A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Review of talent grading methods

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Before getting into my draft grades for 2014 prospects, I’d like to review how I grade each category. First, my grades are from 1 to 11 in 3 categories: Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent, Skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent and Feel for the Game talent. The grades go by this rubric:

11: Transcendent, 10: Incredible 9: Elite, 8: Great, 7: Very good, 6: Decent, 5: Average, 4: Lacking, 3: Weak, 2: Very poor, 1: Awful

What the overall grades mean:

25+: Perennial all-star talent, 23-24: Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent, 19-22: Blue Chip starter talent, 17-18: Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent, 14-16: Rotation player talent, 12-13: Deep bench to rotation player talent, 11 or lower: Deep bench player talent

Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent grade:

This is the one category my methods for grading has changed since the 2013 draft. When looking at my grades in that draft and what I have seen so far in the NBA, it’s largely in this category I regret some grades. For example, I graded Anthony Bennett 9, Kelly Olynyk 6, Alex Len 7, CJ McCollum 5, Trey Burke 4 in the category. All of those I would now rate as at least 2 points lower. I also rated Giannis Antetokounmpo a 4 in the category, which looks 2 or 3 points too low. On the whole, despite these corrections and others, unlike 2012 where admittedly I made major mistakes grading players such as Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard and do not expect to outperform the NBA, despite a few mistakes here and there I expect my 2013 order despite imperfections to perform better than the way the NBA really drafted the players – especially since I am quite critical of the way the NBA picked players. I am very happy with how my grades in the skill impact and feel for the game categories have panned out so far in the NBA, so I should be in range of what I predicted. But am eager to do better in the 2014 draft.

It took me some time to settle on a consistent way to grade each of the elements of this category against each other. How to rate a tall player who struggles with athleticism and ballhandling, or an athletic player without ballhandling, for example. Here is how I do it now:

I begin by evaluating how they break through the defense at the “point of attack” on offense, which typically comes through a combination of first step athleticism and ballhandling. Being able to drive past defenders and the opponent is huge for a player’s offensive game and “physically impacting the game”, by typically allowing a player to drive to the basket. I thus give a player a beginning grade covering their explosiveness and ballhandling together. After I get this “primary grade”, I then adjust it according to their size (including both length and strength) and their lateral quickness, which finds most use defensively.

For example, I will rate C.J. McCollum this way. McCollum was a hard player for me to evaluate in this category last year for multiple reasons. First is I wasn’t sure whether to rate him as a PG or SG, where he’d be at a size disadvantage. At the time I chose PG, but I will now side with SG based on Portland’s long term role for him there. Secondly, he had little explosiveness but was a very tricky ballhandler.

When looking at his “point of attack” driving in clips like this

Despite his ballhandling I don’t see much burst from McCollum at “point of attack”. I will rate him as a 3 to begin, thus. Before adjusting for size and lateral quickness. He is short for a shooting guard, without more than average strength for the position and does not appear to have lateral quickness. So I will adjust him down to a 2, not downgrading him more from a reservation about going all the way to 1 except for the absolute most unable talents in the category.

What about the rest of his talent? CJ’s college career and start to the NBA season shows an impressive outside shooting resume, while his feel for the game is terrific. Giving him a grade like 8 in the skill impact category and 9 in feel for the game would make his overall grade 19, which isn’t as high as I originally rated him (21) but is enough to pass “blue chip starter” threshold makes a productive, if unspectacular season unlikely as a smart outside shooting role player. But if his shooting goes downhill, he may find himself more of a irrelevant role player.

To recap

Primary grade (Explosiveness+Ballhandling): 3

Size: -1

Lateral quickness: /

Final Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent grade: 2 (Very poor)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade

Grading this category has become relatively straight forward to me. Internally, like the physical impact category, I use a primary grade-secondary grade system.

I come up with a baseline grade by evaluating their shooting “range”. For a PG, SG, or SF, to get a high grade like 8 or higher, they have to be a great 3 point shooter, with both % and volume. It’s usually relatively simple to see the scale of 3 point shooting skill for perimeter cases. In some cases, such as Demar Derozan’s mid-range jumpshot or Tony Parker’s finishing in the paint, there are other ways to give players credit for “shooting” that goes beyond 3 point range. For PFs and Cs since shooting range is more rare, a terrific midrange jumpshooter without 3 point range, still rates high compared to his position. For example even though his shooting range is less than theirs, Lamarcus Aldridge gets as much credit as a shooter as Wes Matthews and Nic Batum in my system, since his midrange jumpshooting for a power forward is as rare as 3 point shooting for a SG or SF.

For college prospects, it can be difficult to rate players just by 3 point shooting, because of small sample size. If a player takes 120 3s over the entire NCAA season, 48 for 120 is 40% and 36 for 120 is 30%. The difference between a poor and great shooting season is a little slim and suspect to chance. Thus there are two other factors I use. A major one is free throw %, as most great shooters in the NBA are matched by the mechanics to be elite free throw shooters. For legitimately great shooting 3 point prospects, I usually look for a FT% of at least 80%, over 85% is especially rare and special. A prospect who hits 42% from 3 and 75% from the FT line worries me, for example. He may become a great 3 point shooter, but he may not as well. Some prospects like Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry, Adam Morrison lately have been drafted to be sharpshooters, despite a FT in the 70s. That also made me concerned about Otto Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s shooting last year, both in the 70s for FT. For prospects like that, I typically give them a grade like 6 in the category, representing a conservative approach to their shooting talent. Another indicator of NBA shooting skill is volume of 3 point attempts. While I consider 3pt and FTs %s to be the most important, it makes one more comfortable to see a player having the confidence to put up a ton of 3s, instead of just taking them when wide open. Paul George is a good example of the power of FT and volume as indicators. In his sophomore season in college at Fresno St., he hit only a mediocre 35.3% from 3, but did it on 5.75 3 point attempts a game and a 90.9% mark from the FT line. Those were two important reasons to believe in him as a shooter. As for PFs and Cs who are evaluated as midrange jumpshooters in the NBA, the benchmark for FT% I look to see is more like over 70%, albeit mid to high 60% is not too bad either.

After evaluating them as a shooter, I adjust upward if they show special post or passing skill. However, I don’t lower a player’s grade if they lack post or passing skills. It is possible for a player to be near perfectly graded in the category as a whole without them. For example, I’m not going to downgrade Stephen Curry’s skill impact talent for not posting up, or Dirk Nowitzki’s for lacking standout passing skills. Their shooting skill (along with passing for Curry and post skills for Dirk) is enough to make them perfect for their positions without it.

To give an example of grading in this category, here is how I would rate Kelly Olynyk from last year’s draft:

Olynyk did not have true 3 point range in college, hitting 30% on less than 1 attempt a game (9 for 30). However that’s better than most PF or Cs will perform from 3pt. In addition, he was a strong midrange jumpshooter. He hit 77.6% from the FT line his junior season, which is well above average for a big. Overall, it’s enough for me to rate him a 7 in the category as a baseline grade, with the assumption he would have a midrange jumpshot in the pros, if not more.

Olynyk made some passes in college, but at 1.7 assists per game, it’s not enough for me to adjust his grade (yet). Nor did his post ability stand out enough. So I left him at a 7.

To recap:

Primary grade (Shooting range): 7

Post up skills: /

Passing skills: /

Final skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7

It may turn out that this grade is too low. Olynyk is 20 for 68 from 3pt (29.4%) in 48 Gs which isn’t elite, but for a prospect adjusting to a longer NBA line, none too shabby. He is also over 80% from the FT line on a small sample size. Olynyk with good to great 3 point shooting eventually would be worth 8 or 9 in the category, considering the rarity of 3 point shooting bigs. This would help balance out grading him too high in the physical impact category.

Feel for the Game

This category is perhaps where I lose people the most, but is actually the easiest for me to grade by this point. I’ve broken it down to identifying feel for the game in two areas – Driving to the rim through traffic or posting up. Thus I can watch a video (X scores Y points) and only pay attention to the plays doing one of those two things. I figure in both cases, the player is under physical duress and is under danger of being “rushed” by the players around him. Therefore his feel has a place to shine.

When judging drives or post up, I look for who is the most fluid, balanced and poised. Often with players who have a high feel for the game, there is a “slo-mo” effect, where they make the game look slower for them than everyone else. (Kyle Anderson at UCLA, who’s feel for the game is one of the best in the class, literally has been given the nickname Slo-Mo).

Most tend to identify feel for the game most when it is elite. When asking what makes a player like Andre Miller, Tony Parker or Paul Pierce great, most would be able to call upon feel for the game as their gift. In this draft, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Tyler Ennis, Kyle Anderson, Dario Saric are all receiving credit for their special feel. What gets lost is the talent’s importance for everyone else. Recognizing who lacks it and who has it in above average, but not elite rates.

To give a visual example of feel for the game, here is 3 clips:

First is Russell Westbrook, who I would rate as having below average feel for the game. He drives at :20, :35, :57, 1:05, 1:16, 2:28, 3:00, 3:18 and posts up at 1:12, 1:40

Now compare the “smoothness” and balance on his drives or lack thereof, to Damian Lillard, who I would rate as above average in feel for the game but not elite. He drives at :32, 1:00, 1:19, 1:50.

A major difference I see between the Lillard and Westbrook drives in addition to greater control, is Lillard has a greater ability to “change pace” according to the situation, this adjustment catching defenders off balance.

I am not sure if everyone will be able to see this immediately. It may be hard for some to remove themselves from the perception of Westbrook’s assist per game numbers and overall competence, to see him rating below Lillard in this category. Here is another example of a player I would rate as “below average” in feel for the game

Here is a similar example using centers, first Jonas Valanciunas who I rate as below average feel for the game. He posts up at 0:54, 1:05, 2:58,

Now here is Andre Drummond, who I would rate as above average but not elite. He posts up at :41, :53, 1:02, 2:17

Even if one doesn’t see the difference between those pairs, then the difference between Westbrook or Valanciunas and the following ELITE feel for the game players, is unmistakable:

Here is Tony Parker, who drives at :07, :11, :16, :40, 1:45, but with players at this level of feel for the game, one doesn’t need to look at just the drives, it shows up in everything he does as an aesthetically pleasing, slippery, artistic type of play

Here is Andre Miller, a gold standard for feel for the game and the “slo-mo” effect. He posts up or drives at :18, :51, :56, 1:00, 1:05, 1:28, 1:35, 1:57, 2:09, 2:14, 2:25, 2:48, 3:13

In Miler and Parker, the change of pace and slipperiness Lillard started to show in his clip, gets taken to another level entirely

Here’s Roy Hibbert, who has elite feel for the game for a C. He posts up at 0:01, :50, 1:17, 1:33, 2:06, 2:16, 2:47,

Marc Gasol is another center with elite feel for the game. He posts up at :32, 1:04, 1:22, 1:33, but his feel is largely impossible to miss in the other plays as well

So at the least, we know that players like Miller, Parker, Hibbert, Gasol have a special fluidity, control and pace to their game, that would supercharge any players talent level. And we can ask “how much does player X have of that?” Personally, I feel I am confident in grading between 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10/11. What I am not as good at admittedly, is seeing the difference between 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I know when players don’t appear to have feel for the game, but struggle consistently rating how little they have of it. Part of this is that the number of players with low feel for the game is much smaller than above average. This is because it’s evidently harder to become an NBA caliber talent without it. It’s the same reason why such a high proportion of players in the NBA are good to great athletes. To make it into a rotation with subpar athleticism requires relatively rare skill level and feel for the game. For that reason you will likely rarely see me rate a player below a 4 or 5 in feel for the game.

Let’s look at a player from last year’s draft, Victor Oladipo. He drives at :10, :27, 1:34, 2:51, 3:12, 3:23, 3:33, 3:54

Oladipo certainly shows a lot of what the above average feel for the game players have, in terms of fluidity, ability to change pace and balance. Personally because I have been doing this for a while, I have a specific grade that comes to mind after seeing the above drives – and that grade is 8. Just below the elite feel perimeter players like Miller and Parker showed and probably below C.J. McCollum’s in this clip, but above Lillard.

Written by jr.

March 4, 2014 at 4:28 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Great post! I’ve watched a lot of DraftExpress and YouTube videos since reading your draft preview posts last spring, so I appreciate the clarification of your methods. I agree that feel is actually the easiest category to grade after awhile. I think most recognize its importance at some level (I see a lot of scouting reports referencing concepts like ability to change pace, fluidity, body control) but that many talent evaluators don’t realize how stable a concept it is. I’ve used Synergy to compare the same player across different seasons and while certainly players learn to play smarter the longer they play in the NBA, I have yet to find a player who ever went from mechanical and rushed to fluid and smooth. I don’t know when those instincts develop, but it appears to be long before they even get to the college level.

    Some questions:
    1. Do you have a Synergy account? If not, I’d recommend it because you can literally watch every NBA play of the last 5 years on demand and even sort by play type to instantly get the kind of plays you want to evaluate (i.e., pick and roll, post-up). Only $44.95 the rest of the year! My only warning is that it’s quite a rabbit hole to go down. You get to see the bad plays that you won’t find in highlight videos too, which might be helpful for determining whether a player has outright bad feel.
    2. How do you grade Physical impact for centers since very few of them handle the ball very far from the basket? Is it largely based on explosiveness or does defensive impact start to play a larger role?

    Jeremiah Methven

    March 4, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    • Oops, I totally forgot to elaborate about that part. Yes I have a specific idea about it I created recently – the farther a player is from the basket, the more ballhandling seems to matter when it comes to using explosiveness to separate from the opponent. So for Derrick Williams ballhandling matters more than for Tyson Chandler, since the former is hanging farther out on the perimeter. Derrick Williams is an elite athlete who’s physical impact does not look more than ok to me, partly because of flawed ballhandling ability making it hard for him to penetrate – and also because he loses credit for his height and lateral mobility. But despite all that Williams still looks like a starting talent to me, if he continues down this path of irrelevance, he looks like a great candidate to just be limited by being an enigmatic personality/player

      That has a strange impact where the physical impact category is in fact partly shaped by the skill impact one (meaning the better a shooter a player is, it changes how much ballhandling he needs), but I’m not adverse to this concept. What it does mean is that a “stretch PF” having shooting range doesn’t automatically make him more valuable, if the increase in his shooting also makes him “physically impact the game less”. For example Derrick Williams may have been nearly as good a player if he never learned to shoot at all and in response only playing within 5 feet of the basket, where he could use his athleticism and explosiveness more than he does now. The other side is players like Bennett and Kadji from last year’s draft who I feel did have the ballhandling to both be stretch bigs and to drive to the basket. Notably I admit my new method for the physical impact category made Bennett look worse in the category, admittedly he was a player who threw down some crazy athletic dunks so that made me think he was special in the area, but once I started doing things as mentioned in the article I noticed his explosiveness on the ground is not all that – so I’m closer to “high high end starter/1 or 2 time all-star” type of prediction for him than a true star. Kadji may actually be my choice for most talented in the 2013 draft now, he hasn’t consistently put it together as a shooter in the D League yet (has had a few 15 pt, 19 pt, 20 pt, etc. games though in not a ton of minutes) but I usually fast forward to his scoring plays in the archive using the play by play, and his athleticism driving to the basket looks phenomenal to me, I think he may have gotten in better shape than he was at the U. When added to 3pt range for a PF and above average feel for the game, he looks great in my system. With all that said I just don’t know about these players who don’t get their foot in the door automatically. It’s conceivable he signs in Europe this summer and never comes back, for example.


      March 4, 2014 at 5:51 pm

  2. I absolutely am falling in love with Kyle Anderson as a pro prospect. I’m seeing someone who could be a hybrid of Andre Miller and Draymond Green. Could you imagine the havoc such a player would wreak on the league?


    March 10, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    • When Kyle Anderson goes 30 spots below where Otto Porter did a year ago, it will be pretty weird. I think Anderson has more going for him than he did.


      March 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm

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