Thursday, June 01, 2006

NBA Draft Case Study - Tayshaun Prince
By Zach

In keeping with the spirit of our recent draft coverage, I figured I'd take a bit of a look at one of the most glaring examples of the fallacy in taking inexperienced or foreign players over proven college stars. In the 2002 NBA draft, Tayshaun Prince was the 23rd player taken. If we were to redo the draft, he'd be the third player taken (behind Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire).

So how did this happen? First, there was the consensus scouting report on Prince, which read something like "very skinny, lacks strength, mediocre jump shot, average ball handler, fantastic length, good defender, might crack eight-man rotation." Well, sometimes the scouts flat get it wrong. Prince shot 50%, then 47% from the field his final two years in college. His FG% jumped even as his role in the offense expanded greatly as he was required to carry Kentucky his junior and senior year.

Then, there's the eternal lure of the unknown. Scouts and GMs said "well, Prince is almost certain to be a solid rotation guy if only because he'll be a good perimeter defender. But these other guys, they could be stars." Who were those other guys? Nikoloz Tskitishvili, quite possibly the worst player in NBA history. At the time, Tskitishvili was playing limited minutes in Europe. But since he was 7-0, and could shoot (at least allegedly, since we never saw evidence of it here in the US), he was "the next Dirk Nowitski!" Or Qyntel Woods, who never played college ball beyond a year at community college, but because he could run fast and jump high, his utter lack of basketball skills and questionable attitude became moot points.

Even worse, there were guys taken ahead of Prince who had also spent several years in college and yet were not nearly as good in the NCAA as Tayshaun: Mike Dunleavy, Dajuan Wagner, Chris Wilcox, Jared Jeffries, Melvin Ely, Marcus Haislip, Fred Jones, Curtis Borchart, Ryan Humphrey, Kareem Rush, Casey Jacobsen. The only college guys you could say were as good or better than Prince were Jay Williams, Drew Gooden, Juan Dixon, and maybe, maybe Caron Butler.

So which guys in the 2006 draft fit the Prince profile? Guys who were great players in college, but because they either lack the ideal physical features of a draft pick or are otherwise unexciting? My candidates are:

1) Shelden Williams. Teams are going to regret passing on him: you're not this good a college player without being at least a solid pro. He'll rebound and defend better than any other post player in the draft, especially in year one. He might not add a lot on offense, but he'll more than make up for it, and the offensive game could grow as he adjusts to the pro level.

2) Leon Powe. Another guy who dominated at the pro level, I see him as a poor man's Elton Brand: he's capable of giving 16 and 8 every night out. The history of knee problems will scare some teams away, but there's no way he deserves to be drafted behind the likes of Josh Boone.

3) Dee Brown. Sure, he's barely 6-0. And his offensive game regressed quite a bit this past season. But he was also ask to shoulder a massive burden both running the Illinois offense and being their go-to scorer. He'll provide an immediate spark off the bench for a team, and should turn into a solid starter at the point. I can't believe he's projected for the bottom of the second round.

4) Gerry McNamara. Another guy who's projected way down in the draft, he carried a weak Syracuse team into the tournament. People forget how crucial he was to their 2003 championship run: in fact, if he'd come out after that season, he'd probably have been a first-round pick. Sure, he's a bit short, but he's a better ballhandler than he gets credit for and his shooting range easily will adjust to the NBA three-point line. He, like Brown, will help right away off the bench and could become a dangerous point guard with his shooting ability.


Blogger David Arnott said...

The mock drafts I've been looking at are predicting McNamara will either go late in the second or go undrafted entirely, which seems impossibly silly. While I put him in the same bloc of guys as Kevin Pittsnogle, those who's numbers simply don't correspond to their college hype, I'm also looking forward to seeing which lottery team throws a dart and hits Patrick O'Bryant, who, at his best, reeks of Jason Collins.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pretty good blog on tayshaun. but, im sorry, jay williams is not as good or better than tayshaun. i dont know where you got that information from. otherwise, well done.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason Williams was the best college basketball guard in the past 15 years (yes, i know that sounds ridiculous, but think back and name me one better, i dare you.) The writer was making the point that few players drafted ahead of Tayshaun exceeded him in college production. To argue that JWill did not is completely fucktarded.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may forget, but Jay Williams was an absolutely dominant college player.

I'd put Jared Jeffries in the same class as Tayshaun Prince as a college player. He did get his team to the NCAA final that year.

6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty easy to claim "this guy was great at college" in hindsight. Unless you have a post back in 2002 saying "Prince is extremely underrated!" then there's not really much to comment on.

6:18 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

Zach can speak for himself, but what I read is a column using hindsight in order to evaluate what went wrong. Mike Dunleavy put up very good numbers for one season. Tayshaun put up very similar surface numbers over two seasons. Everyone knew he was a plus defender. So, how did he end up 23, with Dunleavy in the lottery? The answer that Zach and I suspect is that NBA personnel people saw in their imaginations that Dunleavy could be a star, but because of his perceived flaws couldn't imagine Prince as a star even though there was strong evidence he'd be just as good or better.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gotta call the first poster out on comparing Patrick O'Bryant to Jason Collins. I should preface this by saying that I grew up watching the BU Braves, and still follow them pretty close, but O'Bryant's footwork is unbelievable for a 7 footer on the college level. Don't get me wrong, he's a project, but were you to immediately throw him onto an NBA roster, he'd be A LOT better than Jason Collins. Given a couple years, he'll develop into a Nenad Kristic level center, which considering the current center scene in the pros, is really not that bad.
Btw, great stuff on Tayshaun. Saw him drop 40+ on Tulsa in the second round of the tourney, his senior year. Everybody in the building coulda told you that he was the real deal.

9:15 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

About O'Bryant, I readily admit I didn't see him much beyond the Tourney... The thing is, Collins is a similar size and, in just as tough a conference, put up similar surface numbers in his senior year. Granted, O'Bryant was a sophomore, but the fact remains that he simply hasn't produced the way that plenty of other guys produced in college, even though he was, apparently, the best player on his team, unlike Collins. In the end, being comparable to Jason Collins is a good thing. If so, he'd be an eminently useful baller for the better part of a decade, if not longer. I just hate to think that my team would spend a lottery pick on that level of player.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quincy Douby is my Tayshaun for '06.

1:49 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Depends on where you're picking in the lottery David. If you're picking in the top 5, then yes, I agree getting a Jason Collins type player is a disappointment. But considering how mediocre the rest of the lottery usually is, I'd say if you were the 12th pick, and you got a Jason Collins type player back, you'd have to be pretty happy. 82 games in August of 05' called him one of the best defensive centers in the game. Yes, the Amare Stoudamires do come along, but for every Amare from picks 5-14, there are usually five or six busts and three or four average players.

Hey just consider the Rockets for a moment. They got Eddie Griffin with the Nets pick (8th overall) in 2001. The Nets got Collins in the trade for Griffin. Think the Rockets want that one back? Let's not even bring up the fact the Nets also got Richard Jefferson in that deal...

2:22 AM  
Blogger Ben Cooke said...

Jason Williams was a beast in college and Sheldon Williams will be a solid pro, if not an all-star. But I think Patrick O'Bryant may turn out to be a pretty good pro. He was off the team for much of the year this year, and then after he came back Bradley went on a tear, with O'Bryant playing a couple of great games in the tourney. Comparing him to Jason Collins in college is like comparing apples and oranges. Jason Collins is a classic case of a guy getting the most out of his limited potential in the pros (Battier,...), whereas O'Bryant is a classic case of drafting potential. I think he'll fit somewhere around Tyson Chandler / Marcus Camby on defense, and have a little better touch around the basket than either of them. Can he play at an NBA pace with bigger defenders? Is it his fault he went to Bradley and is capitalizing on a nice run in the tourney?

7:54 AM  
Anonymous knots said...

ummmmm Dajuan Wagner spent one year in college He had not "spent several years in college". I like the article, but i have regularly wondered if Tayshaun would be as productive on another team. But good article regardless

6:22 PM  
Blogger Pradamaster said...

Interesting. Clearly, there are many cases like Prince's where guys who produced in college went lower than "potential" guys. In a lot of cases, taking a proven guy like Prince who doesn't always fit a position over a guy with more potential and an NBA body is the right way to go.

There are other cases, however, where doing the opposite is the right strategy. Consider the 1998 draft. In that draft, Denver and Milwaukee took proven college big men at #3 and #6 with Raef LaFrentz and Robert "Tractor" Traylor over Dirk Nowitzki, then an inexperienced foreign player. In that case, taking the proven college guy backfired. If we redid that draft, it would be Dirk who would have gone #1.

Also, consider the 2003 draft. At spots #16 and #20, the Memphis Grizzlies selected two proven college seniors in Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. Three picks after Jones, the Atlanta Hawks took Boris Diaw, then an unknown European nobody had heard of. Clearly, Diaw has become a better pro than Jones and Bell. If we redid that draft, Diaw would have certainly gone in the Top 10.

My point is that we can't really say there's a rule of thumb one way or the other. Sometimes, taking the proven college guy like Prince is the right way to go, but other times, taking the unknown inexperienced or foreign player with lots of potential proves to be the correct strategy. Instead of looking for general rules of thumb, the greatest challenge that NBA scouts face is determining, for every situation, which strategy of the two is the correct one. Instead of evaluating trends, we should be focusing on the players themselves, because there really is no rule of thumb when it comes to proven college players over inexperienced and foreign players.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Pradamaster: While obviously you can find many cases where "proven" college players were taken before HS/Euro players, most of the good examples (like Dirk) were 6+ years ago. The balance has overloaded in favor of the unknown precisely because GMs are afraid of missing out on the "next whomever."

Certainly, there's a place for foreign players at the top of the draft. But as a GM, I have to realize that the guys who produce in college have proven that they can play at the level which is closest to the NBA in terms of talent, especially with high school kids needing to go to school for at least one year.

In the end, when I take a foreign player, I'm taking a guy who I've seen less than college players, and against less consistant opposition. Certainly, that doesn't mean I shouldn't draft foreign players, but that I should make sure I'm not passing up a guy who's proven he can contribute.

If you read a post David did about draft philosophy, you'd see that we both agreed that it's better to take a guy you know will be a part of your rotation then to gamble on a guy who may never contribute, or at least never contribute for your team (as is the case with Diaw).

10:11 PM  
Blogger Pradamaster said...

I'm confused when you say that most examples of foreign players outperforming college stars occured 6 years ago.

2000: Hideyat Turkoglu, a then unknown out of Tukey, was taken by Sacramento with the 16th pick, behind college standouts such as Marcus Fizer (4th), Courtney Alexander (13th), and Final Four MOP Mateen Cleaves (14th). Turkoglu becomes a solid rotation player, first with the Kings, and then later with the Magic. Fizer, Alexander, and Cleaves are currently either rotting on NBA benches or out of the league.

2001: Pau Gasol, a relative unknown to the common fan, goes behind Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler in the #3 slot to the Grizzlies. Granted, these players were high school players, but they were still more well-known that Gasol at the time. Gasol goes on to win the Rookie of the Year and would go anywhere from #2 to #4 if we re-did this (with Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Tony Parker challenging).

Same year: Vladimir Radmanovic, out of Yugoslovia, goes 12th to the Sonics, one pick after Kendrick Brown. Brown is now out of the league; Radmanovic was one element in the Clippers resurgence this season.

Same year, best example: Tony Parker was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the last pick of the first round. The TNT crew was scratching their collective heads at this pick. Said Charles Barkley, "I don't know that much about him, but they got him in the first round, so he must be a good player." Rick Pitino referred to him as Troy Parker, not even knowing his real name. Parker was taken after college standout guards such as Jamaal Tinsley, Jeryl Sasser, Joseph Forte, and Brandon Armstrong. So far, Parker has made one all-star game in his career and has become one of the premier young stars in this game for two NBA championship San Antonio Spurs teams.

Same year: Mehmet Okur, an unknown from Turkey, was taken with the 38th pick in the second round by Detroit. Some of the big men taken in front of him include Kirk Haston, Michael Bradley, Brendan Haywood, Brian Scalabrine, and Damone Brown. Okur finished this year as the Jazz's starting center, averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds a game.

2002: The same year of Prince, certainly. But look at the pick after Price (24). When the New Jersey Nets took Nenad Kristic, a Yugoslovian center, there was a collective "huh" from NBA enthusiasts. Three years later, we're discussing Kristic as one of the best young centers in the game. The same Kristic that was taken after Melvin Ely, Curtis Borchart, and Ryan Humphrey.

2003: I already discussed Diaw, but that was not the only example. At pick number 28, the Phoenix Suns took an unknown Brazilian guard that nobody had heard of. This season, Leandro Barbosa has emerged as one of the best sixth men in basketball and a key to the Phoenix high-octane attack. All that for a guy picked after Troy Bell, Dahntay Jones, and Reece Gaines.

Same year: It hardly turned anyones head when the Atlanta Hawks used a second round pick on Georgia's Zaur Pachulia. But now, Pachulia is Atlanta's starting center, and while he is by no means a star, he's certainly better than guys like Mario Austin, Brian Cook, and Nick Collison, all college guys taken ahead of him.

2004: With the first pick of the second round, the Orlando Magic took a Brazilian center known more for his crazy hairdo than his game. But once Anderson Varejao found his way to Cleveland, he showed his potential. Anyone watching him in the playoffs knows how bright Varejao's future could be. All for a guy taken after college standouts such as Rafael Araujo and David Harrison.

2005: The jury is still out on most of these guys, college or international, but one example can be found already. Seattle took an unknown French center with the 25th pick in the draft, but by the end of the year, Johan Petro had forced his way into the starting lineup. Petro showed a lot of potential in his rookie year, and certainly had a better year than 2005 Final Four MOP Sean May and Syracuse standout Hakim Warrick.

Clearly, there are plenty of examples over the past 6 years of international guys outperforming college players taken ahead of them.

I think there's a sense for an American fan who loves college basketball to look at some European they've never seen and denounce them right away. There's a sense that, when one fails, it's as if the entire idea of picking a European is stupid. And clearly, there are some examples where picking the proven college senior over the seemingly unknown European works.

But there are plenty of cases where the opposite is true, which I have shown. Frankly, while American fans may not know who these Europeans are, rest assured, the scouts sure do. They've seen these Europeans play and aren't simply reaching for a project in the dark.

The real striking thing I've noticed from all the basketball I've watched is how different the college game is from the professional game. In a lot of ways, it's just as different to the NBA as a European-style game. A great college player doesn't necessarily make a great professional player.

We can conclude from this analysis that picking players for the NBA draft is not an exact science. Sometimes, the college guy is the right way to go. Sometimes, it's the European guy. Taking inexperienced or foreign players over proven college stars is not necessarily a "fallacy." Instead of making generalizations like that, focus as much as you can on the players themselves. Teams botch draft picks because they pick the wrong player for their system, not because they are inexperienced or foreign. Darko Milicic failed in Detroit because Larry Brown hates playing rookies and sticks to a short rotation. But in Orlando, his career suddenly has a new beginning. Darko didn't fail in Detroit because he was an unknown. He failed because he went to a team that never learned how to use him.

In conclusion, just because you haven't seen the player doesn't mean he's not good. There are plenty of cases of undervaluing European talent, even in the last 6 years. There are also plenty of cases of great college stars who never panned out in the NBA. The only rule of thumb when it comes to the NBA Draft is picking players that fit with your team. It doesn't matter whether they are from Kentucky or Kazakhstan..

12:33 AM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Look, of course there are plenty of good players who came into the league from Europe...and while it's nice to cherry-pick a few Europeans who performed better than college kids who were picked before them, it doesn't really address the point I've been trying to make:

Picking players based on potential has, for the most part, been a strategy with a horrific success rate. While a number of those potential picks have turned out to be stars, a much higher number have turned out to be busts.

What David and I said was that unless you're certain that a guy is going to live up to that potential, take the sure thing. In general, we were referring to lottery picks, since everything outside of that is basically a crap shoot no matter whether you take high school, college, or foreign players.

I never denounced the idea of taking foreign players as stupid: if you think the guy is the BPA, then take him. But too often, scouts get sucked in by guys with great "tools," because they can project them to be anything they can imagine. The classic example is Darius Miles, who can run and jump as well as anyone in the league. Too bad he had limited basketball skills when he entered the league, and they've only slightly improved since.

My bias, if anything, is against players who have shown an inability to play at high levels. Tskitisvili is one example, he didn't even start for his Euro team. There are plenty of other examples.

My team (the Sonics), have taken several foreign players. Radmanovic was a decent player for them, and I have high hopes for Petro. But they've also wasted picks on guys like Peter Fehse, Vladimir Stepania, and Olumide Oyedeji (who was picked one spot before Michael Redd).

In the end, what David and I have tried to do is see if there's any way that teams can get consistent value out of their picks. Historically, college players have proven to be solid pro players at a much higher rate than foreign players and high schoolers, with a similar number of stars. We don't advocate taking a college player no matter what, but it's what we'd do when in doubt.

1:42 AM  

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