An Historical Review of Playing Time for Highly Drafted Big Men

February 28th, 2013 | by Spencer Hall

By Matt Pacenza
special to Salt City Hoops

Most Jazz fans – if Twitter is an accurate measure – were disappointed that the team made no trades prior to the 2013 NBA trade deadline.

Fans itching for a trade weren’t so much hoping the team would acquire a jewel of a player – that seemed unlikely – but rather wanted to move Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap for any decent asset to free up minutes for the team’s talented young bigs, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.

The team’s current playing time allotment frustrates many of us. We believe that building the next great Jazz team requires that Favors play more than 22 minutes and Kanter more than 14, their current averages. We believe that the team is failing to do what other forward-thinking teams do: Give their stars of the future sufficient playing time to improve.

That’s the story we grumpy Jazz fans tell ourselves. But is it true? Are Favors and Kanter playing less than other promising young bigs have?

To answer the question, let’s examine centers and power forwards chosen in the top 5 picks in the 2004-2011 drafts, excluding the most recent draft, so each player has at least two seasons of data. Those are arbitrary cut-offs, but it leaves us with 17 modern NBA players to consider – a reasonable number.

How much did they play in their first few seasons? How well did they play? What other circumstances (such as the team’s record) help explain their playing time?

Let’s start out with the two young Jazzmen, focusing just for now on minutes and PER. Remember, PER is a widely-accepted statistical measure of a player’s contribution to the team, adjusted for per-minute production (but isn’t a reliable measure of defense). 15 is average; 20 is a near All-Star. Above 25 an All-NBA candidate.

Enes Kanter #3 Pick, 2011
Minutes PER
Years 1-2 13, 14 14.5, 16.1
Derrick Favors #3 Pick, 2010
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 20, 21, 22 13.9, 17.1, 17.6

The numbers tell the story all Jazz fans know well: Two young guys already performing above average are playing backup minutes. Perhaps most maddeningly, their minutes-played have barely budged even as their performance has improved.

The 17 players analyzed below break neatly into four categories: Studs, Duds, Incompletes and Comps. Let’s move through the first three categories quickly before turning to those bigs that compare well to Kanter and Favors.

THE STUDS

Blake Griffin #1 Pick, 2009
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 38, 36, 32 21.9, 23.4, 23.3
Kevin Love #5 Pick, 2008
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 25, 29, 36 18.3, 20.7, 24.3
LaMarcus Aldridge #2 Pick, 2006
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 22, 35, 37 17.1, 18.5, 19.1
Dwight Howard #1 Pick, 2004
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 33, 37, 37 17.2, 19.3, 21.1

Not much point comparing these current All Stars to Favors and Kanter. Each was, nearly immediately, well above average. They deserved starter’s minutes immediately – or certainly by their second years – and got them.

THE DUDS

Hasheem Thabeet #2 Pick, 2009
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 13, 8, 7 12.9, 4.7. 12.4
Shelden Williams #5 Pick, 2006
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 19, 12, 11 12.3, 11.9, 13.7
Andrea Bargnani #1 Pick, 2004
Minutes PER
Years 1-3 25, 24, 31 12.8, 10.8, 14.6

A trio of cautionary tales: the athletic shot-blocker who has struggled in every other facet of the game. The undersized center from a major college program. And the next Dirk, except he doesn’t shoot particularly well.

Again, not much point in comparing these to Kanter and Favors: These three were lucky to get the minutes they did, compared to the Jazzmen’ solid starts.

THE INCOMPLETES

Jonas Valanciunas #5 Pick, 2011
Minutes PER
Year 1 21 14.2
Greg Oden #1 Pick, 2007
Minutes PER
Years 1-2 22, 24 18.1, 23.1

Valanciunas is intriguing: In his first year in Toronto, after a year in Europe, he’s putting up some decent numbers, despite how raw he is.

What’s easy to forget about the oft-injured Oden is how excellent he was in his limited minutes. He will attempt a comeback next year. Given how well he played in the few games he did stay on the court, he will have plenty of teams vying to give him a shot.

THE COMPS

Eight players left. Time to add more data: How good were their teams? It’s one thing for a guaranteed lottery team to let their kids play, another for a borderline playoff team like the Jazz.

Enes Kanter #3 Pick, 2011
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-2 13, 14 14.5, 16.1 545, .564
Tristan Thompson #4 Pick, 2011
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-2 24, 32 13.3, 16.1 318, .315
Derrick Favors #3 Pick, 2010
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 20, 21, 22 13.9, 17.1, 17.6 .476, .545, .564
DeMarcus Cousins #5 Pick, 2010
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 39, 31, 31 14.6, 21.7, 20.3 .293, .333, .339
Al Horford #3 Pick, 2007
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 31, 34, 35 14.7, 17, 19.4 .451, .573, .646
Tyrus Thomas #4 Pick, 2006
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 13, 18, 28 14.8. 14.6, 15.9 .598, .402, .500
Andrew Bogut #1 Pick, 2005
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 29, 34, 35 15.2, 15.5, 17.5 .488, 341, .317
Emeka Okafor #2 Pick, 2004
Minutes PER Team Win Pct
Years 1-3 36, 34, 35 16.3, 14.9, 20.1 .220, .317, .402

And now it gets illuminating. The guys we can actually compare to Kanter and Favors. Young bigs, picked high in the draft, who played pretty well right away.

Let’s state the obvious first: They all played a lot more than Kanter and Favors, with one exception: Thomas, who we will get to in a moment. This article’s premise is borne out: Promising young bigs – even those on decent teams – have tended to get starter’s minutes. Every single one of these players, except Thomas and the two Jazzmen, were playing 30 minutes by their second year.

But were they on teams that had nothing to lose? Four clearly were: Thompson, Cousins, Bogut and Okafor. All remained firmly in the lottery during their first years, except for the Bucks during Bogut’s rookie year.

The Bucks made those playoffs as an 8 seed, like the Jazz last year. That Bucks team had some decent players – most notably Michael Redd – but their other bigs weren’t clearly better than Bogut, even as a rookie. Jamaal Magloire played a few more minutes than Bogut, but his PER was only 11, so the former Ute was likely a better choice. The team’s third and fourth bigs, Joe Smith and Dan Gadzuric, actually had PERs of 17 and 16, but had largely undistinguished careers.

The next good comp is Al Horford, who as a rookie joined a talented and young Hawks team led by Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Mike Bibby that soon become a fixture in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, the team’s talent was on the wings: Horford immediately was the most productive big behind Smith, easily beating out Zaza Pachulia, Salim Stoudemire and the afore-mentioned Sheldon Williams for minutes.

And finally we get to Tyrus Thomas, who at a glance is the closest single comp to Kanter and Favors: a promising high lottery pick who put up decent numbers but played limited minutes for competing teams. His rookie year, the Bulls won 49 games and Thomas was the first big off the bench, behind starters Ben Wallace and PJ Brown, who were aging but remained solid defensive players.

The next year Brown left, but Thomas continued to play limited minutes behind not just Wallace, but newly-acquired Drew Gooden and Joe Smith (him again!). The team struggled, though, winning just 32 games.

His third year, Thomas started much of the season and his minutes jumped up to 28 a game. Wallace had left, but Gooden and Brad Miller played similar minutes, as the Bulls won 41 games the Eastern Conference’s 8 seed.

So why did Thomas struggle to get minutes his first couple years? Perhaps a better question is: Why did the Bulls continue to trade for and sign veteran bigs like Gooden, Smith and Miller when they had Thomas and his reasonable productivity on hand?

His player capsule in my “Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10” begins with the following description: “At times, Tyrus Thomas looks like one of the best young players in the NBA. Other times, too many of them, he looks wildly undisciplined.”

Neither Kanter nor especially Favors are “wildly undisciplined,” although both still make mistakes. Both commit fouls and turn the ball over at above-average rates, but not so much so that they demand a benching.

On one hand, this study can be interpreted to reinforce Jazz fans’ frustrations: Our talented young bigs are playing much less than virtually any other similar player in recent years. It is very unusual that Enes Kanter in his sophomore season plays just 14 minutes and Derrick Favors in his third just 22.

However, on the other, no team with two young promising lottery picks has ever been quite in this situation: Not just a borderline playoff team, but with players as productive and young as Jefferson and Millsap blocking their paths. It’s fair, as many of us do, to blame the Jazz front office for not freeing up those minutes. But the situation they face has been downright unprecedented.


Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattpacenza

Spencer Hall
Founder Spencer Hall has covered the NBA, Team USA and NBA D-League since 2007 and launched Salt City Hoops in 2009. Spencer is now the news director at KSL.com
Spencer Hall
Spencer Hall

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4 Comments

  1. brad says:

    is it possible no other team was in this situation because it’s a really undesirable situation to be in? most teams aren’t comfortable stagnating around the 8 seed – it’s really almost the worst possible outcome for a season, especially if you’re there for multiple years.

  2. robin rodd says:

    Big Al and Millsap have similar PERs.

    My subjective sense, from watching Jazz games, however is that Jefferson hurts the team a lot by stopping the flow of offense, killing fast break opportunities and allowing opposing front court players score at will in the paint.

    The Salt City Hoops article on how Jefferson hurts the Jazz by not getting to line was excellent.

    Would it be possible, in light of the upcoming free agency period, to see an analysis of the value (or not) of Jefferson and Millsap to the jazz team, using an array of advanced metrics, different lineup combinations?

    Please Utah, don’t re-sign Jefferson!

  3. Pingback: Revising An Historical Review | Utah Sports Net

  4. gaston bon says:

    Kanter is probably so frustrated; too bad he has 2 more years of Jazz mediocrity before he can bolt to a team where he can play. I can’t wait to see him turn around and post 20 12 averages once he gets away from a racist pos coach like Corbin, who would rather lose than put Kanter on the floor.

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