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Finding Balance: The Path To A Meaningful NBA Rotational Role | The Morning Dunk
With the NBA's massive shift towards offensive production, our own Nathan Grubel does a dive this week into how that's impacting prospect scouting and why finding balance is still key in evaluation.
Let’s get a few disclaimers out of the way here before we get started.
First off, I do NOT rely on numbers and statistics to tell me the entire story of anything in the game of basketball. I am a firm believer in using data to ask the right questions and then finding the answers on tape with proper context.
Second, I am not presenting groundbreaking information in what I’m sharing in this column. Consider this “query” (if you will) a foundation for understanding what a valuable “baseline” is for prospects coming into and excelling in the NBA.
Third, scouting and talent evaluation are also far more complex than the tidbits of interesting stats I’ve compiled. Personality, intangibles, chemistry, the ability to be coached, effort, and the willingness to go above and beyond: these are all things that can’t be quantitatively analyzed and therefore are not rampant through the case I’m making here. They are all indicators, though, that I value through meaningful in-person and film studies as well as from intel that’s gathered during the pre-draft process.
Now that all of that is out of the way, it’s time to get into what exactly made me want to dive down the rabbit hole and explore the idea of composing an analytical column for this week’s Morning Dunk.
As I’m talking with other scouts, agents, and personnel daily, I come across a wide variety of subjective evaluations on prospects that can sometimes differ greatly from one person to another.
Simply put, scouting is just that: subjective. There is no magic formula that can spit out the exact prospects that will hit on rotational value in the league every single year. If there was, there wouldn’t be a need for those such as myself and the other fine people at No Ceilings to commentate on what we would do in mock draft scenarios and what types of players and traits we value.
But what I don’t see enough of is the attempt to establish a guideline in relation to what is currently trending in the NBA and how current key players in a team’s ecosystem are succeeding and thriving. What is it that they’re doing on a nightly basis to earn at least 20 minutes or more per outing?
And that’s where this preliminary work comes in. While what I found isn’t absolute, I do believe there are some key things we can take away given the nature of where the NBA is and likely headed in relation to scouting.
Without further ado, let’s jump into the wonderful world of basketball analytics!
*All statistics referenced are as of 2/23, and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports*
2022-23 NBA Season: Offense, Offense, and More Offense
There’s a saying that’s rung true in sports over the years: offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
That’s absolutely still true, as two of the top defensive teams met in the NBA Finals last season in the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.
But there’s also no denying that the NBA has shifted greatly towards more efficient offensive production up and down the roster at all times.
Each team has players in multiple position groups that have legitimate perimeter skills, AKA “dribble, pass, shoot” in their games, and it’s become more important now to have floor spacers around the right pick-and-roll combination.
Shooting is a premium, and the bar has been raised in terms of points scored, threes attempted, and overall percentage because of the number of open shots that are able to be taken with spacing all the way out to the deep corners.
Scoring overall in the NBA is the highest it’s been since the 1967-68 season, with teams averaging 114.4 PPG. On top of that, Field Goal Percentage is up to its highest mark since the ‘90-’91 season, currently sitting at 47.4%. And the real kickers: the league is on pace for the most threes attempted in a season EVER while also sporting the highest Offensive Rating since tracking started in the 1973-74 season at 114.4!
A lot of numbers indicate that offense has come a long way in this pace-and-space era, with the last word being the most key. Pace today does not match what it was in the ‘60s, but the number of threes that are being taken and made has opened up more driving lanes than ever before, giving primary ball handlers the studio space to probe and explore while also making sure big men can thrive on rolls as well as from the dunker spots.
All of this isn’t to say the mid-range game is dead either, as it’s far from it, as written by a number of authors in recent books. The best scorers in the NBA thrive on mid-range attempts, but those looks wouldn’t be nearly as available as they are without shooters everywhere, even from the center spot in certain stretch lineups!
So defense will always play a part in determining the outcomes of the biggest games come postseason time, but without the means to score and put points on the board to match shot for shot, there is no way to win in those high-leverage moments either.
It’s a tall order for perimeter defenders, and big men to an extent, to have to cover so much ground given how wide the floor is spaced. Having to close out on multiple shots per possession, given the ball movement, swing, skip, and kick-out passes, is daunting and exhausting, so even when it seems like there’s no answer for certain shot-making, humans can only do so much over the course of 48 minutes. Eventually, the best offenses win out, and that’s proven across all of the top teams by record in the current 2022-23 season.
Bottom line: if you can’t shoot effectively or provide legitimate offensive value in a game that’s grown to new heights on that end of the floor, it’s much harder to secure a top eight rotational spot in the NBA—especially if you’re under the average height of 6’6”.
Want more proof of exactly what I mean? Glad you’re curious, as it’s time to dig into player-by-player metrics!
What is the Path to 20 Minutes Per Game in the NBA?
In order to try and better understand what makes up the league’s best rotations, I decided to take a data sample from the players who are averaging 20 or more MPG, as that seems to be a magic enough number to come up with every team’s top seven or eight guys on average.
Looking at a number of categories, including scoring, shooting efficiency, Offensive and Defensive Ratings, Player Efficiency Rating, and True Shooting Percentage, I was able to put together a chart of interesting data to share.
A total of 507 different players have registered minutes in the NBA this season, but the 242 who are averaging 20 or more minutes per contest make up the population in this sample.
Let’s set some standards for what the averages of the listed metrics are across that population of 242 players during this current 2022-23 NBA season:
Average Age: 26
Field Goal Percentage: 47.8
Three Point Percentage: 34.0
Points Per Game: 14.4
Offensive and Defensive Rating: 115.9/114.6
Player Efficiency Rating: 15.5
True Shooting Percentage: 58.3
By these numbers, you can already come up with some key tells as far as how hard it is to lock down one of these prominent spots in the league.
For starters, that average age paints a picture of patience with young players. It’s difficult for those who aren’t top lottery picks to crack a rotation right off the bat, meaning it’s poor judgment to call a rookie, sophomore, or even junior in the league a “bust” early on.
Second, the shooting marks are much higher than I would’ve expected an average to be. Players who are getting quality minutes are expected EACH NIGHT to hit on nearly one of every two shots taken and one of every three taken.
Think about the consistency that’s required here. Rookies are trying to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, the life of a professional athlete, and attempting to bond and build chemistry with their fellow teammates and coaches to win at a high level, particularly on defense. Now oh, by the way, they are expected to take and make quality shots every trip down the floor to hold onto their minutes?
For a more detailed breakdown, let’s take a look at each of those statistics and break them out by the number of players who actually fall in the above-average buckets.
Of those 242 players…
41.3% have a FG% greater than the average
62.8% have a 3P% greater than the average
40.5% have a PPG mark greater than the average
47.5% have an ORTG greater than the average
49.5% have a DRTG less than the average
42.6% have a PER greater than the average
48.8% have a TS% greater than the average
Yea, that’s the standard. And this isn’t to say that the NBA hasn’t shared similar efficiency marks dating back 10, 20, 30, and 40 years. A lot of this is here to remind those who want to break into scouting of how difficult these jobs are to hold onto at a baseline, let alone at the level of a star or superstar in the league.
Because by percentage, of those 242 players, look at how many are still overachieving in those categories! To earn second and third contracts in the league, look at the bars that are being set: shooting better than 48% from the field, 34% from three, and having overall ratings climbing well above the league average.
Paolo Banchero, the running favorite for Rookie of the Year, rates out below ALL of those numbers! He has a ton of promise as a 6’10” combo forward who can score from anywhere on the floor, make plays for others, and succeed as a potential primary option on a good-to-great team. And even he is having trouble keeping pace with the league’s “standard” early on in his career.
It’s not as easy as finding a way to fit in. Sure, you can absolutely earn minutes playing quality defense and contributing in that way on an NBA team. Coaches love guys who can defend multiple positions and provide coverage and gap-filling. But it’s not necessarily that simple.
Playing high-level basketball is about finding BALANCE and contributing on BOTH ends to stick in a real spot for a long time.
For reference, let’s take a look at the players who rate out above those averages but also have a higher Defensive Rating than that average of 114.6:
Stephen Curry (<6’6”)
Tyrese Haliburton (<6’6”)
Norman Powell (<6’6”)
Jalen Brunson (<6’6”)
Kyrie Irving (<6’6”)
Bradley Beal (<6’6”)
So taking a look at this list, these are some of the best offensive players we have in the league today who, for one reason or another, aren’t standing out in particular on the defensive end. A number of them, it’s due to lack of plus size to cover multiple positions and situations defensively. Others aren’t the quickest or most engaged on that end.
But ALL OF THEM are top-tier offensive options in terms of scoring, and a number are also excellent shooters and playmakers. So you can break into the league and not improve defensively, but if you want to have contract and role security past your initial deal, you better be on your way to climbing up the ladder in all of those respective categories and blowing the doors off teams offensively. Otherwise, not every team may want to reward you with the money you feel you’re worth on a new deal.
And flipping things the other way, here’s the list of those who are below average offensively across those metrics but are pulling their weight to come in below the average Defensive Rating:
Marcus Smart (<6’6”)
John Wall (<6’6”)
Kyle Lowry (<6’6”)
Max Strus (<6’6”)
Victor Oladipo (<6’6”)
Gabe Vincent (<6’6”)
Jose Alvarado (<6’6”)
Cole Anthony (<6’6”)
Jalen Suggs (<6’6”)
We’ve reached the part of the program where I get to comment on how Defensive Rating is, by all accounts, an imperfect indicator of individual defensive impact. Truth be told, there are no “great” ways to discuss defense from a numbers perspective which is why I tried to keep it simple with DRTG to illustrate some of my points.
But taking a look at this group, there are a few exceptions in here like Khris Middleton who has suffered injuries this year and is up and down, and guys like Cole Anthony who are helped by playing alongside plus-sized defenders at every other position on the floor, some of them giants.
Overall though, if you’re not going to improve offensively and expect to hang your hat primarily on defense or are just in an offensive slump in general for one reason or another, you better have All-Defense equity or close enough to it for that same type of contract and rotational security on the flip side.
Specialists can succeed, but the lists of players on both sides who are exceeding expectations are slim, to say the least. The vast majority of the league impacts winning by hitting shots on one end and defending to the best of their ability on the other end. BALANCE is key; always has been and always will be. But even in finding said balance, the bars set are still difficult to hurdle.
Lastly, when we talk about evaluating who has “star” potential, aka realistic paths to becoming some of the league’s top players, take a look at the list below highlighting those who are above average across every category I outlined prior:
Malcolm Brogdon (<6’6”)
Donovan Mitchell (<6’6”)
Jaren Jackson Jr.
That list is comprised of the league’s most dominant forces, yearly award threats, and All-Star caliber talents, past or present, and only TWO of them are below the league-average height of 6’6”. Good luck clearing those hurdles to end up with that type of company. In other words, a decent list to keep handy when evaluating not just for starter potential but for star potential.
How Does This All Apply to the 2023 NBA Draft?
If you aren’t of a certain size, with the right skills on both ends, and lack a pathway to becoming a nuclear dynamo offensively or a lockdown defender, then it becomes highly unlikely that a case can be made to be taken up to a certain point in the NBA Draft.
What I shared wasn’t to deter any scouts from ranking players in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and beyond on their respective big boards. There are players out there who can fill niche roles, and teams have to fill out their rosters past the top eight or so spots.
But when discussing and debating about the prospects who are being looked to play meaningful roles at some point in their NBA careers, that’s where these data points come in.
Shooting and defense are the two surefire ways to get the minutes necessary to develop other skills, with three-point marksmanship becoming more of a requirement than “nice to have but not needed” out there.
We discuss all the time prospects who have enticing physical tools, instincts, rebounding, and playmaking ability. But do they have the shooting touch to take the job of someone else who is trustworthy to make due on a shot if the ball swings to them?
Let’s break out the same exercise across the players who make up the updated 2023 No Ceilings Composite Big Board and see where current prospects rank in relation to their own statistical averages!
Of 60 eligible players based on our most recent board, here is where the group’s “averages” fell across the same categories:
Average FG%: 47.4 (43.3% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Average 3P%: 30.3 (61.6% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Average PPG: 13.6 (53.3% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Average ORTG: 108.3 (61.6% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Average DRG: 95.6 (38.3% of players have less than or equal to that mark)
Average PER: 19.1 (50% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Average TS%: 54.5 (61.6% of players have greater than or equal to that mark)
Overall, this group rated out better than expected in a number of categories, especially shooting. Nearly 62% of prospects on the No Ceilings composite board are above-average shooters, which will bode well in determining potential projected roles down the road.
Defense…well it rated out about where I expected as far as Defensive Rating. There are a number of guys who rated well there, who could swing even more so in favor of defensive impact based on rebounding, steal, and block percentages. But from the query overall, as I go through the names a lot of the data is matching where I’m at on the eye test, both with players who I’d be eager to draft, as well as those I’ve cooled on a bit since the start of the year.
Given that the outlier performance categories have shorter lists of players than some of the groups within the NBA query, I’ll spare that time and get into the teeth of the players it liked the most, and those who scored lower than average in six or more of the eight categories used to calculate.
Here are the players this particular model loved (as do I in terms of long-term projection):
Marcus Sasser (<6’6”)
Jaylen Clark (<6’6”)
Mike Miles (<6’6”)
Kobe Bufkin (<6’6”)
Ricky Council IV
Brandin Podziemski (<6’6”)
Keyontae Johnson (<6’6”)
And the last list of this column before we dissect and discuss, the names that were not favored well at all in this query:
Amen and Ausar Thompson
Nick Smith (<6’6”)
Tyrese Proctor (<6’6”)
One major takeaway from all of these prospect names here is size is clearly favored for the majority of players who rated out well, as was the same and has proven to be the trend in the NBA. Having plus size at every position matters, even if said player isn’t a stout point-of-attack defender. Being able to body up and guard across the lineup in some shape is meaningful for pro teams.
But where we are at in the cycle, we have enough offensive data especially given how many minutes the majority of these prospects have played to determine who is where as a shooter.
No, it’s not perfect as there are players like Rayan Rupert and Nikola Durisic playing up in competition as opposed to college, but so are players like Leonard Miller and Sidy Cissoko as far as facing off in G-League games night after night.
Players like Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, and Brandon Miller have played both sides of the ball all year long on top of having either dominant shooting performances or showing consistency in that regard all year long. They are some of the top prospects in the draft for a reason.
Going down the board though, there is value to be had on the wings. Gradey Dick, Brice Sensabaugh, Maxwell Lewis, Kris Murray, and Colby Jones are all names in the mid-to-late first range that could prove to be great value picks by NBA teams. Versatile forwards like Jarace Walker and Taylor Hendricks rate out well because they’ve maintained their shooting splits all year long despite questions during the preseason process.
The players who can not only shoot but also offer impact on the defensive side of the ball are ranked accordingly by us as well as how they come out in this query. Meanwhile, higher-volume offensive talents who haven’t had the same level of impact defensively like Keyonte George and Nick Smith didn’t pop here and were left out of favor.
Does that mean that either George or Smith shouldn’t be drafted in the lottery? Not at all. It just means that being under the average size, lacking on defense, and relying on higher volume roles to generate a certain level of offense, means that for them to hit as stars likely requires getting to a higher ceiling like that group of elite NBA offensive talents outlined in the previous section.
Is it likely that George and/or Smith will become high-level shooters and scorers such as Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving, and Steph Curry? Or bring their spot-up efficiencies to that of a Bojan Bogdanovic? I would say the odds are unfortunately against them, and executives and scouts may not want to make that bet when other swings are on the board.
In terms of great upside plays to make out of the “favored” group, there are a number of risers who have caught my eye, and who don’t surprise me one bit that they ended up rating where they did. Michigan’s Kobe Bufkin, UCLA’s Adem Bona, Ignite’s Cissoko, and Drake’s Tucker DeVries are all prospects who stand to make major leaps on my next personal board. Each player has had outstanding January and February months, peaking at the right time. And in the case of DeVries, he’s done it all year long carrying a mid-major program much further than anyone initially expected.
The biggest question that seems to be answered here for me relates to prospects who I have great faith in as defensive wings and forwards, but haven’t proven they can generate enough offense to meet the rotational baselines laid out based on the NBA query results. Glue guys like Rupert, Julian Phillips, Andre Jackson Jr., and Dillon Mitchell each have potential to stick in the league.
Their paths are much murkier, though, given inconsistent spot-up shooting and lack of diverse offensive games off the bounce. A few such as Phillips have shot better of late after poorer starts, but it will take some true belief to stick them with meaningful minutes early on in their NBA careers. Right now, they seem better suited as late-first to mid-second round flyers.
The NBA Draft is a fickle fiend.
There is no perfect science on how to evaluate and draft prospects. No matter how deeper I could go with building out a metric to include a wider array of stats on both sides of the ball, the results would likely point me in very similar places.
I’m confident in the research and results shown in this column as it relates to both current prospects as well as where the NBA stands as a whole. The more pro tape I watch, the more I see consistent spacing and shooting all over the place to support the stars that run and captain the show.
Even though defense is crucial to winning championships, the best teams are built on chemistry and time, not ONLY outstanding individual defenders. Team defense crafted through communication, teamwork, and belief in one another wins championships.
For that chemistry to develop, it requires players who can play the requisite minutes to gain experience and bond with one another, which comes from being able to hit shots at a baseline level to remain on the floor.
And as we learned, that baseline is higher than I even anticipated.
If one is to reach a meaningful rotational level, it takes balance on both sides with enough requisite perimeter ability and/or high-level finishing ability around the rim. Getting up to the level of a star? That “rank” is held by those who are spectacular across the board, not just in a few areas.
Therefore, projecting stardom has become increasingly difficult because of where the bar is set. Physical tools, skill level, and all of the intangibles not referenced in this particular piece are all vital components to shaping the league’s next crop of tremendous talent.
As for this draft class, I still feel it’s as deep as a number of others I’ve evaluated in previous years. There is value to be had, even if a number of the currently projected lottery picks aren’t as surefire by the numbers as they can appear to be based on the flashes on tape.
Hopefully, I’ve laid out a great blueprint here for who and what type of prospects to better key in on as we head into the wildfire that is draft season.
My greatest lesson learned? We can all have fun ranking players on our big boards, but determining who is a potential “starter or high rotation-level player” on a good to great team is still as difficult a puzzle as it always has been. Only in balance can we even begin to identify who has what it takes to earn the most minutes in the NBA.
Games to Watch This Week
Wednesday 3/1, 6:30pm EST: Providence vs. Xavier - There’s plenty of debate around if Bryce Hopkins is a prospect for the 2023 draft, but there’s no denying he’s at the bare minimum on the radar for 2024. The 6’7” sophomore is averaging 16.8 PPG while also shooting 39.4% from three, making him one of the more dangerous mismatch scoring forwards in the country. He’ll make for a tough matchup as Xavier looks to get a big win on the road. Colby Jones continues to maintain first-round stock, while Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle are also hoping to get NBA opportunities.
Wednesday 3/1, 9pm EST: TCU vs. Texas - We are big fans of Mike Miles at No Ceilings, so going up against a talented backcourt opposing him at Texas will be a great test before capping off the regular season over the weekend. Damion Baugh has also made some noise in draft circles for the Horned Frogs. As for the Longhorns, the buzz on Dillon Mitchell and Tyrese Hunter has halted, but both could bring some attention back to their respective stocks with great games here in the month of March.
Thursday 3/2, 11pm EST: USC vs. Arizona - There is no better time to watch USC basketball than now, as the team has come together and gotten some key pieces integrated in the rotation. Kobe Johnson and Tre White have displayed shot-making versatility on the wing over the last month, and there’s some noise about the play of Vincent Iwuchukwu of late after coming back from a scare prior to the start of the season. Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo captain Arizona’s frontcourt, while Kerr Kriisa continues to try and round out his game from a consistency standpoint to make waves on the boards of scouts.
Saturday 3/4, 2pm EST: Arkansas vs. Kentucky - Nick Smith Jr. is ROLLING since he came back from his most recent injury, showing his floater craft in the paint while also hitting some key jumpers and playing underrated defense. His fit next to Anthony Black is seamless, and Ricky Council IV is coming off a strong offensive performance against Alabama. I’m curious to watch how Cason Wallace matches up against all three Arkansas guards on both ends. And of course, Oscar Tshiebwe will have to have his way down low to pull off the road upset.
Saturday 3/4, 6:30pm EST: North Carolina vs. Duke - There’s no better rivalry in college basketball than Duke and North Carolina historically, and this game has some extra meaning behind it given where the Tar Heels sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble. If UNC loses multiple games this week and doesn’t win the ACC Tournament, then it’s likely curtains. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils need to establish momentum heading into postseason play, which could help bolster the draft stocks of Kyle Filipowski, Dereck Lively II, and Dariq Whitehead.
Saturday 3/4, 7:30pm EST: Villanova vs. UConn - I will be in attendance for this one, second in-person game of the week! Cam Whitmore is deserving of all the attention he gets as a combo forward who is a physical force on the interior while also displaying shooting touch from the outside on pull-up threes. The Huskies have a number of draft prospects including sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins who has shot up boards given his improvements scoring inside the arc as well as defensively. Andre Jackson, Adama Sanogo, Donovan Clingan, and Alex Karaban are all viable prospects to monitor for this cycle as well as in 2024.
Saturday 3/4, 10pm EST: UCLA vs. Arizona - Arguably no team has been hotter than the UCLA Bruins of late, and rightfully so. Between Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jaylen Clark, Amari Bailey, and most notably Adem Bona, there are plenty of prospects to monitor across all positions, and the talent is clicking underneath Mick Cronin with Tyger Campbell at the helm. Pauley Pavilion will be ROCKING for the Arizona Wildcats to come in. Can Bona muscle up and lock down Azuolas Tubelis? That is the key to stuffing the transition and interior attack of Arizona.
Sunday 3/5, 12pm EST: Memphis vs. Houston - Even though it hasn’t been the greatest year for the Memphis Tigers, the squad still has experience, depth, and toughness under Penny Hardaway to make any AAC game difficult. Houston better come prepared to play, and knowing coach Kelvin Sampson, preparation won’t be an issue. Jarace Walker and Marcus Sasser are legitimate first round guys in 2023, with Jamal Shead, Tramon Mark, Ja’Vier Francis, and Terrance Arceneaux all having NBA potential of their own.
Sunday 3/5, 12:30pm EST: Purdue vs. Illinois - Zach Edey continues to fight doubters who don’t believe in his NBA potential, yet all he’s done is put on an absolute clinic every time he’s touched the court this season. Averaging a double-double, there is no other big in the country who is more productive on a per-minute basis (I know, Trayce Jackson-Davis would like a word) and he’s captained one of the most consistent squads in college hoops all year long. But Illinois has the talent to pull off one hell of an upset at this point in the year. Terrence Shannon Jr., Coleman Hawkins, and Matthew Mayer all have attention from NBA scouts, and the combination of those three along with some of the bench depth could be enough to win big to end the Big Ten regular season.
Sunday 3/5, 4:30pm EST: Indiana vs. Michigan - Last but certainly not least, a battle of top prospects in a great rivalry is enough to grab my view on a Sunday afternoon! Jett Howard remains firmly in the lottery conversation, while Jalen Hood-Schifino has made a name for himself this season as a true riser up into the top half of the first round. Trayce Jackson-Davis has believers who peg him as a first-round pick himself. The two-way play of Kobe Bufkin, one of the most intriguing sleepers across the country, could be enough to swing any game in Michigan’s favor.