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June 26, 2008
The Pelton Translations
Using the Numbers to Evaluate the Draft Crop

by Kevin Pelton

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As the NBA has increasingly embraced statistical analysis, few areas have been more fertile ground for exploration than the NBA Draft. A number of interviews, including New Jersey Nets analyst Ken Catanella talking to TrueHoop earlier this week, have revealed the increasing attention teams are paying to a variety of stats when evaluating college prospects.

At the same time, fans have access to more information than ever. DraftExpress has been running a series analyzing each position, HoopsAnalyst has its annual series by Ed Weiland and ESPN Insider's John Hollinger put together a new version of his draft rater. Of course, my colleague Ken Pomeroy makes a variety of advanced statistics available for every college player.

My approach to draft statistics has been simple: translating them into their NBA equivalents, a process inspired by the Davenport Translations used by our Baseball Prospectus cousins. This is somewhat more difficult in basketball because basketball performance does not translate in a linear fashion as it usually does in baseball. That is, rebounding carries over differently from college to the NBA than two-point shooting does, and so on and so forth. (It's also more of a projection than a translation because, obviously, players only go from college to the NBA and not the other way around, so there's always an aging factor.) Adjusting for varying strengths of schedule is also something of a challenge.

I first applied this process in 2003 before adjusting for 2004. After reporting only a handful of results in 2005, I've stayed out of the draft game the last two years. This year, the system is back with some slight tweaks to better account for pace of play (using rebound percentage instead of rebounds per minute, for example).

Hollinger in particular has attempted to incorporate as much data as possible into his projections, including height, weight and age, to try to gauge a player's long-term potential. My approach has been to try to objectively translate a player's rookie statistics and consider that as part of a subjective assessment of their ultimate value.

For each position, I'll present the translated numbers in a few key categories for notable prospects, then discuss the results.

Point Guards

Player               Team  Win%   ORtg   DRtg   TS%  Reb%  Pass

Mario Chalmers        KAN  .505  104.7  104.5  .560   5.1  2.58
George Hill         IUPUI  .452  104.7  106.1  .526   8.4  1.04
Derrick Rose          MEM  .426  104.1  106.4  .476   7.3  2.21
Jerryd Bayless        ARI  .399  104.7  107.9  .529   4.4  1.19
D.J. Augustin         TEX  .396  104.0  107.2  .476   3.9  2.91
DeMarcus Nelson      DUKE  .396  102.7  105.8  .489   9.3   .51
Bo McCalebb           UNO  .392  102.9  106.1  .468   5.4  2.41
Sean Singletary       UVA  .389  103.4  106.7  .469   5.4  2.41
Russell Westbrook    UCLA  .388  103.3  106.7  .462   6.4  1.64
Drew Neitzel         MIST  .367  103.3  107.4  .462   4.1  2.75

A note of caution as we evaluate the point guards: These translations have, historically, had more problem projecting at the point than at other positions. In part, this might be because rookie performance tends to be less meaningful for point guards. If you followed the 2005 link, you saw I was way down on Deron Williams. Lo and behold, Williams did struggle as a rookie, but that hasn't stopped him from developing into an elite player. In the case of a player like Rose, a relatively low rating is not exactly encouraging, but not entirely damning either.

Point guards might also be helped by a factor this system can't really pick up, in part because it's based on data from the 2000-07 drafts--the rules re-interpretation limiting contact on the perimeter that has helped point guards in particular get to the basket more frequently the last few years. Bayless, who already projects to average more than six free-throw attempts per 40 minutes, could really take advantage of the NBA's rules.

The other factor here is the importance, in my system, of steals to a guard's defensive rating. Chalmers is the only big steals guy in this group, so it's no surprise he rates so well (though he comes out as an efficient offensive player as well and should definitely be considered underrated). Subjectively, Westbrook's defensive rating in particular deserves a boost.

Hill is an interesting second-round prospect. The numbers suggest he should be able to hold his own at the point while providing offense off the bench. If Eddie House can play point guard in the NBA Finals, there's a spot in the league for Hill.

Ultimately, after Rose I don't think there's a huge separation between the other four first-round prospects, though I like Bayless subjectively much more than the numbers do.

Rankings:

1. Rose
2. Bayless
3. Chalmers
4. Westbrook
5. Augustin

Shooting Guards

Player               Team  Win%   ORtg   DRtg   TS%  Reb%  Pass

Kyle Weaver           WSU  .463  103.5  104.6  .480   9.4  2.02
J.R. Giddens          UNM  .462  102.6  103.8  .458  13.3   .70
Mark Tyndale          TEM  .412  102.8  105.4  .491   9.8   .98
Chris Douglas-Roberts MEM  .406  103.5  106.3  .525   6.8   .15
Shan Foster           VAN  .400  103.9  107.0  .565   7.1   .12
Brandon Rush          KAN  .381  102.4  106.0  .464   8.9   .33
Courtney Lee          WKU  .379  101.8  105.5  .465   7.3   .19
Bill Walker           KSU  .363  103.0  107.3  .472  11.4   .16
Eric Gordon           IND  .357  102.4  106.8  .518   4.7   .18
O.J. Mayo             USC  .353  102.1  106.6  .474   6.6   .47
Marcelus Kemp         NEV  .344  102.6  107.5  .462   7.2   .67
Jamont Gordon        MSST  .339  101.7  106.6  .445   8.2  1.29
Sonny Weems           ARK  .332  101.6  106.8  .462   7.4   .33
Gary Forbes         UMASS  .325  100.9  106.3  .427   9.6   .33
Bryce Taylor           UO  .299  101.6  108.0  .497   6.2   .10
Joe Crawford           UK  .289  101.9  108.7  .494   5.7   .19

It would be safe to say that the translated numbers of the shooting-guard crop are not entirely impressive. Naturally, the top two prospects at the position are one-and-done phenoms Mayo and Gordon, neither of whom project here as instant contributors. The expectation is that Gordon will be a more efficient offensive player in the NBA without the distractions that limited him down the stretch at Indiana, but when a shooter hits 33.3% from the college three-point line, that's cause for concern. Gordon projects to largely be one-dimensional at the NBA level, so he needs to dominate that dimension.

As for Mayo, he's done in here by a surprisingly low 46.4% two-point percentage. That translates to a dismal 38.8% in the NBA; Damon Stoudamire and Quentin Richardson were the lone NBA players to play at least a thousand minutes and shoot worse from two-point range last year. As a guy with an NBA body, Mayo should do better at finishing through contact. I think he's got a better shot of beating that projection than Gordon does, though he is very old for a freshman prospect.

Looking at the rest of the group, Weaver looks like a terrific value pick in the early second round or even late in the first. He's not a scorer, but does everything else well (that Pass rating is good enough to qualify him to play the point). I've subjectively compared him to John Salmons, but Salmons didn't put up nearly as impressive numbers at Miami. Giddens, the Kansas transfer, is worth a look but his lofty rating owes a lot to the fact that he's the only shooting guard projected to block more than a shot per 40 minutes.

The Kansas kids, Rush and Walker, deserve a subjective boost because both were coming back from torn ACLs last season. Rush is a better defender than that rating gives him credit for. Douglas-Roberts is closer to surviving as a specialist right now than Gordon, but must develop the rest of his game besides scoring. Foster projects as a 40.0% three-point shooter, which would make him a valuable role player right off the bat.

Rankings:

1. Mayo
2. Weaver
3. Gordon
4. Douglas-Roberts
5. Foster

Small Forwards

Player               Team  Win%   ORtg   DRtg   TS%  Reb%  Pass

Pat Calathes        SJOES  .460  104.0  105.2  .490  11.9   .46
Reggie Williams       VMI  .425  103.2  105.5  .457   9.6   .46
Malik Hairston         UO  .403  104.7  107.6  .542   8.4   .33
Joe Alexander         WVU  .387  102.7  106.1  .457  10.7   .37
Davon Jefferson       USC  .363  102.3  106.5  .523  12.2   .02
L.R. Mbah a Moute    UCLA  .358  101.6  105.9  .444  11.4   .14
Anthony Randolph      LSU  .356  100.5  104.8  .434  12.4   .03
Will Daniels          URI  .345  101.9  106.7  .479  10.2   .03

There's not much at this position, subjectively (two lottery picks, but no one else likely to go in the first round) or statistically. The various stat-based systems don't always agree, but there is unanimity on this: Anthony Randolph is not a lottery pick, not anywhere close. In fact, of all the prospects I rated, Randolph rates as the most inefficient offensive player. He turns the ball over too much and doesn't shoot a high enough percentage from the field, which are two big problems.

Alexander is a more interesting case. I figured he'd come out OK; Hollinger rates him rather well, in fact. His translation isn't horrendous, but you'd expect more from a junior projected in the lottery. The concern is that Alexander is a "pseudo-athlete"--one of those guys who tests off the charts, but whose tools don't entirely translate into results. (Rodney Carney and Kirk Snyder are the ultimate pseudo-athletes.) With the notable exception of blocks, Alexander doesn't stand out in the usual athleticism categories (rebounding and steals, most notably). If he improves like he did during his college career, though, Alexander can still be a valuable pro player.

Without having seen much--OK, any--of him, I like the idea of Calathes' game. You don't see a lot of guys whose main two skills are blocking shots and hitting threes. If Calathes bulks up enough to handle some time at power forward, his ability to stretch the floor could be very valuable. Williams is a deep sleeper who averaged 27.8 points per game against terrible competition. The strength of schedule adjustment doesn't entirely take away his value, so there might be something there. Jefferson should have stayed in school and Mbah a Moute is an NBA-caliber athlete without the offensive game to match.

Rankings:

1. Alexander
2. Randolph
3. Calathes
4. Hairston
5. Jefferson

Power Forwards

Player Team Win% ORtg DRtg TS% Reb% Pass Kevin Love UCLA .645 108.7 104.2 .563 19.8 .24 Aleks Maric NEB .609 106.6 103.3 .514 18.2 .21 Michael Beasley KSU .594 106.3 103.4 .524 19.4 .02 Richard Hendrix ALA .548 105.4 104.0 .507 15.8 .13 Maarty Leunen UO .513 106.4 106.0 .599 14.3 .71 Ryan Anderson CAL .494 106.2 106.4 .530 16.1 .07 Joey Dorsey MEM .491 103.7 103.9 .509 17.8 .01 D.J. White IND .484 104.5 105.0 .540 15.6 .01 Marreese Speights FLA .471 104.6 105.5 .528 16.2 .04 Darnell Jackson KAN .466 105.1 106.1 .563 14.2 .09 J.J. Hickson NCST .461 103.9 105.1 .537 15.1 .03 James Mays CLEM .418 102.6 105.0 .433 12.5 .22 Othello Hunter OSU .401 103.0 106.0 .510 12.0 .03 James Gist UMD .383 101.2 104.8 .482 11.3 .04 Darrell Arthur KAN .382 102.9 106.5 .486 13.2 .03 Donte Green SYR .352 101.0 105.5 .452 9.5 .12

Love over Beasley might surprise you. It surprised me, a little, despite the fact that my colleague John Gasaway made a strong case based on the numbers that Love should have been the NCAA Player of the Year last year, and he certainly played a more difficult schedule.

Aleks Maric over Beasley? OK, I know I'm hurting my credibility with that one. I'm not sure I've got a real good explanation for why Maric ranks ahead of Beasley, his teammate on the All-Big Ten First Team, but I will say when you adjust for the fact that Maric played slightly less than 30 minutes a night on a slow-paced team, his line--16.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals a night--is very impressive. Maric's numbers compare favorably to what Nick Fazekas did a year ago, and Fazekas at least got enough love from scouts to be an early second-round pick. So maybe, just maybe, there's something there.

Leunen is the other oddball. He's been a Pomeroy favorite at times, but I hadn't realized how efficient he was on offense last season, shooting 55.9% from the field and 49.2% from downtown. I could see him putting up big numbers in the D-League and ultimately making it to the NBA.

As for the real prospects, let's talk a little more about Love. Not only does he come out with the best winning percentage of this year's prospects, it's also the best of anyone in the eight years of data I have (which doesn't include everyone from the early part of the decade because team and opponent statistics aren't available for them). From a statistical perspective, Love does everything well. The concerns about how his game will translate are understandable, but there may be fewer question marks about Love than some of the perimeter players.

Never mind that Beasley technically ranks third at his position. His numbers are still incredible, and better at the defensive end than is generally acknowledged. Subjectively, I like Rose as the top pick, in part because of the way the modern NBA game favors guards, but it's hard to go against Beasley's overwhelming statistical superiority.

There are two big groups in here: undersized second-round-pick types and athletic first-rounders. Predictably, the former group comes out looking better here. The translations show Hendrix, Dorsey and White all being able to step right in and contribute a la Paul Millsap and Carl Landry. The oddball amongst the second-round picks is Anderson, who combines terrific touch on offense with surprising ability to battle in the paint. Like Calathes, he's valuable as a floor-stretcher.

Amongst the first-rounders, the numbers like Hickson and Speights. Subjectively, I'd rather have Hickson just ahead because of the year difference in their development. Arthur and Green show up with more red flags. Fouls are a big problem for Arthur, who projects to 6.9 per 40 minutes in the NBA. Then again, he could afford to be aggressive because the Jayhawks were so deep up front. As for Green, he needs serious development to be a useful offensive player, though I'm fairly confident he'll get there. The positive note for Green is this. Historically, players with at least 50 steals and 50 blocks at the NCAA level have become valuable NBA defenders. No prospect got there in 2007-08 (the four players to clear the mark all did so in smaller conferences), but Greene came the closest, followed by a bunch of players from this group (second: Maric).

Rankings

1. Beasley
2. Love
3. Hickson
4. Speights
5. Hendrix

Centers

Player               Team  Win%   ORtg   DRtg   TS%  Reb%  Pass

Roy Hibbert         GTOWN  .528  106.2  105.3  .537  12.8   .37
Jason Thompson      RIDER  .443  102.7  104.4  .457  13.7   .24
Brook Lopez          STAN  .439  103.5  105.3  .459  13.6   .07
DeVon Hardin          CAL  .426  102.8  105.0  .510  16.3   .02
Sasha Kaun            KAN  .408  103.8  106.6  .532  11.4   .01
Kosta Koufos          OSU  .404  102.9  105.7  .466  12.5   .01
Robin Lopez          STAN  .404  102.8  105.7  .486  11.9   .01
DeAndre Jordan       TAMU  .377  102.2  106.0  .507  15.3   .01
JaVale McGee          NEV  .361  100.6  104.8  .449  11.8   .01
Trent Plaisted        BYU  .340  101.8  106.8  .458  12.1   .10

The last time I did a draft breakdown in earnest, I had only one center to analyze (über-bust Rafael Araujo, who actually comes out decently by this method, I hate to admit). My, how things have changed. Six of these guys will likely go in the first round.

Statistically, Hibbert is far and away the class of the group, though I worry a great deal about his ability to defend on the perimeter in a league that loves the pick-and-roll. His rebound percentage is also surprisingly disappointing (Hibbert was slightly better on the glass as a junior). Brook Lopez is the consensus class of this group, but he's hurt here by a low two-point percentage (again, it was better a year ago) and average rebounding.

The rest of the group is a mixed bag. The strength of schedule adjustment drags Thompson's numbers way, way down, but he still projects as a strong shot-blocker (1.9 per 40 minutes). Robin Lopez is probably the best defender of the group, but needs to make strides on the glass as well as on offense. Hardin is the best rebounder of this group. Jordan and McGee have potential that exceeds their production thus far. McGee's offense is especially dubious--he used way too many possessions in college as a below-average scorer.

Rankings:

1. B. Lopez
2. Hibbert
3. Jordan
4. Thompson
5. R. Lopez

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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