Alperen Şengün and the Importance of Pre-Draft Productivity
On box-score scouting and the importance of seeing what's right in front of you.
Let’s travel back to draft day, 2021.
In order to get my thoughts out on that year’s international class, I decided to put up a 33-tweet thread with impressions on Josh Giddey, Usman Garuba, and the eventual best player in the class, Alperen Şengün.
While I didn’t feel like I missed with my assessment, I did fail by not predicting that Şengün would go on to become not only the unequivocally best player in that year’s international crop but also one of the top players in the entire draft class.
However, just like me, multiple NBA teams passed on Şengün, who was selected with the 16th overall pick.
Who could’ve seen Şengün coming? Well, actually, most box score numbers kind of did.
What we have here is a comparison of the stats from the pre-draft season of every international player who would go on to get drafted in 2021. It’s clear that there were a lot of data points that indicated that Şengün was far and away the most productive player in the class (highlighted in green) and, maybe just as important, there were zero “red flags,” or data points in which he was the worst of the international class.
This prompted me to dive into previous international classes to see if there’s any correlation between a player performing well among the available pre-draft productivity metrics and his eventual success as the best player in the international class, as well as to see if there’s any pattern when it comes to red flags and a player’s failure to live up to his draft spot.
Let me get this out of the way.
When I talked about the metrics I’ll be using for this piece I emphasized the word available for one reason. While I would love nothing more than to have access to more widely accepted catch-all performance metrics like RAPM, BPM, or RAPTOR, I have to work with what’s available.
I accept that metrics like Win Shares, PER, and Floor Impact Counter are far from perfect, but they are the best ones available at RealGM and hopefully, they will be enough to get the job done. If that’s still a deal breaker for you, well, I guess I’ll see you in my next piece.
Best International Player: Deni Avdija (Ninth Overall Pick)
When looking at the 2020 draft, a pattern begins to form. While the metrics in which Şengün and Avdija stood out among their respective classes are mostly different (with the exception of total Win Shares and Floor Impact Counter), both share an interesting characteristic: neither of them had a single red flag in their statistical profiles.
On the opposite end, the only first round prospects who were waived during their rookie contracts (Leandro Bolmaro and Usman Garuba) both have red flags in their profiles and their only green flags have to do with Defensive Win Shares.
Best International Player: Goga Bitadze (18th Overall Pick)
By now some of you might be thinking that is a futile exercise. If drafting was as easy as looking at box score metrics then teams should probably not make these mistakes, right?
I hear you. I definitely do.
With that being said, would you mind looking at the pre-draft profile of Sekou Doumbouya?
Despite being dead last in nine of the thirteen metrics that we’re looking at, Doumbouya was still the first international prospect off the board in 2019. Just like Garuba and Bolmaro, he was waived before the start of his third season in the league.
On the other hand, Goga Bitadze continues the pattern of “most productive player pre-draft becomes the best player in the class,” being the top player in every number we looked at except total minutes played.
Best International Player: Isaiah Hartenstein (43rd Overall Pick)
We’re going to skip right over the chalky 2018 international class. There’s very little to learn from a class where the NBA actually got it right with Luka Dončić who was the most productive player pre-draft and, the first player off the board AND, the best NBA player of the crop by an astronomical margin.
So we move on to 2017, where we find that the first international player off the board, Frank Ntilikina, shows a similar profile to Sekou Doumbouya, as both had multiple red flags in their pre-draft profiles and were unable to live up to their draft spots after being selected.
2017 does break a pattern in showing us that a player with red flags like Isaiah Hartenstein can still be the best player in the class, with the caveat that it must be a player drafted in the second round. Hartenstein has managed to stay in the league and become a rotation center; however, it’s fair to wonder if he wouldn’t be considered a bust by his current production and role in the league, had he been drafted as a Top 20 player.
Patterns and Queries
Looking at the four aforementioned drafts, there are* a number of patterns that repeated when looking at the players selected:
The best international player in the draft always has a green flag in his profile.
First round players with red flags are unlikely to live up to their draft spot.
First round players with only green flags always live up to their draft spot.
A player with red flags can become the best international player, as long as (A) it is a weak crop and (B) even then they might not be worth a first round pick.
If we want to get more specific, we can attempt to create a query that succeeds in finding the first-round worthy players from the 27 international draftees that we mentioned in this piece.
If we filter the players who are (a) 20 years old or younger, (b) played over 300 minutes (c) in non-fringe leagues, and (d) had a FIC/48 of 15.5 or higher we come up with the five players from the aforementioned drafts whose possibility of getting a second contract in the NBA ranges from “very likely” to “guaranteed”.
Present Day, Present Time.
Now it’s time for the fun stuff. What happens when we try to apply the same principles to the 2024 draft class?
Here’s where the main international prospects stand as of December 12th, 2023.
If the same patterns we noticed repeat for this year’s class we can find that:
One of Risacher, Topic, Nuñez, and Hukporti should become the best international player in the draft and all of them should live up to their draft spots.
Salaün, Ajinça, Dadiet, and Toohey should not be first round picks this year.
Finally, if we apply the same query to the 2024 crop in order to find the players who are very likely to see a second contract in the NBA we get:
There’s a bigger point to be made here that goes beyond the numbers, the patterns, and principles that we can derive from them. Pre-draft production at the professional level matters for international prospects. However, by looking at a number of players taken at or near the top of recent international draft crops, it’s clear that NBA teams are not taking production enough into account when it comes to drafting overseas prospects.
When June 2024 rolls around, and you’re thinking of international players, my advice is don’t try to outsmart yourself. Learn to look beyond the flashes, the workouts, the intel, and the performances at special events in order to see what’s right in front of you. The players who go on to become good NBA players, the type of players you want for your team, always find a way to be productive at the professional level before the NBA.