Thursday, November 13, 2014

Viewing Young Players

While I am no longer as into baseball as when I was younger, I still follow the Texas Rangers fairly closely, if for nothing else than a sense of obligation after watching them for 20+ years. MLB fandom is a very different beast than NBA fandom and one of the biggest differences is the way in which young players are viewed - for baseball folks, there is nothing more exciting than having a stocked farm system full of high-upside prospects.

As a Rangers fan, I've been hearing about Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro for years and they are still years away from being on the big-league club. Jurickson Profar is 22 and he already feels like yesterday's news because I've been hearing about him since he was 16. Last off-season, the Rangers traded a respected veteran at 2B (Ian Kinsler) in order to clear out playing time for Profar ... and all the fans were totally on board with it.

It didn't end up working out, as Profar ended up missing the entire season due to a lingering arm injury. Nevertheless, the logic was still sound - if you have a prospect who is ready for the MLB, you want to get him on the field because few things help a team more than a young guy getting regular at-bats. When you have a young, cost-controlled player at a premium position, it frees up assets to pursue opportunities on other parts of the diamond. 

All things being equal, a MLB team will cut ties with a veteran in order to allow a prospect to play, even if the veteran is still a really good player with a much longer track record of success. There isn't this pathological fear about trusting a younger player that seems to infect so much of the discourse around the NBA. In essence, MLB fans are like "let's see what this young guy can do", while NBA fans are like "prove to us you are not a bum." 

It's not just fans either. If there's one thing a lot of coaches and front offices in the NBA don't want to do, it's trust a young player in a big role in the rotation, even if it's a young guy they specifically brought in to fill that role. Maybe they aren't playing well enough in practice to justify PT, but how often are teams practicing when they are playing 4 games in 5 nights in 3 different cities? Some guys are better in games than practices, anyway. 

What's Doc Rivers solution to the Clippers perimeter D woes? Start Jamal Crawford at SF. Now, I love JCrossover's game and there are few players I enjoy watching get buckets more than him, but let's be real for like two seconds. You can't watch him play for any stretch of time and think this is the guy to fix the structural issues on your defense. He just isn't. That's not his game. He has been in the league a long time and it never has been.

If you look on their bench, the one guy who could theoretically help is Reggie Bullock, their first-round pick in 2013. I say theoretically because we have no real idea how he will fare at the NBA level, since Doc has buried him on the bench since drafting him. What I do know is this - Reggie might be an answer as a 3-and-D player, if not now than by year 3 or year 4, but Jamal Crawford will never be the answer. 

Even the advanced statistics aren't going to tell us much about Reggie because he simply hasn't played enough for the Clippers to get much real data. However, there are other ways to discern if he could be of some value. The pedigree is there - he's a very big guard (6'7 200 with a 6'9 wingspan), who moves his feet very well and who was a proven three-point shooter at the college level (44% from 3 as a junior on 5 3PA's a game).

We can all agree that the Clippers could use Danny Green? Well, if you looked at what they did at UNC, you would say Bullock projects as a better 3-and-D defender. Maybe he won't be as good as Green in the NBA, but what was Green before the Spurs gave him a shot? He was smaller and less athletic than Bullock and he wasn't drafted as high. The Spurs had to look past the numbers and give him a shot because his skill-set could help their team.

I'm sure Bullock has had some difficulties dealing with Redick and Crawford in practice, but who wouldn't? He's a 21-year old whose just been called up to the majors. That's where you can see the difference between baseball and basketball - fans don't expect a young guy from AA ball (which is about where the NCAA is) to instantly dominate the best of the best. If he can just hang onto a roster spot at that age, it's a pretty good sign of his abilities.

In and of itself, the fact that a young player struggles in his rookie season in the NBA should not be a surprise. They are usually thrust into one of two roles - either playing on a bad team going nowhere fast, where none of the vets are really committed to the system on either side of the ball, or trying to find a role on a good team that has no time to bring along a young player, so they aren't given much of an opportunity to play through their mistakes.

Despite all this, we are still quick to wring our hands and write off young guys who don't perform to our statistical standards. Ben McLemore is a perfect example of this - people were flat-out calling the guy a bust after his rookie year and there was zero excitement around him coming into this season. Even his team hedged their bets, drafting another guy who plays his position (Nik Stauskas) in the lottery a year after taking McLemore.

Yet I'm watching him last night in Dallas and thinking - this guy looks like an NBA player. He's big for a guard, he's really fast and his jumper looks pretty good. It's probably worth running him out there for awhile, seeing what he has. It's still early, but his numbers are much better this season - 9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 45% from the field, 42% from 3. If you watched him at Kansas, none of this comes as a huge surprise.

There's a reason people were real excited about McLemore before the 2013 draft - he's an elite athlete with all the physical tools to be a high-level NBA SG and he had a very productive freshman season, averaging 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists on 50/42/87 shooting. We were supposed to throw all of that away because he struggled as a rookie on a 28-win team with a first-year head coach who was trying to install a new system on both sides of the ball?

The underlying problem stems from where analytics is taking most of the discussion about basketball - since there is more data out there than ever before, how can we analyze, collate and dissect it to find patterns? The result is a never-ending competition to see who can glean the most accurate info from the thinnest slices of data. Everyone is sitting around waiting for data that they can plug into their algorithm to tell us what is REALLY going on out there.

I can look at the traditional stats and tell you Ben McLemore sucked last season or we can dig deep into the bowels of SportsVU to find out exactly how much he sucked. Or maybe we can create a chart and graph his production in comparison to the rest of the league's SG's and see just how far he fell short last season. Or maybe we can diagram 10 plays and watch him get lost on defense, muck up the spacing on offense and do a whole lot of nothing out there.

That's the problem with any system of collecting data - garbage in, garbage out. If we aren't the coaching staff of the Kings, it isn't all that important to know the 58 different ways McLemore hurt his team as a rookie. Quantifying his production doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. If we are evaluating him as a player, what's far more important is projecting what he could be in a few years. The Kings weren't winning last year, regardless.

When it comes to young players, everyone is focusing on the outputs when they should be looking at the inputs. Or, to paraphrase Nick Saban, they are worrying too much about the results and not enough about the process. If you want to know what I mean, read Keith Law over at ESPN. He covers young baseball players and he talks about their numbers, but he is mostly worrying about scouting stuff - their approach at the plate, their ability to field a position, the type of stuff pitchers throw and whether their arm can hold up over a long time.

It's the same thing in basketball or any other sport. If you crunch the numbers about every rookie who has ever played, you can find some patterns that would indicate long-term potential and then you can compare those patterns with the numbers that a particular rookie put up. However, not only is that a very, very roundabout way of doing things, every player is different and every career path is different and you have to make room for things that break the pattern.

When the Rangers traded Mike Olt last season, I wanted to know what he projected to be as an MLB player so I could have an idea of whether the risk of dealing him was worth the reward of adding Matt Garza to the rotation. What's his deal? Does he project as an elite defender at 3B? Is he a power hitter or a contact guy? Most important of all - what kind of player is he likely to be in five years? Is that worth losing for 12 starts of Garza?

It's the same with any organization in baseball. When they are analyzing trades, you have to look at the farm systems to understand the motivations of the teams. When the Rangers traded for Prince Fielder, it was as much about Profar as anything - the same way that Alex Castellanos was an important factor for the Tigers in giving up Fielder. If a team has a blue-chip prospect at a position, it opens up a lot of different possibilities for roster construction.

NBA teams don't have farm systems, but most teams do have young players they are trying to bring along. The weird part is that they cease to exist for most people until they start putting up big per-game statistics. If you are a first-round pick who didn't produce in your first season in the league, people are ready to give up on you instantly. Even if you did, if you didn't have a big enough role on your team, no one cares.

I've been following Terrence Jones since he was a freshman at Kentucky, five years ago. He has been slowly moving up the ranks - he was The Man on a Final Four team as a freshman, a supporting player on a national championship team as a sophomore, a bit player on a 48-win as a rookie and a starter on a 54-win team as a second-year player. His numbers aren't really changing, only the role he has on the particular team he is on.

So when the Rockets lost Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, my first thought was, this opens up a lot of opportunities for Terrence Jones. If he can play up to his potential, they could be better than they were last season. That might not be right, but there's definitely a chance it could be and it wasn't on most people's radar screens. That's all I could think this summer, when I was reading all these think pieces about Daryl Morey and free agency.

Was the Rockets window closing? Is Dwight Howard done as an elite player? Is James Harden overrated? It was the same stuff you would hear 25 years ago as you would hear today, just the statistics being used have changed.* Maybe losing Parsons and Bosh did expose a flaw in the way Morey assembled teams, but if Jones lived up to his potential, none of that stuff really would have mattered. Houston had a blue-chip PF.

* The game the same, it just got more fierce.

Here's the numbers he has put up in 4 games - 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.8 blocks on 52% shooting in 29 minutes. Translate that over 36 minutes and it comes out to 17 points, 9 bounds and 2 blocks. He's a 23-year old PF who can play on both sides of the ball and he has a PER of 19.4. If he can just maintain this production, much less improve as he moves into his mid-20's, this changes a lot of things for the Rockets outlook.

Or maybe he won't, maybe the numbers will regress with more playing time and maybe he never becomes anything more than a starter on a good team. There's a range of outcomes with any young player, yet most people seem to be surprised when any of them develop into something better than they already are. If you know that some players years 2-5 in their careers will break out, you have to always be looking for guys who could.

Here's the thing, though - I'm not sure there's even a way to discern Jones ceiling as an NBA player from examining what he did in his first two seasons in the league. He was a young guy playing a role on a contender. Not only was he still years away from reaching his prime, he wasn't in a position to where he could showcase his game and rack up a bunch of stats. The only way to form an opinion was to look at his inputs, not his outputs. 

If you read any "advanced stats" coverage in basketball, you can see the strain of triumphalism leaking through a lot of the writing. We are this close to unlocking the secrets of the sport, to cracking the code of what's out there. With all this new data we have available to us, we can develop new ways to think about the game. Old ways of thinking are being swept aside. Progress is on the march and you can either be on the right side or the wrong side of history.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

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