Consider this the lost chapter of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10. A countdown of the top 40 prospects has been a staple of the Baseball Prospectus series, while our friends at Football Outsiders have also annually done a prospect ranking in their books. I would have loved to include a prospect list in PBP 2009-10, but we simply ran out of time. For now, this will have to suffice.
Like FO, we face the problem of trying to define a "prospect," since the true NBA future stars are playing at the college level. (For more on this group, check out my essay in the forthcoming College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, announced yesterday by our colleague John Gasaway.) As with FO, our list is limited to players with 1-3 years of experience. To ensure that our focus remains on unheralded players, we looked strictly at players who averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game last season and eliminated anyone selected in the lottery.
While BP and FO consider player statistics in evaluating prospects, our list uses them in a more formal fashion. Specifically, the Diamond Rating can help us uncover promising up-and-comers. Invented by Wizards blogger Kevin Broom, the Diamond Rating uses a player's per-minute rating (in this case Winning %, the per-minute incarnation of our WARP system) and his minutes per game to give an idea of how much the player might benefit from increased playing time. With R standing for any per-minute rating, the formula is:
R*40 - R*Min/G + (R - leagueR)*40
The last two seasons, I've ranked the players with the top Diamond Rating using similar criteria (see 2007-08 and 2008-09). The difference this year is that while the Diamond Rating serves as a guide, the final rankings are subjective in nature. Let's get to them.
1. Marreese Speights, Philadelphia - 13.5 Diamond (15.9 mpg, .537 Win%)
Of our 10 top prospects, Speights' Diamond Rating is just eighth. That's partially because he did see regular action off the bench for the 76ers last season, playing more than 15 minutes per game between both frontcourt positions. However, what lifts Speights atop this list is his combination of productivity, youth (he was 21 as a rookie) and physical talent. These are reflected in the impressive comparisons SCHOENE offers for Speights--LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson and Shawn Marion top the list. Speights' campaign is off to a solid start. So far during the preseason, he's averaging 24.5 points and 14.8 rebounds per 40 minutes.
2. Marcin Gortat, Orlando - 17.8 (12.6 mpg, .602 Win%)
Last April, Gortat would have been a perfect candidate for the top spot on this list. Over the next two months, the secret got out because of how well Gortat played when Dwight Howard suffered foul trouble during the postseason. Believe it or not, the Magic actually played substantially better with Gortat at center during its playoff run. That's not sustainable (and wasn't the case during the regular season), but Gortat's skills are legitimate. Alas, after Orlando matched Dallas' offer to Gortat, a restricted free agent, it will take a trade before we get a chance to see what he can do in a larger role.
3. Renaldo Balkman, Denver - 16.1 (14.8 mpg, .586 Win%)
Isiah Thomas has long since moved on, but he's got a chance to laugh last over the cynical New York media reaction when the Knicks stunned experts by taking Balkman in the first round of the 2006 Draft. Balkman averaged 15.6 minutes per game as a rookie and played well, but has been stuck in neutral in terms of playing time the last two seasons despite a trade to the Nuggets. With Linas Kleiza moving on, this could be Balkman's chance to seize a larger role and demonstrate how disruptive he can be on defense.
4. DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers - 13.7 (14.6 mpg, .524 Win%)
Because veterans Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman are ahead of him on the Clippers' depth chart, Jordan is still a name to file away for the future at this point. However, when injuries struck the L.A. frontcourt last season, Jordan proved to much further along in his development than anyone expected after one disappointing season at Texas A&M. As it turned out, there was a reason Jordan was considered a likely lottery pick coming out of high school. He'll get another year to learn before Camby's contract expires, leaving Jordan to fight with Kaman for playing time in the middle.
5. Will Bynum, Detroit - 14.0 (14.1 mpg, .525 Win%)
The Pistons signed Ben Gordon to supply instant offense off the bench, but they already had in their possession one of the league's top per-minute reserve scorers. In fact, no bench player--and just 13 players period--had higher usage rates last season than Bynum, who still scored at a reasonably-efficient .520 True Shooting Percentage. Gordon's addition means a crowd in a Detroit backcourt that also includes Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey, but new head coach John Kuester will have to find time to get the explosive Bynum on the floor.
6. JaVale McGee, Washington - 14.3 (15.2 mpg, .549 Win%)
Like Jordan, McGee played more than anticipated due to injury and flashed considerable potential. A long-limbed 7-footer, McGee is already a capable shot blocker and rebounder. Where he continues to develop is in terms of being on the right spot on the floor, as well as finishing at the rim. The stakes are higher with the Wizards eyeing a playoff spot this year, and they added veteran Fabricio Oberto to back up a healthy Brendan Haywood, leaving McGee in a small role--for now.
7. Roy Hibbert, Indiana - 13.7 (14.4 mpg, .523 Win%)
Last Friday, Pacers coach Jim O'Brien all but declared to the Indianapolis Star that Hibbert will be the team's starting center. While he came into camp the favorite for that role, Hibbert has earned it with his preseason play, including 17 blocks in 124 minutes. If Hibbert can stay on the floor--he was the league's most foul-prone player on a per-play basis as a rookie--he's got the tools to be an impact player.
8. Shannon Brown, L.A. Lakers - 11.1 (10.0 mpg, .411 Win%)
Brown joins Gortat as players who elevated their Q ratings by playing well on the NBA's biggest stage. Moved to point guard just before the playoffs, Brown played well as part of the Lakers' three-man rotation at the point. For now, Brown will probably spend more time at shooting guard, playing alongside Jordan Farmar off the bench. Down the road, however, he has a chance to usurp Farmar's role as the eventual successor to veteran Derek Fisher. In the mold of Ron Harper, Brown brings size and the ability to play physical defense to the position despite not being a natural one.
9. D.J. White, Oklahoma City - N/A (18.3 mpg, .599 Win%)
As a rookie, White barely got a chance to play. A pair of surgeries to remove a benign growth from his jaw limited White to 130 minutes of NBA action. In that span, White did reinforce the notion drawn from his college stats that he is ready to contribute off the bench right away. Think Paul Millsap (a past member of the Diamond Rating list) or Carl Landry, at least a light version. The only concern about White is the battle for playing time in the Thunder frontcourt, with Nick Collison, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic already established and rookie Serge Ibaka making a case for minutes with his preseason performance.
10. Louis Amundson, Phoenix - 13.8 (13.7 mpg, .516 Win%)
After bouncing around the league, Amundson found a good fit with the Suns during his third NBA season, emerging as the team's energizer off the bench. An effective shot blocker and rebounder, Amundson is the best defensive big man on the Phoenix roster and also shot a solid 53.8 percent on two-point attempts. Now if only he could do something about that 44.2 percent accuracy from the free throw line.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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