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 It is memory bias and outdated wisdom.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?

Yes.

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…

Semantics

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.

Exceptions

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