A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Who should go 1st: Deandre Ayton vs Luka Doncic

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636585582598847525-lukaThe Phoenix Suns have the top pick and most mock drafts have Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic leading the way. 

The case for/against Deandre Ayton

Ayton is one of the most physically gifted center prospects in decades and resembles David Robinson. He is an athletic, chiseled 7’1 with the mobility to defend perimeter switches as is required in the modern game. He is almost a generational center prospect. With his physical tools, offensive skills and numbers, if he had the defensive production of college Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis to match his size and athleticism he would be perfect. Could you make the case that *if* his defensive stats are situationally and coaching driven, he could have that generational big in him? What would his defensive stats look like if he chose Kentucky?

Unfortunately though, we can only go on what he did and his defensive stats are a major red flag. A list of star centers the last 10 years includes Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Deandre Jordan, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez. Of that group, Ayton has the lowest blocks per 40 in his college draft year. He only has a higher stl/40 than Jordan, a player hardly known for his college production. The low steals indicate you can’t just blame his blocks on being used in a perimeter defending, steals-friendly way. Ben Simmons for example had a very low block rate but elite steal rate for a big in college indicating his style of play on defense was responsible.

How bad is it? Drummond fell to 9th because teams were terrified of his lackadaisical intensity and he still managed 1.2 steals and 3.8 blks per 40, blowing away Ayton’s 0.7 steals and 2.3 blocks. In his draft year Meyers Leonard averaged 0.6 steals and 2.4 blks per 40.

Blocks and steals aren’t the most reliable way to measure defense, but those who’ve looked closer have suggested Ayton was indeed a poor defender in college and struggled with maintaining intensity.

Ultimately, being good at defense at a lower level is one of the best predictors of being good at defense later, provided the tools are there. The same instincts, toughness and commitment intangibles are as critical there. Andrew Wiggins is an example of a player who had the physical tools but not the production or intangibles on defense in college and it ended up predicting similar frustrations in the NBA.

On offense alone there is a lot to like about Ayton with the potential to have a long range shot in the NBA, although his passing numbers are also below average for the above all-star centers. However defensive stats can also be predictor of offensive success as they can be a sign of on court intelligence, motor and toughness all of which are needed on offense.

For overall production how high Ayton’s season ranks depends on which stats you favor. His scoring of 24 pts per 36 on .65 TS% is tremendous. He is tied with Jaren Jackson for highest WS/48 (.259 WS/48) of the top 10 NCAA prospects on Jonathan Givony’s post lottery mock. His 10.9 BPM however ranks 6th of those prospects behind Jaren Jackson, Jr. (15.4), Wendell Carter, Jr. (13.5), Mikal Bridges (13.2), Trae Young (11.7), Mohamed Bamba (11.2). The more you include the non-scoring stats rebounding, assists, steals and blocks the worse Ayton compares. His BPM therefore trails some of the most elite center prospects of this generation in Anthony Davis (18.7), Karl-Anthony Towns (17.3), Joel Embiid (14.9). Ayton had a good season, he did not have a dominant season.

The case for/against Luka Doncic

Doncic’s physical tools are not as impressive as Ayton’s. He does not appear to have elite explosiveness to blow by defenders and his game can resemble Joe Ingles visually as much as a future MVP winner. Another problem with Doncic is the total lack of European star guards since Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker decades ago. With minimal predecessors it’s difficult to make a statistical projection or to know how important the athleticism jump will be for him.

The best we can do though, looks very promising. I see two routes to compare him statistically. The first is to compare him to non all-star European guards. Three examples are Ricky Rubio, Nicolas Batum and Goran Dragic. Here is their per 40 stats in the Euroleague their draft year and the age they turned that year:

09 Rubio (19 years old) – 7.2 pts, 8.4 ast, 7.2 reb, 5.4 stls, .444 TS% 10.6 PER

Rubio played very few minutes that season, so a better comparison may be his 2010 stats when he’s a year older:

10 Rubio (20 years old) – 12.9 pts, 7.8 ast, 5.6 reb, 2.7 stl, .562 TS%, 17.7 PER (7th on the roster for qualified players)

08 Batum (20 years old) – 12.8 pts, 5.2 reb, 4.1 ast, 2.2 stl, .526 TS%, 12.8 PER (6th on the roster for qualified players)

08 Dragic (22 years old) – 14.3 pts, 4.5 ast, 4.2 reb, .544 TS%, 13.2 PER (3rd on the roster for qualified players)

Now here is Doncic:

18 Doncic (19 years old ) – 24.8 pts, 7.6 reb, 6.7 ast, 1.7 stl, .612 TS%, 22.9 PER (1st on the roster in PER)

Needless to say Doncic is on another planet here statistically and the other three guards went on to be very good. It’s hard not to look at that and be high on Doncic’s floor.

Another sign for Doncic is the performance of prospects at other positions. Here are some per 40 performances by recent breakout European bigs at lower levels in Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert (I have never been able to get a hold of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s numbers):

15 Kristaps Porzingis (20 years old, ACB) 19.8 pts, 8.9 reb, 1.8 blk, 1.6 stl, .555 TS%, 19.2 PER (2nd on roster)

14 Nikola Jokic (19 years old, Adriatic league) – 18.3 pts, 10.3 reb, 3.3 ast, .569 TS%, 21.2 PER (2nd on roster)

14 Clint Capela (20 years old, French Pro A) – 14.1 pts, 12.6 reb, 2.3 ast, 2.8 blk, 1.5 stl, .636 TS%, 23.8 PER (1st on roster)

13 Rudy Gobert (21 years old, French Pro A) – 14.9 pts, 9.5 reb, 3.1 blk, 1.2 stl, .734 TS%, 21.0 PER (1st on roster)

Once again it’s easy to see that Doncic is the most impressive here. The Euroleague is miles ahead of the Adriatic and French Pro A for competition level and his stats for his age are equally good if not better. The Euroleague is both better than the ACB and Doncic’s stats are hands down better than Porzingis. 

Furthermore all these players seem to relatively resemble their 19-20 year old selves statistically, with the development in their games making up for the jump in competition to the NBA. If they don’t it’s because they’re even better than their European stats like Porzingis. With that in mind Doncic sitting on a 25, 8, 7 and 2 statline at a higher level than any of them is highly promising. He would have to fall a lot farther than any of the above players from his European stats to not be an all-star.

The NBA in recent years has made the mistake of ignoring numbers for European prospects in favor of taking the tools-iest players. Some of the highest picks have been projects without impressive stats such as Mario Hezonja, Frank Ntilikina and Dragan Bender. The results of players like Jokic, Capela and Gobert in comparison would suggest it’s of the utmost importance to look for players who are leading the way on their teams in Europe and not their team’s 9th or 10th men. For the same reason it would be a mistake to not treat Doncic’s numbers as critical to predicting his success. European leagues are closer to the NBA in competition level, physical maturity, rules and the lifestyle of living professionally instead of in college. It is logical to think it predicts better than hit or miss NCAA stats.

The modern star

Part of Ayton’s appeal is “unicorn” status with the potential to be all of a shotblocker, pick and roll defender and to shoot 3s. However Doncic’s game is also at the heart of the current game. His size, shooting and playmaking makes the MVP favorite James Harden one of his closest overall comparisons. Champions in recent years have been built around Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, two high volume 3pt shooting, pick and roll ballhandling guards. Ultimately there is a path for both styles of play to join the modern revolution.

At this stage while I understand the appeal of Ayton, the numbers with Doncic appear to be too strong to ignore in my opinion. Ayton has tremendous upside if he does have a David Robinson in him, but there’s also a chance what Doncic is doing to the Euroleague statistically for an 18/19 year old is a sign he’s a phenom and the next great thing, a freakish accomplishment like the basketball version of a young Wayne Gretzky torching the record books. This phenom route may have the highest upside of all.

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Written by jr.

May 18, 2018 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Great reading man, I’m happy I found your site on RealGM.

    Diogo Landim

    May 18, 2018 at 9:51 pm

  2. Good article.

    I would however add one more thing about Doncic and Ayton.

    First one would be, that it is understandable NBA fans, favor USA NCAA kids, its the way it has been in the past, but there is an entire new world out there and international competition shows that it is not a bad one at all. Looking at Lebron James numbers in Olympics, you exactly see how a superstar is struggling numbers wise in that environment.

    This young guy, Luka Doncic on the other hand is breaking records, doing unprecedentet things, not just stats wise, but achievements wise.

    1. – Leading Real Madrid’s team at 18 when they lose an MVP of the previous season… that is like Terry Rozier taking care Boston is somewhat replacing K. Irving and we know how that story is turning out to be.
    But difference being, that Doncic is right now a prime candidate to be that MVP…so that is in comparison Rozier playing like that…

    2. – Winning a gold medal with Slovenia, being in team of the tournament at 18. We are talking about a tournament who has players like Gasol brothers, Porzingis etc in there… and leading Slovenia to the title together with Dragic is like he would lead the a medicore NBA team to one…

    3. – Sweeping the floor with young talent in Europe, who dont just get minutes easily in Euroleague…this guy on the other hand at his age has played way over 100 games in that tough competition. This will definitely be a rookie in NBA but this guy also definitely will come with heeps of experience playing on biggest stages as well. As we speak he ll play in his next big stage finals for the title of Euroleague

    4. – Is something numbers cant tell you. You have to watch him play over the course of the season. The way this guy is playing basketball is a joy to watch and he is contributing all over the floor and makes a team like Real Madrid play better.

    I think to finish it off lets just use words of Anthony Randolph, once an NBA player, when asked if he has seen a player like Doncic before: “Never! Period!”

    That in itself says it all…

    Lan Krajnčič

    May 19, 2018 at 12:13 am


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