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January 20, 2012
Overperformers
Most Improved Projections

by Kevin Pelton

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How do you project the rest of the season a few weeks in? We're far enough into the 2011-12 campaign that results so far have some validity, but not nearly enough to throw out our preseason expectations. Clearly, we need to combine the two. That's what I've done, using our SCHOENE projections.

For each statistic, the weight placed on 2011-12 performance is determined by this year's denominator (minutes, shot attempts or plays used) relative to weighted totals from the last three seasons used by SCHOENE. For example, Kobe Bryant had played 565 minutes before Wednesday's game, and his average for the last three years (weighted by the same 5/3/2 scale that sets the baseline projection before aging) was 2,779 minutes. So Bryant's projection for rate stats is made up of 16.6 percent his 2011-12 performance and 83.4 percent his preseason projection.

The lowest factor is 4.1 percent for Zach Randolph and the highest is 48.5 percent for Brandon Knight, who has played the most minutes of any rookie. (For rookies and other players whose projections are not based on NCAA stats, I used 500 minutes as a baseline.) This indicates that even at the end of the season the SCHOENE projection is as valuable as performance during the current year, but that makes sense given that using three years instead of just one improves preseason projections. Basically, more data is always better.

Anyways, those technical details are not as interesting as the actual results. I've used the in-season projections to look at Bryant's path to history, as well as to compile projected end-of-season leaderboards. Now I'm going to have it identify the most surprising performances this season. Today, I'll look at the 10 players whose projection has improved the most since the start of the season in terms of per-minute win percentage. On Monday, I'll look at the other end of the league with the 10 players who have seen the largest decline.

1. Daniel Green, San Antonio (.470 projected, .585 updated, +.115)
In Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, I wrote that Green's performance in both college and the D-League (the basis of this projection) suggested a possible 3&D contributor, but I didn't expect anything like this. Not only is Green making 47.6 percent of his triples, he's been a complete contributor. He's an above-average rebounder and is blocking shots like a big man while using plays at nearly an average rate. He actually leads the Spurs in WARP. If Green can continue at anything resembling this pace, he'll be an ideal role player for San Antonio.

2. Vladimir Radmanovic, Atlanta (.436 projected, .543 updated, +.107)
This time a year ago, Radmanovic seemed to be on his way out of the league when his lengthy contract ended. Instead, Radmanovic has enjoyed a late-career renaissance. So far, Radmanovic is making 40 percent of his triples for the Hawks off the bench, and his 3.3 assists per 36 minutes are a career high. That's translated into the best net plus-minus of Atlanta regulars--+15.4 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com.

3. Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia (.462 projected, .566 updated, +.104)
Since I talked about Hawes and the Sixers early last week, the only thing to slow him has been lower back pain that has kept him out of two games--both Philadelphia losses, which is not entirely a coincidence. Hawes has actually outplayed his projection by more than Green and essentially the same amount as Radmanovic; he drops in these rankings because his recent track record is much lengthier, meaning we have more confidence in his initial projection.

4. MarShon Brooks, New Jersey (.376 projected, .489 updated, +.103)
Conversely, rookies have the easiest time making this list, and while Brooks is the first we've seen they will end up accounting for half of the 10 players. Brooks' efficient scoring has been a revelation; he's maintained his projected usage rate with a much higher True Shooting Percentage, which has been a godsend for a punchless New Jersey offense. The biggest cause for concern is that Brooks has made 40.4 percent of his three-pointers, which is far more than he made at Providence (34.0 percent as a senior). Needless to say, that doesn't usually happen, and Brooks will probably cool somewhat beyond the arc despite not having to force shots as much as he did in college.

5. Nikola Vucevic, Philadelphia (.410 projected, .505 updated, +.095)
It's been a great year for centers in the City of Brotherly Love. Vucevic looked like a solid long-term prospect coming out of USC but has contributed much more quickly than expected. A complementary role on offense has helped him shoot a high percentage, and Vucevic has improved on rebound and block numbers that were already strong in college. In fact, Vucevic is blocking shots twice as frequently as his projection suggested.

6. Paul Millsap, Utah (.556 projected, .646 updated, +.090
Millsap has been the leader of the Jazz's surprising start, and he ranked 11th in the league in WARP entering Thursday's games. Always solid, Millsap has played at an elite level thus far, making 57.6 percent of his two-point attempts and showing improvement on the glass. Millsap is taking fewer long twos, so the shooting might stick. However, we've seen All-Star stretches from Millsap before (including the first month of last season) that have faded slightly; this might just be another one of those that reminds us how underrated Millsap remains.

7. Joe Johnson, Atlanta (.483 projected, .569 updated, +.086)
Along with teammate Radmanovic, Johnson is the most experienced player on the list, and his performance thus far is as much about defying the effect of age as it is improving. That noted, Johnson's current .601 win percentage would be the best of his All-Star career. Nothing about Johnson's line stands out as particularly fluky. He's helped himself by increasing his three-point attempts, which has had many benefits, including cutting his turnovers. Johnson is coughing the ball up on just 7.6 percent of his plays, an impressive accomplishment for a guard who handles the ball as much as he does.

8. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio (.410 projected, .496 updated, +.086)
Another rookie who has provided dividends ahead of schedule, Leonard is starting for the Spurs in place of the injured Manu Ginobili. He's proven a quick study on the defensive end, where his long arms make him a potential stopper. Thus far, Leonard has been an adequate three-point shooter (7-of-22, 31.8 percent), which is really all he needs to be a valuable contributor given his other skills. Leonard and Green might allow San Antonio to replace Richard Jefferson in-house should San Antonio elect to amnesty the veteran small forward's contract next summer.

9. Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento (.392 projected, .478 updated, +.085)
Really, I should have found some kind of formula to improve the projection of my fellow Husky. Alas, Thomas hasn't needed any help since getting drafted by the Kings. In limited minutes off the bench, Thomas has been a sparkplug. His energy was crucial to Wednesday's come-from-behind win, where Thomas replaced fellow rookie Jimmer Fredette in the rotation and ended up finishing the game. As Sacramento's only capable passer, Thomas fills an invaluable niche. Regular trips to the free throw line have allowed Thomas to score with acceptable efficiency despite making just 39.5 percent of his twos. The 5-9 mighty mite has found finishing against bigger defenders his greatest challenge.

10. Chandler Parsons, Houston (.398 projected, .481 updated, +.083)
The Rockets nearly traded Parsons to Minnesota the night of the draft before demanding to keep him when Jonny Flynn's physical turned up red flags. Houston has to feel lucky to have kept Parsons, who is already starting at small forward ahead of incumbent Chase Budinger. Besides the follow dunks that have made him famous, Parsons is rebounding like a power forward and contributing frequent blocks and steals. While Parsons was the SEC Player of the Year, his numbers at Florida didn't suggest much in the way of tangible defensive contributions, and blocks and steals tend to translate well to the NBA. It will be fascinating to see whether Parsons can keep it up.

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

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