A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Revisiting Gorgui Dieng and Jeff Withey’s talent level

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The 2013 draft class has started so slow, making literally any judgments about players careers may be misguided. Nobody has proven they’re good yet, nobody playing bad has to stay that way.

However two of the most successful picks on the board so far, are Minnesota taking Gorgui Dieng 21st and New Orleans taking Jeff Withey 39th. Both centers are over 15 PER, albeit in under 800 minutes. Dieng has gotten more buzz such as in this ESPN article, but in a redraft it appears both players would go much higher.

With my draft talent grading system I rated Withey and Dieng the 8th and 9th most talented prospects respectively in the 2013 draft, though I don’t mean that to brag. It’s still 3 or 4 years until my big board as a whole and system, should be judged. A critic could say even a broken draft system could be a blind squirrel finding a few nuts and point to the other prospects who haven’t performed yet.

But I wanted to use their play as an example to revisit why I liked their talent level more than most.

First, consider the main reason they dropped in the draft, despite Louisville and Kansas’ great success in college putting them on the map: Age. Both were 23 when drafted, now  24. Draft models that start with statistical production in the NCAA, rely on adjusting for age. In other words, players with a physical and experiential advantage over opponents may dominate them because of it, rather than more talent. Therefore their strong play in college was doubted.

In my system either age or net college production is irrelevant. I only rate them by talent level, which doesn’t diminish with age. When judging the clock for players to reach their talent level, I care about minutes played in the NBA, rather than age (by the time an NBA player reaches say, 6,000-7,000 minutes, it’s time to start showing their talent). Right now I am under the assumption that if a player has untapped talent level, he can always grow into it, even if he’s been a slow starter. In a few years if predictions for older prospects go the wrong direction, I may start to consider an “older prospects who aren’t producing are less likely to reach their talent level” adjustment, but right now I don’t see the evidence for this to be the case. Certainly if Dieng and Withey had great careers, it would help prove it’s right to not overreact to age.

So how about their talent level? First, here are two clips showing Dieng and Withey in impressive games so far in the NBA:

What most draft sites like ESPN/Draftexpress and I agreed on most with these players, is their basketball IQ/instincts. Withey and Dieng were players everyone knew were smart, because of they were top defensive anchors in the NCAA, intelligently rotating on help defense. Dieng was also a great passer, often associated with instincts.

In my system to help identify instincts in young players who may play “dumb” for experience or maturity reasons, I use the player’s fluidity and “naturalism aesthetic” to judge their feel for the game. Dieng and Withey also check out well with this test. Players like :31 and 1:02 in Dieng’s video and :28 in Withey’s help show those. Other resources like Draftexpress.com’s excellent prospect videos, help show they are fluid and natural moving prospects.

Many players get drafted for their physical tools however. In this area Dieng and Withey have strengths and weaknesses.

Dieng’s weakness is his explosiveness/burst is average at best. He is hardly blowing by defenders or rising up for dunks offensively. However I consider explosiveness a portion of physical talents, in combination with lateral mobility, height and strength. In the latter 3 categories Dieng does very well. His lateral mobility was one reason for defensive excellence in college, while he’s both one of the strongest and longest bigs in the class. This combination of strength, length and mobility is likely a major reason he’s excelled at rebounding in Minnesota to end this season. Overall, Dieng has more strengths than weakness as a physical talent. Especially considering a case can be made, for defensive responsibility reasons, C is the position where having lateral mobility, strength and length is crucial compared to offensive explosiveness.

Withey’s physical make-up is a little different than Dieng’s. Like Dieng, he has great lateral mobility which played a part in his shotblocking/defensive success in college. He’s more explosive on the offensive end, showing the ability to play about the rim, which is visible in the above clip. However, he’s quite not as long, as Dieng has a 7‘3.5 wingspan and 9‘3.5 standing reach to Withey’s 7’2 wingspan and 9‘2.5 standing reach, despite Withey standing 7.0’5 in shoes to Dieng’s 6’10.75. The main weakness Withey has however is strength, with a thin frame and one less likely to grow as an older prospect. At the draft combine Withey measured at 222 pounds to Dieng’s 230 pounds, despite Withey standing 7.0’5 in shoes to Dieng’s 6‘10.75. But on the whole, Withey’s offensive athleticism, lateral mobility and length, give him a lot to work with physically, with strength only a smaller portion of the net.

As for what these physical differences mean, it means Dieng is likely to be a better post defending and rebounding talent, while Withey’s explosive burst and agility may allow him to do a few things Dieng can’t offensively.

Finally, the category my system likely drew a result most different from the NBA’s evaluation, is skill level. Once again, the fact that the NBA and likely everyone else cares about NCAA production and my system doesn’t, is the major reason why. Neither Dieng and Withey were top scorers in college, Dieng averaged 9.8 points in 31.1 minutes per game as a junior, Withey 13.7 points in 30.9 minutes as a senior. Dieng’s scoring was considered poor for a 23 year old with physical advantages, Withey’s fine but unspectacular. Because of this, they were widely rated as defensive role players at the next level who would be held back by lack of offensive usefulness. Think Bismack Biyombo and Joel Pryzbilla’s roles in the NBA.

Yet the clips showed me more offensively skilled prospects than this. First, consider that C is by far the least skilled of the 5 positions. Some time after creating my system, I realized that merely the skill to catch/finish plays at the rim very, very well, even if the C didn’t score outside of the rim, was closer to average skill level at the position than poor. From my vantage point, Tyson Chandler and Andre Drummond represent the middle in skill level for Cs, while it’s the Jan Vesely, Kendrick Perkins, Joel Anthony types who represent the bottom. The former have a valued supporting role offensively, the latter players can barely be passed to without disaster happening either catching or finishing.

Although Jeff Withey barely took shots outside of the paint in college, he scored at the rim exceptionally well. More of a Chandler than Vesely, in other words. Further supporting his case was a 71.4% FT stroke, normally indicative of bigs with midrange shooting potential. Because of this I rated his skill level average at the time, but if he develops his shooting, that may prove conservative.

Dieng’s skill level was even easier to spot. Although his touch at the rim wasn’t as impressive as Withey’s, he regularly took jumpshots out to 20 feet, something also visible in clips like the above. In addition he had some skills in the post and was a terrific passer for a C. His 65.2% FT stroke was respectable.

So far this year, 38 of Dieng’s 196 FGA (19.4%) this year have been 10 feet and out jumpshots, hitting 18 (47.3%) of those shots. 12 of 117 (10.3%) of Withey’s FGAs are 10 feet and out, but he’s hit 9 of those 12 shots for a 75% conversion.

Both players project to be useful offensively. Dieng appears to already have a jumpshot, some finishing ability and passing skill. Withey has great finishing skill and the makings of a jumper. At C that’s enough for average to above average skill level. Considering their feel for the game and physical tools both provide things to like, a genuine skill game would complete them as prospects.

To me both Dieng and Withey look like clear starting C talents. At best they could be both defensive anchors with more usefulness offensively than the standard C. Considering the difficulty of finding productive two way Cs, this would be a valuable commodity many teams passed on. I consider it more likely I look at my rating of them 8th and 9th and think “that was too low” in a few years, than regret putting them too high. But they have more to prove.


Written by jr.

April 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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