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Basketball philosophy

Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger and a hypothesis about a blind spot in the drafting process

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English: Cropped version of the picture. Jared...

English: Cropped version of the picture. Jared Sullinger at the 2010 Nike Hoop Summit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This season in the NCAA Anthony Davis had the best season. Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger were arguably the 2nd and 3rd most impressive stars, culminating in a Final Four matchup between their teams (Of which Kansas and Robinson got the edge).

Both will be picked top 16 in this draft, though at different points. Robinson is the odds on favorite to go 2nd overall to the Bobcats and will drop to 5th or 6th at worst. Jared Sullinger’s window appears to be between 10 to the Hornets and 16 to the Rockets 2nd pick.

The reason Sullinger has dropped below a number of players he outperformed in college with his fabulous post scoring, is concerns about whether he can get off his game in the NBA. He measured reasonably at 6’9, but horribly in the combine athletic testing and appears to have little vertical impact on the game. The logic against him that the jump in competition in physical talent between the NCAA and NBA will limit his upside – that because he’ll be forced to score under the rim against bigger defenders, he won’t be able to get his offensive game off.

On the other hand, Robinson is a physical specimen. He is chiseled, wide and explosive enough to play above the rim. Although the same size as Sullinger, he will a bull to handle physically. Thus there doesn’t seem a lot of reason to ask whether he fits the NBA game physically and athletically.

I believe this is indicative of a blind spot. The jump from the NCAA to NBA in level of competition and physical talent is equally massive for every player. It in fact does make sense to ask whether the jump in athletic competition will make Robinson a bust risk, because it’s a big gap for him too. Sullinger may drop from a mid level college athlete to a sub average NBA one, but Robinson may drop from a great athlete to a good one. What’s to say the latter is less of an important drop-off?

Or put it this way. Say you labelled Sullinger’s athleticism in college as a 6 compared to the competition (average), while his skill level was a 10. Then the way to numerically show the lukewarm reception of his NBA prospects, is to say that compared to NBA players he’s being seen as a 3 athletically, while say he drops to an 8 in skill.

Now take Thomas Robinson and do the same thing, except start by giving him the inverse of Sullinger – Call him a 10 athletically compared to college competition and a 6 in skill. Now takes away the some points as Sullinger lost – 3 points off his athleticism and 2 points off his skill. Robinson ends up a 7 athletically and a 4 in skill.

Both players end up with 11 total points  – Sullinger with a 3 in athleticism and 8 in skill, Robinson with a 7 athleticism and 4 in skill. From where they started, the difference 6 and 3 in athleticism really hurts Sullinger to go along with his drop from 10 to 8 in skill. But the gap from 10 to 7 for Robinson in athleticism to go along with from 6 to 4 in skill, also takes a huge bite out of Robinson’s profile. Neither combination screams star.

This is of course a generalization – Basketball and draft prospects are too complex to boil down to numbers. But I believe the following is true – While “skill” players should be judged on whether their games can work against a physically superior NBA league, it should also be true that “athleticism” prospects should be asked the same question. A player who relies on athleticism in college to dominate will also face off a potentially destructive drop-off in how much his moves work in the NBA.

This is also reflected in some recent draft picks. Let’s look at some recent draft busts who couldn’t translate their production from college:

In the 2009 draft Hasheem Thabeet was the biggest bust. His production in college mainly relied on his physical tools (immense length, mobility), in the NBA he couldn’t handle the physical strength of the NBA – Though his biggest problem was simply having no feel for the game, it moved too fast for him mentally. Another bust was Jonny Flynn, the definition of a player ruined by the extra size of the NBA. While he could overpower opponents at the rim in the NCAA, once that option dried up against NBA defenses, he had nothing else to fall back on without a shooting or passing game. Jordan Hill took until his 3rd team to start finding his niche – He was an athletic, high motor player who didn’t have the skill to compensate when the NBA made him much less physically significant than he was in college.

In the 2008 draft 2nd and 3rd overall picks Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo were disappointments mainly due to the physical jump from the NCAA to NBA. Beasley couldn’t post up defenders anymore and Mayo couldn’t score points at the rim, due to being undersized PF and SGs respectively. Joe Alexander was a great athlete who couldn’t get by on it alone in the NBA, he had no feel for the game nor a strong enough skill level to make it. Jerryd Bayless was a great athlete who was caught between positions, being too small to finish at the rim effectively at SG and doesn’t have the court vision to be a starting PG.

In 2007, excluding Greg Oden and Brandan Wright who were busts for their teams by being hurt all the time, Corey Brewer was an athletic swingman who couldn’t maintain his elite defense from college against tougher NBA competition and didn’t have enough offensive skill to start. Julian Wright was an athletic project without the skill to start. Al Thornton was too selfish to play in a team mentality long term in the NBA.

In 2006, Adam Morrison is an ultimate example of a player who’s physical limitations prevented his skill first college game from translating. Tyrus Thomas was the anti Morrisson, an all athleticism and physical tools player who also busted when his physical tools alone couldn’t him good in the NBA. Shelden Williams was limited due to his lack of physical impact in the game in the NBA, in combination with weak skill. Randy Foye was an undersized SG who couldn’t score at the rim. Patrick O’Bryant and Saer Sene didn’t have a productive background to not translate from.

The physical jump from the NCAA to NBA is certainly responsible for essentially all the productive college players who didn’t do it in the NBA. But in this sample size and the other drafts you can look back on yourself, I don’t see a lot of reason to separate particularly skill first players from athleticism first ones, in terms of which prospects are more likely to suffer from the jump. What I left out that is that the 2006 and 2009 drafts also included prospects who succeeded seemingly in spite of not being athletic freakish, including James Harden, Stephen Curry, Ricky Rubio, Tyler Hansbrough, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Andrea Bargnani ended up successful draft picks. Now on that note, all of these players are good athletes, many underrated because their lack of uber athletic highlight plays – But they were players that people questioned whether their skill games will translate without athletic advantages.

I believe how much a prospect survives the jump from the NCAA to NBA is not about whether they are skill first or athleticism first, but on a case by case basis what the drop-off in each category means to their games in the NBA. But to me the common blind spot is to assume skilled players with mediocre athleticism will face a harder drop-off athletically. Rather, it’s likely their starting point only that makes the difference.

Bringing it back to Robinson and Sullinger. I don’t know who will be better in the NBA. But if teams believe Robinson is a bet without risk to translate in the NBA because he is an athleticism first and Sullinger is a skill first one, I believe they are misguided. Both Robinson and Sullinger are going to need the right combination of athleticism and skill if they want to be starters to all-stars in the NBA. It’s within the realm of possibility that Sullinger’s combination of athleticism and skill falls below a NBA starter caliber’s. On the other end, it’s also within the realm of possibility that Robinson’s combination and athleticism is below NBA starter level. In Sullinger’s case the failure would likely come from sub average athleticism and good skill level not being enough to overcome it, while Robinson’s would likely come from sub average skill and good athleticism not being enough to overcome it. To me it’s not really about being skilled with mediocre athleticism or athletic with mediocre skill, but what the combination as a whole adds up to. Yet I believe the way prospects are ranked year to year doesn’t reflect this.

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Written by jr.

June 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Posted in NBA Draft

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