Some readers have questioned why Harrison Barnes and Dion Waiters aren't higher in my rankings. So let me take this time to explain how I evaluate the rookie class and talent overall.
In the past, we would look at raw numbers and proclaim with some confidence that a particular player was playing effectively. If the player was putting up double-digit points and his team was not successful, then the blame was cast on his lower-scoring teammates, bad defense, poor rebounding, turnovers, etc.
But thanks to John Hollinger, Dean Oliver, Roland Beech and the huge assortment of advanced metrics they and others have made available online, we now have little excuse when it comes to evaluating a player's contributions on the court. For instance, we shouldn't rush to call Waiters and Barnes successes simply because they are high-scoring dynamic players.
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Are these two rookies talented? Do they have a lot of upside? Are they capable of playing great for a game here and there? Yes, absolutely. But, while it's understandable to get excited about those things, it's not accurate to think that a few good games surrounded by a lot of poor ones is superior to playing more efficiently and consistently in fewer minutes. Just because a player scores more points does not mean he is playing well.
I've used Adam Morrison as an example before, but his story bears repeating. He exploded out of the blocks as a rookie, averaging over 15 points per game in November on 37.5 percent shooting from 3. This sounds promising, considering how well he had played in college -- he was no project. He then earned a spot in the Rookie Challenge at the All-Star break and started almost a third of his 77 games played, finishing the season with an impressive 11 points per game average while shooting better than 33 percent from 3.
But look closer and you'll find his advanced stats were scary bad, as was his overall field goal percentage (37.6 percent). So while fans were excited and the general consensus was that he was doing exactly what was expected of him, deeper analysis showed red flags everywhere. The truth was he was awful as a rookie, despite his solid raw stats. Then he got hurt, before basically losing his confidence that he could help an NBA team win games. And now he is out of the league and considered one of the biggest draft busts in NBA history.
Make no mistake, Barnes and Waiters are playing far better than how Morrison did in his rookie season, but their seasons thus far are similar. They have elite physical skills, so their margin for error is much greater than Morrison's was, but if they don't learn how to play with their minds, they won't be important pieces of solid winning teams.
Waiters' problems start with -- you guessed it -- shot selection. A true shooting percentage south of 47, which ranks very low on any scale you measure it with, drives down his player efficiency rating to 12.59. Too many step-back jumpers, too many contested long 2s with 10 seconds on the shot clock, and too many over-penetrations into the teeth of the defense, which forces difficult shots -- a big reason why he's making just over 40 percent of his shots at the rim. I worry about the latter problem the least, because players like Waiters often figure out how to finish once they become better at reading defenses. But the shot selection stuff can linger for years; that's a problem Waiters must address now.
Barnes has an issue with assertiveness, though in his defense, playing alongside quick triggers like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson does not give him ample opportunities to shine. His team is not strong at moving the ball. The Warriors like to isolate players (Barnes included sometimes) more than a lot of teams, which does not give Barnes the green light to attack his defender unless he's the one in isolation. Still, the bottom line for Barnes is that he looks special at times during games, yet ranks nowhere near the top 10 rookies in PER (11.33) and other metrics.
In many respects, analyzing a player requires the understanding of a basic principle -- if one player shoots, then no other player can shoot on that possession. So every time a player takes a poor shot, his team is less likely to score than when any player takes a good shot (no player makes a respectable percentage of bad shots). A good shot is defined as one that a player has a good chance of making within the constraints of time, score and rebounding/defensive balance.
It sounds simple, but if the goal is to help your team win -- and yes, that is the ultimate goal evaluators have to keep in mind -- then players who take bad shots often can be considered less valuable than other players who may be producing less in terms of raw numbers. Because the numbers those other players are producing are more conducive to winning plays.
When analyzing a player, we also have to use care when using plus-minus, especially this early in the season (the same could be said about adjusted plus-minus, too). One player might have a far more impressive plus-minus than another, but only because one replacement player is much worse than the other.
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So a trick evaluators use is to imagine how players would do if they were to simply switch teams. How would Hornets rookie Brian Roberts do in Cleveland? Would he help the Cavs win more? And would Waiters do more in New Orleans than Roberts? This is not based on projections, but strictly a subjective look at how each one is playing at this time.
No one would argue that Roberts will be better than Waiters once the latter matures -- which is likely but not assured. But right now, it's hard to argue that the already mature and crafty Roberts would not help Cleveland more today, while the Hornets would suffer with Waiters.(Thinking about Waiters and Austin Rivers playing together is a painful exercise.)
Highlights and exciting players are also obstacles for fans. Remember when everyone just knew that Kobe Bryant was the king of clutch? A deeper study of the data proved otherwise, for both him and the Lakers.
Similarly, a player who can grab 10 rebounds, all below the rim, in 30 minutes a game is still more valuable than the guy who flies all over the place for his seven rebounds in 36 minutes. It may not look as pretty, but the first player is obviously having a greater impact.
Waiters does indeed have some Dwyane Wade in him and a little Eric Gordon, too. And that screams DYNAMIC! Meanwhile, Barnes looks like the elite prep player he was -- he's longer, taller, smoother and more skilled and athletic than most small forwards we'll ever see. Those aspects of their games will sell tickets, sure, but they only matter to talent evaluators when they are used to administer efficient and productive punishments on their opponents.
Jarvis Hayes, a former lottery pick in 2003, was a big and strong wing player from an athletic college conference who stormed out of the gates for the Wizards as a rookie. He averaged better than 11 ppg his first two months and earned a spot next to the likes of LeBron, Melo, Bosh and Wade in the rookie-soph game. But Hayes was never even an average NBA player during his career because of poor shooting percentages and a lack of understanding of how to best utilize his strengths.
There is a stark difference between perception and reality, which objective stats show us more clearly. I believe that guys like Waiters and Barnes are fully capable of becoming long-term starters, and possibly stars -- something I have always projected for Barnes -- but it is not yet written in stone.
Until then, they will be highly marketed rookies, for sure, but only average in terms of production. Meanwhile, there will be other rookies (and veterans) helping their teams play better, only with less attention.
This week's rookie observations
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bobcats -- Dec. 6: There is a lot to love about MKG's consistent efforts every night. But there is one glaring consistency that he needs to improve over time to begin to reach his vast potential: his inability to get to the free throw line. Since Thanksgiving, he has played more than 175 minutes and has shot just four free throws.
More shot fakes, better attacking angles and simply just valuing the act of getting fouled will help him a great deal. This is not something to worry about, as rookies have such a steep learning curve, but it is something to keep an eye on.
Jared Sullinger, Celtics -- Dec. 6: The Celtics are not playing as well as they hoped to be, but as a veteran group, there is little sense of panic. For a youngster like Sullinger, it is important to develop some trust from his coach, a place where he can be counted on to produce most nights. Sullinger has quietly done that by dominating the defensive boards during his minutes.
If he can maintain this level on just this one part of the game, he will ensure more minutes for himself because Boston takes great pride in cleaning up missed shots. And more minutes will give him the chance to develop other parts of his game.
Tony Wroten, Grizzlies -- Dec. 6: The Grizzlies are possibly the top story in the West, maybe the whole league. But down the road, they could need a third point guard. Enter Wroten, who was recently sent to the D-League. Playing time is what he needs most right now if he's going to fill in when necessary for the contenders in Tennessee.
Andre Drummond, Pistons -- Dec. 5: I can hear the criticism now. All he does is dunk! But it is never an opposing coach who utters that silly phrase, because they know a dunk is the highest percentage shot in basketball. Sure, Drummond has a few nifty moves in his still-in-training-wheels offensive game, as he showed against Golden State with a nice spin to the rim and 1. But his dunks are what make his coaches smile and his opponents sweat, because he is getting them the right way by hanging around the paint with his hands up, ready to catch and explode.
So many young athletes enter the NBA and don't play that way, instead choosing to show off their perimeter skills or finesse game in the paint. For example, DeMarcus Cousins took four shots per game inside (making 64 percent) and three per game from 16 to 23 feet (making 37 percent) as a rookie. Drummond, on the hand, takes almost four shots a game inside and less than a half a shot per game from the perimeter. With his size and agility, he won't need a perimeter game for years.
Will Barton, Trail Blazers -- Dec. 3: It hasn't been a good beginning for Barton, in part because few rooks are prepared for spot duty. But on Monday, Barton made 3 of 5 shots, nailing a corner 3 and racing the floor for two easy buckets. This is significant because it meant he had played solidly, scoring wise, in two consecutive games for the first time this season. (He scored seven points on 3-for-5 shooting on Saturday.)
His quickness and length are intriguing, but a few rookies have gone to Portland and disappeared the past few seasons, so Barton has his work cut out for him. The good news is that he made his first 3 in the first quarter of Monday's contest as his team was getting drilled, and it helped spark them back into the game. Coaches remember that kind of stuff.
Bradley Beal, Wizards -- Dec. 3: Unlike many rookies, Beal is not having a big problem with shot selection; he is just missing shot after shot. Remember, he did not shoot well for most of the college season, surprising everyone who had pegged him as the next Ray Allen. But he found his shot as the Gators ran to the Elite Eight, and Wizards fans hope that he can pull off something similar this season. Hopefully before March, of course.
I'm glad the guy who wrote this recognises the fact that Barnes isn't getting many opportunities in GS. I don't know how many possessions I see Klay Thompson and Curry jack up jumpers while Barnes patiently moves the ball and waits for his moments. The same problem that plagued him at North Carolina is plaguing him now; assertiveness. He's the ultimate team player who values winning more than his stats, and for that reason he has a tendency to overthink and play safe. When you consider Barnes is a rookie on a team loaded with scorers and veterans (and the team is winning lots of games); is there any wonder Barnes isn't asserting himself more, when there isn't much need at this point? Also, Barnes has to deal with the inconsistent rotations of Mark Jackson and the iso-heavy offense they run.
Also, the reason MKG isn't getting to the line is because he's not creating his own shot, he's usually cleaning up other people's misses or being in the right place at the right time. He's still a very limited offensive player for a small forward, despite the fact that he's producing.