ESPN.com Insider Kevin Pelton joined us to continue our Prospect Breakdown series, taking a closer look at several of the prospective draft picks that worked out for the Lakers last week:
Mike Trudell: How much time are you spending covering the NBA Finals and preparing for the upcoming NBA Draft and analyzing prospects?
Kevin Pelton: It’s a pretty decent split, especially now that there’s not a game every night once we’ve gotten through the Conference Finals. Lately I’ve been working on international translations for guys. That’s been my project. I worked on something for Dante Exum, using his university game stats and lately, I have been trying to translate the domestic leagues in Europe so we can compare those guys on a relatively similar scale with the college players we’ve seen all year long.
MT: How would you describe Dario Saric and Dante Exum, who are the two international players about whom we’ve heard the most?
Pelton: Exum is the most difficult because he hasn’t played in any sort of professional league. It’s hard to translate Australian high school basketball stats. I have no conversion of that to the NBA. What I did was I compared guys that played in the U-19 World Championships last summer like he did for the U.S. and Canada and then also played in college and looked at how their stats in that tournament compared to what they ended up doing in college, and applied that to Exum’s stats in the same tournament. One of the interesting things Chad Ford and I looked at this last week is all the top point guards in this year’s draft were in the U-19 games. Tyler Ennis played for Canada and Marcus Smart was on the USA team. Smart came out as the best player in the tournament, by my metrics, but Exum was not far behind. When you incorporate his age into that, he does look like an elite prospect.
MT: How tricky is it to analyze prospects and their games when you don’t necessarily have a big sample size of how they play and their performances? Is that part of the difficulty when trying to see the whole picture?
Pelton: Absolutely. It’s nine games (Exum) played there. One of the things my projection system in college is designed to do is it regresses your stats to the mean and the average of players at your position coming into the league based on how many minutes you’ve played, how many field goals you’ve taken, things like that. It’s set up to deal with that. Basically, it’s designed to bring outliers towards the average. The fact that Exum comes out as well as he does with such a small sample size is kind of a statement in and of itself. I compare it to Kyrie Irving a couple years ago when I think he only played 11 games his one season at Duke. People were saying: ‘How can you project a guy as the No. 1 pick based on such a small thing?’ But he was so good during that period of time that he still came out I think No. 2 on my statistical draft board that year.
MT: What comes up, by your metrics, in Exum’s game in such a small sample size and what does he do well?:
Pelton: The biggest thing is his ability to get to the free throw line. He averaged more than nine free throw attempts in that competition. Didn’t shoot the ball particularly well there but also there are questions if he’s really a point guard especially at his height. His assist to turnover ratio in that competition was outstanding. Smart played well. He really dominated at the defensive end, on the glass, things like that. Tyler Ennis, in that tournament, struggled. He had a relatively poor tournament before he played so well at Syracuse.
MT: Ennis was in to work out for the Lakers on Wednesday. How do you break down from what you saw from him during his rookie season at Syracuse?
Pelton: It makes sense now why he started out lower on scout’s boards. His performance at the All-Star Games and AAU and things like that also played into it because he wasn’t as effective in that setting. When you put him in the collegiate setting, he was much better. He really did an effective job of running the Syracuse offense and his turnover rate was outstanding – really low turnovers, a guy that takes good care of the ball and makes good decisions. The questions still center around his explosiveness. His steal rate is very good, but you wonder if that’s a legitimate indicator in his case because in the Syracuse 2-3 zone, some of their guards tended to have inflated steal rates that really didn’t reflect their athleticism.
MT: Can you briefly explain steal rate and how it can be used to pinpoint their defensive acumen and how it can reflect on their athleticism?:
Pelton: Basically if you look at guys that rate well for their position, they tend to be very successful in the league. Guys who rate poorly for their position tend to struggle more than expected. It’s an empirical finding based on the history. Explaining it is a little more difficult. Part of it is steals may be undervalued in general. Benjamin Morris had a piece on 538.com a couple months ago looking at how people may underrate steals because of the fact that not only do you get the benefit of the stop on the defensive end, there’s also a boost to your offense because of the fact that it’s usually creating a transition opportunity for you. Both of those things go into making steals potentially valuable but there’s also this position that it could be an indicator where it shows guy’s athleticism and how that’s going to translate when they get to the NBA.
MT: Speaking of steal rate, Marcus Smart is someone who performed particularly well on the defensive end at Oklahoma State. How have you evaluated Smart and what about his game stands out?
Pelton: Steal rate is a big factor and there are a few other things. He’s a really good rebounder for a point guard. That, historically, has been a factor that has translated well. A lot of the guys who have emerged as star point guards, even somewhat surprisingly, have tended to be very good defensive rebounders in college and indicates their ability to play against bigger players, their athleticism, things like that. The other thing about Smart is his free throw rate is similar to Exum’s. He gets to the basket. Guys with that kind of quickness to beat somebody one on one off the dribble or get to the basket in pick and roll situations and then also the size and strength he has to finish around the rim, those guys tend to be more effective in the NBA than they have been in college. Smart came out well as a freshman, came out well as a sophomore, came out well in the U-19 games. There’s enough of a sample size for me to think that it’s not a fluke. He legitimately is an underrated prospect and deserves to be in the discussion with this year’s freshman guys.
MT: Did Smart improve from his freshman year to his sophomore year, either based on your metrics or from watching him play?
Pelton: There was some incremental growth. He did improve his outside shooting. I don’t think as much as scouts hoped and his turnover rate was a little better as a sophomore. It wasn’t a dramatic change and I think that’s often what guys need when they come back for their sophomore season, which is why it’s probably a good decision to go out as soon as possible if you’re a lottery pick.
MT: Smart, along with Ennis and Gary Harris were at the Lakers workouts on Wednesday. What does Harris have to offer and where do you see his strengths?
Pelton: Definitely see him as a two guard at the NBA level. A little bit on the small side for that position but I see him as a multi-dimensional two guard kind of the Bradley Beal vein. He’s not as big as Beal and he’s not as good as creating his own shot so that overstates his ability a little bit too much and probably gets people too excited based on Beal’s postseason. But he’s a guy who can run pick and rolls, be a spot up shooter, come off screens, help your offense in a variety of different ways. He struggled a little with his shot this year, but based on what we saw his freshman year, his stroke and his free throw shooting I think he’ll be a very good three-point shooter in time.
MT: James Young is another player whom the Lakers just saw up close and personal. What do you think of Young’s game and what can he bring to the table?
Pelton: This is the ultimate example of a guy who has a better reputation as a shooter than the numbers indicated. He kind of found the range during Kentucky’s run to the championship game during the NCAA tournament. A lot of scouts are inclined to believe that what we saw during those six games in March is the real James Young more than the guy we saw in the previous 25 to 30 games.
MT: Davion Berry, Jeremy Evans, Brendan Lane and Elfrid Payton were among the others that were at the facility on Wednesday. Do any of those prospects stand out to you in terms of what they were able to do in college and how their game could translate to the NBA?
Pelton: Payton is a guy who really is moving up draft boards. If you listen to my colleague Chad Ford and other people who are plugged into what he’s doing. It’s notable he’s working out with guys like Ennis and Smart. That’s an opportunity for him. For them, it’s nothing but downside. For him, it’s an opportunity to showcase: ‘Hey, I’m as talented as these guys even though I wasn’t playing on a national stage because I was in a smaller conference. He’s an excellent athlete, some questions about his outside shooting ability, but major defensive potential. He’s one of those guys that because of the importance of strength of schedule to projecting him to the NBA comes out differently in the various statistical systems.
MT: Aaron Gordon was very impressive in his workout, as expected. How do the 18-year-old's numbers potentially transfer from Arizona to the NBA?
Pelton: The surprising thing about Gordon's college numbers is that his defensive statistics -- in particular his steal rate -- aren't as good as would be expected from a player so obviously athletic. But Sean Miller's version of the pack-line defense tends to be awfully conservative, and Gordon averaged two steals a game in the U-19 Championships, where he was the MVP, so I think he'll be an impact defender.
The question is Gordon's offense, and in particular his shooting. There's not really any track record of non-centers who shoot free throws as poorly as Gordon did reaching the NBA in recent memory. That makes me skeptical Gordon can shoot well enough to play small forward, and even that his shooting will be an issue as a small forward.
MT: Noah Vonleh has been really impressive in his workouts, from Chicago to Wednesday for the Lakers. How does he come out in your numbers?
Pelton: Vonleh's an interesting case where the athletic measurements backed up what the numbers already indicated as far as his potential. Teams can't expect big production from Vonleh right away, but his finishing, rebounding and shot blocking are all strengths, and as he develops I think he's got the potential to be the best of the group of freshmen power forwards in this year's draft.
MT: What about Julius Randle's freshman season and subsequent workouts informs you about his NBA future?
Pelton: Randle's steal rate was a red flag early in the season. It got better as the year went on, but was still relatively poor for a power forward. Offensively, while he showed the ability to create his own shot, he struggled with finishing over bigger defenders in the paint -- something I think will be a problem for him early in his NBA career. Eventually, Randle can overcome it.