If a player like Jadaveon Clowney was in the NBA draft, there is little chance he would go No. 1 overall. To be sure, if he played basketball, Clowney wouldn't have to spend three years in school before being eligible for the draft, but as a rule, an NBA team would not spend a high pick on a player whose college production was trending in the wrong direction. When it comes to evaluating prospects, NFL teams don't seem to be as much in the thrall of individual statistics.
After a dominant sophomore campaign that saw him gracing the cover of every magazine in the country, Clowney’s had a disappointing final season at South Carolina. He went from 54 tackles and 13 sacks in 2012 to 40 tackles and only 3 sacks in 2013. Nevertheless, taking him No. 1 was the logical move - at 6'5 270 with a 37’ vertical and a 4.53 40, he is as physically gifted as any defensive lineman to come into the NFL in a long time. Clowney was picked on tools, not stats.
After all, there was only so much he could do at South Carolina. If the other teams in the SEC were going to double and triple team him and run the ball to the other side of the formation, Clowney was doing his job, even if the stats didn't always show it. Football is a team game and no college player, no matter how physically dominant, can carry his team to victory by himself. The statistics he compiles, meanwhile, are somewhat constrained by his role on the team.
An individual player can have more of an impact in a basketball game, but their success still depends on the other four players in the starting line-up, their coach and their bench. No college freshman or sophomore, no matter how skilled or athletically gifted, can carry a team anywhere. Kevin Durant lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Just as important, the statistics they put up will depend on the composition of the roster and how other teams choose to defend them.
Young basketball players aren’t statistical generating machines who will invariably find their way to the number of points, rebounds and assists that reflect their talent level. Too often, when a player’s stats don’t improve as much as we would like from season to season, the first thought is that something is wrong with them. Maybe they lack the will to win or the motivation to be a great pro, but it’s just as likely some outside factor stalled their development.
Terrence Jones, who slipped to the No. 17 pick in 2012, is a good example of the problem with that approach.
As a freshman, he was the best player on a Kentucky team that made the Final Four. So when he came back for his sophomore season, passing up a chance to be a lottery pick, he was expected to contend for the Wooden Award. Instead, his points, rebounds and assists dipped and the whispers started. Did he have attitude problems? Was he too inconsistent?
The reality was that after Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joined the team, so there was no way Jones' stats were going to trend upward. His role on the team changed from the primary option to a secondary option while the number of available rebounds went down in the Wildcats frontcourt. So while Jones thrived as a role player on a team that won the national title, but saw his draft stock plummet. In effect, he was punished for having better teammates.
To understand what’s going on with college prospects, you have to look beyond their season-by-season numbers. When you are scouting a player, you have to scout their teammates and their coaching staff as much as you scout them. If you don’t, you aren’t going to see the full picture of their career. Even if a player improves from season to season, he can see his statistics plateau, if not plummet, because of reasons mostly out of his control.
There’s no better example of that in this year’s draft than Marcus Smart, whose statistical profile didn’t change much between his freshman and sophomore seasons. A lot went down at Oklahoma State this season and Smart only had so much to do with it. Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash took on bigger roles in the offense, while an injury to Michael Cobbins decimated their frontcourt and revealed the lack of depth in Travis Ford’s program. Their lack of success wasn’t his fault.
Just because Smart's points, rebounds and assists stayed the same doesn't mean he didn't improve as a player. He had to share the ball more this season while the chaos in Stillwater meant there was little chance his statistics were going to improve. OSU was lucky to make the NCAA Tournament and that's with three potential NBA players on their roster - their problem was their coach’s inability to develop an 8-man rotation and the lack of structure in his offense.
Smart is not Jadaveon Clowney and he may not be Terrence Jones, but he's still the same player who was projected to go in the Top 5 after his freshman season. The perception of a player can change from year to year even though they are exactly the same prospect. When NFL teams are evaluating prospects, the first thing they look at are their measurables - size, speed and skill-set. Measurables matter just as much for young players entering the NBA.
One of the most common knocks in the NFL draft is a prospect is a "system player", a guy whose production had more to do with his team than his skill-set. It happens in the NBA just as often - see Thomas Robinson at Kansas, but people have a harder time looking past the gaudy numbers come draft time. When you are evaluating guys for the next level, you have to put everything in context. No young player is an island, not in football and not in basketball either.