Do We Know What Sam Hinkie Wants In A Draft Prospect?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With last year's selections of Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, Sam Hinkie set an expectation that they would target guys that were darlings of analytical models. We took a look back at Houston's recent draft history to see if that is necessarily the case.

Since Sam Hinkie has taken over, we have made some assumptions about what attributes he looks for in an NBA Draft prospect.  Size for his position, length, versatility, athleticism, good ratings on advanced analytical models.

Hinkie's first draft with the team certainly seemed to confirm that assumption, as he jettisoned inefficient point guard Jrue Holiday in a trade that brought back analytical darling Nerlens Noel, then took lanky, athletic, steal-happy Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick, plucking a gem from late in the lottery who went on to win Rookie of the Year.

He then swiped Tony Wroten (15th in his draft class in projected WARP) and James Anderson (12th in his class), two guys whom the analytical models liked coming out of college but who had yet to carve out consistent roles in their short NBA careers.

But are we making too much of this?  Is there a chance that this has been more random than we assume?

Noel, who was ranked as the #1 prospect by both Chad Ford and DraftExpress most of the year, was not just an analytical darling but also projected to be the top prospect in the draft class by more traditional scouts as well.  Hinkie's eagerness to draft Noel may have been due to his analytical profile, or it could have been a GM who saw an asset extremely undervalued, and who wasn't as concerned with his immediate availability as other GM's with less secure jobs.

He also took a flyer on Elliot Williams over the offseason, who came out of Memphis with a 0.1 projected WARP.

Being that most people who buy into statistics don't believe in a sample size of 4, it would merit taking a look at his previous body of work before making conclusions about what Sam Hinkie is looking for as the approaches the draft.  Obviously, he never had final say in Houston.  While Daryl Morey, himself a huge proponent and progenitor of basketball statistical analysis, was Hinkie's boss and, some would say, mentor, the mentor and pupil can disagree.  Hinkie could value steal rate more highly than Morey did.  But being that Hinkie has only had final say for one calendar year, and two draft picks aren't enough to form a trend, this is the only real information we have.

I took a look at the guys that the Rockets drafted since 2010, which is when Sam Hinkie was promoted to Executive Vice President and assumed more of an influence.  I took a look at some of the common attributes of a player coming out of college that we all assume an analytically-minded GM is looking at: length, athleticism, steal rate, and projected WARP.

Obviously, Sam Hinkie, Aaron Barzilai, or Daryl Morey are more than likely using their own statistical models.  If they would be so kind as to open them up, I'd be happy to use them instead of WARPp.  Unfortunately, we'll have to settle for the one that is publicly available.

Player Year Pick Pos Height Wingspan Reach Max Vert Stl% Stl/40 WARPp WARPp Rank
Nerlens Noel 2013 6 C 6'11.75" 7'3.75" 9'2" ? (high) 3.9% 2.6 3.6 1
Michael Carter-Williams 2013 11 PG 6'5.75" 6'7.25" 8'5" 41" 4.8% 3.2 2 9
Jeremy Lamb 2012 12 SG 6'5.25" 6'11" 8'6" 38" 2.1% 1.3 1.3 18
Royce White 2012 16 PF 6'8" 7' 8'8.5" ? 2.2% 1.5 ? ?
Terrence Jones 2012 18 PF 6'9.5" 7'2.5" 8'11" 34.5" 2.6% 1.8 2.1 8
Marcus Morris 2011 14 PF 6'8.75" 6'10" 8'9.5" 34.5" 1.7% 1.2 1.3 23
Nikola Mirotic 2011 23 PF 6'10"

7'1"

? 33" ? 1.5 2.9 4
Chandler Parsons 2011 38 SF 6'9.75" 6'9.5" 8'8.5" ? 1.7% 1.1 0.7 42
Patrick Patterson 2010 14 PF 6'9.25" 7'1.25" 8'11" 31.5" 1.2" 0.8 2.4 8

For reference, here are averages for the athletic measurements of first round draft picks in the DraftExpress database:

Pos Height Wingspan Reach Max Vert
C 6'11" 7'3.4" 9'2" 31.4"
PF 6'9" 7'1.2" 8'10.7" 33.8"
SF 6'7.25" 6'10.9" 8'8.2" 35.3"
SG 6'4.5" 6'8.2" 8'4.4" 36.4"
PG 6'1.5" 6'5" 8'0.6" 36.7"

Some thoughts on each metric:

Wingspan:

There are really only two players among this group who drastically out-shoot the average for their position: Michael Carter-Williams (6'7.25", average 6'5") and Jeremy Lamb (6'11", average 6'8.2").  Terrence Jones comes in slightly better than average with a 7'2.25" wingspan, with power forwards averaging 7'1.2", but this isn't substantial.  There's a fairly decent chunk of forwards that Houston drafted (Parsons, Morris, White) that had below average wingspans.

Standing Reach

MCW once again excels, with a standing reach over 4" more than the average for his position.  Lamb comes in slightly above average, with a reach of over 1.5" more of standing reach.  The rest are either so barely over average that they're not really significant (Jones, Parsons, and Patterson at 0.3" more than average) or below average (Morris, White).

Max Vertical

A trend is beginning to build.  Carter-Williams had an incredible vertical (41", average of 36.7"), with Lamb slightly above average (38", average of 36.4").  Jones and Morris just edged out the average with 0.7" more vertical than the average for their position, and Patterson (31.5" jump, 33.8" average) and Mirotic (33" jump, 33.8" average) came in below the average.

Royce and Chandler do not have combine verticals on record, but neither would be classified as an explosive leaper.

Steals

There appears to be a clear delineation from what the Rockets (with Hinkie) and the Sixers (by Hinkie) have done.  With the exception of Terrence Jones, Houston never really drafted guys with great steal rates for their position, whereas Nerlens and MCW (and Arsalan Kazemi, for what it's worth) absolutely excelled at that.  Still, the pretty clear trend of average-at-best steal production is interesting, considering how analytically minded the Houston front office was, and how much of an importance the statistical community tends to place on steals as a predictor of future success.

Projected WARP

At 3.6 projected WARP and The Eye Test behind him, Noel was far and away the highest rated player leading up to the 2013 NBA Draft.  It's impossible to know what influenced Sam Hinkie to pounce on the falling Noel.  Was it how highly Noel rated statistically?  Or would a traditional GM who wasn't worried about job security and the chance that Noel would miss the year have pounced on him like Hinkie did?

Many call Carter-Williams a success for advanced analytics in the drafting process, but projected WARP wasn't all that kind to him.  At 2.0 projected WARP it had him tied for 9th (with Sergey Karasev) in a weak draft class, behind some fairly unexciting and/or disappointing prospects like Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Cody Zeller, and Anthony Bennett.  MCW was vary polarizing in his advanced statistics, with his insanely steal rate and good assist rate pluses on his resume, but major red marks in terms of turnovers and scoring efficiency.

It's worth noting that while Sam Hinkie gets a lot of credit for plucking the Rookie of the Year with the 11th pick (and deservedly so), Chad Ford had him 7th on his last big board before the draft and DraftExpress 13th.  It's not as if MCW was a reach.

Going back to Houston, there are some guys that projected WARP liked more than where Houston ultimately ended up drafting them (Jones, Mirotic, Patterson), and some guys where Houston drafted them before projected WARP had them ranked (Lamb, Morris, Parsons).  Both lists include both hits and misses.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that there is no conclusion.

Sure, if you look at MCW and Noel in a vacuum, it looks pretty clear that Sam Hinkie places an incredible emphasis on steals.  But that would be putting all of your faith in a sample size of 2, which flies in the face of the statistical principles that these guys so strongly believe in.

A sample size of two is certainly not enough to remove chance from the equation.  Was Noel acquired because statistics loved him, or because he was an impact defender becoming undervalued?  Was steal rate the reason that Hinkie took Michael Carter-Williams at 11, or was it the Sixers newfound need for a point guard combined with the same things on film that caused Chad Ford to rank him 7th?

It's ultimately impossible to know, unless you can sit down next to a completely candid Sam Hinkie.  Until then, what I do know is that a sample size of two does not answer this question.  And looking back on Houston's draft history, it's quite clear that they were willing to think outside of the publicly known analytical models.

What has been completely obvious if you spend a few minutes listening to Sam Hinkie talk, is how much film he watches.  You listen to him talk about sitting in crowded, hot, sometimes hostile gyms in Croatia, and it's clear the value that he places in scouting as well.

My guess is that Hinkie uses statistical models as a tool, but also has his own opinions formed from countless hours of watching these guys play basketball.  He is likely willing to draft guys who do not fit those models -- who do not generate steals and are not tops in projected WARP.  If you tried to predict what Daryl Morey would do before each draft based solely on advanced statistics, you would've been quite surprised.  My guess is we'll be surprised during Hinkie's reign as well.

Around here at Liberty Ballers, the hiring of Sam Hinkie was universally applauded.  Having been crying for a team building philosophy that embraced advanced statistics, while also having a desire to stop the endless cycle of mediocrity, we were excited by a like-minded GM who seemingly had enough rope to build the team the right way.  In doing so, we tend to project a lot of our own beliefs onto what we assume Hinkie is valuing.

But Sam Hinkie is his own man.  And as Daryl Morey and Hinkie's former team have shown, that doesn't necessarily mean he's going to think exactly how we expect him to.  I'm not sure if Noel and Carter-Williams were selected because of their insane steal rates.  Maybe they were.  But I do know that we don't have enough information to say that definitively, and maybe it's best to not assume so much about how Sam Hinkie is going to operate on draft night.  Some surprises are definitely in order.

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