(As part of Prospectus' continuing relationship with Sports Illustrated, you can also read this piece at SI.com.)
NBA teams love upside.
Give any basketball operations guru a prospect with an NBA body--just the right combination of height, wingspan, strength, speed, quickness, leaping ability--and drooling will ensue. So what if this hypothetical bundle of talent shot 41 percent from the floor and never took a shot beyond eight feet from the basket? He's got upside. You can't teach size. You can't coach up athleticism.
This is the kind of thinking that allowed Carlos Boozer to squirm until he was finally selected with the sixth pick of the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2002 draft. Boozer had steadily improved as a collegian at Duke, and turned pro after raising his per-game averages to 18.2 points and 8.7 rebounds as a junior. He shot above 63 percent from the field in his three college seasons and parlayed his bruising style of play into one of the best foul-drawing rates in the country.
Boozer did all of these things on a loaded squad, against the highest levels of competition in amateur basketball. Yet on draft day, 2002, luminaries such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili (fifth overall pick), Dajuan Wagner (sixth), Marcus Haislip (13th) and Curtis Borchardt (18th) were all selected ahead of him. Boozer's sin? At 6'9", Boozer was a tweener. Not tall enough to play center, not enough reach for even power forward and not agile enough to play at the three spot. As it turned out, Boozer is ranked with Houston's Yao Ming and Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire as the best players from that draft.
Boozer is only the most glaring current example of a longstanding tendency of those who make the selections in the draft to value potential over production. If you can get both, great, but when you have to settle for one or the other, go with upside. The lower you get in the draft, the longer the reach of the draftniks will get. The reason for this isn't hard to figure out. Elite teams in the NBA are built on the shoulders of impact players. Those players have been coming into the NBA at a younger and younger age through the years, which makes the job of personnel people across the league much harder than it used to be. If you drafted strictly by production, you'd have missed out on Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James, all high school phenoms with no college record on which to stand.
Now that American players have to play at least one season of college ball, the task of screening out the all-talent/no-skills types is a little easier. That's not to say it's easy, though. Teams are still making draft missteps on college players because of the all-important phenomenon of upside. Atlanta selected unproven Marvin Williams second overall in 2005 even though he hadn't cracked the starting lineup on a North Carolina squad that won the national title. In doing so, the Hawks missed out on point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams--a blown pick that Atlanta may never live down.
Quite a few of the productive "tweener" types who fall to the late first round or the second round emerge as good pro players. The Utah Jazz were one of the five best teams in the NBA this past season. Besides Boozer, the Jazz also got key contributions from second-round players Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver as well as undrafted Ronnie Price. Okur came over from Turkey, but the rest of these players were all productive collegiate players with translatable skills. Millsap led the NCAA in rebounding in all three of his years at Louisiana Tech. Korver posted one of the best three-point percentages in the land during his time at Creighton.
Is there another Boozer or Millsap to be found in this year's draft, coming up on June 26? Of course. There are always sleepers. There are also always busts, often talented players without a track record drafted because of their potential. This year's most likely candidates in that vein are LSU's Anthony Randolph and Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan. A great starting point for avoiding these pratfalls is a careful examination of the statistical records of draft-eligible players. How productive were they? What do we even mean by productivity?
For one, we mean the ability to produce points, whether it be by scoring points, handing out assists or grabbing offensive rebounds. Secondly, we mean that the player was able to do so in an efficient manner. A player who can produce, say 30 points for his team while using up 25 possessions in a typical game is not nearly as good of a prospect as a guy who produces those same 30 points in 18 possessions. Finally, we look for players who can create their own offense. If a player can't create scoring chances at the college level, you can be sure he won't be able to do it in the NBA. The context of these numbers, as it is with all numbers, has to be taken into account. Scoring 30 points per game in the ACC is a whole lot more impressive than doing it in the Summit League.
With all of this in mind, let's look at 12 sleeper prospects available in the upcoming draft. The "offensive rating" for most of these players will be discussed. In a nutshell, offensive rating is a measure of how efficiently a player uses possessions for his team. Players with low shooting percentages or who commit a lot of turnovers don't score well by this measure. All of the players on the list used up at least 28 percent of his team's possessions last season. This "usage rate" is indicative of a player's ability to generate scoring opportunities, an essential quality if a player's performance is going to translate to the next level. The full accounting of offensive rating leaders can be found in the statistics section, and is based on the work of BP's Ken Pomeroy.
Jason Thompson (6'11" SR, PF, Rider)
Thompson is a likely mid- to late- first round pick, but he has lottery talent. Thompson posted an offensive rating of 110.9, 23rd in the nation among high-usage players. He shot 57.8 percent from the field on two-point shots. Most impressive, he blocked 8.6 percent of opponents' two-point attempts while he was on the floor, the 46th-best qualifying rate in the country. Thompson combines those numbers with some of the physical attributes that scouts love--great leaping ability, speed and explosiveness in the open floor. Thompson sprouted four inches while in college so he's a late bloomer. His jump shot is a work in progress (just 34 three-point attempts as a senior) but he does seem to have an affinity for playing a face-up game, a necessity because of his slender build. It's a wonder Thompson doesn't project higher in mock drafts. He's going to be a better pro than similarly-sized Donte Greene of Syracuse.
Ryan Anderson (6'10" SO, SF/PF, California)
Simply put, Anderson was one of the best offensive players in the country last season. His offensive rating of 121.1 ranked third in the NCAA among high-usage players. He's got good dimensions (6'10", 235), hit 41 percent of his 156 three-point attempts and was one of the 100 best rebounders in the college game, grabbing 11.6 percent of his own team's misses and 23.5 percent of the chances off the defensive glass. Anderson, who hasn't hired an agent and can still withdraw from the draft, posted these numbers as a sophomore in the tough Pac 10. He's the neo-Keith Van Horn.
Richard Hendrix (6'8" JR, PF, Alabama)
Hendrix may be this draft's poster child for productive players underrated because of tweener size. Hendrix made more than 60 percent of his two-point shots and his offensive rebound rate (12.9 percent of his own team's misses) was 59th in the country. He's a tireless worker, adept at getting to the foul line (52.5 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts) and--here's the kicker--had a block rate of 7.2 (82nd). That suggests that Hendrix plays bigger than his height, probably because of his long arms. He'll be a steal for somebody. He's not a star but could be this year's version of Millsap.
Robert Vaden (6'5" JR, SG, UAB)
Vaden is the antithesis of what the upside detectives are looking for. He's 6'5", too short to be an ideal two-guard in the NBA, yet he's thickly built with a physicality more typical of a forward. He's also 23 years old--just three months younger than LeBron James. Still, Vaden can stick the outside shot and can do so by creating his own offense. Most three-point specialists don't use up a large percentage of their team's possessions, but Vaden took a third of his team's shots while on the floor last season, the 22nd-highest rate in the NCAA. He attempted 355 three-point shots as a junior and hit 40 percent of them. He reminds one of former NBA player Kevin Gamble. If he can translate that percentage to the longer NBA three-point shot, he can play a role in the pros. Vaden also hasn't hired an agent but the reports on his performance at last week's draft camp in Orlando were strong. He's likely to stay in the draft.
Trent Plaisted (6'10" JR, PF/C, BYU)
Plaisted is a tweener big man with a center's game in a power forward's body. He has a solid set of interior skills (54.2 percent on two-point shots) and surprising athleticism. His calling card is his postup game, which translated to a terrific foul-drawing rate, 45th in the country. Plaisted has a good wingspan but didn't translate that to an outstanding block rate (3.5 percent of opponent's two-point attempts) in college. He also was not a great rebounder, converting just 9.2 percent of offensive-rebound opportunities, 402nd in the nation. Plaisted didn't attempt a three-pointer last season but he probably needs to develop a faceup game to play in the NBA. The fact that he shot just 54 percent from the line suggests that may be easier said than done.
George Hill (6'2" JR, PG, IUPUI)
Undersized combo guards can be giant killers at NCAA tournament time, but three months later, on draft day, they are a dime a dozen. Hill's standout trait is his ability to efficiently create offense. He used 28.8 of his team's possessions and shot 58 percent on two-pointers and 45 percent from beyond the arc. In other words, Hill can flat stroke it. Beyond that, however, Hill had one of the 100 best-foul drawing rates (60.6) in the country last season--he can take it to the hoop as well. Add it all up, and Hill had the highest offensive rating (125.4) in the nation among high-usage players. His playmaking abilities are in question, though he did rank in the top 250 in assist rate (24.2 percent of teammates' field goals), as is the caliber of competition he faced at IUPUI, but Hill turned heads in Orlando last week and will likely end up as a second-round pick.
Marcelus Kemp (6'5" SR, SG, Nevada)
Kemp is a longshot. He's 6'5" with pure shooting guard skills and is 24 years old. More a scorer than a shooter, Kemp can usually get his shot off when he wants. That'll be enough to get him in someone's camp. Kemp was 56th in usage rate (29.6) last season and averaged 20 points per game. His shot has limited range--he's got more Rip Hamilton than Ray Allen in him, as evidenced by his modest total of 184 three-point attempts. Despite that, he posted an effective field-goal percentage of 52.0, low for a midrange shooter. He's going to have to be a more efficient shooter to play in the NBA.
Courtney Lee (6'5" SR, SG, Western Kentucky)
Lee is a long-range gunner with no conscience on offense, taking 34.2 percent of his team's shots while on the floor last season, the 13th-highest rate in the NCAA. The rest of his game and physical attributes are pedestrian, but his shooting ability could get him a pro opportunity. Lee has a deadly midrange jumper (51.5 percent on two-pointers) and shoots a solid percentage from beyond the arc (39.7). Overall, he posted the ninth-best offensive rating in the country (116.9) last season for high-usage players. Lee is not great off the dribble, as evidenced by a low figure of 33.1 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts. In fact, with a low assist rate (15.6) thrown in, his versatility on offense is in question. What may put him over the top in the draft is his defense. Both his steal (3.5 percent of opponents' possessions) and block rates (3.0 percent of opponents' shots, outstanding for a guard) were solid. The combination of those two metrics often suggests a top-notch defender. Working against Lee will be his performance in his final college game, when he went 7-of-29 against the NBA-caliber defense of UCLA.
Sean Singletary (5'11" SR, PG, Virginia)
Hey, Singletary is about the same size of fellow ACC alum Chris Paul, right? He had a history of making big shots for the Cavaliers during his four seasons. As a senior, he posted the 12th-best assist rate (37.7) in the country. He's good at using his body to create contact and drawing fouls, with a 46.6 free-throw rate. His primary drawback is, obviously, his size. The Chris Pauls of the world are a rare breed. Of more concern should be his shooting percentages, which weren't strong in college and translate to be unsightly in the NBA. Singletary shot 45.6 percent on two-pointers and 36.7 percent on three-pointers as a senior, translating to an effective field-goal percentage of 48.7. His raw numbers (19.8 points, 6.1 assists per game) were good, though, and he put them up in an elite conference. The kid's got heart.
Will Daniels (6'8" SR, SF, Rhode Island)
Daniels improved in each of his four seasons at Rhode Island, morphing from a low-percentage player with questionable shot selection to a very efficient scorer as a senior. As a freshman, he shot 40.5 percent from the field; he upped that to 50.1 percent during his final season. His scoring averaged progressed from 6.4 to 11.0, 17.4 and 18.6 during his time with the Rams and he managed that with the only increase in court time coming between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Daniels is something of a longshot, but he's got ideal size for a small forward and has a very nice midrange shooting touch, hitting 55.5 percent of his two-point attempts. If he can play defense, he can stick.
Gary Forbes (6'7" SR, SG, Massachusetts)
Forbes is a lunchpail swingman type who can get his own shot (29.1 usage rate) and has solid passing skills, with an assist rate of 17.8 that is nice for a player of his type. He's also a decent rebounder for his size, leading UMass by grabbing 17.3 of opponents' misses last season. Forbes could sneak his way into the league if he can guard NBA wing players. Of major concern are the low shooting percentages Forbes posted throughout his four seasons at UMass. As a senior, he shot a 45.7 eFG%, not a good sign. He's more productive than efficient, averaging 19.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3 assists per game but posting an offensive rating of just 99.8. Forbes doesn't really have that one skill that jumps out at you.
Jaycee Carroll (6'2" SR, SG, Utah State)
Talk about your sleeper picks. Carroll is the longest of shots. He isn't likely to be drafted and probably will spend next season playing overseas, unless he can slip onto a D-league roster. Nevertheless, Carroll was a fun player to watch in college. He took over 30 percent of his team's shots but hit such a high percentage (49.8 percent of 229 three-point attempts) that it didn't matter. He's just 6'2", doesn't have point guard skills (his assist rate was 12.8) or athleticism (indicated by a 29.3 free-throw rate) and is already 24 years old. He might be a poor man's J.J. Redick on the upside. Who knows, though? He could follow a similar career path of the Hornets' Jannero Pargo, who made the rounds of the NBA's minor leagues before finally sticking in the Show.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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