A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, Jusuf Nurkic and re-evaluating “big men near the rim” in my talent grading system

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As of the 2014 draft I feel I have near nailed down my talent grading system for evaluating draft prospects, fixing some of the holes that were still in the system by 2013. Although it’s still early I am encouraged by the play of my highly ranked players in summer league and preseason.

However there’s still one area I’m struggling to perfect, so to speak. When it comes to my “physical impact” category I am confident in how to rate players who’s offensive games start on the perimeter, by judging their ability to penetrate through the defense first and then adjusting for factors like length, strength and lateral mobility. This also apples to big men who play on the perimeter.

The main issue I have is how to reconcile this with judging big men who play near the basket on offense, typically centers. For these big men, there isn’t really defenders or space to “penetrate” by like for perimeter-orientated players and frankly, most centres don’t have the ball handling skills to do so anyways. Yet by playing nearer the basket there is other opportunities to “physically impact the game” in various ways including blocking shots, boxing out players for rebounds or simply finishing lob plays/alley-oops. For example some players like Deandre Jordan and Tyson Chandler can be “physically impactful” by doing these things despite not penetrating past defenders off the dribble in the same fashion perimeter players are required to.

One of the ways I noticed this is that privately regrading 2013 prospects with my 2014 evaluation methods, Steven Adams stuck out as a sore thumb by still rating as a late 1st or 2nd round caliber prospect. Adams had a productive rookie season for Oklahoma City and appears headed for a long career as a starting center, thus this rating appears inevitably too low. One of the ways to fix this may be the above logic regarding Adams physically impacting the game. On one hand Adams isn’t really a player who “penetrates” the defense off the dribble, but he has a very impressive combination of length, strength and lateral mobility. Thus because of his style of play and proximity to the rim, it may make more sense to treat Adams’ length/strength/mobility as more important than it would be for a perimeter player like a point guard, but his tools penetrating to the basket to be less important.

This is a weird comparison I may elaborate on later, but in the last year I’ve been trying to translate NBA prospects to how they would look as NHL prospects as a way to double check myself. Why would I do this? Because the NHL is by far the best of the major leagues at drafting players and my feeling it’s because their evaluation of players physical tools, skill level and instincts which they call “hockey sense” is balanced between those categories. The NBA and NFL are more obsessed with physical tools in the draft and mention IQ less. As a comparison in the 2009 NHL Draft John Tavares was selected 1st overall Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, the three had separated themselves from the pack before the draft. All 3 have become stars, but Tavares has had the most impressive career so far, finishing 3rd in MVP voting in his last healthy season 2012-2013. What’s interesting is in the NBA this would have never happened. Both Hedman and Duchene were more “physically dynamic” prospects, Hedman is a gigantic defenseman who could skate well and Duchene projected to be one of the league’s fastest skaters. Tavares wasn’t more than an average talent for his position in either size or speed, his game was predicated on an incredible combination of skills and hockey sense and then having respectable enough size and speed to be an offensive superstar. In the NBA in my opinion, it’s unlikely a Tavares-like prospect would get selected over a Hedman or Duchene like one. Compare that to how in the 2009 draft James Harden and Stephen Curry were projected. Despite having dominant skill level, IQ and production for their position in college, they were projected to have a more limited ceiling because of non-dominant physical talent/athleticism for their position. If an NBA player Tavares would have likely been rated similarly to them, a strong prospect but one supposedly with a ceiling compared to more physically dynamic players. You may point out that Kyrie Irving being selected 1st in 2011 is an example of a “skill, not physical tools” player receiving star hype, but Irving went 1st because of the presumed lack of quality of his competition and not because he was rated as having an elite ceiling. I have little doubt that James Harden in the 2011 draft would have also gone 1st.

Ok, so what does this have to do with Steven Adams and my previous thoughts about size and centre prospects? Because I was thinking about defenseman are rated in the NHL vs forwards. I presume that for defenseman, size matters a little more in proportion to speed than it does for forwards. A defenseman who’s one of the physically biggest players at his position, an average skater, has average offensive skill level and has solid IQ, could still be a really valued player. Sure his skating and skill level problems may not make him a star, but the size in the defensive zone while competent talent in other areas, is something every team wants as their 3rd or 4th best of 6 starting defenseman. But if giving a forward the same combination of elite size, average speed, average skill and solid IQ, his weaknesses may overwhelm his strengths more than it does for a defenseman.  Without better speed and skill level he may become a more marginal “checker”. Having more speed and skill instead of size may be a better trade-off for that player.

So in light of this, Steven Adams the NHL prospect probably makes sense as a successful draft pick for the Thunder so far, fitting that mold of the D man with elite size, average speed, average skating and solid IQ.

The other angle one could take with Adams is it’s possible a bigger proportion of his success, or players like him’s success, comes from raw toughness instead of talent. This may make some sense when his game is more reliant on banging with others under the basket. This is something I’ll have to look into to have any confidence in it, but again the NHL defenseman comparison isn’t a bad one since it’s important for D-men to not only be physically large, but to be proficient at initiating contact and using their bodies, instead of shying away from it and playing like they’re smaller.

Obviously it’s unclear if such a direct comparison from NHL talent requirement to the NBA should be made, but nevertheless. In general, what would a greater shift towards length/strength/lateral mobility for big men who play near the basket mean for my 2014 draft rankings? Would I have any corrections to make?

The answer is not really. Part of it is luck. 3 of the big men expected to play near the rim in this class are Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh. But they already rated 1st, 3rd and 4th on my mixed model board before this adjustment. So since I was already bullish on them for other reasons, if they project to have even more success, it just plays into the hands of my already high ratings of them.

After Embiid, Vonleh and Randle there were few other prospects picked in the 1st round or rated top 30 on my list, who fit the mold of the near the basket big man. Aaron Gordon may play near the rim due to lack of shooting skill, but I gave him credit in my system for having the ball handling to drive to the basket. Not to mention he may just play like the perimeter even if he can’t shoot, in fact Orlando has been using him at small forward this preseason.

The notable players who really jump out are Mitch McGary and Jusuf Nurkic. Both are players I did not rate as “penetrators” but have above average combination of strength, length and lateral mobility, an elite combination in Nurkic’s case. Both have reasonable skill and McGary has a strong feel for the game, so if giving them more credit for “physicially impacting the game” due to size, they become stronger prospects than I had them rated at the time. McGary’s strength, feel for the game and what skill he has, reminds me of Anderson Varejao. Although I still don’t think the feel and skill combination is great for Nurkic, he’s just so huge that he may end up a productive starter anyways.

McGary and Nurkic rated 21st and 22nd on my mixed model board while in real life they were picked 16th for Nurkic and 21st for McGary. Therefore if they break out to be legitimate starters and top 15 prospects in this class, I’m not sweating the discrepancy overwhelmingly since the NBA would have only done a slightly better job rating Nurkic and had the same rating for McGary. Neither rate as true star prospects even after the change. Missing on their success would be annoying but it wouldn’t disclude my draft system as a whole looking more correct than the NBA’s methods.

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Written by jr.

October 14, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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