Honey, We Shrunk The Draft Prospects: The 2024 Small Guard Conundrum
The 2024 NBA Draft is loaded with guards that are impacting their college teams. But how does a league that is upsizing their position, properly evaluate a guard class that has shrunk?
With each passing draft cycle, we see more and more analysts and scouts consider the value of finding NBA prospects that meet at the intersection of plus positional size and skill. An evolutionary result born out of the pace and space era; and the consequence of the lumbering bigs of yesteryear losing their place within the paradigm of traditional one through five line-up constructions, thus ushering in the era of position-less basketball.
Within the concept of position-less basketball came a reframing of what front offices have valued within team-building philosophies. Whilst the specifics of that philosophy may differ from front office to front office, one trend remains fairly consistent within—size matters in the modern NBA. Lead-ball handlers evolved into jumbo creators, the big man migrated out to the perimeter, playing off their newfound skill and mobility, and every team loaded up on big wings that can switch up and down through the positional spectrum.
Certain outlier talents may be able to survive via the “it ain’t the size of the boat, but the motion of the ocean” ideology, however, the deeper you get into the playoffs, the more troubling that line of thinking can become.1
Currently, teams like Boston and Oklahoma City sit amongst the league's elite, deploying versatile lineups that boast that intersection of size and skill—minimizing opportunities for their opponents to take advantage of potential mismatches, whilst conversely finding ways to identify those mismatches on the offensive end. Between these two NBA juggernauts is but a singular guard that is listed at below 6’3”.
League-wide, there are but thirty players that are listed as sub-6’3”.2 Just eighteen of the players in that pool of thirty average over twenty minutes played per game.
This league-wide awakening has led to a shift in general draft philosophy from front offices in recent years, as teams have more frequently avoided spending draft capital on sub-6’3” guards. Over the last five drafts, there have been ~118 guards drafted3, only twenty-six of which have been listed at sub-6'3". Fifteen of them are still on active NBA rosters.
This is not your grandma’s NBA. The bar is higher, and the margin for error is lower than ever before for small guards to earn a roster spot.
These league-wide trends present us with a particularly troubling issue within the draft space for the 2024 cycle because, um, there are a fuck-load of small guards.
So how do we approach evaluating this crop of prospects with regards to their NBA potential? Do we as evaluators try to fit a square peg into a round hole, reaching on a prospect who may measure out at the ideal positional size even if they have some glaring red flags? Or do we take a longer look at a guy who is seemingly a better basketball player but has the kind of size limitations that could affect their opportunity to even step onto the floor at the NBA level?
By the Numbers
To help us figure out which of these square pegs are truly worth monitoring in the 2024 cycle, I dove deep into the statistical profiles of fifteen potential 2024 NBA prospects. But here’s the rub—I’m not stacking up these particular prospects against one another, at least not initially. What I’m looking for within this exercise is how the current college seasons of the 2024 prospects stack up statistically against a pool of thirty-plus NBA rotation players who were drafted from 2018-2022. Because ultimately, the goal of drafting is quite simply to find NBA level players. So whilst measuring a prospect relative to their peers is essential in choosing one prospect over another, it still may not mean that that prospect is an NBA player. Measuring the 2024 college dudes against their future NBA counterparts may mean that the bar is set higher, but it may also help distinguish whether a dude is just a good college player or a legit NBA prospect.
To compile the data needed for this exercise, I imputed data from seventeen statistical categories based on the pre-draft college season of the NBA player pool. I then found the average and the standard deviation for each category in order to help identify statistical trends, find outlier production, and identify variability between positive and negative data points.
From there I put together a spreadsheet of each of the fifteen 2024 prospects and imputed their statistical profiles. Once imputed, I measured the 2024 prospects against the statistical profile of the NBA player pool, colorizing each category to signify a prospect’s success relative to the standard deviation above or below the mean. The color designations break down as follows:
dark green = two SDs above the mean
bright green = one SD above the mean
light green = within one SD above the mean
yellow box = within one SD below the mean
red box = at least one SD below the mean.
In layman’s terms, green=good and red=bad.
First things first, this statistical breakdown is not the end all be all in a prospect’s evaluation. There are variables that these stats cannot account for, such as team context or injuries. This is also not the prospect’s full sample of games as the season is ongoing. There is plenty of time for a prospect’s season to turn in either direction. It is likewise imperative to use these numbers as a means to check your work on the scouting report you’ve compiled on each prospect from watching their film. There is always a bit of underlying tension between the stats and eye-test people, but the simple fact is that both aspects of scouting need to be used in synergy (see what I did there) to paint a full picture.
I’d also like to point out that some of the guards shown above are listed at 6’3” on their respective team websites; however, until we get official draft combine measurements, color me a wee bit skeptical. Having stood next to some of these prospects in person, I am going to wager that most of them will not be measuring up to their listed height at the combine. As the saying goes: men lie, women lie, and so do college team sites.
What Stands Out
Only five of the players from the NBA player pool had a sub-6 BPM at season's end. Turns out pre-NBA production is fairly important to actually being productive on an NBA floor. Only one of those prospects had a sub-5 BPM. The one prospect who didn’t reach the 5-BPM threshold was Tyrese Maxey, whose rise to stardom is an outlier strictly based off of his statistical production.4 Maxey mostly struggled with efficiency at Kentucky, but he was playing off Ashton Hagans, so let’s give him some grace for struggling to find his groove. Maxey’s BPM of 4.4 sticks out as our minimum in the NBA player data set. As it stands, over half of the 2024 small guard prospects currently fall into the sub-6 BPM group, with a third of the prospects currently sporting a sub-5 BPM. Of the group, Kanaan Carlyle has the best statistical case. His sample size is smaller than most of the other prospects, so I’d expect some regression, but he’s been nuclear since his debut, which includes a 30-piece against Washington State and 28 against Arizona. Carlyle has produced above the mean in ten categories and at least one standard deviation above the mean in three. Carlyle has looked the part since his debut, and if he can hone some of his improvement areas a bit as he gets more comfortable, he’ll help build his one-and-done case.
Reed Sheppard remains an absolute monster. His seven categories of one SD above the mean puts him in elite company…and he’s doing it as a freshman. The only guards from the NBA player pool that have checked as many boxes as Sheppard from 2018-2022 are Trae Young, Jalen Brunson, Ja Morant, and Tyrese Haliburton. What is even more insane is that six of his seven green boxes put him two standard deviations above the mean. The guys who produce like Reed is producing in college are stars in the NBA. Reed’s only red box is his usage. This certainly makes Reed an outlier amongst his peers, as Haliburton was the only other low usage guard on that list and even Hali broke the 20% usage mark. It is certainly worth debating whether Reed offers enough on-ball equity to reach the star level his stats project. But, if I’m going to bet on any of Kentucky’s prospects to receive the Kentucky bump, it’s going to be the lights-out shooter that can play on or off the ball and is a nuclear processor of the game. Multiple teams will overthink his size and Leave It To Beaver haircut, and they will regret it.
Tamin Lipsey may also fall into this category. Lipsey is not a name you frequently find on draft boards, but he has been a killer this season. A defensive disruptor, Lipsey may have the quickest hands in college hoops5, he’s always in the right spots off the ball, and his screen navigation is textbook. Lipsey is also a plus passer who takes care of the rock and has the quickness to get paint touches at will. If you buy the shot at all, Lipsey is an easy evaluation. Despite the uptick in 3PT%, I’m still skeptical. The FT% is down from last season to below 70%, and the shot is fairly stiff functionally. Given that he won’t have the ball in his hands as much at the next level and will have to prove he can adequately space the floor his case is a little more foggy to me. He’s knocked down uncontested spot-ups at a good level but has really really struggled on contested spot-ups. NBA close-outs are longer and faster, so it’s fair to wonder if Lipsey can adapt to NBA-level length and athleticism. NBA teams have a great track record of shot development, so there’s a good case to be made that Lipsey is still a great bet despite any shooting concerns. The all-around production is really tough to ignore. If Lipsey finds some middle ground between Jose Alvarado and Fred VanVleet, I won’t be shocked.
KJ Simpson has a legit argument as the best guard in college basketball. Simpson has grown substantially as a player during his junior campaign, and it’s time to start bringing him up in more draft conversations. His zero blocks6 give him a red box in the BLK% category and his 3PT volume is slightly below average, but Simpson has been above average in every other statistical category. His eight bright green boxes — placing him one standard deviation above the mean — are the most amongst the prospect pool and ties him with Tyrese Haliburton for the most green boxes since 2018. Simpson is having such a preposterous season with such an eye-opening shooting improvement from distance that I’d like to see if he finishes the season as strong as he’s started, but at this moment in time, Simpson’s statistical case is as strong as any guard prospects to be a top 20 pick…or perhaps even higher.
Providing value as a plus defender and defensive rebounder might allow you to survive without entering the league with an NBA-ready shot. Jalen Suggs, Bruce Brown, Shake Milton, and De’Anthony Melton all had real shooting issues resulting in production one standard deviation below the mean in their pre-draft college season. They were able to overcome those shooting issues and carve out a role due to their ability to provide defensive value combined with the requisite playmaking and processing to keep the offense humming when the ball swung their way. This provides an interesting case for Reece Beekman and Tamin Lipsey who may just be a jumper away.
Some of these dudes really need to go back to school and hone their craft. Especially the freshman. There have only been three freshmen7 dating back to 2008 with a BPM under three that have left after one college season and carved out a role in the league. Jackson Shelstad is right on that border, and Elliot Cadeau has been rumored to be on a two-year plan; those two may not be thinking NBA in 2024. But the glaring name that stands out is DJ Wagner. I’m sure an NBA team will bet on the pedigree at some point within the fifty-eight picks, but at the moment, despite some flashes and a bit more consistency in SEC play, Wagner has by and large not been a productive college basketball player. Wagner’s decision-making and playmaking have been better than expected from a player billed as a score-first guard, but he has otherwise struggled to produce at anything approaching an NBA level. There is very little track record of prospects with his statistical case actually sticking in the league.
Tyler Kolek is a bad mother fucker. He may not look the part, but the Marquette senior probably has a bit more upside than he’ll be given credit for. Kolek may not be an every-year starter, but the skill, feel, confidence, and all-around production make me confident he will be an NBA rotation player at worst and a starter at best.
Context is key. Rob Dillingham has probably fallen somewhere in between where his most ardent supporters and detractors place him. Like Sheppard, Dillingham is a lightning rod off Kentucky’s bench who plays in a loaded backcourt; this certainly hampers his raw numbers. Still, after a blistering hot November, Dillingham’s shot has come and gone, and his playmaking has dipped substantially. His cat-like reflexes allow him to be disruptive in the passing lanes, but despite the effort he has given, he is still at a big disadvantage when guarding one-on-one. I’m not quite sure if he has as much Darius Garland upside as is frequently discussed, however, statistically, though flawed, Dillingham has few glaring red flags. I’m not sure if Dillingham is the type of primary guard that you build your offense around a la Trae Young, but place him within a defensive infrastructure that can cover his weaknesses, and he can certainly provide value as a dynamic scorer who has played a nuanced offensive game that allows him to play on or off-the-ball. Dillingham probably shouldn’t be taken too high, but he also shouldn’t drop all that far.
Stats aren’t perfect, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story on where to value a prospect. If they were, and they did, then Zach Edey would likely be the first overall pick in June. Similar to Edey, who has his own concerns with his height and frame relative to NBA play style, each of these small guard prospects has warts to their games that they need to prove that they can overcome to join the group of thirty sub-6’3” NBA guards that are playing consistent NBA minutes.
It’s really really hard to get drafted as a small guard, and it’s even tougher to stick around in a tangible way once you’ve been drafted. I think there will be some kind of NBA future for many of the smaller guards in this pool, however recent draft history is telling us that we should only be expecting three-to-five sub-6’3” guards in 2024 to become useful rotation players. Sure it’s possible that a prospect may be able to carve out an NBA career after going undrafted, but the chips are really stacked against that outcome, as there are only four undrafted sub-6’3” guards in the league, only one of which plays over twenty minutes per game. It’s tough.
I wish that we could simply look at the data above and figure out without a shadow of a doubt which of the small guards is going to make it, but that would ignore the many other variables that go into player evaluation. Hopefully what the data will do is help us draw conclusions about which calculated risks we’re willing to make in this prospect pool. There is a pretty good statistical argument for Reed Shepard, Tamin Lipsey, Tyler Kolek, and KJ Simpson. The tape, along with some encouraging stats, makes a good argument for Rob Dillingham, Kanaan Carlyle, and even a guy like Harvard’s Malik Mack. It’s certainly plausible to buy into Reece Beekman’s defense and feel buying him enough time to figure out the jumper.
We know that the 2024 NBA Draft has a talent issue relative to most classes. Similarly to the 2020 draft, which had a higher percentage of small guards drafted, I expect the 2024 prospects to be presented with more of an opportunity than more talent rich years. Only time will tell if those prospects can use their small opportunity to make a large impact.
Thanks for reading! For more NBA content, follow me on Twitter/X: @CoreyTulaba
See Cavaliers, Cleveland; 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Measurements taken from ESPN.com player profiles.
Depending on one’s definition of guard vs wing.
I had him in the top 10 on my personal board back in 2020.
His STL% of 6.2 is preposterous.
This typically screams athleticism concerns, but Simpson has eight dunks and is finishing over 60% at-the-rim in the half-court
Zach LaVine, Jaden McDaniels, Peyton Watson