Production vs Potential
So much of the NBA draft is betting on the unknown. It's an inexact science that is ruled by what a player could become. Eventually, though, that potential must manifest into production.
So much of the NBA draft is a gamble on potential. Teams and evaluators have to walk a fine line between the importance of current, ready-made production and potential. Too often, we get obsessed with what could be and overlook what already is. We’re all guilty of constructing what these prospects could turn into while also ignoring the feasibility of them maximizing their potential. With no surefire elite prospect in the 2024 NBA Draft, battling preconceived opinions and “the idea” of what a prospect could potentially, maybe if you squint hard enough, one day turn into is crucial.
For quite a while now, there has been a stigma on older players as not being good enough or worthy of an early pick. In fairness, the odds are greater that an 18-year-old will still continue to improve significantly more than a 22-year-old. For bad teams who are taking the long view, that gamble is worth it at the very top of the draft. However, the whole point of the draft is to improve your team and bring in good basketball players. So, even though upperclassmen are further along on their developmental curve, they’re still years away from their prime.
Year over year, we continue to see older prospects make immediate impacts that force people to question why they went as late in the draft as they did. On the flip side, there are constantly freshmen who declare because of bad advice and that it was the expectation for them to do so coming out of high school. This year’s draft has a lot of freshmen who could be terrific players down the road if you squint hard enough. However, they could just as easily never see a minute of playing time. Instead of trying to swing for the fences in this draft, simply hitting a single or a double could produce exceptional returns. This draft, like many others, has a lot of older prospects who need to be recognized for their current production and a few prospects who we may need to abandon “the idea” of (at least for this year).
The tricky thing with production is that it’s not all the same. A player can put up awesome numbers on a consistent basis, and none of that production may translate into an NBA player. However, it’s generally a safe bet that if a player has consistently produced at a high level for multiple years at a good program, and especially if they transfer up in competition and the numbers maintain, that they’ll at worst find their way into an NBA rotation. Over the last few years, we’ve seen plenty of players like Jaime Jaquez, Jalen Williams, Christian Braun, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Jalen Brunson, and many more go later than they would in a redraft. Here are a few upperclassmen who could very easily outperform their draft stock if they fall in the draft.
Getting overly excited about a fifth-year senior may be a stretch for some people, which I can understand. I can’t relate, but I get the argument. Kevin McCullar has been one of the best defenders in college basketball since he stepped foot on campus at Texas Tech. The main hangup from his three seasons there and now his two at Kansas was the lack of a jumper. Well, it looks like Happy learned how to putt.
This season, McCullar is shooting 40.8% from three on 4.1 attempts. McCullar is also scoring 1.4 points per possession (PPP) (96th percentile) spotting up, 1.07 points per shot (PPS) (73rd percentile) on all jumpers, 1.33 PPS (87th percentile) shooting off the catch, and is shooting 44.2% from three off the catch. It took a while, but McCullar has seemingly figured out his shot.
What makes McCullar even more enticing is that every other aspect of his game has been NBA-ready for a while. McCullar has consistently been one of the best team defenders in the country. His rotations are ideal, his awareness is high, and his hands are superb. Additionally, McCullar is also an excellent cutter (84th percentile), rebounder (7.0 rebounds per game over the last two seasons), and connective passer (assist rate of 24%). McCullar has all the makings of a toolsy wing who can fill a myriad of needs in any rotation.
Zach Edey is an anomaly in every sense of the word. Edey has long had skeptics about whether his game can translate to the NBA, me included. We’ve seen gigantic humans like him struggle to find their footing in the league before, but comparing them to Edey does a disservice to what Edey’s Purdue career has been. None of those past players moved as well as Edey does, had the scoring touch he does, or produce like he does. I won’t go into a ton of detail since Maxwell Baumbach recently did a fantastic write up on him that you can find here, but not including him here felt wrong.
By the game, I continue to be convinced that Edey will at the minimum provide a team with quality minutes as a backup center. Whatever statistical query you run, there’s a really good chance that Edey is going to pop up. Edey’s way more than just a lumbering giant and deserves to be mentioned as a first-round talent more than he is.
Tristan da Silva
Tristan da Silva has been a sleeper darling of Draft Twitter for a few years now. He’s always been relatively efficient, consistent, and versatile. His numbers have also steadily improved year over year, but they haven’t exploded like some had hoped for.
As we can see, da Silva’s numbers have been solid if not impressive. This season, the 6’9” forward is averaging 15.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.6 stocks with 53.6/38.8/83.7 shooting splits for Colorado. Da Silva is also scoring 1.114 PPP (76th percentile) spotting up, 1.455 PPP (99th percentile) posting up, 1.15 PPS (83rd percentile) on jumpers, and 1.47 PPS (91st percentile) at the rim. Da Silva likely won’t be a franchise-altering player, but all of his indicators point to consistently efficient production.
The numbers on their own don’t mean much, so why not run a good old-fashioned Barttorvik query? When we filter Barttorvik’s database to look at some of the areas where da Silva has combined efficiency with production, we get a rather encouraging list of results. While there are a few players here who didn’t amount to much in the NBA, there are far more who carved out at least a rotation spot, if not significantly more. When we look at some of the forwards in the 2024 NBA Draft, it shouldn’t be shocking if Tristan da Silva ends up outperforming a lot of them.
“The Idea” is a dangerous but necessary aspect of the draft. It’s impossible to not form opinions and expectations of these guys coming out of high school. Where we get in trouble, though, is when we refuse to acknowledge that “the idea” of a potential one-and-done prospect is no longer viable. This section is in no way meant to write off these players as NBA players as things may click for them later this season or next year. However, it is time that we at least adjust our expectations for these players.
As someone who had Justin Edwards first overall entering the season, this really hurts me. Things just haven’t clicked for Edwards this year as he’s struggled to make his mark on this Kentucky team. Currently, the 6’8” freshman is averaging 9.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 0.9 assists with shooting splits of 46.7/25.8/71.4. The numbers alone aren’t great, but they get even more concerning when put in historical context.
When we look at players who have been drafted in the first round since 2008, there hasn’t been a single freshman who had a usage rate under 20 and an assist rate under 8 who shot less than 30% from three and had a free throw rate under 25. Currently, Edwards falls into all of those categories.
Even though this season has been a struggle for Edwards, it doesn’t mean that he can’t recover from this. One of the biggest disappointments of Edwards’s season has been the outside shooting. Coming into the season, the outside shot was supposed to be one of Edwards’ strengths, so let’s be optimistic and imagine he goes on a hot streak to end the season and gets over 30% on the year. If we use the same query, we just ran above but change the outside shooting percentage to over 30%, we get a list of freshmen that includes Franz Wagner, Josh Primo, TJ Warren, Corey Kispert, AJ Griffin, Christian Braun, and Omari Spellman. Of those wings, Griffin was the only one-and-done.
Maybe Edwards doesn’t find a hot streak, and the outside shooting remains as is. Let’s then instead use that same original query but remove the free throw rate requirement entirely. This result gives us a list of 11 names. When we remove the centers and the guards, we’re left with the freshman seasons of Keegan Murray, Mikal Bridges, Dylan Windler, and Kobe Brown.
For Justin Edwards to regain his standing as one of the top freshmen in this class, he’s going to have to have a major turnaround in most aspects of his game. However, just because this year has been a struggle doesn’t mean that Edwards can’t eventually reach the level many were hoping to see. Some of the names in my manipulated/hypothetical queriers have gone on to be incredible NBA players. I’m not saying that Edwards will magically turn into one of them. This just may not be his year, which is more than OK.
Aday Mara entered this season as one of the most intriguing prospects for some people given his unique passing capabilities and shot-blocking prowess. Unfortunately, Mara hasn’t even sniffed the expectations that many set for him. The 7’3” freshman center is averaging 4.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.9 blocks with shooting splits of 50/0/50 for UCLA.
Despite some of the fascinating international recruits that UCLA brought in this year, this team has been a mess. While Mara has played his part in that disappointment, he isn’t alone as the roster from top to bottom has struggled. Coming into the season, though, Mara had the highest expectations given his success with Spain’s various international competitions.
Even though expectations were high, there were also plenty of question marks, almost all of which have come to fruition. Mara is a massive human being, but his strength doesn’t come close to mirroring his size. He’s consistently moved off his spot in the post and struggles to rebound. Mara has an offensive and defensive rebounding rate of 5.1 and 15.7 respectively. These numbers are middle-of-the-road for all players but rather disappointing for a 7’3” 240-pound center. Additionally, there was some optimism that Mara would be able to stretch the floor some and be able to hide more on defense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t taken a single three and consistently gets pulled into space on defense.
This entire UCLA situation continues to spiral by the game. It is a clunkily constructed roster, and the absence of leadership is evident; shout out Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell. Based solely on his UCLA sample, Mara has done very little to warrant 2024 draft consideration. The optimistic view, though, is that this situation is so detrimental and the player we’ve seen for Spain is still in there. For Spain, Mara was one of the primary playmakers who could consistently initiate the offense. His size allowed him to see every inch of the floor, and he consistently showed tremendous creativity with his playmaking while also knocking down the occasional faceup jumper. That player is still in there somewhere, but we haven’t seen any of him this season.
There are few players who present a more appealing “idea” than Garwey Dual. The 6’5” Providence freshman is one of the elite defenders in the country. He has tremendous hands, great instincts, positional size, and quick feet. He’s also an extremely creative on-ball creator with great change-of-pace dribbling, impressive passing vision, and promising patience. If Dual maintains his current production, he’d be just the third freshman to have a block rate of at least 4.0, a steal rate of at least 2.5, and an assist rate of at least 20, the others being Michael Weathers from Miami Ohio (2017) and Xander McNally from Denver (2008).
Sounds incredible, right? Unfortunately, there’s a rather big aspect of basketball that’s called scoring, and Dual has struggled, to put it lightly. Currently, Dual has a usage rate of 16, an effective field goal rate of 33.6, a true shooting percentage of 36.4, a two-point percentage of 27.3, and a three-point percentage of 28. Scoring and shooting were the big question marks with Dual coming into the season, and he hasn’t done much to assuage those concerns.
Even with the offensive struggles, Dual’s size, athleticism, and defense still have some buying in on him as a first-round talent. As much as I love Dual’s game and hope he turns it around this season, the first-round hope now feels like a fantasy. The NBA consistently tells us what they value, and it isn’t lead guards who can’t score. Since 2008, there have only been 11 players who have been drafted in the first round and had an effective field goal rate under 45 as a freshman. Of those 11, only two of them were one-and-done prospects: Marquis Teague and Ziaire Williams.
The problem with abandoning “the idea” of Dual is that his playmaking and defense are so good that they’ve transcended the projection stage and have become the reality of who he is as a player. Both of those aspects are solidified NBA skills at this point and mirror some of the benchmarks that tremendous NBA defensive wings posted in their freshman seasons. Unfortunately, all of their offensive numbers were leagues ahead of Dual’s. If Dual can find some scoring competence in the latter half of the season and simply get near average rankings, his first-round potential may still be alive. If not, though, then he quickly becomes one of the more enticing sophomore returners for next season.
At this point in the season, we have a healthy sample size to indicate who is and who isn’t ready for the NBA. Things can always change in the second half of the season, but it may be time to rip the Band-Aid off and abandon some of your preconceived opinions. We need to get over the idea that a top high school recruit has to be a one-and-done prospect. Returning for another year or two is more than OK. It allows the player to improve on their weaknesses and build confidence. Potential is great, but at some point, it needs to morph into production.