The Problem With Projecting Prospects as Primary Creators
The 2023 NBA Draft doesn't have many potential primary creators in it, and we need to stop projecting prospects in that mold.
Every draft class has a litany of players who get labeled with the qualifier of “well, if he can improve as an on-ball creator he could be (insert all-time great here).” So much of the draft process is trying to figure out what players can already do, what they can potentially do, and what the realistic outcome of them achieving that growth is. Other common qualifiers include: when he’s locked in on defense, if the shot ever comes around, and if his handle improves. Some of these are more realistic improvements than others, but they all get evaluators in trouble with either overrating or underestimating a prospect. While projection will always be important and an imperfect exercise, knowing what areas of a player’s game can be realistically projected to improve is essential. In the last handful of years, one approach that has been overly inflated is the idea of heliocentric creators.
For those unaware, a heliocentric creator is someone who the entire offense revolves around. Their usage is through the roof, the ball is always in their hand, and the rest of the team is essentially reacting to that player’s decisions. The concept on its own isn’t a recent phenomenon as we’ve had superstars for decades. One of the main problems with the proliferation of this team-building approach, though, is that it is extraordinarily rare to find players who can actually and consistently operate at that level. Then there’s also the fact that it rarely leads to winning championships.
There isn’t an exact science for determining who is a heliocentric creator compared to an offensive star; it’s just one of those things that you know it when you see it. For the case of this article, though, let’s use 35 as the cutoff for Usage Rate. Over the last 13 seasons (going back to the 2010-11 season), players have had a Usage Rate of at least 35 19 times. Of those 19 players, zero won the NBA Championship (Joel Embiid could be the first to do it this year), but four have won MVP. Prior to the 2010-11 season (going back only to the 1967-68 season), players had a usage over 35 just 14 times, winning zero championships and one MVP.
Due to the changing of styles, schemes, and rules, we’ll only focus on the players from the last 13 seasons who have reached this level. These players include Kobe Bryant (2x), Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook (2x), DeMarcus Cousins (2x), James Harden (3x), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2x), Luka Doncic (4x), and Joel Embiid (3x). This is an incredible batch of talent, many of whom have defined this last century of basketball. Basketball is incredibly difficult, and the label of primary creator can completely distort how a prospect is viewed compared to who they actually are. This exercise isn’t to litigate the merits of building a team in this mold, but instead to figure out if prospects can really grow into a primary/heliocentric creator or if they’ve had to execute that role from a young age.
For the sake of brevity, a few names are going to be nixed from the list above. First, we’re crossing off Kobe Bryant because there isn’t reliable high school information for him. Kobe is in a league of his own and possessed a special mindset that is rarely replicable. Second, Giannis Antetokounmpo is crossed off. Giannis is a physical marvel who grew up malnourished. Additionally, even though he qualifies, the offense the Bucks run doesn’t feel like a heliocentric model. Finally, Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins are coming off. Incredible players who unfortunately didn’t do as much winning as we’d hoped. Like Giannis, while these both were clearly the hubs of their offense, it didn’t feel like they possessed the same heliocentric mindset. That leaves us with Westbrook, Harden, Doncic, and Embiid.
Let’s start off with Doncic, who is the least surprising player to have grown into this archetype. Doncic was the MVP of one of the world’s best leagues as a teenager. While he certainly operated more off-ball then, he still had the ball most of the time, as 31.9% of his scoring possessions came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and 12.6% came in isolation, per Synergy. Doncic ranked in the 84th percentile in pick-and-roll scoring. When you include his pick-and-roll possessions where he passed, the total number of possessions more than doubled (688), and he ranked in the 93rd percentile. It was evident early on that Doncic had a special mastery of offense that few others, especially at his age, possessed.
The player Doncic frequently got compared to was James Harden, but they came into the league in very different roles. While at Arizona State, Harden had a usage rate of 28.3 as a freshman and 32.5 as a sophomore. As a sophomore, Harden spent 27.4% of his scoring possessions in isolation where he ranked in the 72nd percentile. When you include his passing, Harden’s isolation frequency ranked in the 91st percentile and his points per possession (PPP) ranked in the 79th percentile. Unlike Doncic, Harden didn’t operate as much in the pick-and-roll as only 14.6% of his possessions came in this realm. His scoring ranked in the 47th percentile, but this jumped to the 64th percentile when passes were included. While their NBA games have become eerily similar, Harden entered the league as more of an athletic creator. He still had an excellent ability to read the floor, but instead of manipulating defenses with his skill and guile, he used his scoring gravity and athleticism to create for himself and others.
While Doncic and Harden represent the NBA’s transition towards jumbo creators, Westbrook is more of a throwback to an untraditional traditional point guard. Of this group we’re looking at, Westbrook was easily the biggest wild card. His athleticism was daunting, but there were major questions. As a sophomore, Westbrook had a usage rate of 21.8, but 54.2% of his possessions came in transition or spotting up. Only 8.4% of his possessions came in isolation and 7.4% as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. Westbrook also didn’t show an uncanny knack for playmaking as he ranked in the 59th percentile in isolation possessions including passes (down from 60th for just scoring) and in the 43rd percentile in pick-and-roll possessions including passes (up from 31st for just scoring). Like so much of his career, Westbrook emerged as a primary/heliocentric creator through sheer force of will.
Finally, the only surprising factor about Embiid emerging into this role is that he was able to overcome the injury issues. Since 2008, Embiid was the only freshman to have a usage rate of at least 24, play at least 15 games, have a True Shooting Percentage of at least 65, and have an assist rate of at least 11. After him, only Markus Howard and Zion Williamson reached those same marks. Embiid also had more impressive rebounding rates, block rate, and a gaudy free throw rate of 83.6. Additionally, 49.3% of Embiid’s possessions came as post-ups where he ranked in the 79th percentile in scoring and the 86th percentile when you include his passes. He also ranked in the 99th percentile in at-rim PPP and the 81st percentile on jumpers (he only took 13 but it’s a fun number). Every indicator suggested that Embiid would grow into the offensive dynamo he’s become.
So, what does this all mean for the 2023 NBA Draft class?
The main point is that, while there will always be outliers, like a Russell Westbrook, chances are that if the prospect hasn’t already shown a high volume of diversified and effective offensive dominance, the odds are against them developing into that role down the line. Even if we look at the players who live in the 30-35 usage rate range, we see players like LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and many others. These players certainly all grew various aspects of their games, but they had experience in a similar role either in their pre-NBA year or early in their NBA career.
Thankfully, these lofty expectations don’t seem to litter the discourse of this year’s draft class as much as prior years, at least from what I’ve seen. However, it’s inevitable that a handful will emerge as a primary option. The easy answer is Victor Wembanyama, but he’s in a class of his own and those expectations accompany any first overall pick.
The next option is Scoot Henderson. Of the examples previously listed, Henderson’s possession profile skews a little more towards Doncic. Henderson ran the pick-and-roll in 43.7% of his possessions and ranked in the 44th percentile in scoring and the 60th percentile when including his passes. Other than that, Henderson only ran isolation 5.9% of the time and spent 37.7% of his possessions running in transition, spotting up, running handoffs, or cutting.
Amen Thompson is another option who feels like a 6’7” version of Westbrook. With Overtime Elite, 47.7% of his possessions came in transition or spotting up, 9.1% in isolation, and 21% as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. As the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Thompson’s scoring ranked in the 52nd percentile, but he ranked in only the 41st percentile when including his passes. Conversely, his isolation scoring ranked in the 71st percentile, which jumped to the 78th percentile when including his passes. With NBA spacing, it isn’t difficult to envision Thompson developing an obscene usage rate as he leverages his athleticism to score at the rim, collapse the defense, and create for others in a similar vein as we saw young Harden and Westbrook do.
There are certainly other prospects who could emerge as primary creators, like Keyonte George, Cam Whitmore, and others, but given their track record, it’s unlikely. Saying that isn’t a slight on them either. While this era of the NBA will be remembered for the proliferation of outside shooting, and to some extent the heliocentric model, it’s also the most versatile era in the history of the NBA. Players have never been asked to do more than they have right now as they all have to dribble, pass, shoot, and defend to at least a baseline level. Developing into a primary or heliocentric creator is an incredible feat that most players are not only incapable of achieving, but they are almost never given the opportunity to do so. Unless you’re looking at a first or second overall pick, it’s best to stop envisioning them in terms of if they can be a primary creator. Almost none of them can, and that’s perfectly fine.