If you were to probe a hardcore NBA Draft nerd on the player attributes that translate most consistently from the amateur ranks to the NBA, which do you think they’d list?
Shooting? Defense? Rebounding? Alma mater? IQ?
Chances are, if you surveyed five of the Internet’s most prolific draft scribes you’d likely get differing answers across the board, and justifiably so, as carving out a decade-long career in the NBA isn’t contingent on any single trait.
But ask that same group of bloggers which qualities don’t translate to the NBA and you’ll likely get a more succinct rundown starting with poor athleticism, attitude, low steals per game and ending with various advanced stats accumulated through years of research. Because as is the case in most sciences, when it comes to the NBA Draft it’s often easier to eliminate what doesn’t work rather than discover what succeeds. And yet, despite 70 years of studying, 70 years of planning, 70 years of data and 70 years of mistakes, the NBA Draft is still a mystery even to those getting paid millions to get it right.
So what are we missing? What is it about the draft that no amount of money, men or data can crack? It will be years before we even begin to glean the answers to these questions, but what’s starting to become clear is that if we’re not onto the answers by now we might be asking the wrong questions altogether.
This thesis — that we’re often unable to find what we’re looking for because what we’re looking for might not be found in the places we’re willing to look — is at the heart of bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcast, Revisionist History. In any given field of study there are always parameters by which the subject operates, therefore when something goes wrong nobody ever figures to look outside field’s framework. And thus, a paradox is perpetuated: What you need is the very thing you’re unable to find, and what you’re trying to find can’t be found where you’re trying to look.
When it comes to the draft, that specified need is a better system to detect talent. The paradox, it appears, is our collective refusal to acknowledge that many of the traits we treasure in future prospects may not actually be as valuable as we’ve made them out to be. In part, this can be attributed to what’s known in social science as “implicit bias,” which is essentially our cultural, unconscious partiality to favor one set of characteristics as inherently virtuous and another as damning.
What’s fascinating about these concepts, aside from their ability to deceive on such a mass scale, is how fragile they become once acknowledged. Their success hinges on the unconscious (i.e., our inability to even realize we’re holding such partisan beliefs), so when brought to the forefront they crumble with ease, due to the fact that what suspends them inside our minds is simply our collective theocratic tendency to hold them in such high esteem.
As it pertains to the Denver Nuggets these concepts have one purpose and one purpose only: Find systematically underrated talent by forgoing traditionally held beliefs. Below is a template for this measure based on three prospects currently slated to drop in the late teens, 20s or 30s, but who on more careful glance shouldn’t be overlooked with the Nuggets’ first-round selection at 13.
Semi Ojeleye | 6-7 | Small Forward | SMU
Implicit bias: Age and rate of development.
Why it doesn’t matter: Body and athleticism.
Semi Ojeleye is ancient by NBA Draft standards. He’ll turn 23 by the end of this year and has spent four years in the collegiate ranks playing for Duke and Southern Methodist University (SMU). According to the standard draft model, this is bad. Scouts like freshman and sophomores the most, preferably those who are young for their class. And if a prospect they view as favorable happens to be somewhat elderly they prefer an arbitrary cap of about 22 years of age. Anything 23 and up is virtually untouchable.
In general, this is a logical stance to assume as those prospects projected to succeed at the highest level often prove their worth as underclassmen. In other words, the cream that rises to the top does so in a timely manner.
But, occasionally it doesn’t.
And herein lies the crux of the age dilemma: Not all elite NBA prospects mature at the same rate. For every freshman phenom pipelined into an instant All-Star, there exists a handful who peak in high school only to fizzle out in the pros, as well as a few late bloomers who don’t reach their potential until their senior year. For those on a more circuitous pathway to the pros (i.e., upperclassman, transfers, military serviceman, etc.) the problem then becomes how to identify flotsam that will eventually rise to the top versus debris which is always destined to sink.
As best as I can tell the exception hinges on athleticism, competition, and drive. If a player is old but has the requisite athleticism to succeed in the NBA then age is rendered moot. If he is old but is producing against elite competition, age can be discounted. And if a prospect is old but has consistently improved over the course of his career, thus displaying a clear trend toward the elite, then his lust for perfection overrides his number in years as constant upgrading is a hallmark of succeeding at the professional level. In essence, these qualifiers act as checks when analyzing a prospect in order to prevent getting mesmerized by a player who’s dominating younger talent at a lower level of competition only due to the fact he’s stayed in school for three to four years.
Though he passes the smell test in each of these three categories Ojeleye is beyond exceptional in athleticism and drive. On display all season at SMU and eventually at the NBA Draft Combine where his lane agility, maximum vertical leap, and three-quarter court sprint ranked in the 95th percentile of DraftExpress.com’s all-time database, Ojeleye is one of the most explosive athletes to come out of college in years. Additionally, according to DraftExpress.com, he’s also one of the more driven prospects in his class or any other in recent memory as he essentially lives in the gym when not sleeping.
When considering how Ojeleye’s high shooting percentages (53 percent from the floor and 42 from downtown — on five shots per game, no less), free-throw attempts, IQ, defensive potential and court awareness (1.5 assists per game for a power forward in the NCAA are more than adequate) are all highly translatable qualities to the NBA, it’s difficult to then delineate what exactly it is, other than age, scouts have against him.
T.J. Leaf | 6-10 | Power Forward | UCLA
Implicit bias: Lateral athleticism, position, defense and American whiteness.
Why it doesn’t matter: Vertical athleticism, size, IQ, and shooting.
T.J. Leaf is a big white guy stuck somewhere between small forward and power forward and in the eyes of NBA scouts that may as well be a felony. Never mind the irony that a hybrid forward who can stretch the floor, post up, sky for lobs, and dish the rock is being overlooked at a time when high-IQ hybrids are as vogue as yoga pants and kale salad, the fact Leaf can put up the numbers he did as a freshman against some of the best amateur competition in the world and still be overlooked tells you everything you need to know about how grotesque prospect analysis still is in 2017.
The knock on Leaf, aside from the fact he doesn’t have a clear position (which again contradicts everything we’ve heard from scouts and GMs over the last few years), is how he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to defend the perimeter nor the strength to defend down low. And yet we know Leaf is athletic (he had a 35-inch maximum vert at the Combine, which is at least a few inches higher than contemporaries like Ike Anigbogu and Harry Giles) and averaged over a block per game his freshman year. Furthermore, defensive-minded freshman are hard to come by after having concluded a lifelong tenure in the AAU circuit, thus picking apart defensive deficiencies could be a valid aspect of every prospect’s analysis.
No team in their right mind will draft Leaf with the expectation he turns into a defensive stalwart, but the level of scrutiny attached to his game, in particular, seems abnormally high, which I can only imagine is due in some part to his unassuming physical appearance, more specifically his whiteness. And if this is the case, every team that passes on Leaf based on these traditional assumptions is making a terribly unjustified mistake.
No team should be more aware of this prejudice than the Nuggets. Two of the team’s best players and brightest future stars, Juancho Hernangomez and Nikola Jokic, essentially faced the exact same discrimination as Leaf heading into the draft and two years later it appears nobody has learned a thing.
The interesting aspect of all this, oddly enough, is that teams were correct in their analysis. Jokic isn’t athletic. Hernangomez can’t shuffle his feet like James Brown. But just like Leaf, because they do so many other things at such a high level, their supposed weaknesses are far outweighed by their strengths.
The Nuggets need defense, no doubt about it. But with the 13th pick in the draft, they can’t rationalize they’re going to shore up an entire schematic conundrum with one guy. Moreover, Leaf is almost exactly what fans have been begging for from a power forward standpoint: Someone who can stretch the floor, sky for lobs, pick-and-pop, post up and establish a cerebral two-man game with Jokic through high-IQ passing.
Much like Ojeleye, Leaf possesses stats that are highly transferable to the NBA. He shot an insane 64 percent from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc in his sole season at UCLA and averaged eight boards and nearly 2.5 assists per game as a power forward — in other words, discerning shot selection, IQ, and hustle. This is what translates. No amount of lateral quickness can overcome a selfish, high-volume Carmelo Anthony knockoff, but an efficient, team-oriented student of the game can always overcome a slight physical limitation, as his contribution to the process of playing the game correctly will always be greater than the occasional hiccup in the system’s inner workings.
Justin Patton | 7-feet | Center | Creighton
Implicit bias: Rawness and toughness.
Why it doesn’t matter: Age and experience.
(Note: Justin Patton was not my first choice for this spot. I originally had it designated for Jonathan Jeanne, a prospect I absolutely adore, but whom I could no longer include given his recent diagnoses of Marfan Syndrome which will likely jeopardize his NBA career forever. Nevertheless, Patton and Jeanne share many of the same similarities and so the principles I would have applied to this initial post mostly hold true with regard to Patton.)
In my final predraft article from last year, 15 of the best value picks in the 2016 NBA Draft (in which the Nuggets went on to select three of the players mentioned), I noted the following:
I’m no Labissiere apologist and I question whether he’d be a good fit for the Nuggets and the culture they’re attempting to establish, but I also know how disastrous it can be to judge a big man based on a single 35-game stretch as a 19-year-old freshman. Andre Drummond, who had virtually all the same “red flags” as Labissiere, is the most recent example of this error in judgement. Big men, especially centers, simply do not mature at the same rate as more diminutive guards and forwards and Labissiere is likely no exception.
One year later, after Skal Labissiere logged one of the more impressive rookie campaigns of anyone in his class not named Jamal Murray or Hernangomez, it appears scouts have gone right back to their old ways of discriminating against novice big men for not looking like the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon at age 19.
Just like Labissiere, Patton is tall, lanky and raw. He’s not the greatest rebounder, defender nor outside shooter, but neither is he the worst. And just like Labissiere, Patton has a long way to go before he reaches his potential. As of right now he’s likely just touching the fringes of abilities. But, just like Labissiere, Patton also has tremendous potential due to his soft touch, respectable shooting form, IQ, and grit — I repeat, grit, the single most underrated characteristic in pro sports.
After being offered only a single Division 1 scholarship coming out of high school and redshirting his initial year in college, Patton is now being considered a top 15 pick in the NBA Draft having just turned 20 a few days ago. He’s gained over 25 pounds of muscle since signing with Creighton and despite his supposed “rawness,” he netted the second best field goal percentage as a freshman in NCAA history. If you wanted to make a list of reasons to override a neophyte big’s alleged weaknesses, you literally could not come up with a more impressive body of evidence than that presented by Patton over the last few years.
Patton’s grit, determination and drive to constantly improve his game and be the best player he can become is what separates him from his contemporaries. He doesn’t just want to make it to the NBA to collect a check and live a luxurious lifestyle (as is sadly the case for more prospects than we like to admit); rather, Patton wants to be great. And more importantly, he wants to put in the effort to be great, which is again an area that often separates role players from franchise pillars. This isn’t, of course, to suggest that because he wants to be an All-Star he’ll become one, but rather to show he’s willing to make the painful sacrifices it takes to achieve excellence, which is of course half the battle.
Like Ojeleye and Leaf, Patton will certainly have his detractors that point to attributes outside his control as reasons for his potential struggles rather than concentrating on how dedicated he is to altering the elements he can affect. He can’t change his age, the fact he wasn’t recruited by John Calipari or his deferred growth as a ballplayer, but those areas wherein he can exercise authority — his body, defense, IQ and shot — have seen rapid growth in his first official years as an adult, and if we are to believe in the direction of trends and energy and motion (you know, the things the known Universe is founded upon) then we have no reason to suspect Patton will suddenly cease propelling toward what is undoubtedly a very lofty ceiling.