A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Introducing the 95% theory

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Despite confidence in my talent grading system, not even if I rate the players talent in my 3 categories correctly, will it prove a perfect measure of a prospect.

Prospects are human beings and the NBA is a sport where psychological nuance matters. How hard an effort a player gives on and off the court clearly affects their career, as does other factors like confidence, or commitment to getting along with teammates on and off the court.

Up to this point my position has largely been to rate a player’s talent level and accept imperfection rating whether they’ll get there since it is too hard to know. When the media jumps on a prospect for not caring about the game or a lack of motor there’s as big a risk this ends up totally unfounded, such as for Andre Drummond coming out of Connecticut.

Nevertheless it creates a concern. For example I rated Anthony Bennett’s talent 1st in the 2013 draft, yet judging from his start there is a possibility he never makes it in the NBA. How is this conceivable? Because even the highest of talent is no guarantee. What if Bennett became one of the all time great headcases? A player with so much anxiety on the court that he fell below a “Mendoza line” of confidence, meaning any shot he took had his head so far in the way to be a disaster? In the case of something like this, Bennett’s mental affliction would be like Greg Oden’s blowing out his knees. And in the case of both talent evaluation would be made irrelevant.

Now in reality, I don’t consider there to be many enigmas in the league. My theory on why is this. I believe most are weeded out by the time of the draft. Professional athletes play at a level of physical conditioning foreign and above regular human beings, which means virtual everyone who gets high enough to be noticed by the NBA is already a physical workout obsessive. That’s before considering the skill level to make the NBA also typically needs a history of practicing hard every day by prospects. In regards to confidence and anxiety the same weeding out factor may occur. The prospect who’s a nervous wreck in game competitions, doesn’t make it to be one of the best 18-22 year old players in the world not in the NBA in the first place. His game will already have been affected. A pro sports league is largely reserved for freaks of the world in not only talent, but confidence and off the court commitment to their sport. Most of the players who are talented enough to be standout NBA starters but were too enigmatic to mentally, probably are not in the NBA – more likely they’re people who never decided to chase after the NBA job, instead going for a regular job or college degree.

However of course, enigmas sneak through. How many? I’ve decided a number I like is 5%, or 95% of players in the NBA once they get a foot in the door (the future of undrafted players becomes less clear to me) eventually reach their talent. At least by the way I measure it. In a 450 player league this would mean 22 enigmas, however if discounting players young enough to be underperforming because of developmental pains only, something like 15 of 300 “established” players is a more reasonable ratio.

Naming 15 enigmas is actually harder than it seems. Here is my best attempt:

Michael Beasley

One of the first names that come to mind. Boasts a rare combination of feel for the game and skill level for a PF and is an above average athlete. Enough to be a star PF, never gotten close.

Charlie Villaneuva

Andray Blatche

Hedo Turkoglu

I list these players together because all 3 have high skill level and feel for the game at their position to make up ok physical tools. Out of seemingly laziness, never have consistently played to their talent, albeit shown flashes.

Josh Smith

J.R. Smith

The Smith duo are both enigmas. Like the above players I rate them as having above average feel for the game, but they play a low IQ brand of shot selection due to non-basketball mental flaws.

Jeff Green

Rudy Gay

Both players are rock solid SFs and Gay has turned it on in Sacramento, yet remain frustrating. Both players have a high fluidity and feel for the game, while Gay has great athleticism/size and ok skill, Green has both good physical tools and skill. Neither are a chasm away from their talent like a Beasley but when comparing them to a more valuable SF like Luol Deng the difference is likely non-talent.

D.J. Augustin

Eric Maynor

Neither player are as widely adknowledged enigmas as the above, however my system rates them as better talents than they’ve shown. Augustin has the shooting ability and feel to be an established borderline starter/backup a la Jameer Nelson, while Maynor’s strong feel and adequate shooting and quickness should also make him a strong backup at the least. This season in Washington right when his talent should be blossoming, he’s been one of the worst players in the NBA.

Jamal Crawford

Crawford is a player who’s had a rock solid career, however I personally see the talent to have been a consistent star. Crawford was one of the league’s best shooters, had an above average feel and despite average athleticism, had the ballhandling to get into the paint.

Andrea Bargnani

Bargnani is a player I almost left off the list, because due to feel for the game problems I feel his struggles are more explainable by talent than others do. However between his demeanor and shooting falling apart in recent years, he’s a player who carries himself so much like an underperforming one, that it feels fair to put him on. At the least, Bargnani does not help teams win games like his talent should.

Danny Green

Green is a player who’s barely played 5000 minutes in the regular season and postseason, so it may not be fair to put him on this list yet. But in his 5th season when he should be breaking out, he’s taken a step back statistically. His shooting, great feel and size/athleticism combo despite ballhandling issues, gives him the talent to be a top 10 SG in the NBA. Green is also a player who struggled to find a place early in his career due to an enigmatic work ethic, he’s admitted.

Andrew Bynum

Bynum is a player who for a handful of years with the Lakers, was reaching his talent level. At this point obviously, that is no longer the case for enigmatic reasons.

Carmelo Anthony

Deron Williams

It may not be fair to put these two players on the list considering they still peaked at a top 10, superstar level. However I hardly been impressed by their demeanor or physical conditioning and they typically carry themselves in an enigmatic way. It’s conceivable that as great of players they were, they could still be underperformers – if they had the talent to do what Kevin Durant and Chris Paul have done.

That’s 16 names, with a few players like Green, Anthony and Williams being somewhat of stretches.

Mind you, this doesn’t include younger players who may eventually be on this list. Here is my case for enigma “candidates”:

Anthony Bennett

Clearly deserves the mention for how he’s started. Bennett is blessed with the strong athleticism, feel and perimeter skills to be a star PF.
Derrick Williams

Patrick Patterson

Earl Clark

Both Williams and Patterson have the perimeter skill, feel and enough athleticism to be above average or top 10 starters in my opinion. Their production so far has been mediocre albeit Patterson is starting to shine in Toronto.

Clark has been in the league long enough to make the non-young player list, however he’s actually played less minutes than either Williams or Patterson, therefore it’s conceivable he is as much prospect. Like them for a PF he has intriguing perimeter skill, feel and athleticism.

Jimmer Fredette

Jan Vesely

Jimmer is a player I’ve listed numerous times as one I’m impressed by, with elite shooting and feel and more respectable athleticism/speed than his reputation.

Vesely has athleticism and feel, while his skill problems are a major concern. I’m not incredibly high on Vesely, but I do feel he can mark out a place in the league as a backup big man and this season he’s begun to get there.

Harrison Barnes

Something of a younger Jeff Green or Rudy Gay, Barnes has strong feel and perimeter skill for a SF and elite size/athleticism despite ballhandling issues, but continues to frustrate in Golden State

Dion Waiters

Waiters ability to drive to the basket, his feel and coming along shooting make him a high upside SG, however there’s a risk he’s a selfish jerk of a teammate it would appear

Meyers Leonard

Scott Machado

Kenny Kadji

Jeremy Lamb

These are players that I ranked top 5 in the 2012 and 2013 drafts who’ve yet to produce at that level yet, therefore I may as well list them. Meyers has perimeter jumpshot and athleticism for a 7 footer enough to be a top 10-15 C, while Machado has fine athleticism, feel and a passable jumper to be a starter. The two remind me of Marcin Gortat and Kyle Lowry respectively in talent. Lamb has elite feel, perimeter skill and is a good physical talent. Kadji has perimeter skills and feel for a power forward.

Kadji appears to be the most worrisome of the four. Not only due to question marks regarding the opportunity an undrafted player like Kadji or Machado gets compared to a lottery pick like Leonard or Lamb, but a German team cut him after a few weeks apparently because of his attitude. The coach even lambasting him by saying to paraphrase “To us when a player is talented it is isn’t just from the neck down”. It’s hard to tell how serious his misgivings were, it could have simply been a minor mistake breaking a rule about partying or drinking or involving a girl, but nevertheless it’s not a great sign for his commitment to reaching his talent in the NBA.

So if a “95% rule” approach was true, what would it mean? In my 2013 draft I used these probabilities for my talent grades being incorrect, due to changes such as shooting differences, athleticism being hidden at a young age, etc.

Within 0 points of the above talent grades (rounded, as is for all these numbers) – 30%
Within +1 or -1 – 70% (+1: 20%, -1: 20%)
Within +2 or -2 – 90% (+2: 10%, -2: 10%)
Within +3 or -3 – 97% (+3: 3.5%, -3: 3.5%)
Within +4 or -4 – 99% (+4: 1%, -4: 1%)
Within +5 or -5 – 99.5%+ (+5: 0.5%, -5: 0.5%)

Using this for example Anthony Bennett had an overall grade of 25 to top the class, but with the above probabilities it spelled out like this:

65% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
95% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent (23-24)
99.5%+ Blue Chip starter talent (19+)

Likewise my 2nd highest group of players at grade 22 Kelly Olynyk, Kenny Kadji, Dennis Schroeder’s probabilities worked out to this

Grade of 22 (Kelly Olynyk, Kenny Kadji, Dennis Schroeder)
5% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
35% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent (23+)
98.5% Blue Chip starter talent (19+)
99.5%+ Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent (17+)

The 3rd highest group of players at grade 21 were Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum

Grade of 21 (Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum)

1.5% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
15% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent
95% Blue Chip starter talent
99.5% Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent (17+)
99.5%+ Rotation player talent

However this is all only measuring talent, not the odds of them reaching it or not. For example even if I said Bennett was a virtual lock to have starting talent, it doesn’t mean he was a lock to reach this talent. But if adding in a rough 95% probability of a drafted player reaching their talent, then my new estimates would be:

Anthony Bennett

62% Perennial all-star
90% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
95% Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

Kelly Olynyk and Dennis Schroeder:

5% Perennial all-star
33% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
93.5% Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum

1.5% Perennial all-star talent
14% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
90% Blue Chip starter
94% Rotation player to Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

However, in reality there was probably reason to believe before the draft a Bennett or Schroeder had a higher chance at being an enigma than a player with the competitive streak in college of Victor Oladipo. But I feel more comfortable using the 95% rule for everyone.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers even if we could say there was only a 5% chance of the PF they took 1st overall falling short of being a starter and good player, it’s early enough to panic about whether they hit that 5% like a dart on a bullseye.

Written by jr.

January 18, 2014 at 5:07 pm

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