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July 8, 2011
Projecting Freshman Performance
A New Approach

by Drew Cannon


There are a lot of reasons it's tough to project college basketball. Heck, it's tough to project baseball, and they actually keep track of everything that happens on the field. The biggest reason it's hard to figure out how well college basketball teams will perform, though, is freshmen.

Sure, I can sit here and confidently tell you that Jared Sullinger can rebound, that Javon McCrea is for real, and that Kendall Marshall will pick up an assist or two in 2012. I'll probably be right, and certainly nobody would argue with my predictions (unless they inexplicably didn't read this). But if we start getting into questions like "What is Otto Porter going do for Georgetown as a freshman?" reasonable minds can differ wildly -- and many reasonable minds probably don't have any idea what they're talking about.

I've never seen Otto Porter play live. Few national recruiting analysts have seen him even a handful of times. Porter was nothing but a name with buzz as recently as nine months ago, and now he's a top-50 player in multiple locations. How do you project that? You could use his high school numbers, I guess, but you'd have to do some legwork to track down so much as points, rebounds, and assists per game, and those were compiled against a mystery box collection of talent. You could read up on him, but you're essentially entrusting your projections to the words of someone else who's only seen the kid a couple times.

This is why Syracuse's expectations for Fab Melo were crushed last year. I saw Melo a few times in high school, and it was really easy to see why he was projected as a future superstar. It was also really easy to see why he wasn't a superstar as a freshman. Melo's undeniable talent appeared in flashes, but only in flashes. Recruiting gurus across the country were probably surprised that Melo had such a rough season, but I'd hardly call anyone shocked. Anyway, it's certainly too early to write off Melo.

So what follows is my incredibly basic solution for the Otto Porter conundrum. What's the best way to project a prospect's performance based only on quantitative information? I'm using ranking out of high school, age (in days), and size, and projecting those numbers onto a "success level." Based on the performance of past recruits, I'm projecting how well this year's freshmen "should" do.

(A Posnanski/Sepinwall-style aside: It was really, really hard to get dates of birth for everyone ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school from 2005 to 2009. I got Leon Freeman's DOB because I contacted his high school coach, who asked Leon's little brother the next day at school. Seriously. All of which is to say I'm pretty sure I'm the only person on the planet who has all these birth dates. If you want to do anything with them, I'll happily send you the list. Fun fact: the oldest player for his class in this sample is Vernon Goodridge, who greeted June 1 of his senior year at the remarkably advanced age of 21 years, three months. The youngest is Abdul Gaddy: 17 years, four months at the same stage.)

First I created a series of "tiers" setting forth every possible outcome for a given player, from NBA All-Star to falling out of the sport entirely. Here's how I defined my tiers:

Tier A: NBA All-Star
Tier B: NBA starter (top-five on team in minutes played)
Tier C: NBA rotation (playing more than 30 percent of team minutes), NCAA All-American
Tier D: NBA roster, high-major all-conference, mid-major conference player of the year
Tier E: high-major starter, mid-major all-conference, low-major conference POY, NBDL, junior college all-American, better foreign leagues (Spain, Italy, Australia, Turkey, Israel, etc.)
Tier F: high-major roster, mid-major starter, low-major all-conference, weaker foreign leagues (Belgium, Cyprus, Canada, etc.)
Tier G: Division I roster, other American pro leagues
Tier H: Prep school, junior college, Division II/III/NAIA roster, retired, status unknown

(As mid-major programs that consistently recruit top-flight talent, Memphis and Xavier were considered "high-major" in reference to their rosters and starting lineups, but "mid-major" in reference to their players garnering all-conference honors.)

Then I ran an ordered probit regression of rank, log rank, rank squared, size, and age on tier. An ordered probit maps the inputs onto a number line, and simultaneously creates the boundaries for the tiers you assign. So the regression might tell you that a No. 24-ranked, 6-5 180-pound wing 1000 days younger than Vernon Goodridge is a "4.1." Then it'll tell you what tier a 4.1 is equivalent to.

Based on what we've learned from past recruits, here's what we can expect from a given prospect on a year-by-year basis.

Year 1
If you want to be considered as a surefire college All-American as a freshman, your best bet is to be extremely young for your class, unusually small for a top-100 prospect, and (oh, by the way) the top-ranked player overall in your class. The national No. 1 always projects as an all-conference player, but the No. 11 player who's an older big man doesn't even project to start as a freshman. Meanwhile while a No. 6 who's younger and smaller projects to be all-conference. No matter the circumstances, a player outside the top 30 is projected to come off the bench (albeit with no consideration of his competition for playing time).

Year 2
For year 2 and all subsequent years, I added in previous-year performance to the regression. In year 2 high-school ranking, while considerably less important than it was in year 1, is still a major determinant of success. The importance of size decreases, but the importance of age increases. Big men are a step further along than the "projects" they so often start as, and everyone has developed past the point they inhabited when they were ranked. Younger players' improvement is sharper.

With two years of data under our belts the thing that stands out is that Tier H players in year 1 actually perform better, on average, than they do in year 2. This is likely due to the skew of prep years. Take someone like NC State's Lorenzo Brown. He was ranked with the Class of 2009, then used 2010 to improve his athletic and academic readiness with a prep year. Nobody thought Brown was incapable of playing at a high-major level. On the other hand, expectations should certainly be tempered for a player like Zeke Marshall, who barely played 40 percent of the team's minutes his freshman year at Akron.

Year 3
The importance of age has dwindled to zero by year 3. Or at least the tiers are too broadly defined to pick up its significance.

Tier C is actually above Tier B in year 3. This looks to be largely a product of sample size. Only 12 players in this sample started in the NBA in year 2, and four of them regressed (including major injuries to Martell Webster and Andrew Bynum). Secondly, nobody in Tier G in year 2 is projected to stay in Tier G in year 3. We try to chalk this up to the ease of moving forward for a true talent on a D-I roster. Guys who are still in Tier H by this point are largely lost causes -- in this sample only Derwin Kitchen started at a high-major after spending year 2 in Tier H. More common are guys like Leon Freeman or Matt Simpkins (who could be anywhere now), not to mention onetime elite hoops recruit Terrelle Pryor.

Year 4
Things have largely stabilized at this point. Size and age no longer show significance, and the slope of the rank variable is much flatter. Note, though, that expectations out of high school still matter. Only the top-ranked players who started in the NBA in year 3 are expected to do so in year 4, while the top-ranked college non-starters are expected to jump into a starting slot.

I certainly wouldn't recommend that anybody use this as a real projection system. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Big men mature more slowly than guards.
2. What someone did last year is always the most important data point.
3. The potential that comes with a high ranking out of high school still holds projective power for the player four (and, actually, at least five and six) years later.
4. Expectations are almost always too high for freshmen. Rare is the case where a player deserves to be a preseason all-conference player, much less an All-American. I would have put Harrison Barnes on my hypothetical preseason All-America ballot last year, but I'm tempering my expectations for Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis. Only McDonald's-level talents should expect to start as freshmen in a major conference.

So, Otto Porter, I'm penciling you in as the third big man on the Hoyas this year, at least until I have reason to do otherwise.

Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewCannon1.

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Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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