance more than some sort of projectable trend.

In the scientific community, there is often pressure to come up with some conclusion, some result so that the research was not a “failure”. I have no such pressure here. I have no need to fabricate results for any reason. I will continue doing big boards and big picture analysis, because again, it’s not completely random. But I have come to accept that if there is a way to be super accurate projecting prospects, it will not come from me. I have come to accept that is simply a fool’s errand.

Ultimately, take big boards and prospect analysis as what they are and nothing more – educated guesses on who is most likely to hit on that 35% or less chance to become a starter. Hitting more than 35% is a success. Hitting 50% is a resounding success. That’s just the way this goes.

QB Draft Series: Grading the Prospects

Okay, so, for some of you, this may be the only part about this you care about. For others, this may be the least interesting. Either way, let me just set some ground rules…

  1. These are my opinions. It is based on what I look for in a QB in 2018. This can change as the NFL evolves, and somebody who has the ideal skillset for the 2018 NFL may not have it for the 2023 NFL. As it is difficult to project how the NFL may change, this may be a good idea or a terrible one, but I believe it is an important factor that should not be ignored.
  2. Highly rated prospects will fail and low rated prospects will succeed. That is the nature of the projection game. There is no such thing as a 100% chance of success or a 100% chance of failure. The goal is to be more right than wrong. Keep this in mind not just with me, but with any rankings you see. If somebody is given a 20% chance to succeed and succeeds, it doesn’t mean the ranking was bad, it means that something that happens one in every five chances happened.
  3. While I did chart one game each for the “big 5” and watched multiple games of each QB, I am also using Benjamin Solak’s charting because I did not have time to go as in-depth as he did. Note that his charting does not include every game of every QB (and in some cases includes very few), and I have factored that in where relevant. Because I have spent significantly more time with the big 5, I am doing significantly more in-depth reports on them.
  4. I used age 20 season stats because age is a significant factor in quality of season and there is a much stronger relationship between age and quality than experience and quality. As every guy here had an age 20 season, this was the most fair way to present the stats. Also keep in mind that rushing stats include sacks, because college football doesn’t separate them.

Lamar Jackson, 6’2 216,  21.3 years old, age 20 season: 59.1% – 8.5 Y/A – 6.3 TD% – 2.3 INT% – 232 rush attempts, 6.9 ypc

Positive Scouting Report – Lamar Jackson is a special prospect, one that defies easy categorization. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist in 2017 leading a consistently overmatched Louisville squad to a 17-9 record over his final two seasons. As a passer, Jackson showed mastery over a pro-style system, often being let down by his receivers rather than his arm. Jackson’s precision on his accurate passes may be best in the class, perfectly leading receivers on screens and slants. However, his accuracy suffers (especially throwing outside the numbers) due to footwork issues which will need to be cleaned up at the next level. As a runner, Jackson is a truly elite prospect, one of the best pure runners to come out of college at any position in a long time. He is incredibly difficult to bring down in the open field, has the vision to burst through holes, and won’t be caught from behind often. A team willing to embrace Jackson’s talents could have a bona fide superstar on their hands. Jackson has never missed a game due to injury.

Negative Scouting Report – Teams looking for a pure pocket passer may not like what they find in Lamar Jackson. While he can technically make every throw, his inconsistency, especially to the outside, may drive a coach crazy. It will definitely lead fans and coaches alike to want plays back. His footwork will need to be significantly refined, as he is often caught between being ready to run and being ready to throw. It remains to be seen whether playing behind better protection could help in that department. As a runner, while he could go barreling into defenders at the college level, learning to slide would behoove him at the next level. While there is no evidence that injuries are more common for running QBs, the fact is that Jackson does get significant value from his running, and any injury hampering that ability could have a big impact.

Low comp: Mike Vick // Mid comp: ? // High comp: ?

It is hard to find comparisons for Lamar Jackson. He is a truly unique prospect, a likely mid-tier QB combined with a top-tier runner. If you do not value QB rushing, Jackson will not be the prospect for you, but QB rushing is very positively correlated with winning, and Jackson has the perfect skillset for elevating teams and making plays that truly no other player can make. It is hard to see a true fail-case for Jackson absent injury – his biggest pitfall is ending up in the situation Marcus Mariota found himself in the past 3 years, with an anachronistic OC forcing him into a system ill-suited to his abilities. A team willing to build around Jackson could pay off huge.

Draft value: Top 3 overall

Baker Mayfield, 6’0 215, 23.3 years old, age 20 season: 68.1% – 9.4 Y/A – 9.1 TD% – 1.8 INT% – 141 rush attempts, 2.9 ypc

Positive Scouting Report – Baker Mayfield is one of the most productive QBs in college football history. He combines fiery leadership with an arm that misplaces very few passes. He doesn’t always throw with as much zip as he could, but he does a fantastic job anticipating receivers coming open and throwing the ball at the right time for whatever power he does put on it. He can make plays on the run, keeps his eyes downfield at all times, adjust his arm slot while retaining accuracy, and everything else you want from a QB. While he is not a guy you will call designed runs for, he has enough juice in his legs to make plays if a lane opens up or he finds himself scrambling. The biggest question marks with Baker come from his relative lack of adversity in college. He played behind one of the best offensive lines throwing to elite talent against Big 12 defenses. That is a perfect storm for a QB, and it remains to be seen if he can replicate his numbers in less ideal circumstances.

Negative Scouting Report – The question everybody wants to know is: can Baker be Baker when he’s not facing Big 12 defenses? The worst games of his Oklahoma career came against Tennessee, Clemson, Ohio State (2016), and Georgia. This is always the question with Big 12 QBs and some have answered it better than others. Baker’s o-line gave him plenty of time to pick apart weak defenses, and his skill position talent was always great. This meant that Baker was often throwing to wide open receivers, and while he was consistently accurate, he was often not as precise as he will need to be at the next level. He also has issues floating the ball, especially on deep passes, and with being a little too lackadaisical with both footwork and armwork. As he never took snaps from under center, he will have to prove he can do it at the next level. His height could affect him when his throwing windows are not as big at the next level.

Low comp: Colt Mccoy // Mid comp: Alex Smith (2014-2016) // High comp: Drew Brees

Mayfield is the definition of a safe prospect. While there are some valid concerns about his level of competition and ability to operate against tighter defenses, the fact of the matter is that even his bad games would be considered average or better by many QBs. His truly bad throws are extremely rare, always putting the ball in a spot his receiver can catch it. As he becomes more refined, he definitely has the ability to ascend to the next level. As a first round pick, he will have every opportunity to prove himself.

Draft value: Top 5 pick

Sam Darnold, 6’3 221, 20.9 years old, age 20 season: 63.1% – 8.6 Y/A – 5.4 TD% – 2.7% INT – 75 rush attempts, 1.1 ypc

Positive Scouting Report – Sam Darnold can do it all. While “all” also includes throwing interceptions and fumbling, it also includes plays that evoke images of Aaron Rodgers. Darnold has a strong arm that puts a ton of zip on the ball, especially to intermediate areas. The one thing that really comes to mind when watching Darnold though is raw. Darnold shows significant flashes of elite, top level talent – ability to escape the pocket, throw on the run or from the pocket, top tier arm talent, ability to read a defense – he is not nearly as consistent as you’d like for an NFL QB. As the youngest QB in this draft class, this is something that should resolve with age.

Negative Scouting Report – Darnold certainly has a strong arm, but he is not ready to unleash it in the NFL. He constantly tries to do too much, leading to numerous killer turnovers. He has a looooong delivery and stiff hips which significantly affects his throws to all areas of the field and sometimes causes balls to be delivered slow or late. While the top tier talent is undeniable, that underlying current that he is not there yet should not be ignored. If these issues don’t resolve, he will be nothing more than a tantalizing talent unrealized.

Low comp: Mark Sanchez // Mid comp: Kirk Cousins (2016-17) // High comp: Aaron Rodgers

Darnold is an unfinished prospect who should probably sit for at least two years, and for that reason, I have to drop him down a peg – QBs on rookie contracts represent the best value, and losing some of that value definitely matters. That being said, if he hits his ceiling, he can be a top 5 QB in the NFL, all the raw talent is there, it’s just a matter of developing it, helping him to learn what he can and can’t do and seeing if some of the mechanical issues can’t be ironed out. My biggest concern is that he is rushed into action too soon, develops bad habits, and never reaches his full potential.

Draft value: Top 10 pick

Josh Rosen, 6’4 226, 21.2 years old, age 20 season: 62.6% – 8.3 Y/A – 5.8 TD% – 2.2 INT% – 50 rush attempts, -1.9 ypc

Positive Scouting Report – Josh Rosen looks every bit the part of a franchise QB. Prototypical size, clean mechanics, touch, zip. He makes you go wow seemingly once a drive. Ran a pro-style system including taking plenty of snaps from under center and shows no major footwork issues. Rosen struggles under pressure and provides very little with his legs as his -154 rushing yards at the college level indicates, but Rosen’s athleticism tested better than he showed on the field, giving hope that he can develop those abilities more at the next level. Give Rosen a clean pocket and let him work and the results should be good.

Negative Scouting Report – For somebody who is often referred to as “the most pro-ready” QB prospect, his tape has a lot of glaring flaws. One thing you can’t take away from Rosen – in a clean pocket, throwing to an open first read, Rosen absolutely shines. He has every bit the look of a franchise QB. However, Rosen has shown significant deficiencies in reading a defense and going through progressions when his first read is not open. More complex defenses and better coverage at the next level could cause Rosen problems. Rosen also really struggles under pressure and on the run, showing far too much panic and far too little ability to navigate the pocket and open field. These could all be reasons why he struggled so badly in the red zone. On a good team, Rosen will be great. On a bad team, Rosen could really, really struggle. There are also concussion concerns that cannot be ignored.

Low comp: David Carr // Mid comp: Carson Palmer // High comp: Matt Ryan

It’s somewhat tough to project Rosen, because contrary to the seemingly-accepted wisdom, he’s not pro-ready. He hasn’t really learned how to navigate the pocket. He makes truly terrible decisions in far too many situations. My big concern with Rosen is how much value he brings above an average QB. That is, Rosen will absolutely succeed behind a good line, throwing to good receivers, in a good scheme. But that describes many QBs. Any team drafting Rosen highly will be doing so in hopes that either his mental processing significantly improves or that their team will be good enough that it won’t matter. Injuries will always remain a concern due to his statute-like nature and history of concussions, which should be factored in as well. Still, that base level of arm talent and mechanics is awfully tantalizing and provides a somewhat high floor, so it’s not all risk here.

Draft Value: 1st-2nd round

Kyle Lauletta, 6’3 222, 23.1? years old, age 20 season: 61.6% – 9.2 Y/A – 4.9 TD% – 3.8 INT% – 78 rush attempts, 1.5 ypc

Scouting Report – Do you like Baker Mayfield? Do you not have a top 10 pick in this draft? Why not take a look at Kyle Lauletta. There’s not a ton of game tape available for him, but what is available shows a guy who is ready to be an NFL backup on day 1 with potential to successfully operate a classic pro-style scheme relatively quickly. He has clean, consistent, repeatable mechanics that drive the ball to the right spot on time. His big limiting factor is his lack of true NFL arm strength. Is it possible that he adds a bit more zip with NFL strength and conditioning? I don’t know, but if he can, he’s a much more intriguing prospect. He has functional NFL athleticism but will need time to adjust to NFL game speed. Overall, there’s a lot here to like as long as you’re not looking for a big arm.

Draft Value: 2nd-3rd round

Mason Rudolph, 6’5 235, 22.8 years old, age 20 season: 62.3% – 8.9 Y/A – 5.0 TD% – 2.1 INT% – 67 rush attempts, -0.5 ypc

Scouting Report – As is the case with many Big 12 QBs, Rudolph is difficult to evaluate because his offensive talent was far superior to the defensive talent and because the scheme was very QB-friendly. Rudolph adds to that by being extremely inconsistent. When he looks good, he has plenty of zip (although it somewhat dissipates going to the outside) and decent accuracy, though he struggles with ball placement – his receivers help him out significantly. When he looks bad, especially under pressure, his ball can wobble and die. He has a big body and good strength, using those to his advantage to navigate the pocket and pull free of grabbers. He also does a better job using his eyes and head to both go through reads and move defenders than is typically seen in the Big 12. Rudolph is unlikely to ever be a great starting QB, but he has enough tools and talent to be a backup with starting upside.

Draft Value: 3rd round

Josh Allen, 6’5 237, 21.9 years old, age 20 season: 56.0% – 8.6 Y/A – 7.5 TD% – 4.0 INT% – 142 rush attempts, 3.7 ypc

Positive Scouting Report – Josh Allen throws the ball really, really hard. Allen’s package of tools comes along only once every few years. His upside if he can harness everything is immense. Watching his tape, there are plenty of examples of elite and wow plays and his highlight reel is special. While inconsistency is a concern, a few years of NFL coaching should be able to iron out the wrinkles and turn him into at least a functional QB with continuing upside. Allen has a long way to go to become an NFL QB, but if you could build a QB from the ground up, these are the physical tools you would choose.

Negative Scouting Report – Josh Allen throws the ball really, really hard. Whether he should or not. Whether his man is open or not. Whether he knows where the ball is going or not. Ultimately, Allen is an extremely raw prospect who brings size, athleticism, a cannon arm, and very few actual QB skills. He has not shown any ability to read a defense or go through progressions. He does not have good pocket presence and panics under pressure. While the tools are great, everything else is lagging so far behind that it’s hard to see him succeeding.

Low comp: Logan Thomas // Mid comp: Cardale Jones // High comp: Carson Wentz

Reading the draft profiles of Thomas and Jones should give a good idea why those are his comps. Both guys were in a similar mold – huge athletes with cannon arms and questionable QB skills. Logan Thomas is now a tight end. Jones is already on his second team, although they appear to like him and he may still have a future in the league. While I gave Allen a High comp, his chances of reaching it are simply extremely low. Allen simply has not shown any QB skills beyond getting plenty of zip on his passes and his development will take a long time. Even if he pans out, it will likely be long after his rookie contract.

Draft Value: 4th-5th round

The Rest

I have not done more than skim most of the rest of the QB prospects, but none of them particularly caught my attention. These guys all project as 5th round or later. Luke Falk is typically the highest ranked QB I did not cover, but he is simply below average in every facet of the game. While many random QBs are taken in later rounds or picked up in UDFA, trying to project them is largely an exercise in futility, as their NFL future will fully come down to the situation they find themselves in.


Thus ends my 2018 NFL Draft QB Series. If you enjoyed, you can follow me on twitter @BusterDucks. Next up – the 2018 NBA Draft Series!

QB Draft Series 2018: Charting the Big 5

In undertaking this project, I fully intended to chart one full game of each of the notable QBs. After about 2, it became obvious that I simply did not have the time to do so. So, I charted one game of each of the big 5, watched multiple other games from them, and watched multiple games of each other QB. In charting games, I followed the following rules:

  1. I used the game tape in which the QB’s passer rating most closely matched his season passer rating, as long as DraftBreakdown had it. Some small exceptions were made to get enough good tape to use.
  2. I charted only passes intended for a receiver. Throwaways, sacks, scrambles, or any other play that was not a pass intended for a receiver was not charted. My only interest was success on passes intended for receivers. Throws with penalties were counted unless the receiver was completely taken out of the play.
  3. Each pass was charted for distance (short, medium, long), throw quality (bad, average, good), openness of receiver (open/not), and pressure (pressure/none). Occasionally there is some grey area or subjectivity, but I did my absolute best to keep an objective, consistent standard. Some plays have .5 where there was uncertainty as to how it should be charted, but I tried to keep these to a minimum.
  4. A Bad throw is any throw that was uncatchable or ill-advised. Average is any throw within a reasonable catching radius, and more throws should end up in this category than the others. Good is a throw that is on-time, on-target, and precisely where it is supposed to be.
  5. Decision-making was factored into throw quality, but only when the tape made it possible to judge. Since this is not all-22 tape, it is not possible to judge on most plays absent obvious factors or replays. Sorry.
  6. Notes were be made on every throw. As the categories are rather big, this is intended to give insight as to why the grade was given.

Link to charting

There are 5 tabs there, the information there should be fairly self-explanatory – a link to the game, the stats for the game, the charting, and a summary. Here are some overarching concepts that the tape showed:

It’s incredible how complex every play is

I just want to start with this. To chart even the most simple of plays required 6 or so viewings. To chart some of the more difficult plays required 20+. There’s just so many moving parts on literally every play and it’s so easy to miss things. Sometimes there’s late pressure from somewhere you’re not looking. Sometimes a receiver breaks off a route after the ball is already thrown. With 11 guys on the field and at least 7 offensive players and 6 defensive players involved in every play, it’s very easy to miss things.

By the same token, viewing everything once, it is very easy to miss what “really” happened. Just something to keep in mind.

Do not treat stats as gospel

I do not think they should be completely ignored, but they definitely should not be relied upon. Completion percentage is significantly impacted by both pressure and drops. Baker faced very little pressure, while many of the other QBs were constantly on the run. Lamar Jackson’s receivers dropped 3.5-5.5% more passes than the other QBs because his receivers were terrible. Would he have accuracy questions if he completed 63% of his passes instead of 59%? It shouldn’t matter.

It does make it difficult to objectively evaluate these guys though because they had different advantages and disadvantages and we don’t know how they would look in different situations. Would Rosen look like a top QB behind Louisville’s line? Would Baker have some of the best numbers ever on a less talented team? The answers to these questions are purely speculative, but they should surely be factored in to any evaluation.

Each QB has throws they are better and worse at

As an Eagles fan, I got to watch this season as Doug Pederson completely redid his offense on the fly because Carson Wentz and Nick Foles were good at entirely opposite throws. Not all throws are created equal. Some QBs are better to the middle, some are better to the outside, some are better short, some mid, some long, some are better on timing plays, some are better on sit plays, and so on and so forth.

Why does this matter? Well, I’m not sure any of these guys played in systems that truly emphasized their strengths and minimized their weaknesses. Darnold and Allen were much better throwing medium routes but were constantly asked to throw lateral behind-LOS balls that they simply weren’t good at. Rosen and Jackson’s ability to hit receivers on slants and crosses was not exploited in favor of more sit and hook routes. Jackson didn’t run a single read or RPO.

Whatever team drafts each of these QBs better have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and tailor their offense around them. You wouldn’t buy a towel and complain that it’s a bad blanket. Don’t draft a QB unless you plan on building to him.

Each QB has glaring flaws and we honestly don’t know which will improve and which won’t

There is no such thing as a perfect prospect. Each person (and team) will have to decide which flaws they can live with and which they can’t. It is not safe to assume that with “better coaching” or “more experience” or whatever else that a QB will magically turn their weaknesses into strengths. The important thing here is to be realistic about all prospects. What happens far too often is that some prospects have their strengths highlighted while others have their weaknesses highlighted, and then you end up with a biased, useless view of both of them. And while it’s common in NBA scouting, age is not a common factor in NFL scouting despite it potentially being a huge factor in development.


No matter how much analysis and tape study is done, when it comes down to it, there are so many factors at the next level that contribute or detract from success that every QB has a chance to succeed and a chance to fail. Ultimately, the goal is to try to identify the guys who are most likely to succeed. No analyst is going to be 100% on prospects for so many reasons. But over a period of time, a good process will lead to better results than a bad process. Holding out one wrong projection is bad because it is impossible to be perfect.

QB Draft Series 2018: What I Look For in a Prospect

One of the most common arguments in draft conversation is “you must not have watched the tape!” So, before I even get to my thoughts on each of the QB prospects, I want to explain exactly how I evaluate QBs.

First Impression

The first thing I look at is the physical attributes. Height, weight, body type, athleticism, and other basic purely physical traits. I do not disqualify anybody based on physical traits, but the lack of certain traits does raise the bar on how good other attributes need to be. There is no evidence that in the NFL, you need to be a certain height, certain weight, or anything else to be successful, so I do not set any artificial limits. A shorter QB must display the ability to still see the field and get the ball over the line. If he can, there’s no reason to downgrade him. A slower QB must display the ability to evade rushers. If he can, there’s no reason to downgrade him. Still, this first look can still impact what traits specifically to look for.

Finally, perhaps the least talked about and most important factor for judging a QB prospect is their age. In basketball, age is perhaps the most critical factor in determining the potential upside of a prospect. For the NBA, “Pretty much without exception, players were bad before age 20 (there were a few age 19 backup quality seasons), took a leap at age 20 or 21, took another leap at age 22 or 23, and then basically all players showed either consistent growth through the late 20s or took another leap some time between 24 and 28.” For NFL QBs, it’s slightly more difficult because there are less age 18-19 seasons, but there appears to be a consistent age 20 leap to the point where it’s pretty safe to ignore everything before age 20. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to find consistent evidence of an age 22-23 leap because that’s typically when they make the jump to the NFL. There is some evidence indicating that the age 23 leap is real in the NFL, but there’s not enough of it to draw a very strong conclusion. However, there is strong evidence indicating that an age 25 (occasionally a year earlier or later, but by far most common at age 25) leap is 100% real.


The next thing I look at is mechanics. There are three parts to throwing mechanics: arm, body, and feet. Arm mechanics are the actual motion of the arm, how long it takes to throw from start of motion to end, whether there’s a consistent release point, and whether there is consistency in motion from throw to throw. Body mechanics is everything from the waist up. You want to square up to your target, which is done with both feet and body. That is how quick a QB can twist and turn. It is also whether a QB leans forward, back, or completely upright as they throw. Foot mechanics are dropbacks, how bouncy the feet are, how quick they move from side to side, how well they get pointed to the target before the throw, and how good the base is when planted.

The biggest mechanical issues are a long windup, an inability to consistently get squared to the target, too much leaning back while throwing, and inconsistent release point. These issues cause the most accuracy issues. It should be noted that while mechanics can be cleaned up, generally a player’s mechanics are his mechanics and any improvement/progress will be slow and often minor, having to rebuild year-over-year. That being said, mechanical issues are often overblown, and should only be considered to have an effect on draft stock if they consistently cause significant problems on throws.

Arm Talent

This is separate from mechanics and includes raw arm strength, raw accuracy, touch, and ability to throw without fully engaging the body/legs. For arm strength, contrary to what NFL execs appear to believe, max ball speed is pretty irrelevant. There is definitely a threshold below where a guy will struggle to be a successful NFL QB, but above that, more ball speed generally just…doesn’t matter very much, and can sometimes be detrimental as it can be harder to catch, especially on short throws. Ball speed can also vary wildly from throw to throw – when it’s intentional, it’s arm talent, and when it appears to be unintentional, it’s usually a function of bad mechanics sapping the throw. For accuracy, this includes both accuracy (ball is thrown in a catchable place) and precision (ball is thrown in the correct place). Some QBs are highly accurate but imprecise. Some QBs are hit or miss but when they hit, they hit the right spot. Ability to throw on the run, in a collapsed pocket, or in other situations where correct mechanics cannot be used is also important. Not every throw is from a perfect base, some QBs are way better at generating power and accuracy in these situations than others and it’s one difference between stars and merely average QBs.

Raw arm talent is important, but may actually be the least important of all QB qualities when it comes to attaining a minimum level of success. Better arm talent certainly indicates a higher ceiling. However, once the arm meets minimum accuracy and strength levels, it is less important than the next few qualities.

Mental Processing and Ability to Handle Pressure

QB is perhaps more mental than it is physical. QBs need to process two completely separate spaces – the pocket and the defensive coverage – at the same time. In the pocket, QBs must show an ability to feel and respond to real pressure without overreacting to pressure that is not there or is otherwise likely to be locked. Reading coverage, QBs must show an ability to locate defenders who may jump the route and to determine whether the coverage is man or zone as quickly as possible. They must also show the ability to maintain some semblance of accuracy and decision-making while under pressure or when the defense throws an unexpected alignment out.

More than anything, these abilities can separate the NFL starters from the rest. It is extremely difficult to do either of these, and QBs who can do both consistently and quickly are often stars. QBs who can do neither are often relegated to the realm of backups and below no matter how good their arm is, because a QB who throws to the wrong team and takes unnecessary sacks or risks is a bad QB.

Running Ability

Running ability is a huge huge benefit and one of the major things I look for. A QB who can run puts significantly more stress on a defense and can wrap it around his unique abilities. Defenses must account for that ability, which limits the schemes they can run and how aggressively they can rush. Hell, Tim Tebow led a team with the 24th ranked defense to a 7-4 regular season record and a playoff win. Tim Tebow. Running ability for a QB is insanely valuable. First downs and possession are the name of the game, the game doesn’t care how you accomplish that.

For some reason, it is treated as a bad thing when QBs can run and I don’t know why. Running QBs are automatically “more injury-prone”. Newton, Wilson, Taylor, and Alex Smith have led the NFL in rushing attempts over the past 3 seasons. They’ve missed a combined 7 games over those 3 seasons, some of those not even related to injury or running. Do QBs get injured running? Absolutely. QBs who are not running QBs get injured running. Sometimes running QBs get injured too. Non-running QBs get injured too. Injuries suck. There’s a lot of them, especially in football. There is no evidence that running QBs are more injury prone – in fact the evidence points to the exact opposite. Running QBs are better able to avoid hits (especially in the pocket) and are more comfortable getting tackled in the open field, which mitigates the two most common ways non-running QBs get injured.

Another weird thing is that running QBs are generally automatically treated as inaccurate, lacking touch, unable to operate actual pro-style offenses, and other slights related to their passing and intelligence whether it’s true or not. There is no reason to conflate a QB’s running ability and their passing ability. It’s also generally automatically assumed that running QBs are more likely to bail from the pocket quicker when under pressure. This is both untrue and…not a bad thing?

I’ve never understood the line of thinking that a QB should pick up yards only with his arm. The reason most QBs don’t bail the pocket sooner is because they’re less dangerous outside the pocket. If you’re just as dangerous running, why shouldn’t you use that ability? The reason only one QB plays special teams is because most QBs can’t play special teams. They don’t have that ability. It would be like saying a RB is a bad RB because he’s capable of catching passes when he should just stay back and run the ball. There’s nothing mutually exclusive, what good does it do to suppress one of your talents for no reason whatsoever?


I am always hesitant to judge intangibles too much, but I think ignoring them completely is a bad idea. We generally don’t have access to medicals and we don’t know these guys. That being said, major injuries are reported and should be factored in, especially concussions, which don’t really go away ever. Leadership is certainly a factor – if a team doesn’t like playing for its QB, is it really a team? Players who consistently come up with clutch plays and lead late drives get a little boost, while players who consistently come up small and fail late get a little downgrade. There are some other intangibles that can come into play, but I try not to react too much to them simply because as fans, we never have full details.


Being an NFL QB is difficult. There are a ton of moving parts and a ton of factors to consider in grading prospects. On top of that, many prospects are still developing, and projecting how they will finish developing without even knowing who their coaches will be is nearly impossible. Still, some traits are simply more valuable than others. While arm talent certainly matters, being able to read defenses, navigate the pocket, and punish defenses for leaving open space are more critical towards a QB’s ultimate success. QBs who cannot do this are less likely to be truly successful at the next level.