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What To Look For In An NBA Draft Prospect

Ed Weiland is one of my favorite NBA draft analysts on the Web, but he doesn’t work for ESPN or any other major outlet. Instead he writes for the small indie blog Hoops Analyst, posting his position-by-position breakdowns as an outsider in a manner that has drawn comparisons to an early-career Bill James. (You might even remember his 15 minutes of fame as the truck driver who foresaw Jeremy Lin’s potential years before Linsanity.) During the embryonic stages of basketball analytics, his draft analyses were among the first I encountered to draw correlations between a player’s statistical traits in college and his success (or lack thereof) in the pros.

In this email exchange, which has been lightly edited, I asked Weiland about the numbers he uses to judge draft prospects — and what their implications might be for the players selected in Thursday night’s draft.


Neil Paine: Tell me a little about your background and how you got started in evaluating NBA draft prospects.

Ed Weiland: It started with a love of sports and stats. I always liked predicting and projecting young players. That probably came from growing up a Chicago sports fan in the 1970s; it was a dry decade for the local teams, and the draft was the highlight of the year. And when I started seriously playing around with basketball stats as a hobby about 20 years ago, I began to gravitate toward the draft because there wasn’t a lot of statistical draft analysis going on at the time.

NP: In general, which key metrics/characteristics are the most important to look at for each position, and why?

EW: I have certain statistical benchmarks that a prospect needs to reach for each position. Specifically, the following shooting percentages and per-40-minute numbers, adjusted for pace:

PER 40 MINUTES
POSITION 2PT% 3PT% POINTS AST/REB STL/BLK OTHER AST:TO
Point guard 50% 30% 18 5 AST 1.2 STL 6.0 RSB 1.4
Shooting guard 50 30 20 1.3 STL 7.0 RSB 0.8
Small forward 50 30 18 5.0 ASB 0.6
Power forward 58 18 10 REB 3.5 SB 0.2
Center 60 18 10 REB 3.0 BLK 0.2
Key statistical benchmarks for NBA draft prospects

ASB = assists + steals + blocks; RSB = rebounds + steals + blocks; SB = steals + blocks

Source: Ed Weiland

If a player tops all of these benchmarks, he’s a decent prospect. If he falls below in any one category, that’s a red flag. The further below the number he falls, the less of a prospect he is. That’s just the starting point, though — I’m flexible in cases like that of a young player who has improved during the year, or a player who has been better in past seasons. The benchmarks aren’t a strict line, but more of a guideline. I try to look at the whole picture.

NP: How did you determine those benchmarks?

EW: I determined them based on the success of past college prospects. Historically, most successful draftees have met most or all of these benchmarks. Most successful prospects were more complete players in college. Most busts had a flaw in one of these areas.

I’ve been doing it this way since the 2007 draft, so it’s probably time to update the system a little for the changing NBA. I hope to get on that this summer.

NP: What was your strongest finding, in terms of numbers that correlate with future success?

EW: The strongest finding is that it’s important to show as many different skills as possible — including scoring, rebounding, passing and defense — regardless of position.

NP: What was the most surprising finding?

EW: To me, it was that scoring frequently is more important than scoring efficiently, especially for wing players.

NP: Are there certain player archetypes that tend to have better or worse careers than their draft position would suggest?

EW: Wooden Award winners have included a few recent busts, particularly when it went to a junior or senior.

NP: So that might not be good news for Buddy Hield.

EW: Buddy Hield fits the profile this year. For the record, I do like Hield as a prospect a lot better than other recent winners, such as Doug McDermott or Jimmer Fredette. But he is a little overvalued in the top five, where the mock drafts have him going.

NP: Speaking of which, how much should we focus on a player’s age when evaluating him as a prospect? A couple of the top college guards in this year’s class — Hield and Kris Dunn — stand out as particularly old, but does that mean they have less of a ceiling?

EW: Yes, it does. A freshman who posted numbers like Hield and Dunn had this year would be a better prospect. But the fact that both improved like they did is a good sign for their futures, because it shows both a work ethic and the intelligence to identify a weakness in their game and do what is necessary to fix it. The age issue really seems to come into play with fifth-year seniors. That’s the thing that makes me uneasy about ranking Gary Payton II so highly.

NP: What do you make of Ben Simmons? Were the Sixers right to promise him the No. 1 overall pick?

EW: Simmons is a unique player, and for that reason he’s a little difficult to judge. I can’t point to previous players with numbers similar to his, because there were no players like this. I love his combination of offense, rebounding and passing. My concern is that his low number of blocks indicates he’s a poor defender. But I think drafting Simmons is the right move, based on the stats. His upside is higher than any other player.

NP: Are there any other players this year that jump out to you as particularly over- or underrated by the mainstream draft media?

EW: Based on the mock drafts, Marquese Chriss stands out as insanely overrated. Malachi Richardson and Damian Jones are a couple of others who don’t belong in round one. As far as underrated prospects, Payton and Chinanu Onuaku are players the mocks tend to list in round two who should be first-rounders. And Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu and Louisiana Tech point guard Alex Hamilton are a couple of players who might go undrafted, but deserve a chance.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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