The truth about analytical methods is that once in a while you'll get a result that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. When that happens, it means one of two things: 1. The analytics saw something that everybody else couldn't see. Or 2. Everybody else saw something that the analytics couldn't see.
And in the case of two particular players in this year's NBA draft, it will be very interesting to find out the answer.
The draft is Thursday, June 25, and now that we know who's in and who's out, it's time to unveil this year's Draft Rater -- a statistical projection of the top NBA prospects coming out of the college ranks.
To review for the uninitiated, the Draft Rater looks at a player's college production in a variety of metrics and a few other salient facts (such as his height, birth date and years of college experience), and from that projects what a player's player efficiency rating will be when he reaches his peak.
Draft Rater History
Check out the Draft Rater's results for each draft class since 2002. Insider
The basic idea is to use the NBA's past to predict its future. The Draft Rater looks back at prospects from past drafts and then, using regression analysis, identifies which attributes determined pro success and which didn't. My database of college players goes back to 2002, which is still a bit limited, but the rater gets smarter each year because it has more information with which to work -- not only an extra year of drafts but also an extra year of pro seasons from every prospect.
This year, several subtle changes helped reduce the error rate when back-tested on previous drafts. First, I ran a separate regression for each of the three position categories -- point guards, wings and bigs -- something that wasn't really feasible when I started doing this. But now that the pool of prospects is large enough, this method has produced greater accuracy.
Second, instead of tying the projection to a player's third-year PER, I used a more general descriptor of what his peak value was, allowing me to minimize the impact of fluke seasons and better adjust for some players who entered the league young and didn't max out until their fourth or fifth season. (Some of these players will perform much better than projected, but keep in mind that it's all relative. For more on why the projections seem low, see this explanation.)
Using those changes, I was able to reduce the standard error in the projections from last year's 4.0 to this year's 2.8. This means nothing to 98 percent of you, but the number geeks in the crowd will recognize that this is still quite large -- as you might expect when you're trying to project what a 19-year-old will do when he's 25. Nonetheless, it represents a significant improvement from last year.
The one area where the method still appears to struggle is with one-and-done freshmen, and this speaks to a more general problem: Information is the key to making this thing work, and the more information we have, the better. For players who leave after their first year, the picture is often incomplete, whether we're using a statistical model or traditional scouting.
I bring this up because last year, in particular, was a rough one for the projection system. First, it was an unusual rookie class in general because nearly every player taken in the first round was at least somewhat productive; generally, a draft will have 10 to 12 impactful players and the rest will be filler, but this past season blew that standard away.
Moreover, a number of those players played only one college season, and although the rater had an accurate view of a few (such as Kevin Love and Michael Beasley), it missed the boat on some who performed extremely well (including Derrick Rose to an extent, and O.J. Mayo, Anthony Randolph and Eric Gordon). Gordon is perhaps easier to understand because he was playing hurt at Indiana and his primary skill (shooting) didn't show through statistically, but that doesn't excuse the others.
One important thing to point out is that the Draft Rater is rating pro potential, which is sometimes different from pro performance, depending on the professionalism and work ethic of the player involved. In other words, the fact that Michael Sweetney and Shawne Williams rated very highly in previous seasons isn't necessarily a damnation of the system. Rather, their off-the-court habits are the type of thing every general manager has to take into account when evaluating players and something that is usually invisible when looking at their college performance.
That said, before last season, the Draft Rater had performed extremely well.
From 2002 to 2007, 15 players were (a) among the first 10 collegians drafted and (b) excluded from the top 12 by the Draft Rater. In other words, these were the college players the Draft Rater thought were drafted too high. Of those 15, not one has played in an All-Star Game. The only two who have started a significant number of games in the long term have been Kirk Hinrich (who was 13th in the Draft Rater in 2003) and Charlie Villanueva.
Who were the other top-10 picks not favored by the Draft Rater? Spencer Hawes, Acie Law, Fred Jones, Melvin Ely, Marcus Haislip, Jarvis Hayes, Rafael Araujo, Ike Diogu, Channing Frye, Randy Foye, J.J. Redick and Patrick O'Bryant.
In other words, when the Draft Rater has suggested avoiding a player, that has turned out to be good advice.
The Draft Rater also has spotted some of the biggest steals in recent years:
• Carlos Boozer was the 26th collegian taken in 2002; Draft Rater had him second.
• Josh Howard was 17th in 2003; Draft Rater had him fifth.
• Danny Granger was the 13th collegian in 2005; Draft Rater had him third.
• Rajon Rondo was the 16th collegian taken in 2006, but Draft Rater had him second.
• Rodney Stuckey was the 14th collegian chosen in 2007; Draft Rater had him fifth.
• And last year, two players the Draft Rater had rated much higher than others did, Mario Chalmers and George Hill, had productive rookie seasons.
So, most of the time, when the Draft Rater puts a player in the top five, there's a good reason.
All of which leads us to 2009 and whom the Draft Rater likes and doesn't like.
This year, the Draft Rater is closer to the general draft consensus than usual, with two glaring exceptions that I referenced above.
Let's get to them:
The pleasant surprise: Ty Lawson
Two players are neck and neck for the top spot in this year's Draft Rater. You could easily guess that one of them is Blake Griffin, but most folks never would have guessed that the other is Lawson.
Lawson, who is coming off an electric performance in leading North Carolina to the championship, grades out highly for several reasons: Although he's short for a point guard, his shooting numbers (47.1 percent on 3-pointers), strong assist rate and microscopic turnover ratio (9.1, first among point guard prospects) all point to him as an NBA keeper.
The Draft Rater puts Lawson slightly ahead of Griffin for first, but this doesn't mean a team should take Lawson first. The standard error in the projections for point guards is higher than it is for big men, which means random noise could be putting Lawson ahead just as easily as on-the-court performance. If the consensus is that Griffin is the better player, I don't think Lawson's statistical record alone is strong enough evidence to refute it. Additionally, we've heard questions about Lawson's work ethic and injuries.
But the rating is emphatic enough for me to say Lawson should be at the top of the college point guard ladder, ahead of Jonny Flynn, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague & Co. (If you're wondering about Ricky Rubio, I'll have more on him next week.)
The unpleasant surprise: DeMar DeRozan
I'd be hard-pressed to name a potential high lottery pick throughout the years about whom the Draft Rater has been less excited. I rated 90 prospects for this draft, and DeRozan ranked 54th among them. Two of his USC teammates -- Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson -- outranked him, as did assorted other nonentities such as Kevin Rogers, Chinemelu Elonu and Ben Woodside. I'll wait here while you Google them.
Why? Because there really isn't anything in DeRozan's statistical profile that makes you think "NBA star." He rarely took or made 3-pointers, and he had a strongly negative pure point rating, which are two powerful indicators for a wing player. His numbers in other areas were unimpressive, too. In particular, he was a bad free throw shooter, which indicates that his outside shot might never be a strong suit.
Some scouts I have talked to have compared DeRozan to Rudy Gay in terms of being an NBA athlete but having a questionable motor. But that comparison falls flat, according to the Draft Rater: Gay was the top-rated player in his draft class, while DeRozan is nowhere close. And although he's supposed to be a great athlete, he didn't show it on the court often enough: His rebound, block and steal totals were all very ordinary.
As I mentioned above, one-and-done players sometimes fool the system -- they're the youngest, least experienced guys in the pool, and thus, a major factor is how much they improve post-draft rather than just how good they are pre-draft.
Nonetheless, I would back away from DeRozan if the 12 relatively safe guys at the top of the Draft Rater are still on the board.
Speaking of which, let's take a look at the collegians for 2009.
Rankings: The top 12
Top 12 rated collegians for 2009
Player School Draft Rater
1. Ty Lawson North Carolina 16.34
2. Blake Griffin Oklahoma 16.21
3. Tyreke Evans Memphis 15.02
4. Austin Daye Gonzaga 14.24
5. Stephen Curry Davidson 14.18
6. Nick Calathes Florida 13.66
7. DeJuan Blair Pittsburgh 13.56
8. Danny Green North Carolina 13.28
9. Jonny Flynn Syracuse 12.99
10. James Harden Arizona State 12.97
11. Hasheem Thabeet Connecticut 12.90
12. Earl Clark Louisville 12.88
For starters, let's talk about two of the players who play multiple positions -- this matters now that we're rating players in part based on position.
Stephen Curry graded out at 14.18 as a wing but only 12.86 as a point guard. Either way, it puts him in the top dozen players, but by this rating, he's a much better prospect if he's able to defend against wings.
The difference for Earl Clark was less dramatic, but he rated slightly better as a wing than as a big man (12.14), which would have dropped him from 12th to 15th.
A couple of other names on here are likely to raise eyebrows:
Austin Daye might not have had a great season, but the Draft Rater looks favorably upon a 6-foot-11 small forward who can shoot (assuming he can play the 3 in the NBA). His numbers were strongest in the categories that project best to the pros, including 42.9 percent shooting percentage on 3s and 2.1 blocks per game, which is why he moves all the way up to No. 4 on this list.
Nick Calathes is under contract in Greece but still will be draft-eligible, and he rates higher than the hot point guards most teams are discussing in the top 15. Although he has been knocked for his athleticism, he had high rates of rebounds and steals and a strong 2-point shooting percentage. Teams in luxury tax trouble should look particularly hard at him because he can be stashed in Europe for a year or so.
Danny Green is the other surprise on this list. He's rated highly every year I've rated him, so seeing his name doesn't shock me anymore, but he has received little attention nationally. Still, he's a great shooter who can defend, and he rates as the third-best wing after Daye and Tyreke Evans.
Have to break it into two posts, too long otherwise.
Collegians: No. 13 through 25
Player School Draft Rater
13. Jrue Holiday UCLA 12.73
14. Jeff Teague Wake Forest 12.50
15. Gerald Henderson Duke 12.17
16. Paul Delaney UAB 11.85
17. Aaron Jackson Duquesne 11.83
18. Darren Collison UCLA 11.80
19. Terrence Williams Louisville 11.80
20. Leo Lyons Missouri 11.53
21. Eric Maynor VCU 11.35
22. John Bryant Santa Clara 11.30
23. DeMarre Carroll Missouri 11.18
24. Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina 11.11
25. Wayne Ellington North Carolina 11.04
This part of the list is an interesting mishmash of potential sleepers and potential busts. In general, players in this range have some kind of NBA career but always can count on getting some quality time with the family during All-Star Weekend.
We're awash in point guards in this draft, and six of the top nine names in this section play the position. The lesson is this: If you're in the market for a point guard, one will fall to you, and they're more or less the same after the first couple.
Down at No. 13, Holiday is a bit of a surprise -- given that he's projected to go higher -- but he has the two characteristics that produce the greatest error rate in the Draft Rater: He's a point guard and has played only one year. In other words, his real value might be much higher or much lower, and because the consensus is much higher, it wouldn't bother me to use a top-eight pick on him.
Delaney and Jackson are second-round sleepers at the point, but because projections for point guards are a bit more volatile, perhaps they shouldn't really be this high. The other "who's he?" on the list, Bryant, is a 6-11, 275-pound center from Santa Clara who could have a fine 10-year career as a third center in the Greg Kite/Aaron Gray mold.
Rankings: Potential disappointments
Collegians: Other notables
Player School Draft Rater
26. Jordan Hill Arizona 10.97
28. B.J. Mullens Ohio State 10.81
30. James Johnson Wake Forest 10.63
31. Chase Budinger Arizona 10.51
45. Derrick Brown Xavier 9.55
48. DaJuan Summers Georgetown 9.38
51. Jodie Meeks Kentucky 9.35
52. Sam Young Pitt 9.34
54. DeMar DeRozan USC 9.26
62. Toney Douglas Florida State 8.56
68. Patrick Mills Saint Mary's 8.36
83. Jack McClinton Miami 6.64
And here's where we get to the players the Draft Rater is down on.
Several potential first-round picks don't pass muster here, with short, shoot-first combo guards in particular bearing the brunt of the Draft Rater's wrath -- Jack McClinton, Patrick Mills and Toney Douglas were the three lowest-rated "name" prospects, and Jodie Meeks didn't fare a whole lot better.
The other big surprise down here is Jordan Hill, who could go as high as No. 4 but rates 26th in the Draft Rater. Hill had solid rebounding and scoring numbers, but his percentages weren't off the charts, and his poor assist and turnover numbers were a red flag. Although one might think that ballhandling categories wouldn't matter for a power forward, apparently they do -- pure point rating (a measure of how a player passes and handles the ball) is a pretty strong success indicator for frontcourt players, and only four prospects rated worse than Hill.
One of those players was Mullens, who was the absolute worst at -2.85. Everyone concedes he's a project, so perhaps it's not such a big surprise to see him down this low. But the Draft Rater is saying that maybe even the middle of the first round is too high to take the risk on him.
Pitt's Sam Young also graded out extremely poorly. He had the worst pure point rating of any wing player, and the other thing that hurt him is that he's one of the oldest prospects in the pool. How old? He's 19 days older than six-year vet Darko Milicic and a full half-decade older than Holiday.
A few days ago I presented my draft rater, which looks at the pro potential of all of this year's collegians, but that doesn't mean our work is done.
There's also a group of Europeans to look at, and in this case they fall into three categories. The first category is the one that matters most for Thursday -- the group of Euros eligible to be selected in the draft, either because they've declared for it or because they turn 22 this calendar year.
But there are two other equally important groups. First are the ones whose draft rights are already held by NBA clubs, many of whom can expect to make the move this summer or in the years following. Second are those whose rights aren't held by any team and are true free agents. While several in that category are bound by contracts in Europe, they're nonetheless an intriguing source of free talent and many can wriggle free with buyout provisions.
With that in mind, let's bring back my European translation system for another go-round. As I've explained in previous years, the highest level of European basketball, the Euroleague, is where most of the continent's quality performers can be found. And the good news for NBA teams is that there's a predictable relationship between how a player performs in the Euroleague and how he'll fare in his first year in the NBA.
On average, switching from the Euroleague to the NBA does the following to a player's pace-adjusted per-minute stats:
# Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
# Rebound rate increases by 18 percent
# Assist rate increases by 31 percent
# Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
# Overall, player efficiency rating drops by 30 percent
Because of that, we can draw some pretty good inferences about how valuable the prospects in Europe might be to teams in the NBA just by looking at their numbers in Europe this season.
Let's take a look at who's available and see how they graded out:
In this year's draft
Translated stats for players with at least 200 Euroleague minutes
Player Pts/40 Reb/40 Ast/40 FG Percent PER
Oguz Savas 15.0 8.4 3.2 47.0 14.76
Omri Casspi 14.9 8.4 1.3 44.4 12.06
Sergio Llull 11.1 2.7 6.2 41.2 10.14
Brandon Jennings 11.4 3.7 4.3 34.1 8.06
Milenko Tepic 10.1 5.7 6.0 34.2 7.90
Gasper Vidmar 7.4 12.3 0.9 41.3 6.56
OK, it's time to shine a harsher light here. There's one thing working hugely against Rubio's status as an A-list prospect that nobody seems to want to mention, so let me put it out there: There's very little evidence he can score at anything approaching an acceptable rate for an NBA point guard.
We have very little recent Euroleague data to work with from Rubio -- just a 66-minute sample from this year and a larger sample from two years earlier -- but both sets translate to scoring about five points per 40 minutes and shooting in the low 30s. Ugh. Rubio shot better in the Spanish ACB league this season, including 25-of-62 on 3-pointers, but he also shot only 39 percent on 2s against a lower level of competition.
Same goes for his alleged breakout in the Olympics -- as heralded as he was for his play, he made nine baskets in eight games and shot 28.1 percent for the tournament. And while one of those games was against a team full of U.S. All-Stars, he wasn't bedazzling the Germans or Angolans either. Obviously he's a Jason Kidd-like rarity in that he can have a heavy impact on the game without scoring, but if his shooting numbers don't improve, he'll make Kidd look like Rick Barry.
A draft-eligible Turkish big man who has generated no buzz whatsoever, my numbers show Savas as a mid-first-round talent. His translated PER from this season is 14.76, and while his numbers from the previous season aren't as strong (10.81), combining the two still leaves you with a decent backup center that has some potential for improvement. He doesn't wow with his athleticism but he is big and smart, can shoot and seems like a poor man's version of countryman Mehmet Okur.
Casspi projects as a late-first-rounder, which is exactly where he's expected to be taken. The 6-9 forward projects as a strong rebounder if he's playing the 3, and a pretty good scorer for a 4. His numbers are based on only 279 minutes, but he had similar results a year earlier for Euroleague powerhouse Maccabi.
Llull more than doubled his translated PER from the year before (4.54). Of course, that can be taken in one of two ways: either he's rapidly improving, or he was playing over his head and will bound back to Earth. He shot 38 percent on 3s and probably is at least worth a second-round pick to see if he develops any further in Spain.
Jennings' translated numbers from Europe were awful. While in his case we might take them with a grain of salt given the adjustment he was making, we should at least consider the possibility that he's just not that good. What stands out is that his performance translated to being both a bad shooter (34.1 percent) and a rotten playmaker (4.3 assists per 40 minutes). Most suspect he'll fare better in an NBA system, but the improvement would need to be fairly large for him to make an impact.
Gasper Vidmar and Milenko Tepic both played extended minutes the past two years and put up very poor numbers; at this point I'd say they're not even worth a second-round pick. Henk Norel played 116 rather uninspired minutes (translated PER 3.07), which isn't enough playing time to completely dismiss him, but doesn't help his case any. Brazil's Vitor Faverani played only 55 minutes but played fairly well, grabbing a translated 10.1 boards per 40 minutes.
Translated stats for players with at least 200 Euroleague minutes
Player Pts/40 Reb/40 Ast/40 FG Percent PER
D'Or Fischer 15.4 12.5 2.1 61.7 17.97
Ioannis Bourosis 17.3 16.0 1.8 52.0 17.90
Terrell McIntyre 16.7 3.8 7.5 45.1 16.54
Ksistof Lavrinovic 13.0 12.2 1.6 40.7 13.79
Carlos Arroyo 12.9 3.7 6.4 34.6 10.21
Carlos Cabezas 11.8 4.0 4.0 39.0 7.90
D'Or Fischer wasn't drafted when he came out of West Virginia in 2005, but it's becoming increasingly clear he should have been. The 27-year-old center for Maccabi Tel Aviv put together an outstanding season, though it was cut short when he was attacked outside a Tel Aviv nightclub and cut with a bottle. His offensive numbers weren't as strong as in previous stops, but at 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds, one has to think he's a decent backup center at the absolute worst.
Ioannis Bourosis is a Greek big man whom the Spurs reportedly covet, and it's clear to see why from those phenomenal rebounding numbers he put up last season. Take it with a grain of salt, as his 2008 numbers weren't nearly as strong -- 9.1 points, 12.9 boards per 40 minutes and a 10.49 PER -- and he hasn't exactly dominated in his minutes with the Greek national team. On the other hand, he reportedly only took up the game at age 18 (he's now 25), which means he could still be on the upswing.
Terrell McIntyre has two pretty huge strikes against him -- he's 5-foot-9 and he'll be 32 in October. Nonetheless, the veteran from Clemson starred for Montepaschi Siena the past couple of years and was good enough this season to at least make you wonder how he'd fare in the NBA as an Earl Boykins-type energizer off the bench.
Ksistof Lavrinovic is a Lithuanian big man whose name sometimes appears as Ksystofas Lavronivicius; adding further confusion, he has a twin brother named Darius. By any name, he's a good rebounder but mostly hangs out on the perimeter offensively, and would likely be a pick-and-pop backup center in the NBA. He's also 29 and coming off the best season of his career, so this is probably about as good as it gets for him.
Carlos Arroyo was one of several U.S.-based players to take the European plunge this past summer, and while several weren't in the Euroleague, his team was. Arroyo didn't put up particularly good numbers by his standards, but they're within the range you'd expect from a backup point guard, which is exactly what he'll be if he decides to come back to the States.
There were rumors earlier this year the Knicks had interest in Carlos Cabezas, but based on his European numbers it doesn't seem like he'd provide much help. If he does jump to the NBA, I at least hope he ends up on the same team as Luther Head -- providing a two-headed backcourt in any language.
Rights held by teams
Translated stats for players with at least 200 Euroleague minutes
Player Pts/40 Reb/40 Ast/40 FG Percent PER
Nikola Pekovic 21.7 9.9 1.0 55.8 18.36
Erazem Lorbek 17.4 11.4 2.0 51.4 17.16
Tiago Splitter 16.4 10.0 3.2 57.6 16.52
Fran Vazquez 13.7 11.7 1.8 59.3 15.86
Lior Eliyahu 15.5 11.5 4.7 54.2 15.25
Ersan Ilyasova 15.3 16.0 2.1 40.2 14.48
David Andersen 16.0 9.3 2.1 44.7 12.86
Georgios Printezis 13.8 8.0 1.6 56.0 11.51
Josh Childress 10.7 8.8 2.4 41.4 9.77
Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves) has been the highest-rated player in the Euroleague each of the past two years. An onerous contract is likely to keep him in Europe for a few more years, and the Wolves aren't exactly hurting for bruising big men right now. But he projects as a quality power forward with an impressive scoring rate, and sooner or later he'll be in the NBA.
Erazem Lorbek (Pacers) has put together reasonably good seasons before, but this one was his best to date by far. He plays the NBA's least scarce position, power forward, so there may not be as much urgency to bring him over. But looking at his track record of the past few years, he's clearly an NBA player, and possibly a pretty good one.
Tiago Splitter (Spurs) likely will be jumping to San Antonio a year from now, when the Spurs will no longer be bound by the rookie salary scale in signing him. The Brazilian has been arguably the best center in Europe the past two seasons and while his rep is for defense and rebounding, he projects to be surprisingly potent offensively.
Fran Vazquez (Magic) has given no inclination whatsoever that he'll come to Orlando, but with the Magic looking to trim salary in other areas, it's worth bringing up his name as a low-cost possibility in the frontcourt. The Magic will no longer be bound by the rookie salary scale, but Vazquez hasn't seemed interested in leaving Spain at any price.
Lior Eliyahu (Rockets) is a bit of a tweener as a combo forward, but this is the second time in three years he's put up very strong translated numbers and at 23 he could be ready to make the jump as the league's first Israeli player. The bigger issue may be fitting him into Houston's complicated dance with the luxury tax.
Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks) didn't do a whole lot in his first go-round in Milwaukee, but those rebounding numbers from last year jump off the page. He's a restricted free agent until or unless the Bucks renounce him, so for now they still have first dibs. But it's hard to imagine the Bucks signing him this summer with their cap issues.
David Andersen (Hawks) projects as a halfway decent pick-and-pop 4, but I've never heard anybody in Atlanta talk about him. Ever. Truth is he's probably not good enough to bother buying him out and bringing him over, and if there was a time to do so, it passed several years ago.
Georgios Printezis (Raptors) is still at least a year away, but he showed some nice progress last season and could fill a role as a backup center down the road.
Josh Childress (Hawks) probably was the worst per-dollar value in Europe last season, because like Brandon Jennings, he struggled to adjust to the different game. The biggest change to note is the shooting percentage, since he shot 52.2 percent from the floor in four seasons in the NBA. He's a restricted free agent and the Hawks may look to trade his rights.