While lottery picks are typically given chance after chance to succeed, late second-round picks often have to beat out multiple players with guaranteed contracts and NBA experience ahead of them, making it very difficult to even make a team. Yet in Sacramento, Isaiah Thomas, the No. 60 pick of the 2011 Draft, has jumped Jimmer Fredette, the No. 10 pick, in the rotation.
Despite his lofty draft status, Fredette’s struggles in the NBA aren’t that surprising. More broadly, they illustrate a common mistake in how college prospects are evaluated: the ability to score a lot of points, even for a Top 10-15 team, doesn’t necessarily translate to the next level. Conversely, there are many collegiate role players who will have better pro careers than All-Americans like Fredette.
BYU provided the perfect situation for Fredette: the Cougars built their entire offense around him, spreading the court with shooters and letting him isolate at the top of the key. In his senior season, he took a jaw-dropping 21 shots a game, meaning he was shooting once every two minutes. His ability to hit a vast array of difficult long-range shots was certainly entertaining, but creating a shot off the dribble is only one of five different skills an NBA player needs.
As a prospect, the biggest red flag in his game was his assist to turnover ratio, at 4.3 assists to 3.5 turnovers a game. A player who can consistently create good shots for other people should have an assist to turnover ratio closer to 2:1.
Defensively, Fredette’s average to below-average athletic ability amongst NBA combo guards means he will have to be hidden his entire career. Poor defensive ability is too often hand-waved away because most young NBA players struggle on that side of the ball, but a fast player can learn team defensive principles much easier than a slow player can learn speed.
Fredette is a a great outside shooter, an average passer and a poor defender and rebounder. In short, he’s the type of player who needs the ball in his hands to be worthy of being taken in the lottery. But how many NBA teams are going to let an unathletic 6’2, 200 combo guard dominate the ball? Even the Kings, who haven’t exactly set the league on fire this season, have three players -- Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins and Marcus Thornton -- far ahead of him in the scoring pecking order.
In contrast, while Thomas didn’t receive nearly as much hype coming out of Washington, he displayed a far more complete all-around game. Despite being only 5’9, 185, he had a nearly identical shooting percentage (44.5% to 45.3%), grabbed the same number of rebounds (3.5 to 3.4) and was a much better passer (with 6.1 assists on 3.0 turnovers). And while Fredette is a “1.5”, too slow to defend point guards and too short to defend shooting guards, Thomas has the quickness and foot-speed to match up with the NBA’s new breed of lightning-quick sub-6’0 guards.
Neither is probably ever going to be a frontline NBA point guard, but Thomas can fill a lot more roles (matching up with fast points, running an offense, using his speed to penetrate into the lane) than Fredette, a shooting specialist. Unless a player is one of a team’s top three offensive threats, their value to a team comes from how many different roles they can perform.
Fredette might still become an effective player for the Kings, but it’s hard to see him ever living up to expectations of the No. 10 overall selection. None of the teams who took the next three guards to come off the board -- the Golden State Warriors (Klay Thompson), Utah Jazz (Alec Burks) or New York Knicks (Iman Shumpert) -- would deal their taller and more athletic rookies for Fredette. The Miami Heat, who took another mid-major PG (Norris Cole) at No. 28, wouldn’t trade their pick for Fredette either.
This year’s draft class is the most loaded one since 2008 (Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon) if not 2003. Making the wrong pick in 2012 while other lottery teams take All-NBA caliber players could set a franchise back three or four seasons.
With that in mind, the one player I would stay far away from is Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger. There’s no arguing with his collegiate production, but like Fredette, he’s not going to be valuable to a team if he isn’t dominating the ball. The Buckeyes’ offense is built around his low-post game, as Thad Matta surrounds him with shooters (DeShaun Thomas, William Buford, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr.) who make a concerted effort to pound him the ball inside.
But will an NBA coach really want to feature Sullinger offensively? He doesn’t have great athleticism and he’s never shown the ability to dominate from the high post; he primarily scores in the paint in college. Unless he’s paired with a great center, teams can slide their best low-post defender on him. Players like Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby, who are not only bigger but much better athletes, should easily limit his efficiency.
Indeed, there are several college power forwards who will have an easier transition to becoming an NBA role player. At 6’9, 260, Sullinger is a classic “4.5”: not big enough to defend centers, not quick enough to defend power forwards. He’s improved his perimeter jumper this year, but he’s not yet close to being a stretch-4, someone who can consistently bury NBA three-pointers at a 35% clip.
In contrast, Arnett Moultrie (Mississippi State) is a long and athletic 6’11, 220 forward capable of defending both interior positions who shoots a higher percentage from the free-throw line. Kevin Jones (West Virginia) is a dominant offensive rebounder at 6’8, 230 whose poor three-point shooting percentage (28.3%) is mainly a function of having to take so many contested shots for a Mountaineers team with far less talent than Ohio State.
As the rookie seasons of Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette have shown, there’s much more to being an NBA prospect than scoring a lot of points for a Sweet 16 team. NBA teams drafting in the lottery this year would be wise to remember that.