One of the hardest parts of evaluating potential draftees stems from the fundamental truth that wherever they played, the previous season was not the NBA. This change in circumstances helps create a myriad of different evaluation-related challenges and problems that run in different directions.
As such, it becomes paramount to determine both what led to a player’s performance at their previous location and how the transition to the next level will change those variables. The perfect piece for this each year is John Hollinger’s Player Rater piece- by using college performance to project a player’s PER in the NBA, he provides the right canvas for trying to figure out what will and will not translate and why.
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-NBA production:
1. Better fit in the NBA game- While sometimes dismissed by certain parts of the draft community, players like Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings finding quick success in the NBA after their time in Europe has shown that various individuals can benefit from the change in scenery alone. Typically, the players in this group fit well in the more up-and-down game many NBA teams are playing now and often come from systems where their mobility was either underutilized or marginalized. As a UCLA student from 2003-2007, I saw numerous players whose athleticism ended up making them a more dynamic professional player than their comparatively uninspiring college statistics would show. Russell Westbrook, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison have all had young careers that surprised either due to low expectations or low draft position. There are numerous other examples in the last few drafts beyond them as well, including Avery Bradley’s emergence at the end of this season.
This year’s players: Meyers Leonard can start his career as a change of pace center that can get cheap points with his combination of size and athletic ability much like DeAndre Jordan did his rookie season. Time and coaching can smooth out the wrinkles in his game while he still contributes to the team’s success. Andre Drummond and Marquis Teague could end up here too because of their potent athleticism for their respective positions.
2. Better system / role in the NBA- While a large portion of NBA players got there by virtue of being big fish in various sized ponds, some benefit from a reduced role at the next level. This kind of improvement most frequently stems from those who take on playmaking, defensive, or scoring responsibilities that do not fit their game. Andre Iguodala, James Harden, Roy Hibbert and Taj Gibson are some examples of players whose game eventually flourished when they were able to find the right niche at the next level. Each was a very talented college player who did well early on but needed the proper balance of other talent to make the maximum impact on their professional teams.
This year’s players: Harrison Barnes may end up being the prototypical example of this problem in evaluating talent. Many have criticized him for not stepping up when Kendall Marshall went down with an injury- the problem there is that Barnes should not be the lead creator in an offense. By becoming a supporting talent, Harrison can utilize his gifts on both ends and become an important starter on a high-level team without being a star or lynchpin. Likewise, John Jenkins and Bradley Beal can benefit from being non-stars on their new squads and be a better cog in a bigger machine than they were in college. J’Covan Brown and Hollis Thompson could end up here as well.
Likewise, there are two main paths for a productive prospect to not reach those levels in the NBA:
1. Physical limitations leading to translation issues- By far the biggest group of players who fail to reach statistics-based expectations arises because the way that some players succeed in college does not translate to the NBA. Many of these happen due to the gigantic increase in athleticism and savvy of their day-to-day opponents at the next level. Players like Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams and Sean May were able to take advantage of competition with advantages that were wholly nullified at the NBA level. JJ Redick fit into this group as well until he adapted his game (becoming a much better defensive player as well) and found his role in the league.
This year’s players: Jared Sullinger, come on down! One of the easiest ways to identify potential players for this group is to envision their adaptation on the defensive end. Who will Sullinger guard in the pros? Power forwards who are often taller and faster? Centers who are bigger, stronger, and longer? The lack of an answer here coupled with the related question that he will have trouble getting points and rebounding against those same physical freaks gave people of my ilk pause long before the back issues popped into the picture. Tyler Zeller’s horrifying lack of length will likely doom him for similar reasons and John Henson’s lack of athleticism for his frame could end up fitting him in this pod as well.
2. Players with holes in their game not fully exploited pre-NBA- Unlike the grouping above, most of the players here possess at least the minimum level of athleticism to fill their niche in the best basketball league in the world. Rather, what makes busts here are guys who could not tweak their game in ways to make themselves worthy of their hype. The easiest group to explain here are those players who could not shoot their way into the league- Marvin Williams, Joe Alexander, and a million others could not keep opposing defenses honest enough to allow them to reach expectations. Other players like Michael Beasley and Hasheem Thabeet did not have the ability to fit any offensive mold and also did not possess the desire to add enough to their game to make them a complete player worthy of their draft stock. College big men who cannot play center in the NBA and college point guards who should not be primary ballhandlers at the next level stand out as the easiest identifiers here.
This year’s players: Perry Jones III cannot shoot, even from mid-range. As such, anyone who thinks he can play small forward in the NBA is kidding themselves and those around them. Similarly, Terrence Jones will have trouble finding a niche on both sides of the ball even though his body is fine for an NBA power forward. Royce White could end up in any one of three groups (here, the physical limitations one above, or improved system/role) with very little wiggle room while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jumper could land him here as well even though his defense should keep him as a legitimate contributor in the league.
Another important thing to remember is that fitting in the first two groups does not make a player a star or even a starter while residing in the last two does not make a player a scrub- they simply represent reasons why a prospect may produce differently than their stats-based projections. That said, they do stand out as some of the most common justifications for why some sleepers thrive in the league while some frontrunners bust, which takes on a particularly pivotal role in the draft.