One time-honored tradition of this time of year is the comparison of NBA draft prospects to current NBA players, and it’s easy to understand why. In order to make things simpler on ourselves, we simply substitute an NBA player for these highly unknown kids; suddenly, the world becomes easier to comprehend.
The problem with this is that the practice tends to be highly subjective: we skew what players could be based on stylistic differences, rather than production differences. While it’s somewhat helpful to our imaginations know a player has a fadeaway like Dwyane Wade’s, it matters very little in terms of actual production, especially if that fadeaway misses 90% of the time.
Enter Ian Levy, and his site hickory-high.com. Ian, too, was feeling the frustration of this yearly ritual, and probably put his feelings on the subject more eloquently than I did:
For years, every guard with exceptional leaping ability was potentially the next Michael Jordan. Every long white player who can shoot is the next Larry Bird, Keith Van Horn or Adam Morrison; depending on the era. Although, in some parts of Rhode Island they’re referred to as the second coming of Austin Croshere. Every point guard from Gonzaga is the next John Stockton, every huge, awkward center is the next Greg Ostertag and every shot-blocking center with African roots is the next Dikembe Mutombo. These comparisons, based on skin color, position, the college they attended or one singular attribute, do a disservice to the players and fans alike.
So instead, he created a system of statistical comparisons to escape the bias, based on 21 different categories. He takes a prospect’s collegiate statistics, and compares them to the collegiate statistics of current NBA players. The closer the match, the higher of a similarity score (indexed between 1 and 1000) between the two.
Utah, of course, has the 14 and 21 picks in this year’s draft, and there’s starting to be some agreement over which players are likely to be picked in that range (as itemized in David J. Smith’s weekly mock draft roundup). What does Levy’s system (which can only create comparables for collegiate prospects) say about those possible few? Let’s take a look.
Shabazz’s highest comparable was another relatively collegiately disappointing one-and-done SF: Harrison Barnes. Their similarity score was 921, one of the highest we’ll encounter, and stylistically, it seems like a reasonable match to me as well. That’s a good sign for Shabazz. After that, we get a bunch of players with lower similarity scores: Terrico White, Jimmy Butler, Dahntay Jones, and Tobias Harris. Obviously, those guys are all over the board, production wise, but I think Harris is an interesting comparable: given the opportunity to take lots of shots (as Harris was given in Orlando after his trade from Milwaukee), Shabazz might do well. Without the green light, or playing time, Shabazz will probably struggle.
MCW’s got an interesting list: his highest comparable (with a Similarity Score of 872) is Javaris Crittenton, who had neither the skill nor the temperament for the NBA. But look in the 15 or so names after that, and you have a littering of the best PGs in the NBA: Deron Williams, John Wall, Raymond Felton, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, and Rajon Rondo all make appearances. Those guys all had higher scoring rates than MCW, but it must give him some hope.
I’ve attacked Mason Plumlee as a bad pick for the Jazz at #14, but these comparisons say otherwise. Looking at his top 10 comparables, you start to get a picture of the kind of player Plumlee could be, as well as his ceiling. The top 12: J.J. Hickson, Jordan Hill, Taj Gibson, Nick Collison, Meyers Leonard, David Lee, Greg Monroe, Jason Smith, D.J. White, Melvin Ely, Joakhim Noah, and Al Horford. The bottom half of that group suggests some upside that I’m not even sure Plumlee’s supporters would consider, while the top 5 suggests a defensively impactful big man, the kind every NBA team needs. That’s not a bad outcome as the Jazz seek to add talent to their roster.
Olynyk, on the other hand, has top comparables that don’t seem especially promising. The Morris twins are prominently featured, as is Curtis Borchardt. Andrew Bogut is an encouraging name, and Andrew Nicholson looks somewhat nice, but overall, Olynyk’s list shows a downside that Plumlee’s doesn’t.
Shane Larkin’s comparable list hints to the type of point guard he’ll become: likely good enough to make an NBA roster, but not a long-term impact player. D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks, Darren Collison, Brandon Knight, Luther Head, Jonny Flynn, and Jarrett Jack, Larkin’s top 7 comparables, all point to a similar picture: probably good enough to make an NBA roster, but certainly not a starter. These types of players tend to be fairly replaceable as well. In my opinion, this would be a significant red flag for a team to consider before drafting Larkin.
Dieng’s list is really encouraging for someone slated to be available in the 20s of the draft: Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, David Lee, and Derrick Favors are all in his top 10. There are some misses, like Sean Williams, but ultimately, fate seems to shine brightly on these relatively established collegiate big men coming into the draft. If available at 21, Dieng would be a good fit.
Cannan’s group, all largely small school PGs, is largely disappointing… with the exception of the recently drafted Damian Lillard, his 2nd best comparable. Still, the likes of J’Covan Brown, Dan Dickau, and even Utah favorites Kevin Murphy and Jimmer Fredette on his list don’t portend an NBA future for Canaan.
The long-sleeved SG from San Diego State was named on DX’s mock draft as a possibility for the Jazz to take at #21 earlier in the week, and while things have since changed on DraftExpress, he remains a possibility for the Jazz. His list, though, makes it hard to get a picture of his game: diverse talents Draymond Green, Kirk Snyder, Klay Thompson, and even fellow San Diego Statian Kawhi Leonard make appearances in his top 10.
Bullock, named on CBS Sports’ mock as the Jazz’ #21 selection, is a SF from North Carolina. His comparable list is full of similar big-school prospects without mind blowing statistics, and unfortunately, the outcomes aren’t generally great. Bullock’s top comparable (with a score of 922), Wayne Ellington, hasn’t impressed, and Luther Head and Brandon Rush aren’t exactly big names either. Jimmy Butler is more promising, but… a selection of Bullock would be more risky than his big-school pedigree would suggest.
Using these comparable lists is, of course, not a holistic approach; there’s simply much more that needs to be done when analyzing NBA prospects. But when considered with large amounts of salt, we can start to get an idea of the possibilities for the production of the prospects involved, as well as the likelihood of them reaching their ceiling. Either way, this perspective is certainly better than making biased and subjective guesses at who a player will become.