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Thoughts on the 2015 Big Men, Part 2

The other day, I wrote a detailed post comparing the top 2015 prospects' per minute stats and seeing what that told us that was different from our assumptions and shallower readings of their stats. I didn't expect it to be nearly as long as it was, so I ended by merely talking about the top 5 prospects-- Okafor, Towns, Turner, Porzingis, and Looney. Today, I'd like to take a look at the next five (including Kaminsky, whom I had not incorporated on Monday) to finish out that look.

Their per 40 minute stat lines (as of Monday, 12/8) were:

Player Points Rebounds Assists Blocks Steals Stocks FG% FT% 3Pt FG%
Jahlil Okafor 25 11.1 2.3 2.2 1.3 3.5 64.6 52 N/A
Karl-Anthony Towns 20 15.1 3 6 0.9 6.8 56.1 71.4 25
Myles Turner 24.3 14.7 2.1 6.2 0.9 7 50.9 85.3 30.8
Jakob Poeltl 25.5 20.4 0.2 6.4 1.5 7.9 73.8 47.8 N/A
Kevon Looney 18.3 14.5 2.3 2.5 1 3.5 47.6 67.2 16.7
Chris McCullough 16.7 10.2 1.6 2.8 2.2 5 57 54.5 1
Cliff Alexander 21.4 14.1 0.2 2.8 0 2.8 55.6 69.8 N/A
Willie Cauley-Stein 17.5 11.2 1.9 2.9 2.9 5.8 62.3 63 N/A
Joel Embiid 19.4 14 2.4 4.5 1.6 6.1 62.6 68.5 20
Nerlens Noel 13.2 11.9 2 5.5 2.6 8.2 59 52.9 N/A
Anthony Davis 17.7 13 1.6 5.8 1.7 7.5 62.3 70.9 15
Kristaps Porzingis 18.1 8.9 1.3 2.5 1.5 4 46.8 72.2 44.4
Frank Kaminsky 21.1 11.4 2.8 2.8 1.7 4.5 54.5 64.9 43.8

Again, Noel, Embiid, and Anthony Davis have been included to give us a good reference.

The "leaderboards" for just the big men are as follows:

POINTS

Points Leaders Player Points
1 Jakob Poeltl 25.5
2 Jahlil Okafor 25
3 Myles Turner 24.3
4 Cliff Alexander 21.4
5 Frank Kaminsky 21.1
6 Karl-Anthony Towns 20
7 Joel Embiid 19.4
8 Kevon Looney 18.3
9 Kristaps Porzingis 18.1
10 Anthony Davis 17.7
11 Willie Cauley-Stein 17.5
12 Chris McCullough 16.7
13 Nerlens Noel 13.2

REBOUNDS

Rebound Leaders Player Rebounds
1 Jakob Poeltl 20.4
2 Karl-Anthony Towns 15.1
3 Myles Turner 14.7
4 Kevon Looney 14.5
5 Cliff Alexander 14.1
6 Joel Embiid 14
7 Anthony Davis 13
8 Nerlens Noel 11.9
9 Frank Kaminsky 11.4
10 Willie Cauley-Stein 11.2
11 Jahlil Okafor 11.1
12 Chris McCullough 10.2
13 Kristaps Porazingis 8.9

STOCKS (STEALS + BLOCKS)

Stocks Leaders Player Stocks
1 Nerlens Noel 8.2
2 Jakob Poeltl 7.9
3 Anthony Davis 7.5
4 Myles Turner 7
5 Karl-Anthony Towns 6.8
6 Joel Embiid 6.1
7 Willie Cauley-Stein 5.8
8 Chris McCullough 5
9 Frank Kaminsky 4.5
9 Kristaps Porzingis 4
11 Jahlil Okafor 3.5
12 Kevon Looney 3.5
13 Cliff Alexander 2.8

ASSISTS

Assist Leaders Player Assists
1 Karl-Anthony Towns 3
2 Frank Kaminsky 2.8
3 Joel Embiid 2.4
4 Jahlil Okafor 2.3
5 Kevon Looney 2.3
6 Myles Turner 2.1
7 Nerlens Noel 2
8 Willie Cauley-Stein 1.9
9 Anthony Davis 1.6
10 Chris McCullough 1.6
11 Kristaps Porzingis 1.3
12 Jake Poeltl 0.2
13 Cliff Alexander 0.2

Talking about these five prospects needs to be perhaps more nuanced than the first five because we're dealing with two issues that weren't present at all or as much the other day. The first is that we now have two players, Cauley-Stein, and Kaminsky, who are upperclassmen rather than freshmen. The second is a more varied style of play. Kaminsky, obviously effects this second one, but Cauley-Stein, surprisingly does as well. Cliff Alexander can probably fall into that category as well, but for slightly different reasons than the first two.

The age issue is one that has always been difficult for NBA scouts and GM's to properly assess. Generally, precocious ability and early development predict positive things for NBA futures, while later development may portend poorer future ability. However, for every Adam Morrison, there is a Draymond Green. For every Dwight Howard, a Kwame Brown. So it's difficult to say how much to read into age when drafting. The safer bet seems to be to err on the side of younger. I read a great explanation the other day from the Pattern of Basketball blog. Re: Kaminsky--

"As a senior, he's like the kid in gym class who was held back a few times, bullying younger and less experienced players instead of going up against his peers. most of the guys you would want to see him go up against in the Big Ten - Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne, Meyers Leonard, Mitch McGary - are already in the NBA. That doesn't mean he's not going to be a really good NBA player, but it is a reason for taking his NCAA numbers this season, which should be spectacular, with a grain of salt."

The same can be said of Cauley-Stein. His classmates are Noel, Anthony Bennett, Mitch McGary, and Steven Adams. We've had a chance to take a look at those players and evaluate them as real NBA players with real NBA skills, while Cauley-Stein and Kaminsky have spent the last year or two beating up on the kids from junior-high.

All of that is to say, prospect evaluation is hard. These guys all have good skills and interesting potential, but that sort of variance is what makes assessment that much more difficult. So let's take a look at what these numbers tell us about the next five draft prospects. For organization purposes, I'm listing them in the order that they currently stand on Chad Ford's Big Board.

Chris McCullough- He has been a huge riser so far this season, and it's easy to see why. Two weeks ago, Ford wrote, "No one has seen his stock rise more in the first two weeks of the season than McCullough. He is averaging 15.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 2.6 BPG in his first five games for Syracuse."

Wow! Those are great numbers! ...except taken on a per minute basis, he suddenly looks much more human. One of the reasons McCullough's production has been so impressive this early in the season is that he's playing for one of the weaker teams that these prospects play for, and has thus gotten a lot more minutes, 34.5 per game. Most of these players average at least 10 fewer minutes per game than he does. As a result, he's in the bottom half of my leaderboards for all four categories listed above, and is bottom two for points and rebounds. I still think he's going to be a very good NBA 4, but his jump up the boards may have been a little too steep so far. His numbers are all good, but none of them are in the realm of what the top guys in the draft have produced so far, and the talk of him jumping into the 5-10 range depending on the rest of his season seems incredibly hyperbolic. Needless to say, in comparison to what scouts and Chad Ford are saying, I'm more down on McCullough.

Which doesn't mean that he's going to be a bad player at all. He's been a productive player from the perimeter already, hitting 42% of his shots away from the basket (and 1/1 from three), which means he will immediately be able to come to an NBA team and hit the 18 footer that's become so important for big men (and especially power forwards) to have in their repertoire. He's a good rebounder, and that tends to translate well to the next level. But he's merely good at everything he does, not great. If I were a team like the Kings, who need more shooting and scoring from their power forward and will likely be picking in the 13-18 range, I'd give him a look. Anything before that seems too high to me.

Cliff Alexander- Another prospect that I'm relatively down on, although I think his stock much more accurately matches his ability than it did before the season started, when I was seeing him as the 4th pick on many boards. His per minute stats were actually surprisingly strong. He was in the top 5 for both points and rebounds, and remained there after adding Kaminsky's strong scoring into the equation. Clearly, he can produce well at the collegiate level.

The problem with Alexander is one that can't be seen in either of those categories, but actually can be seen in the other two-- despite his insane athleticism and strong motor, he has no idea how to play the game. He and Poeltl are easily the worst passers of the bunch, showing that he doesn't understand how to anticipate movement from his teammates or from the defense as it bends towards him. And for a player with the athleticism that he possesses, I would expect more blocks and steals than what he has shown so far. He was literally dead last in both categories, and if it weren't for Poeltl's own passing ineptitude, neither category would be very close. Basically, to this point he has shown that knows how to leverage his athleticism to score and rebound over 6' 10" stiffs and undersized centers. The worry is that he lacks any skill beyond that to still be able to contribute when his size and athleticism advantages cease to exist. To this point, he hasn't shown me enough to be excited about him at all. Moreover, while he is strong enough to play in the NBA, his height worries me. At 6' 8", he is undersized for the 4. His impressive wingspan may help him to still score over people, but he has struggled against length in the past, and I would be very wary as a GM picking anywhere in the lottery, or for most of the first round, if I'm honest. He has great athletic abilities, but not great enough to make up for his paucity of basketball skills.

Willie Cauley-Stein- The first of the two older prospects is a really interesting study. At first blush, I was very underwhelmed by his numbers so far. I expected Kentucky's platoon to flatter all of their players when looked at on a per minute basis, and his age contributed even more to that expectation. His scoring and passing numbers were pretty weak, but that's not a huge deal given what the scouting report has been on him so far-- incredible defender and rebounder, but needs for his offensive game to catch up to his potential. But even his rebounding and steals/blocks placed him firmly in the second half of this list. However, part of what's held him back in these two areas is the way that Kentucky has used him this season.

Cauley-Stein is a almost unique player. Almost. I say almost because there is one other player who is very similar to him. They were teammates as freshmen before the second tore his ACL. The second player is obviously Nerlens Noel. The two are hyper-athletic, explosive 7-footers, but what truly sets them apart is their agility and quickness for players with that amount of size. Nerlens is the only player on this list to average more than 8 stocks per 40 minutes, but his block rate isn't elite. It's incredible, but only places him 5th out of these players, behind Poeltl, Turner, Towns, and Davis. What really sets him apart from the other centers is his 2.6 steals per 40 minutes. (Looney is an exception because he is more of a 3-turned-4 than the others, who are strictly 4's and 5's). No one combines both Noel's shot blocking and stealing proficiency. Except for Cauley-Stein, who is the only player to average more steals than Noel.

This matters because Kentucky's über-huge system starts a second 7-footer (Towns), and a 6'8"/240 "small forward" (Poythress),so Cauley-Stein's agility and mobility mean that he is matched up defensively with other teams' perimeter players. It's amazing to watch him shuffle his feet out on the perimeter-- he can actually stay in front of anyone he wants to. Calipari has used him that way frequently, and it pulls him away from the basket, bringing down his block and rebound numbers. Basically, there's a reason Cauley-Stein's strengths don't seem as strong as might be assumed from these numbers.

If I had to determine the effect that this use has had on his numbers, I would say he might be closer to 13 rebounds per 40 minutes and 4 blocks per 40 minutes (as opposed to 11 and 3), numbers that aren't necessarily elite, but put him closer to the middle of the pack of elite prospects. That his scoring and passing numbers have come along decently, can likely be attributed in large part to his age. I certainly don't think he will ever be a low-post threat. He will be an NBA player, though, and he will be a valuable one, too. He will be more than a zero on offense, even if he won't be a threat, and he will be a big factor on defense. His age may be inflating his numbers, but I would place him above both McCullough and Alexander on my board. If I'm Cleveland or Oklahoma City, and Brendan Haywood and Kendrick Perkins were figuring prominently in my championship hopes, I would leap at the chance to grab Cauley-Stein, even if he would be 22 for his rookie season.

Frank Kaminsky- Another incredibly interesting prospect. Ignoring the question of age for now, his numbers actually highlight exactly what you would expect given what we all know about his style of play. Kaminsky is a fantastic scorer, especially as a shooter, and because of his mobility and perimeter play, a strong passer as well. Both of those expectations are confirmed by the stats. By the same process, he seems like a passable but not great rebounder, and a passable but not great defensive player, and those assertions are also confirmed here. He sits in the bottom half of both stat, but isn't embarrassing in either.

In all honesty, I don't know how much Kaminsky's stats can really tell us about him. In the infamous words of Denny Green, "He was who we thought he was," a phenomenal shooter and passer for his size with fine traditional skills outside of that. Again, Pattern of Basketball wrote a long blog post about his matchup with Okafor the other day, and if you want really detailed analysis on Kaminsky, he's done a much better job than I can. But the gist of his interpretation, which I find accurate, is that it's hard to tell how his game can translate to the next level from any of what we'll see this season. In the NBA, his skinny frame will prevent him from being able to bang with centers in the way he has been able to in college. Dwight Howard, Nikola Vucevic, Tyson Chandler would eat him for dinner. We haven't even mentioned Pekovic yet. So he will become a permanent stretch 4 (as opposed to the stretch 5 that he is playing in college). However, that means he will no longer have the quickness advantage that he's been able to rely on in college. Without many matchups against NBA level athleticism or agility coming his way in the next few months, we're unlikely to really be able to tell how that would translate. Essentially, our best shot at understanding what Kaminsky can become at the next level is to see how he performs against the 3 or 4 NBA caliber athletes that he has coming his way, and that's it.

I think there is a place for Kaminsky in the NBA. His shooting is too good for him to become a complete bust, especially at his size. I think it's relatively likely that he becomes a catch and shoot floor spacer who teams look to hide on defense, but that doesn't mean he would be a minus player. He may not be fast enough to take advantage of the same sorts of mismatches he's had in college, but his height advantage will mean he shoot over anyone. He's such a unique prospect between his size, shooting, and late blooming that it's hard to evaluate his future. I think the best assessment is that he's a low bust, low upside pick that can add a little something extra to a team that needs spacing.

Jakob Poeltl- His per minute numbers are absolutely bananas. He leads current players in points, rebounds, and blocks, and none of them are particularly close. His rebound numbers are more than one every two minutes. He's scoring more points per minute than Okafor, easily the most offensively polished big man since Duncan came through. What's more, that doesn't seem to be fluky in small sample size manner; he led all of Europe on a per minute basis last year as well (At least, that's what one of his YouTube videos says, so it must be true... right?). What's that? You want another mind blowing stat? He has a 39.87 PER right now. 39.87!! That's insane!

There's really not a whole lot of analysis needed for what his production says right now. It's incredibly impressive. That's all you need to say.

As far as his skills go, he doesn't look too developed from the footage that I've seen. He is in the Tyson Chandler mold of great defense, solid picks, and unstoppable when rolling to the basket. He already sets very solid picks and will only get better. He's probably worth a top 10 pick to me. He will never be an offensive centerpiece, but he could certainly be a key contributor to a title contender. And that's pretty much what you want out of a late lottery pick.

I will also add that having both played professionally and in college can only help him as far as adjustment to the NBA goes. Playing professionally will have given him the benefit of knowing what a professional athlete's lifestyle consists of, while a year of playing in Utah provides time to adjust to the American culture without needing to do it in addition to acclimatizing to the NBA. I love this player. Not for the Sixers, but some team is going to be very happy with him.

That's it for the big men. I wanted to do this exercise because I've found that, when talking about draft prospects, people tend to cherry pick stats that make each one look good individually, and it's tough to actually compare them. This was helpful for me to better process where each one fits and thought others might appreciate it as well. My first post seems to have been well-received, so I'm hoping to continue updating these as the college season progresses, hopefully once a month. I'm planning on doing the top wings next week and potentially just comparing Mudiay to other freak athlete point guards (Wall, Rose, Westbrook) who came before him to figure him out a bit better. If there's anything else you think I should add to that agenda, or think would be cool, let me know and I'd be happy to give it a shot!

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