Every year the global basketball community rejoices over new additions to both the NBA and NCAA, as – let’s be honest – we all like to see new players offer new creative inputs to the game of basketball.
A subplot, especially for NBA rookies, is whether or not evaluations of certain players hold true, or if we need to throw everything we thought we knew in the bin.
As such, I wanted to take a moment to offer my own personal experiences in which I both failed and succeeded in terms of prospect evaluation. What I’ve learned from my mistakes, what new concepts I’m bringing with me, and how being wrong can create wildly teachable moments.
Let’s start with Tyrese Maxey of the Philadelphia 76ers, who I was incredibly wrong about. Oh boy, this one still stings. Because looking back I ignored an aspect so tremendously crucial to NBA success, that I’m frankly disappointed in myself.
The motor. The engine. The fire. Whatever you want to call it, Maxey has it.
His energy level and pure determination to simply make things happen on both ends is one of his absolute biggest advantages as a basketball player and I stubbornly focused on his unpolished shooting as a reason why I wasn’t a believer. I recognized the motor, I even valued the motor, but not at all to the extent that I should have.
Shooting is, of course, extremely important in today’s game. But I realized with Maxey that I put too much emphasis on it in my evaluation of him, and it made me blind to the fact that he was always going to be productive, even if he didn’t turn into Steph Curry.
Sidebar: Three years into his NBA career, Maxey sits at 40.1% from range on 514 attempts. Those mechanics just needed a little bit of help and off he went.
Being wrong on Maxey made me significantly more forgiving about shooting. As long as a player has a solid foundation to build off of in regards to shooting, then I’m not overly concerned about results. Naturally, if a player’s numbers date back years with poor results, especially on high volume, it needs to be taken into account as an area of improvement.
As for the motor, it now ranks higher on my scale of importance. It’s in fact why I had the always energetic Tari Eason second on my big board before the 2022 draft. We’ll see if I end up looking like a fool for having him so high. If I do, I’ll at least get some teachable moments out of it.
My biggest success was Donovan Mitchell, who I had third on my Big Board in 2017.
Yes, I have proof. And yes, that haircut will never happen again.
So what did I like about Mitchell who seemed like a guy most liked well enough, but who never caught high lottery traction?
Simply put, whenever I watched him play, I was convinced the college game was a major obstacle to his game. He had less spacing to operate with than he would have in the NBA, and teams would often pack the paint against him as a direct result of Louisville being a poor three-point shooting team.
Mitchell’s raw athleticism could only do so much against defenses geared to stop him near the rim. And yet, more often than not, he’d still somehow find a way to get in there and challenge everyone. He was a man among boys, he just needed an NBA setting with professionals alongside him to excel.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Mitchell’s developed physique played a large role in where I landed on him. Having shoulders that broad, a core that strong, and elite athleticism? Even if he didn’t have much shot-making ability, you’d buy him as a future 10-year veteran who could impose his will on both ends.
Which brings me to this evaluation point that I took away from watching Mitchell: Players who understand their own physical advantages, and who aren’t afraid to use it, can never be a bad thing. That means they’re self-aware of who they are as players, and they’ve identified areas where they can be successful. They’re not going to come into the NBA passive and lacking in assertiveness.
Take Patrick Williams in Chicago, for example. While he’s played better in recent weeks, we’re in Year 3 of his NBA career, and he’s still miles from realizing that his strong 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame can literally turn him into an All-Star. It’s simply a matter of putting it to use, and asserting that it will. Remember, Mitchell is 6-foot-1 on a good day, and we’ve seen for years how even seven-footers are bouncing off of him.
My biggest miss is one that I share with the Sacramento Kings.
Thomas Robinson, then from Kansas. Selected fifth overall in 2012.
At the time, I thought he was deserving of being picked immediately after Anthony Davis, so let’s get into the many areas where I was wrong.
It starts with making assumptions.
Robinson was statically productive at Kansas, putting up 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. But he was never all that versatile. His mid-range jumper was mediocre at best, and that was from a college perspective. But since he did have some instances of hitting it, I assumed that the shot would come around, while largely ignoring that NBA defenses would be taller, quicker, and outright better at challenging them.
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In 313 NBA games, Robinson struggled mightily with any type of perimeter scenario. 12% of his offense was made up by long two’s between 16 feet and the 3-point line, which he hit at just 30.7% over his career.
It didn’t get much better even if he moved closer, as he hit 22.9% of his attempts between 10 and 16 feet, and just 31.4% between three and 10 feet.
The only area Robinson was even moderately efficient was around the rim, where he hit 60.1%, which in and of itself isn’t a high mark for an athletic 6-foot-10 power forward.
(The missed Robinson evaluation was one of the reasons I began putting extra emphasis on shooting, which later affected my view of Maxey. Moderation, as it turns out, is key.)
But more than the shooting, I assumed he’d get similar shots, and a similar role. I didn’t take into account that he would need to adapt to the players around him, instead of vice versa.
That brings us to passing, or lack thereof.
At Kansas, Robinson had 173 turnovers to 101 assists, and very rarely did he look comfortable moving the ball, especially long distances. I reasoned that it was fine, as he was simply going to be a play finisher, instead of a play initiator.
Well, poor passing goes hand-in-hand with my former problem of ignoring that he needed to adapt to his teammates.
If you’re trying to become an asset for your teammates, and the offense isn’t centered around you, there is a heavy need for the ability to pass the ball. Robinson couldn’t. 319 career turnovers to 190 assists.
The worst part of the above evaluation? We haven’t even talked about the defense yet. That was just a precursor.
Robinson was, and remains, an elite rebounder. That’s something he’s always been, and that’s an area where he commands some respect. But that came at a price.
Defensively, Robinson was confused and would routinely misread situations. He’d take his eyes off his opponent who’d cut backdoor, and he’d drop too far back when guarding the screen and roll actions. The times he wouldn’t, he’d get burned off the dribble.
He gets occasional blocks just off sheer size and athleticism, but both his positional and team defense were lacking in both understanding and execution.
Instead, Kansas center Jeff Withey covered up his mess. Withey was an elite shot-blocker, who’d rotate over to challenge shots by players who had gotten past Robinson on the initial action, and business was good. 3.6 blocks in just 24.8 minutes.
Robinson is the player whose missed evaluation taught me the most.
1. If teammates have to cover for you in any way, that means you have significant work to do in a certain area. If teammates have to cover for you in several ways, it might be time to question just how NBA ready you are.
2. Production should always come second to observation. If you average 18/12, but you routinely play a poor floor game riddled with mistakes and sacrifices on behalf of your teammates, the 18/12 does not matter.
3. The situation around you matters. If your head coach has tailored the system around you, as to minimize your mistakes and weaknesses, that’s a red flag. You need to be able to produce in several areas, even if you’re playing in a system that doesn’t fit you perfectly.
4. Willingness to try new things is a skill. If you insist upon playing a style that only benefits you, and you refrain from trying to expand your game for the benefit of the team around you, there will be a set ceiling on how far you go. Adaptability is key in basketball, and the players who are willing to test out something new will always have an advantage.
5. On-ball creation ability is still king, and the most crucial skill in basketball. If you’re reliant upon others to be productive, that means you need to be excellent in some other areas to justify your presence on the court. If you can’t create your own look, and you compound that with being a poor defender, and a poor playmaker, you’re borderline unplayable.
These, as stated in the opening, are of course my own personal observations. Evaluating prospects goes far deeper than what a single post can justify. And, as always, it’s a process.
Evaluations change according to how the game is changing. As the game turns increasingly more position-less, noting how players can switch roles is now one of the most important aspects. In 10 years, it’ll be something else.
It’s how we adjust to these changing needs, and the lessons we take away from them, that’s most crucial. In short: Get ready to be wrong a lot. We all are.