Historical look at point guard height as a predictor for NBA success

July 11th, 2013 | by Clint Johnson
Photo courtesy Utah Jazz.

Photo courtesy Utah Jazz.

Trey Burke has had a rough welcome to the NBA in his first three Summer League games in Orlando: shooting just 9 of 41.  He’s struggled finishing inside and had problems getting the same separation for jump shots he created in college. But whether good or bad, there is little fans can draw from these three lone games to project whether Burke will live up to his hype (favorite for Rookie of the Year, characterization as the best point guard in the draft. etc.).

But that question—just how good can Trey Burke be?—has become the crux of the upcoming season of hope, as well as the Jazz’s future. Like the businessman who controls the corporation’s purse strings, much of what will happen on the court next season for the Jazz will go through Burke.

This first Summer League game showed the liabilities that cause some to question Burke’s ceiling in the NBA: his lack of height and explosiveness make it hard to finish near the hoop, result in contested jump shots, and put him at a disadvantage against bigger, heavier point guards.  Some of these difficulties will certainly be resolved as Burke adjusts to the NBA game, but will Burke’s stature prove a significant and permanent liability?

Let’s see what the numbers say.

Consider every rookie point guard since 1990 to play 20 or more minutes per game.  (Note that I characterized their career ability level–bench, starter, etc.–according to peak quality of play and not style.  Thus, dynamic bench players like Bobby Jackson and Leandro Barbosa are listed as starters, because I think their games at their best were at the level of a respectable starter in the league.)

Name Height Age MP/G W/L PER Career
Chris Paul 6’0” 20 36.0 .449 22.1 HoF
Kyrie Irving 6’2” 19 30.5 .318 21.4 All-Star
Steve Francis 6’3” 22 36.1 .415 18.4 All-Star
Tyreke Evans 6’6” 20 37.2 .305 18.2 Star
Allen Iverson 6’0” 21 40.1 .244 18.0 HoF
Andre Miller 6’2” 23 25.5 .390 17.9 Star
Isaiah Thomas 5’9” 22 25.5 .333 17.6 Starter
Brevin Knight 5’10” 22 31.0 .573 17.1 Starter
Gilbert Arenas 6’3” 20 24.6 .256 17.0 All-Star
Damon Stoudamire 5’10” 22 40.9 .256 16.7 Star
Darren Collison 6’0” 22 27.8 .451 16.5 Starter
Ty Lawson 5’11” 22 20.3 .646 16.4 Star
Damian Lillard 6’3” 22 38.6 .402 16.4 Star
Stephen Curry 6’3” 21 36.2 .317 16.3 All-Star
Ramon Sessions 6’3” 21 26.5 .317 16.2 Starter
Stephon Marbury 6’2” 19 34.7 .489 16.1 All-Star
Derrick Rose 6’3” 20 37.0 .500 16.0 All-Star
John Wall 6’4” 20 37.8 .280 15.8 Star
Russell Westbrook 6’3” 20 32.5 .280 15.2 All-Star
Jason Kidd 6’4” 21 33.8 .439 15.1 HoF
DJ Augustin 6’0” 21 26.5 .427 14.9 Starter
Kemba Walker 6’1” 21 27.2 .106 14.9 Star
Mike Bibby 6’1” 20 35.2 .160 14.8 Star
Ricky Rubio 6’4” 21 34.2 .394 14.6 Star
Brandon Jennings 6’1” 20 32.6 .561 14.5 Star
Jameer Nelson 6’0” 22 20.4 .439 14.5 All-Star
Raymond Felton 6’1” 21 30.1 .317 14.2 Star
Chauncey Billups 6’3” 21 27.7 .341 13.6 All-Star
Bobby Jackson 6’1” 24 30.0 .134 13.6 Starter
Nick Van Exel 6’1” 22 33.3 .402 13.6 All-Star
Jamaal Tinsley 6’3” 23 30.5 .512 13.4 Star
Mario Chalmers 6’1” 22 32.0 .524 13.3 Starter
Gary Payton 6’4” 22 27.4 .500 13.2 HoF
Kirk Hinrich 6’3” 23 35.6 .280 13.1 Starter
Rajon Rondo 6’1” 20 23.5 .293 13.1 All-Star
Jonny Flynn 6’0” 20 28.9 .183 13.0 Bench
Jason Williams 6’1” 23 36.1 .540 12.8 Starter
Leandro Barbosa 6’3” 21 21.4 .354 12.7 Starter
JR Bremer 6’2” 22 23.5 .537 12.7 Bench
Speedy Claxton 5’11” 23 22.8 .524 12.6 Bench
Mike Conley 6’1” 20 26.1 .268 12.6 Star
Nate Robinson 5’9” 21 21.4 .280 12.6 Starter
Deron Williams 6’3” 21 28.8 .500 12.4 All-Star
Jrue Holiday 6’3” 19 24.2 .329 12.3 All-Star
Jarrett Jack 6’3” 22 20.2 .256 12.3 Starter
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 6’1” 21 22.5 .244 12.2 Starter
Jay Williams 6’2” 21 26.1 .366 12.2 Bench
TJ Ford 6’0” 20 26.8 .500 12.1 Starter
Lindsey Hunter 6’2” 23 26.5 .244 12.0 Starter
Brandon Knight 6’3” 20 32.3 .379 11.7 Starter
Tony Parker 6’2” 19 29.4 .707 11.7 All-Star
Jose Calderon 6’3” 24 23.2 .329 11.4 Star
Luther Head 6’3” 23 20.0 .415 11.2 Bench
Anthony Carter 6’1” 24 23.5 .634 11.0 Bench
Alexey Shved 6’6” 24 23.9 .378 11.0 Bench
Eric Bledsoe 6’1” 21 22.7 .390 10.8 Starter
Shaun Livingston 6’7” 19 27.1 .451 10.4 Starter
Darrick Martin 5’11” 23 23.6 .256 10.3 Bench
Antonio Daniels 6’4” 22 26.4 .232 9.9 Starter
Chris Duhon 6’1” 22 26.5 .573 9.8 Bench
Bobby Hurley 6’0” 22 26.3 .341 8.4 Bench

That’s 61 players.  Trey Burke will become number 62 this season, and he’s not the only one six foot or shorter.  Historically, how has height affected point guards in their rookie season and beyond?

The tables below explore this question.  I focused on rookies who played 20 or more minutes a game both because Jazz fans want to know what to expect from Trey Burke long term based on his rookie performance (no one wants to wait to draw conclusions) and because I assume a height disadvantage would be most noticeable in a rookie year, when a player is adapting to superior NBA athletes.

Trey Burke: Starter, Star, or All-Star?

Does height have a bearing on developmental potential?  Historically, yes.  What the numbers suggest is a mixed bag when it comes to implications for Trey Burke.

Height

Starter

Star

All-Star

5’9”

100%

0%

0%

5’10”

100%

50%

0%

5’11”

33%

33%

0%

6’0”

75%

38%

38%

6’1”

86%

50%

14%

6’2”

71%

57%

43%

6’3”

94%

65%

47%

6’4”

100%

80%

40%

6’6”

50%

50%

0%

6’7”

100%

0%

0%

First, the good news.  History suggests that a 6’0” guard who earns 20 minutes per game or more his rookie season will develop into at least a passable starting caliber player 75% of the time.  Statistically speaking, there is little difference between the prospects of a 6’0” point guard and someone 6’2” when it comes to becoming a starter.

There is less correlation when it comes to all-star status, which is also good news for Burke.  Since 1990, it has been extremely difficult for players under 6’0” to become all-stars, indeed, no point guard has done it.  6’0” appears to be something of a threshold; from 6’0” to 6’4”, most every height has between a 38% and 47% chance of becoming an all-star, with taller players having a slight advantage.

This suggests Burke’s height: 1) is unlikely to be a major hindrance in his development as a passable starter; and 2) has about as good a shot of becoming an all-star as any other point guard, regardless of height.

Now the bad news.  There is a clear correlation between increasing height and a player’s likelihood of achieving stardom, which I define as a top three role on his team for the purpose of this analysis.  In the last two decades plus, the taller a team’s point guard, the more likely he has developed into a top two or three focal point of the team.  Generally speaking, the players who manage to buck this trend have an excellent chance of becoming all-stars.

So height’s relation to point guard upside is something of feast or fast (not famine).  History suggests that Trey Burke will probably become a starting caliber point guard.  If he wants to be better than that, he will have to beat the odds.  If he is one of those high achievers, the chances are good he will be able to retire from basketball with the title “all-star” attached to his name.

Is Trey Burke Truly Short for His Position?

Statistically, the claim that Burke is short for a point guard is only somewhat true.  The following table shows the breakdown of all these rookie point guards grouped by height.

Height

% of Total

Population

5’9″

3%

5’10″

3%

5’11″

5%

6’0″

13%

6’1″

23%

6’2″

11%

6’3″

28%

6’4″

8%

6’6″

3%

6’7″

1%

75% of these point guards have been between 6’0” and 6’4”; players shorter or taller are the major outliers.  36% are either 6’0” or 6’1”, and 47% are 6’1” or shorter.  Given Burke’s long arms and good if not great athleticism, I doubt he is at a physical disadvantage against most of the 6’1” point guards in the league.  Physically, he’s likely right in the meaty middle of the bell curve for point guard stature.

How Quickly Will It Take Burke to Get up to Speed?

Burke is an early favorite for Rookie of the Year.  Many, including a hoard of hopeful Jazz fans, are anticipating he’ll hit the court running much in the way Damian Lillard did last year.  Lillard posted a stellar 19 points, 6.5 assists, and 3.1 rebounds last season, earning a personal efficiency rating (PER) of 16.4.  (PER is a measure of per-minute production standardized so that the league average is 15, and is one of the single statistics commonly used to represent a player’s overall quality of play.)

Lillard is 6’3”, though.  Will Burke’s height create a greater adjustment period than Lillard experienced, hampering Burke’s ability to perform at a high level his rookie reason?  The statistical verdict: Nope.  The following chart lists the average PER for these players at each height in their rookie year.

Height

PER

5’9″

15.1

5’10″

16.9

5’11″

13.1

6’0″

14.9

6’1″

12.9

6’2″

14.9

6’3″

14.1

6’4″

13.7

6’6″

14.6

6’7″

10.4

Strange that three of the four highest averages are for heights beneath 6’1”, but there you go.  Apparently, the shorter point guards who earn enough trust to play 20 or more minutes as rookies are really prepared to contribute right away.  Six of the 20 rookies who posted average or above PERs were 6’0” or shorter.  Those players make up only 25% of the total population, but they account for 30% of the average or above PERs.

The numbers say the shorter guys are, if anything, MORE ready to play efficiently as rookies than their taller counterparts.

Conclusions

The past 23 seasons of NBA basketball suggest that Trey Burke’s height may be a limiting factor in his development and ultimate potential as a player, but not as significantly as some suggest.  These 61 rookie point guards are not a huge sample size to draw from, particularly when subdivided by height, but they are the closest peers to Burke available: rookie point guards good enough to earn significant minutes on the court right off the bat.

The numbers suggest that Burke’s height may be a legitimate obstacle to his rising from Jazz starter to star prominence on the team.  Whether this is because height limits effectiveness on the court or the perceptions of the teams themselves limit opportunity and status is not clear.  Likely, there is some of both going on.  Teams want prototypical 6’3” point guards because they’ve been very successful and they’ve been successful because teams look for players who fit that profile.  Take the chicken or the egg, your pick.

Projecting Burke’s career based solely upon his height is foolish, either to condemn or exalt.  He is very much more than his stature. Height is a part of Trey Burke, not the whole of him.  The numbers suggest that Burke’s height may sometimes prove an obstacle to meeting Jazz fans’ hopes and his own goals—he publicly declared he thinks he can become an all-star—but they also show stature deficiencies like his are far from impossible to overcome, even in a rookie season.  Add the entire package that is Trey Burke to those odds, and you have what looks like a solid bet and a very good NBA player.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. In addition to his writing center work at Salt Lake Community College, he designed, coordinates, and teaches in an experimental author residency program for a West Valley City public charter school. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.
Clint Johnson

Latest posts by Clint Johnson (see all)

  • Jazz 2013-14 SportVU Snapshot
    Analytics
    5
    August 1st, 2014

    Jazz 2013-14 SportVU Snapshot

    As I mentioned in my piece last week, I’m lucky enough to count myself a writer for Nylon Calculus, the new analytics arm of...Read More

16 Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    One more thing worth noting when comparing Burke to Lillard. Lillard played 4 years in college and was 22 as a rookie.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Absolutely. Physiologically, Burke will be where Lillard was as a rookie in his third season. I expect this means he won’t be as ready his rookie year (though he still might win (ROY due to opportunity) but he will likely improve more on his rookie season.

  2. Keith says:

    Great analysis and article Clint.

    Mike Conley’s height and wingspan (5’11.75 and 6’5.75) are very similar to Burke’s height and wingspan (5’11.75 and 6’5.5) and their lane agility and 3/4 court speed are fairly comparable as well. If Burke can work on his speed and explosiveness (P3?), maybe defense and facilitation will become his aim as opposed to prolific scoring and up-chucking disrupted shots.

    Maybe there is a chance Burke doesn’t become an All-Star but maybe ends up facilitating one of the best defensive teams in the west in the next 2-4 years? I think a lot of comparisons could be made between Memphis’ rebuild and Utah’s current rebuild situation. Kanter and Favors are the Randolph and Marc Gasol of the interior (except Randolph is left handed I think but Kanter can polish just as nice a mid-range shot as Randolph does).

    I think fans should just try to not fit him into a pre-defined box before he and the team figure out what his bes role and strengths are.

  3. mick douglas says:

    Next time you write an article about height, you may want to include the height of the main subject about which you are writing. Maybe I’m assuming a lot here, but I think the subject of the article is Trey Burke is it not? Just a tip for you if you are an aspiring author.

    Also, how do you not include statistics for John Stockton on your point guard list, especially when you are writing to a Utah Jazz audience?

    Summary: When writing an article, remember to focus on your subject details and your audience. Thanks bye.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I didn’t include John Stockton because I believe tracking back to 1990 was sufficient. Even that span covers substantial evolution in the NBA game, and I thought going back further would provide diminished returns. Even if had tracked further, Stockton played 18 minutes a game his rookie year, so he would not have been included in this analysis.

      • Stanford says:

        Nice article, i was born and raised in detroit, a piston fan who bleeds michigan, growing up watching zeke(Isaiah Thomas) and stockton go at it twice a year, I think the odds are burkes favor.

        When he develops some of that Derrick Rose explosive He’ll be an All Star.

        Correct me if I’m wrong but the last point guard to make a decent NBA career that was from Michigan was J Rose(Fab-5) and I think, or Rumeal Robinson i think?

  4. Nick Key says:

    Terrell Brandon was a two time all star in the mid nineties and is officially listed at 5’11″

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Correct. He isn’t included in this population because he played 19.6 minutes per game his rookie year, where I put the minimum at 20. So he’s a good comp as well.

  5. Stanford says:

    Nice article, i was born and raised in detroit, a piston fan who bleeds michigan, growing up watching zeke(Isaiah Thomas) and stockton go at it twice a year, I think the odds are burkes favor.

    When he develops some of that Derrick Rose explosive He’ll be an All Star.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but the last point guard to make a decent NBA career that was from Michigan was J Rose(Fab-5) and I think, or Rumeal Robinson i think?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Darius Morris went to Michigan, right? He got some run at the point for the Lakers last year due to injury, but I doubt he’ll ever be a legit starter in the league. But yeah, to my mind, the last major talent from the guard spot was Rose.

  6. Pingback: Who Is Tomáš Satoranský?Squeeze The Orange | Squeeze The Orange

  7. Pingback: UConn: Shabazz Napier Should be a Lottery Pick - Standing O Sports - Standing O Sports

  8. Pingback: Boston Celtics Daily Links 5/17/14 | Sports Discovery

  9. Pingback: Boston Celtics Daily Links 5/17/14 - statsmagazine.com

  10. Pingback: Boston Celtics Daily Links 5/17/14 - Gubta News Media

Leave a Reply