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April 4, 2012
Kentucky in the NBA
Another Another Look

by Bradford Doolittle


Don't blame us. It wasn't some stat lackey who made the claim. It was the coach of an NCAA champion that opened this can of worms. Last week, former Maryland coach Gary Williams went on the radio and said that the freshly-crowned Kentucky Wildcats could beat the Washington Wizards, setting off a firestorm of debates and analytical breakdowns of the possibilities. Here's one more.

Williams laid out some very specific parameters in his statement, saying Kentucky could win one game at Rupp Arena if the Wizards were at the end of a particularly brutal stretch of their schedule. He added that he didn't think the Wildcats could actually compete in the NBA, just steal one game under the right circumstances. Williams didn't say how many chances the Wildcats would get, but they would need plenty. A whole season, for example. As dominant as Kentucky was this season, and John Calipari may have just finished coaching one of the college game's greatest teams, his squad would be hard-pressed to win games at the NBA level.

How many games would the Wildcats win?

To answer that question, I translated the college statistics of the top 10 players on Kentucky's roster using the ATH system, which is the same method I use to create stat-based rankings of college prospects at draft time. The theory behind ATH is that a player's level of applied athleticism will have a large influence on how well his amateur performance will translate to the NBA level. What is applied athleticism? We're not talking about high how a player jumps or how fast he can get down the court. We're only interested in how he turns those innate traits in actual, measurable basketball production.

ATH takes a player's college numbers, adjusts for caliber of competition, and pays extra attention to athletic-based categories such as rebounds, steals, blocks and free throw attempts. These categories are analyzed through the prism of the player's body type, then are compared to a database of former college players who went on to play in the NBA. By matching body types and a player's ATH score, we determine how much of a player's amateur performance can be expected to be retained at the NBA level. The process of translating numbers invariably takes a big chunk out of a player's performance record.

The first hint of how tough things would be in the pros for Kentucky lies in the mere fact that I translated 10 players. Calipari relied on seven primary players to get him through the Wildcats' 38-2 season. That wouldn't fly in the NBA, not over an 82-game season packed with heavy travel and weeks away from the comforts of home. So players like Eloy Vargas, Twany Beckham and Jarrod Polson who, in reality, contributed very little to Kentucky's season stats are projected as end-of-rotation players.

The next problem is that once all the numbers were run through the ATH translator, not a single Kentucky player projected to use even the league average of 20 percent of his team's possessions. This isn't unusual at the individual player level because the ability to create offense is a precious commodity. It's very unusual for a high-usage college player to step into the exact same role in the NBA. Even someone like Kevin Durant, whose athleticism, length and range seemingly combine to give him the ability to get shots at will, took a hit in usage in his first NBA season.

Kentucky had no high-usage players in its seven-man rotation. Offensively speaking, the Wildcats were extraordinarily egalitarian, with all seven primary players within four percent of each other in usage rate. The problem is, someone has to use each and every possession by definition. So we manually bump up the usage rates for all 10 players to bring everything into balance.

That increase comes with a cost. There is a direct relation between usage and efficiency for most players. The more offense a player is forced to create, the less efficient he will typically become, and vice versa. Tyshawn Taylor might be able to come down the floor in the NBA and shoot every time. They just wouldn't be quality looks and his efficiency would be awful. That's really the trick of translating player performance, to determine just how this usage-efficiency relationship is going to work for each player. So as we bump up the usage rates for Kentucky's roster, the collective offensive efficiency falls. And remember -- we're working off of translated offensive numbers, which have already taken a hit.

In the end, Kentucky finishes with just two players projected to post offensive ratings of 100 or better: Anthony Davis (111.5) and Doron Lamb (104.1). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is all the way down at 93.1. Terrence Jones is at 85.5, followed by Marquis Teague with 81.0. For context, NBA players with an 81.0 offensive rating include Austin Daye and Tyrus Thomas. Davis projects to score as efficiently as Al Jefferson, but would do so with a much lower level of usage.

Add it all up and Kentucky projects to put up an offensive rating 91.1. That would not just be the worst in the NBA this season, but it would be the lowest figure put up by an NBA team in the 3-point era. Since Kentucky was basically in the middle of the pack nationally in pace, I have them playing at an NBA league-average tempo. Given that and the low efficiency, they'd project to average 81.5 points per game.

As you might expect, the news is better at the defensive end. Davis projects as an elite defender right out of the gate, while Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist also profile very well at that end. Darius Miller isn't bad. There is a drop off after that, but Kentucky still projects to post a defensive rating of 107.5. That wouldn't be the worst in the league this season, though it would be in the bottom five. With the average tempo, that translates to giving up an average of 96.2 points per game.

Once you've projected points scored and allowed, you can compute a probable winning percentage using the Pythagorean method. In Kentucky's case, it comes out to .089, which means that the Wildcats would project to finish 7-75 over an 82-game season. That would make them the worst NBA team of all-time. Davis is the only player projected to score more points than he gives up.

NAME             POS  MIN     PC    PA   +/-
Anthony Davis      C  2886  13.8  11.9  +1.9
Darius Miller     PF  2340  10.5  11.5  -1.0
M.Kidd_Gilchrist  SF  2808  12.5  14.1  -1.6
Doron Lamb        SG  2808  14.7  16.4  -1.7
Terrence Jones    PF  2516  10.3  12.0  -1.7
Eloy Vargas        C   960   4.0   5.7  -1.7
Kyle Wiltjer      PF  1683   7.1   8.9  -1.8
Twany Beckham     SG   416   2.7   5.8  -3.1
Jarrod Polson     SG   320   0.9   4.6  -3.6
Marquis Teague    PG  2964  12.6  18.1  -5.5
PC: points created per game; PA: points allowed per game;
+/-: statistical plus-minus per game

Believe it or not, this is actually a wildly optimistic projection. My Basketball Prospectus colleague Kevin Pelton looked at the same issue using the SCHOENE projection system and the current 66-game season and concluded that Kentucky would likely win just one game and in some seasons, they wouldn't win any.

None of this is meant to take away from what Kentucky accomplished at the college level. And wouldn't it be fun to see what this group would do over four years if it stayed together? Actually, I take that back -- since my school, Missouri, is moving into Kentucky's conference, the thought makes me shudder. Nonetheless, any talk you might hear about Kentucky competing in the NBA is just plain silly.

Or is it? What if we instead went through all of this by compiling a team comprised of players from Calipari's last four teams? This roster would not only include the four or five NBA players on the current champs, but also guys like Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Patrick Patterson and Tyreke Evans. Now we're talking.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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