Monday, December 15, 2014

John Beilein

The match-up between Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris Levert, which I wrote about this week at The Cauldron, was about as one-sided as it gets when a few future NBA players square off. I like Levert and he looks like he could be a good player in the NBA, but it didn't look like he had any business being on the same floor with Johnson and RHJ, who may as well have taken his lunch money by the end of that game.

They are all seen as top-20 prospects by NBA scouts, but that wasn't always the case. Coming into college, RHJ and Johnson had already been pegged as future stars. They were the best of the best, five-star recruits and McDonald's All-Americans, the type of guys that don't stay in the college game for very long. Levert, on the other hand, was a completely unheralded 2-3 star recruit, a guy John Beilein signed without having ever seen live.

Levert was clearly under recruited in high school, but three years of playing under Beilein have still elevated his stock massively. Michigan, despite not having a ton of All-Americans on their teams, has suddenly become an NBA factory under Beilein. All five of their starters from the 2013 NCAA championship game - Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary - are now in the NBA. Here's where these guys were rated in their respective high school classes by by ESPN:

Burke - No. 84
Hardaway - No. 93
Robinson - No. 18
Stauskas - No. 76
McGary - No. 27

McGary was the only shoe-in to make the NBA, because of his size. Ironically enough, the highest rated of the perimeter guys - GR3 - was the lowest picked of all of them. Before Beilein got his hands on them, no one was calling Burke and Stauskas lottery picks. They looked like two of the best players in the country when they were at Michigan. What I'm starting to wonder is whether that said more about Beilein than it said about them.

The first thing you might notice about that line-up is the incredible amount of spacing they have. Beilein is one of the first college coaches to take the spacing revolution to its logical extreme, playing dramatically undersized teams with the intention of spreading out bigger players and beating them off the dribble on defense. What Beilein realizes is that the vast majority of college big men can't hurt his smaller and more athletic wing players in the paint and the vast majority of college guards don't know how to slow the tempo and take advantage of a size advantage upfront anyway. Michigan lures you into playing their game and then picks you apart with pick-and-rolls, ball movement and three-point shooting.

The 2013 team, which lost to Louisville in the NCAA championship game, was a pure 4-out team, with GR3 (6'7 200) starting as the stretch PF. They were really fast and they could run pick-and-rolls with any of their three guards while the other two spotted up from the three-point line. Given the amount of space that Michigan's players play in, it's almost impossible to defend them 1-on-1. Beilein does a really good job of finding fundamentally sound players who can pass, dribble and shoot and letting them play in space. Even when he loses guys to the NBA, he plugs the next guy into the system and everything keeps rolling:

2013 - Burke - 18.5 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds on 44% shooting
2014 - Stauskas - 17.5 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds on 48% shooting
2015 - Levert - 18.5 points, 4 assists, 6 rebounds on 44% shooting

If history is any indication, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton are going to have big seasons next year. Most college guards don't have the luxury of playing in Beilein's peak spacing system. Arizona is a perfect example - Johnson and RHJ are having to fight and claw for statistics because of the way Sean Miller coaches the game. Miller is trying to win with defense, so he throws as many big and athletic guys on the floor as he can. The problem is that can often mean they don't have a lot of outside shooting, a problem which has affected them for two straight seasons. They've still been wildly successful, but it has meant their best players aren't in optimal situations to score the ball, since other teams tend to pack the paint on them. For the most part, you can't play off of anyone at Michigan. 

That's what struck a false chord with me when I heard people comparing Stauskas with a guy like Marcus Smart before the draft. Travis Ford and John Beilein are barely even coaching the same sport. You can't throw Beilein stats and Ford stats out there without recognizing that you are looking at the results of dramatically different processes. Given the way Ford A) spaced the floor B) ran offense and C) built the rest of his program, Smart may as well have been fighting Stauskas with one hand tied around his back. The fact that he almost won should have been a mark in his favor, not a knock against him.

If you really want to get into the gory details of the Travis Ford era, I wrote about it over at RealGM before the draft.

Basketball Twitter obsesses over minor tactical move that NBA head coaches make yet they don't even take into account the coaches and the program that surrounds NCAA prospects. A player's statistical output in college is a much a result of the game-plan of his college coach as it is his own natural ability. It all depends on how many minutes he plays, what type of players he plays with, what type of offense the coach runs, how many shots he gets, what type of players are guarding him and what type of defensive systems those teams run. Untangling all those moving parts is the real tricky part about scouting. Lining up all their stats in a spreadsheet and running a few regressions about them can tell you a few things, but it doesn't give you the whole picture. It can't.

It's obviously way too early to come to any conclusions about Beilein's NBA grads, but none of the five have really carved out a solid role for themselves in the league just yet. We will remove McGary and GR3 from the conversation, since they are rookies taken in the late first round and the middle of the second. Hardaway has gotten consistent minutes in New York and he has shown some flashes, but he's nowhere near the point to where he's a core player. Though, once again, as a guy drafted in the 20's, that's not a huge deal. The two lottery picks - Burke and Stauskas - are the real story. 

I'm not even sweating their numbers so much as I am looking at their rosters and not seeing many avenues for them to be long-term starters on the teams that drafted them. Burks is shooting 37.5% from the field in two seasons in the NBA and it certainly looks like he's keeping the seat warm for Dante Exum, who has star written all over him. Stauskas is way behind Ben McLemore in the pecking order in Sacramento and McLemore's length and athleticism means he's a better fit as a role player next to Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. When you eyeball Stauskas and Burke against guys like McLemore and Exum, the difference is pretty striking. Maybe there's a reason no one had heard of the former two coming out of high school and everyone was already waiting on the latter two? 

If you spend a lottery pick on a guy, you want to turn him into a player capable of starting on a good team. If you do that correctly and you pick guys who can play next to each other, a rebuilding effort shouldn't take particularly long. It's when you start missing on lotto picks that you end spending years in the cellar. 

The Kings are the perfect example of this. I still think Stauskas will be a good NBA player, but it's hard to see him having more value to this roster than Noah Vonleh, the 6'11+ athletic monster who was taken one pick behind him. Vonleh has been injured and hasn't gotten a ton of minutes as a rookie, but he would have been the perfect fit in Sacramento - an athletic power forward who could help DeMarcus Cousins with interior defense while being able to step out and knock down a perimeter shot. He was even adding three-point range by the end of his freshman season in Indiana, although that's probably a few years away in the NBA.

Long-term, a core of Cousins - Vonleh - Gay - McLemore scares the hell out of people. If they had done that correctly, it wouldn't have mattered what ended up happening with Mike Malone. The pieces would all have fit together perfectly. Now they may end up trading for Josh Smith, just because they couldn't be patient on a guy they had drafted the year before and they got seduced by the numbers Stauskas put up in Beilein's offense. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that Stauskas probably won't be better than Zach LaVine, who would have put up jaw-dropping numbers in Beilein's pace and space system. 

At the end of the day, though, you have to judge every player as an individual. Caris Levert has a better combination of length and athleticism than either Burke or Stauskas and he plays way more under control than Hardaway, so there's definitely a chance he has the best pro career of any of Michigan's pro players. I don't think he will be drafted as high as his two predecessors at Michigan, but that may be more because of the lack of talent around him than teams wising up on how to judge statistics from a Beilein offense.

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