2020 NBA Draft: 4 Inherent Biases in How I Evaluate Players

Earlier this spring, I wrote a piece on Tyrese Maxey as a draft prospect, focusing on his lack of 3-point shooting as a reason for my pessimism when considering him as a future NBA player. The article was framed through the lens of my bias towards shooters.

From there, several conversations about bias have come up, as well as the different types of biases that exist. I want to explore those further.

Knowing your biases helps you better navigate and contextualize player evaluation (whether your own or another’s) as well as hold yourself accountable.

Any decision-maker on an organizational level has to do a deep dive to understand themselves if they are to do what’s best for the organization as a whole. That process of self-reflection and objective study seeks not so much to remove biases, but to become better equipped to acknowledge them.

By doing so, biases move out of blind spots where we often don’t feel their presence. Once in the light, they serve as important conversations to determine what truly is best for the whole.

In that light, I’ve tried to look at a few biases I certainly hold and examine not just why I hold them, but also whether they are based on any data or important context. Hopefully, this study does two-fold: Lend credence to why I harbor a lot of the draft opinions I hold, as well as opening a dialogue where those readers who disagree begin to examine their own biases.

1. Shooting is the Most Important Skill

Jan 26, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores forward Aaron Nesmith (24) shoots over Oklahoma Sooners forward Brady Manek (35) during the first half at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a player, my role was pretty clearly defined: I was to space the floor and shoot it from deep. I was a zone-buster at the high school level, asked to come in when opponents would go into a 2-3. So my job was to try and force them out of it.

Embracing that role was key to my utility, maximizing my output and buying into doing what was asked of me.

Perhaps my own playing style nudges me to embrace the direction the NBA is trending head-first. But I believe there’s justification for that beyond just “what I was like as a player”. The league is transitioning to a space-and-pace format dictated by a high amount of high-efficiency 3-point shooters.

On its face, that sounds simple, but there’s more to it than that when it relates to the NBA draft. Positional groups all require a different lens when examining how they shoot, where they shoot and what that value is at the next level.

1a – For pick-and-roll handlers, shooting is a necessity

This bias certainly comes from being a jaded Boston Celtics fan.

Whenever those Big Three C’s would make a postseason push, the lack of shooting from Rajon Rondo came into play during a long series. Teams would go under ball screens and dare him to shoot, effectively handcuffing his best skill of penetrating and creating shots for teammates. Opponents could change matchups on occasion and hide lesser players on Rondo, sagging back staying lane protected.

I’m not sure there’s a way to quantify how good a player must be in all other facets of the game to make up for a tactical nightmare created by a broken jumper. But if a guard is going to be a creator out of the pick-and-roll, the first place I look to judge their impact is how they shoot off the dribble when coming off screens.

If they struggle or avoid these scenarios, all I see are flashing red lights that tell me some playoff opponent will one day treat them like Rondo. Shooting is a prerequisite to PNR success in my book.

1b – Wings who can’t shoot are a dime a dozen

Drafting is as much about positional value as it is about the talent of the player being drafted. Some markets are oversaturated, meaning it makes little sense to reach for a player in that category.

Right now, there are two sectors that are crowded with no sign of thinning out: less mobile bigs and non-shooting wings/ forwards.

This past season, there were 71 players on the wings between 6’6″ and 6’9″ who shot below 32 percent from 3-point range. There were 83 players above that mark with at least one attempt per game. That means 46 percent of players that big are below 32 percent from deep.

Why 32 percent? The expected point per shot (PPS) from 3-point range at 32 percent is 0.96. Pretty much any PPS below 1.0 is subpar.

Man, if I have a valuable draft position and am going to look for a wing that figure to be a role player, I’m definitely going to try and add one who can shoot above basketball’s equivalent of “The Mendoza Line”.

1c – A pick-and-pop big should be on every NBA roster

These days, most teams with less mobile bigs have all joined the wave of running Drop pick-and-roll coverage. The obvious counter to that: a pick-and-pop big who can shoot atop the key.

It’s a card every playoff team should have in their pocket to play if they need it.

2. Weight or Strength isn’t a reason to avoid a prospect

Mar 9, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) dribbles by Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram (14) during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps this bias is driven by the fact I weigh 160 pounds and have never been a beast in the weight room. But if an NBA team commits the financial and physical resources to a quality strength and conditioning program, being scared away from drafting a prospect due to their current lack of physique is puzzling.

Most physiological studies and information I’ve come across all confirm that the human body essentially grows and morphs when it’s ready to. There are trends for development windows we all go through (i.e. a spurt in the teenage years, another in the early twenties, etc.) but there’s no predicting when it will happen.

Genetics and healthy habits play a role, but all an individual can do is to prepare their body so that once the growth spurt hits, their frame can handle it without throwing off their gait or movements.

Look at top prospects like Kevin Durant or Brandon Ingram, both of whom were notably skinny during their draft process. Both remain on the thinner side, but both are All-Stars who are impactful offensive contributors. Their bodies haven’t morphed into anything carved out of stone, but their overall level of skill allows them to thrive regardless.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Durant manhandled during the postseason in a one-on-one matchup. Even Ingram is turning into an average defensive piece. Some guys just take longer to physically mature and that’s okay if they’re skilled.

If the draft is about long-term solutions and not short-term gains, then weight and muscle mass are only data points hinting at when the prospect will be most impactful. There’s hypocrisy in noting the draft is about what’s best for the long-term and avoiding guys based on short-term deficiencies.

3. Playing a 2-3 Zone is legitimately damaging to prospects

Mar 8, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Miami Hurricanes forward Kamari Murphy (21) drives to the basket against Syracuse Orange forward Tyler Lydon (20) during the second half of an ACC Conference Tournament game at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, Jim Boeheim.

The Hall of Fame coach has made a career at Syracuse on playing a 2-3 zone, befuddling opponents and racking up wins as a result. Their program brings in long, wiry frontcourt guys and nails down some impressive recruits to mold into their system.

But there might be a track record that suggests players with NBA desires may want to steer clear of Boeheim.

This theory is particularly true for big men since interior defense in a zone is so drastically different from man-to-man. In college, Boeheim’s bigs rarely leave the paint, instead patrolling from short corners to high post while playing angles. They care little about screens or guarding the pick-and-pop, and few post-ups come their way.

In the NBA, defensive three seconds prevent bigs from camping out near the rim. Zone defenses, while they exist, require more mobility, multi-positional movements from bigs and a requirement to cover ground.

It’s a league that’s 98 percent man-to-man in its defensive schemes.

Over the last 20 years, here are the frontcourt guys to play at Syracuse who were drafted by an NBA franchise:

    • Tyler Lydon – 24th pick in 2017. Played in 26 games; out of the league by age 23.
    • Chris McCullough – 29th pick in 2015. Played in 59 career NBA games.
    • Rakeem Christmas – 36th pick in 2015. Two years, 30 career games in NBA.
    • Jerami Grant – 39th pick in 2014. Carved out a successful career, starting over 160 games.
    • Fab Melo – 22nd pick in 2012. Played in six games with the Boston Celtics.
    • Donte Greene – 28th pick in 2008. Four years with Sacramento Kings, averaging 6.1 points and 2.4 rebounds.
    • Hakim Warrick – 19th pick in 2005. Solid eight-year career with six NBA franchises. Played in six playoff games.
    • Etan Thomas – 12th pick in 2000. A nine-year career as a backup, most notably with the Washington Wizards.

Not exactly a robust list of standouts, the NBA’s Syracuse products have a lower hit percentage than most programs with multiple first-round selections. The growing trend of pick-and-pop bigs leads me to believe this downward trend in their effectiveness is no accident.

Grant is a mobile 4-man and not a rim protector, and he’s the only pick in the last decade to carve out a career.

So how does that relate to this draft? Former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins is now the head coach at the University of Washington, a program that runs the same 2-3 zone exclusively. While we’ve seen perimeter defenders translate well from the Huskies program to the NBA (such as Dejounte Murray or Matisse Thybulle), Hopkins hasn’t seen a frontcourt player make it to the league since he took over in 2017.

That doesn’t exactly give me much confidence in Isaiah Stewart this year.

Is it fair to hold a player’s college coach against him in the pre-draft process? Not exactly. But when there is data and a track record of failures, the notion becomes one you cannot ignore. Does the data inform the bias, or does it confirm a pre-existing bias? I’m not sure.

4. The coach you play for is an important data point

Mar 7, 2020; Tallahassee, Florida, USA; Florida State Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton celebrates after winning the ACC regular season championship after defeating the Boston College Eagles at Donald L. Tucker Center. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Prospects make a choice on college based on many factors, but the connection they ultimately feel with a coach and their ability to buy into what that program sells is an important choice for NBA-caliber players.

It shouldn’t be a stretch to then say that if we can figure out who the coach is and what they value, it reveals something about the values and skills of a player.

Think about college coaches in an NBA Draft lens as a pre-scouter. They look to build a program and construct their rosters off the meshing of skills and what skills they value. NBA teams should closely study college programs to see where they overlap and if their systems are the same.

That practice can greatly narrow down which players will thrive in the culture and ecosystem those NBA franchises create. There needs to be enough volume of NBA players to come from a program for this to be indicative of a pattern and lower the impact of volume.

Thus, most coaches worth examining in this way are established ones.

A few college coaches who I think are great teachers, particularly in certain areas: Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Leonard Hamilton (Florida State) on defense; Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) with point guard play; Jay Wright (Villanova) with fundamentals and perimeter skill; Bill Self (Kansas) with bigs; Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Dana Altman (Oregon) on spatial understanding and offensive versatility; and Tony Bennett (Virginia) with defensive rotations and fundamentals.