The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, The Diff covered the historical finishes for MLB teams that started 26-18. This week, it’s NBA Draft talk time.
Since the Cavaliers won the lottery last week, Cleveland sports fans have been enamored by the idea of Nerlens Noel. Whether you love him or hate him, the 19-year-old University of Kentucky center already has been the subject of dozens of Cleveland-based analyses and reports. Is he the best prospect in this draft? Will he fit in the NBA? Will he actually make an impact in 2012-13? How good can he be? After perusing through the usual and not-so-usual stats, I’m here today to give you the statistical know-how about why Noel should be the Cavs’ no-doubt pick at No. 1.
Let’s start with a little chart. This shows the top 11 of my aggregate NBA big board, a chart I’ve updated here at WFNY several times previously. This top-11 separates itself pretty well from the rest of the group1. Especially, I want you to pay close attention to the ages listed below:
Note that Nerlens Noel is 10 months younger than any of these consensus top-11 prospects2. Then, after just Alex Len and Otto Porter, he’s 13-14 months younger than Ben McLemore and Anthony Bennett. But the point still remains: Since Noel previously re-classified to the high school class of 2012, from his initial standing of 2013, he’s a full year younger than his peers. Now why does this matter?
Let’s pass that along to Kevin Pelton. One of the lead innovators of the basketball statistics movement, Pelton wrote an ESPN Insider article following the discovery of Shabazz Muhammad’s actual age back in late March. Here’s the gist of his point about why age matters:
… history shows that age is key to understanding how college players end up developing in the NBA. In fact, age is one of just two factors that make up my rankings of college players. The other is their performance during the previous season, translated to its NBA equivalent based on the past performance of rookies and adjusted for strength of schedule.
The rookie translations generally do a good job of separating newcomers who are ready to contribute right away from those who are too raw to contribute. But in terms of projecting value beyond the first season, as measured by wins above replacement (WARP) in the players’ first five years in the NBA, age proves almost equally important. Based on regression, age makes up about 40 percent of the WARP projection for rookies, with translated performance accounting for the other 60 percent.
The Cavaliers heavily value proprietary advanced basketball stats, which are certain to be similar to Pelton’s WARP model. Noel projects very favorably not just because of his elite collegiate production — more on that in a moment — but also because he was doing so as an 18-year-old before being injured. That’s why his potential is clearly the highest of any of these players and he has by far the highest WARP projection, too.
There have been multiple articles, such as this one over at Hoopsworld, that claim that Nerlens Noel’s 27.3 PER and Otto Porter’s 27.3 PER last season in college are quite similar. Controversially and unconventially, I beg to differ.
Back on February 6 in The Diff, I wrote a very long-winded argument about how usage rates and field goal attempts per 36 minutes positively affect PER. In essence, it’s because PER is only a rate statistic in as far as it can throw; the more shooting attempts a player has, or the more involved he is in the offense, the higher that stat will go. Not exactly fair, and that’s why players such as Bruce Bowen (8.2 career PER) have been criminally underrated by the supposed catch-all metric3.
That’s what brings us to Noel again. During his 765 minutes with Kentucky, he posted a 17.4% usage rate4. That’s absurdly low for a top-end collegiate prospect. In fact, let’s take a look at the usage rates of these top-11 prospects here in 2013 and do a little trick: What have other collegiate players since 2009 within 0.1 of said player’s usage rate then posted in the PER category on average? Let’s look:
Note the fact that I’m using C.J. McCollum’s 2011-12 statistics and his other peculiarities5. Also, again, this only includes player-seasons with 750+ minutes.
Thus, now we can see how proportionally to his usage rate, Noel’s 27.3 PER is far more impressive. On average by multiplying PER per minute, folks with 17.2-17.4 usage rates averaged approximately a 14.6 PER. While looking at Porter’s grouping of players with 24.0-24.2 usage rates, the average PER was much higher at 18.5.
Now, of course, this includes cross-position players. And as Andrew has noted before, some guards have lower efficiency statistics than forwards, especially in the beginning of their development. Overall though, placing these players in the context of their usage helps to gain a larger understanding of the strength of their PER. They’re not all created equal.
For Nerlens Noel, that again means that his numbers are even more impressive than they’d show on the surface. His defensive numbers were outstanding, his shooting efficiency was still above average6 and he did an exceptional job per his overall usage opportunities.
Elite defensive ability
One of the beautiful things about the NBA: the huge number of other amazing websites out there are that talk intelligently about the league. One of those is the Detroit Pistons website Detroit Bad Boys. And in a roundtable before the lottery, one of their contributors wrote in a similar ilk as my thoughts about Nerlens Noel’s elite-beyond-elite defensive potential:
What would Nerlens Noel bring to the Pistons?
Shinons*: How would you like to have the most exciting team in the league? One that leads the league annually in blocks, steals, and rebounds? One that features a potentially historically good defense? Even better than the Bad Boys or Going to Work eras? That’s how highly I think of Noel.
This guy put up a combined 6.5 blocks and steals. He is the best defensive playmaking prospect I’m aware of. Davis last year had 6.1. Before these two, the next best that I can think of was Jarvis Varnado, who put up 5.4 his senior year. This number, 6.5, it’s unbelievable.
This fellow is correct: Nerlens Noel’s 6.5 combined steals and blocks per game last season was elite. As in, once-every-decade elite. As in, All-NBA Defensive Team elite. As in, along with new (old) head coach Mike Brown, could help the Cavaliers buck the trend of ranking 27th, 26th and 29th in defensive efficiency in the last three years, respectively.
In fact, according to Sports-Reference.com, Noel’s 6.5 block-and-steals per game mark was the third-best total dating back to 1999-2000. Among all of the many, many college basketball players since then, only Northeastern’s Shawn James (7.3) in 2005-06 and Alabama A&M’s Mickell Gladness (6.8) in 2006-07 surpassed Noel’s mark. Over this span, the UK center is also one of only 17 players to average at least 2 steals and 2 blocks per game — another very rare feat at any level.
Those statistics above show the historical rarity of a player with Noel’s elite athleticism, defensive awareness and shot-blocking ability. He’s more than just a one-trick pony. On a more efficiency basis, since Sports-Reference.com started tracking this kind of data in 2009, Noel became the first ever collegiate player to play 600 minutes in a season and post a 9.3%+ block percentage (his was 13.2%) and a 3.2%+ steal percentage (his was 3.9%).
In the vein of possible NBA comparisons, let’s take a look at some of the elite defensive big men prospects of the last several decades and what they produced in the steals and blocks categories per 36 minutes7:
Numbers that rival all but practically Olajuwan and Robinson at the college level8? A profile that mirrors a bigger, more block-prone Outlaw? Nearly equal on blocks and far better on steals than last year’s consensus No. 1 pick Davis? Clearly, the majority opinion is that Noel is a good defensive player. These numbers, and the ones above as well, show that he was an elite defensive star at Kentucky with the chance to be one of the best in the NBA.
Thus far, I’ve shared how the stats back up the narrative that Nerlens Noel has the most potential, had the most impressive usage-based PER and has by far the most elite defensive star power of the top-11 prospects in this draft class. Notably, however, I haven’t touched on two of the main criticisms of Noel: his offense and his recovery from his ACL injury.
Back in March 2012, Kevin Pelton wrote about the historical recoveries of basketball players that suffered ACL tears. It was written just as players such as Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert went down with the freak injury. Shumpert is back on the court, while Rose is not. But overall, Pelton’s conclusion was that younger NBA players have a much more likely chance of returning to full strength. This doesn’t even include cross-sport examples such as Adrian Peterson. In my mind, ACL tears are so common yet such freak occurrences, that usually won’t be a problem long-term once the initial rehab process is over.
On offense, Noel simply isn’t that skilled right now. For UK, he was 98-166 (59.0%) from the field and 55-104 (52.9%) from the free-throw line. He got better at picking his (limited) spots offensively as the year went on, shooting 66-102 (64.7%) in his final 17 games.
Noel’s offensive game right now consists of dunks, fastbreak opportunities and putbacks. He doesn’t really have much of a post game nor any other kind of go-to move. He is a bit better than your average near-7-footer at putting the ball on the court and making plays (per DraftExpress), but he turns the ball over quite a bit as well.
Over time, similar to the progression of Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson, however, I believe Noel’s offensive game can become much more than it is now. Those two Cavs are great examples. Here are shot charts for both players and how they developed over time:
Varejao’s time period of offensive evolution was longer than Thompson’s, but the point still remains: Big men can get much better offensively over time. Both of these players, especially Thompson, were ridiculed as they entered the league for their lack of offensive ability. Noel is very much the same9. If he can develop offensively at all in the same progression as these two Cavaliers over the next few years, he’ll be an All-Star soon. His defense is already worthy, but if he develops an offensive game, watch out.
In the end, I’ve long thought that Nerlens Noel is the deserving, no-brainer, don’t-think-twice-about-this No. 1 choice throughout the college basketball season. These numbers above back it up in a variety of ways, showing his elite potential and room for continued improvement. In my mind, he’s not the next coming of Greg Oden just because of one freak injury. He’s more likely to be a transcendent defensive talent, with room to grow offensively, but the ability to mix in seamlessly with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to grow an exciting brand of Cleveland basketball once again.
It’s fun to look back and compare these rankings over the past few months. Of course, former top prospects such as Marcus Smart returned to school, hence forcing others to move up. But Shabazz Muhammad has dropped considerably since the end of his tournament days, while Trey Burke (duh) and C.J. McCollum (next Damian Lillard) keep rising. My January primer also is a fun treat too. [↩]
Another Noel pet peeve: He’s been the consensus No. 1 player on this aggregate big board list through and through. At a couple different points, he was tied with Ben McLemore. But overall, the majority of rankings have had him No. 1 on their big board lists since the beginning of the season. That’s called a consensus, folks. [↩]
Recall: PER is build around the idea that 15 is league average. So no, Bowen wasn’t significantly below league average. He just never had the usage rates of traditional league-average performers. Many NBA stats struggle with enumerating defensive talent; this is just one of many. [↩]
Per Sports-Reference.com: Usage percentage is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. Hence, in a sense, 20% could be considered average at any one moment in time. [↩]
Due to an injury, the Lehigh star only played 372 minutes this past season. Even still, because of his absurdly high usage rate last season too, I was forced to look at all players with usage rates between 33.1-34.1. His usage was even higher in his limited minutes this past year: 37.2. Again, insanely high. [↩]
Partly because Noel didn’t get many opportunities outside of slam-dunks and fastbreaks, but also kudos to him for knowing his weaknesses and not forcing the issue. [↩]
Obviously, I cherry-picked the list below and the years form which I picked. I tried to use the last two seasons for these players, if at all possible. Clearly, Noel’s sample size is the smallest, which is a major issue. But it’s all we have to go by for his comparable collegiate record. [↩]
For additional reference, here are some other current NBA defensive stars and their collegiate (S+B)/36 — Tim Duncan’s four years: 4.4; Roy Hibbert’s last two years: 3.9; Joakim Noah’s last two years: 4.6; Larry Sanders’ last year: 4.4. This obviously doesn’t include the international or high-school-to-the-pros defensive stars such as Kevin Garnett, Andrew Bynum, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler. Nothing much I can do there. [↩]
College-level shot charts don’t exist en masse, so I can’t easily share what Noel’s numbers were like in college. I have made the offensive comparison to Thompson before though — one, two and three times, actually. Thompson had some pet moves and over-tried on them when they weren’t very good. Again, at least Noel knows his weakness and doesn’t force the issue with his shot too much. [↩]
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.