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The Difficulty of Projecting Growth and Considering Context
Context is always important and so frequently overlooked.
Projecting the future performance of anything is extremely difficult. Whether it’s the stock market, the weather, or an athlete’s future, all we can work with is past performance, how that performance has fared for other parties, and the environment that produced that performance. The problem is that there is never a one-for-one comparison, which is why context is so important.
For a myriad of reasons, every draft class has prospects who fail to live up to the hype and those who vastly exceed expectations. There is never one person or thing to blame or credit either. The causes range from devastating injury to misinterpreted production to a deleterious environment. The reasons and pitfalls that result in “misses” are endless.
Something that has gotten significantly better over the years is statistical projection. With technological advancements and the availability of information, it’s never been easier to track, compare, and project numbers. Judging prospects’ production has turned into a science that can be more or less “solvable”. What is still largely an inexact art, though, is factoring in the human element, which is why factoring in a player’s developmental context is crucial.
Looking back on drafts of the past, there is a litany of players who fell further than they should have. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, but there were plenty of signs at the time that could’ve steered us in the right direction. Players like Jaden McDaniels, Bam Adebayo, and Jaden Hardy (even though he’s just a rookie) all seem to fit this bill.
In his lone year at Washington, McDaniels fell from once being the top high school recruit to being the 28th pick. There were flashes of defensive brilliance, but it was tough to gauge the legitimacy of it in that disastrous zone. His offense was inefficient, his maturity was questioned, and he racked up technical fouls by the game. Throughout his draft process, the context of how miserable he was in that Washington system was completely ignored. Now, he’s one of the league’s best defenders and an excellent tertiary offensive weapon.
At Kentucky, Adebayo fell victim to the same hurdles that plague so many Kentucky prospects as he was shoehorned into a very specific role and labeled as an “energy big” type. Adebayo wasn’t given the opportunity to showcase his ball skills as he has in Miami. There’s certainly been significant development in Adebayo’s game since then, but it’s not like these skills came out of nowhere.
With the G-League Ignite, Hardy was already being labeled as a bust before he even set foot on an NBA court. Hardy did struggle to score efficiently, was a limited playmaker, and struggled defensively. When we look at where he came from, though, should it really be that much of a surprise? In high school, Hardy was considered an elite prospect as he dominated a mediocre high school league. From there, Hardy jumped straight to playing against grown men who either had spent time in or were fighting to make the NBA. Of course, there was going to be a significant learning curve as Hardy was regularly challenged to do things that he was uncomfortable with. The Ignite is a developmental program, not a come-here-and-pump-up-your-stats program. Hardy struggled early, but as he adjusted to the best competition he’d ever faced, he continuously improved throughout the year. Funny how that didn’t seem to matter, though. He’s only a rookie who has far from a consistent role, but Hardy is quickly making a lot of teams look silly for letting him drop to the 37th pick.
This year is no different than any other in terms of some prospects going through serious struggles after being highly touted. Nick Smith Jr. and Dariq Whitehead entered the season looking like Top 5-10 picks, but they had their seasons derailed by injuries. They struggled to find a rhythm, get in full game shape, and really adjust to the speed of play. They also showed their desire to compete, their shooting potential, and their ability to battle through adversity. So how does their context skew your evaluation of their disappointing seasons?
Smith entered the season as the top point guard prospect in the country. There was excitement about his pick-and-roll operation and lengthy shooting success. Smith could play on and off-ball, while elevating the offense in either role. Due to multiple injuries that allowed him to play only 17 games with erratic performances. The preseason expectations with Smith’s shooting came to fruition as he ranked in the 70th percentile in spot-up scoring, 89th percentile on open catch-and-shoot jumpers, and 50th percentile on pull-up jumpers, per Synergy. Unfortunately, the rest of Smith’s game really struggled as he ranked in the 29th percentile in pick-and-roll scoring, 19th percentile in pick-and-roll including passes, 20th percentile in transition, and 33rd percentile in isolation. Smith frequently played like he snorted a Pixy Stix with his jittery, sped-up movement. The speed of the game never seemed to slow down for Smith, and why would it? With injuries that refused to allow him to find a rhythm and adjust to the new level of competition. Without the adequate reps, Smith understandably struggled. What Smith did show, though, is that he gave a damn. He cared. He wanted to compete and fight with his teammates. That’s a lot more than we can say for a lot of players who don’t experience any adversity.
Looking sped up wasn’t exclusive to Smith. Whitehead said shortly after coming back from injury that the game was really fast. After suffering a foot injury that delayed his debut and a calf injury we all feared was an Achilles, Whitehead looked behind both cerebrally and physically. He never got in full game shape as his usage fluctuated, and he struggled to contain lesser athletes on defense. As a junior at Montverde, Whitehead was a role player who played excellent defense, wasn’t a good shooter, and did the dirty work on offense. In his senior year, he elevated into a primary creator and isolation scorer who rarely defended except when he locked in. At Duke, we didn’t see either of those. Instead, 40.7% of Whitehead’s possessions came spotting up, where he ranked in the 85th percentile. In the last three years, we’ve seen Whitehead play three vastly different roles. Is he a chameleon who can execute whatever is required of him, or is he a salesman who shows you only flashes of what you want to see while hiding the cracks in the foundation?
Other players like Kel’el Ware and Dillon Mitchell were barely allowed to do anything other than the bare minimum when they played despite being considered exceptional high school recruits. Was their lack of responsibility a symptom of their limitations or was it due to the coach lacking the patience and trust to let them work through any potential struggles?
Both players entered with really exciting potential given their defense and athleticism. Unfortunately, that’s all they were allowed to show. Mitchell played solid defense but had to resort to rebounding and catching a back-door lob once a week on offense. Ware on the other hand was buried in the rotation with rations feeding him only one post-up and jumper off the catch a game. The numbers for both are alarming but the roles couldn’t have been less. Their situations denied the opportunity for Ware to turn his flashes of improved defense into long stretches, and the opportunity for Mitchell to develop his handle or jumper.
Then we have players like Jett Howard who outperformed most expectations early in the season before struggling in the latter half. For some, these struggles reaffirmed prior doubts, while others considered it a symptom of the numerous ankle injuries Howard was battling through.
Howard was widely viewed as a more raw freshman who would likely end up returning for his sophomore season. He quickly became one of the best shooters and most dynamic off-ball scorers in the country. The depths of his offensive arsenal were seemingly unlimited. The defense has been the opposite of good all season, but it did see improvement throughout despite the injuries. Once Howard rolled his ankle, his numbers didn’t only change, but his playstyle did too. Instead of running off of multiple screens, attacking downhill, and hitting movement threes, Howard spotted up more and was more direct with his movements. So, is Howard the scintillating offensive wing he was playing as in the first half of the season, or did his injury just coincidentally align with an inevitable freshman slump?
The problem when factoring in context is that there isn’t a right or wrong answer. It isn’t the end all be all, just another important piece to the puzzle. Some situations are easier to decipher than others, but there is still a lot of subjectivity.
Despite having access to these factors and allowing them to have any influence over an evaluation, we so frequently tend to revert to our preconceived notions in a desperate attempt to be right. This desire derails critical thinking and supplants months, if not years, of games because it is convenient. Just because these prospects faced adversity doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to have tremendous NBA careers. The play on the court is the output, and like any product, it is important to consider the inputs. Whether you’re just starting your plunge into the draft world or on the verge of finalizing your board, consider the context of each player’s production. Did they struggle because there are limitations to their game or because they never fully recovered from serious injuries? Were they dominant because aspects of their game made meaningful improvements, or because they are bigger and older than the competition? We’ll never get it exactly right, but whoever the player and whatever the situation, there is so much more that goes into projection than just the on-court production. All we can do is thoroughly consider each piece of the puzzle.