The Stats that Predict NBA Futures

Statistics are a powerful tool in constructing a team in the NBA. Simple stats such as three point percentage or per 36 stats can help to avoid counting stats and find hidden gems to add to a team or get a good player on a favorable deal. Then, there are advanced stats, like turnover percentage and win shares, which better help to get insight into a player’s quality for specific part of a game. But, sometimes stats can be misleading. They can hurt a team rather than helping them. Knowing which stats to use is paramount in finding hidden gems in the NBA Draft. (Note: If you don’t care about the statistical methods, only read the “findings” section. Otherwise, take a look at the “methods” section.)

Findings

I will try to keep this section of the article less stat heavy than previous articles have been. First off, the goal of this article was to find which college stats translate to the NBA. For example, if a player shoots 3s well in college and they are also expected to shoot 3s well in the NBA, then 3 point percentage is a stat that translates. On the other hand, if a player shoots 3s well in college, but is not necessarily expected to shoot 3s well in the NBA, then 3 point percentage does not translate.

After dealing with the data, I found that the skills that translate best to the NBA are rebounding, blocking, stealing, passing, and 3 point shots taken. The corresponding stats are offensive rebounding percentage, block percentage, 3 point rate, defensive rebounding percentage, assist percentage, and steal percentage. Therefore, if a college player has a high rebounding percentage, block percentage, or 3 point rate, then they are likely to maintain a high rebounding percentage, block percentage, or 3 point rate in the NBA. For example, players that rebounded and blocked shots well in college, such as Steven Adams and Robert Williams, also did those things well in the NBA. Likewise, players that took many 3 point shots in college continued to in the NBA because that is their style of play.

Okafor became a bust after being drafted by the 76ers in 2015

Meanwhile, several college stats do not translate to the NBA almost at all. One of these stats is offensive rating, a measure of offensive efficiency. Usually, college players projected to be high picks in the draft have very high offensive ratings, but their ratings vary significantly in the NBA. Other skills that do not translate to the NBA well are usage, shooting, and turnover tendencies. The usage percentage, 3 point percentage, eFG% (like field goal percentage but accounts for 3s being worth more than 2s), and turnover percentage each varied a large amount when comparing the college stats to the NBA stats. Therefore, beware when an NBA prospect is given high marks because of their ability in one of these skills during their college play. Examples include Jahlil Okafor, who became a bust after failing to be as efficient in the NBA as he was in college, as well as Lonzo Ball, who had a very high offensive rating in college but has had a below average offensive rating in the NBA.

Positions

One thing to note is that the skills that translate best to the NBA are most often those that are required of a center. Rebounding and Blocking, both of which are necessary for a good center, were shown to be two of the skills that translated best to the NBA. Contrastingly, guards often need to excel at the skills that do not translate to the NBA as well, such as turnovers and shooting. Forwards lie somewhere in the middle as they are a mix of guards and centers.

2020 Draft Implications

Knowing which college stats stay with a player through both college and the NBA can help us predict which players will continue to play well with their NBA team. By taking a deeper look into what each draft prospect excelled at during their time in college, we can determine whether they are likely to carry over that talent into the NBA. Keep in mind that centers have the most skills that translate to the NBA, while guards possess the skills that do not translate as well to the NBA.

Safe: Precious Achiuwa, F, Memphis (ESPN Rank: 8)

Precious Achiuwa was a defensive minded power forward while he played at Memphis. His skills are likely to translate well to the NBA because of his high offensive rebounding percentage and block percentage. His reliance on defense gives him an edge in that his defensive ability will continue throughout his career. Additionally, he struggled with shooting well during college, but shooting is not easily predicted by college performance. Therefore, Precious Achiuwa is an underrated player in this year’s draft.

Memphis’s Precious Achiuwa is an underrated draft prospect

Safe: Tyrese Haliburton, G, Iowa State (ESPN Rank: 7)

Tyrese Haliburton was the point guard of the Iowa State Cyclones during the last two seasons. Haliburton excels at many areas of the game that is required by guards, such as shooting and taking 3 pointers. However, his most valuable traits are his assist ability and his talent in getting defensive steals. Haliburton had an assist percentage of 35.3% in his latest year, good for fourth best among the top 50 NBA draft prospects. Haliburton’s passing prowess will make him a safe candidate for any NBA team needing a point guard in October’s draft.

Haliburton is a safe bet in the draft this year

Risky: Tyrese Maxey, G, Kentucky (ESPN Rank: 13)

The reason that Tyrese Maxey is a risky prospect in the draft is not that he possesses skills that do not translate to the NBA, but rather that he doesn’t really excel at any part of the game at all. Maxey’s only above average stat values were free throw percentage (only moderately translates), 3 point attempt rate (doesn’t matter if he can’t hit them at a high percentage), and assist percentage. Even his assist percentage was not that high. Maxey is a player that teams should avoid in the upcoming draft.

Maxey is a risky pick in the NBA Draft

Safe: Onyeka Okongwu, C, USC (ESPN Rank: 4)

I’ll make this one quick. Okongwu has exceptional rebounding and blocking ability, virtually guaranteeing that he will be at least a role player in the NBA. I think Okongwu is the safest bet in this year’s draft.

Okongwu has a high chance of being a good NBA player

Risky: Isaac Okoro, F, Auburn (ESPN Rank: 3)

While he places at number 3 on ESPN’s big board, Okoro should be avoided. He was an above average shooter and excelled at getting to the free throw line, but that is about it. He suffers from his lack of ability in areas the translate well such as rebounding, blocking, and passing. Okoro should definitely be taken later than number 3 in the draft.

Okoro should be avoided by NBA teams

Safe: Devin Vassell, G, Florida State (ESPN Rank: 15)

This is the last player I will look into. After improving significantly in his second year of college, Vassell is a safe bet for the NBA draft. Vassell has high marks in both the categories of blocks and steals, meaning that his defensive presence is likely to translate to the NBA. Additionally, he placed highly in nearly all of the stats, meaning that at least one of them will likely translate to the NBA. Vassell is a safe NBA draft prospect.

FSU guard Devin Vassell will be a good player in the NBA

Conclusion

The skills that translate well to the NBA are rebounding, defense, and passing. Upcoming NBA players such as Precious Achiuwa, Tyrese Haliburton, Onyeka Okongwu, and Devin Vassell should be taken early in the draft due to their likelihood of having their skills translate to the NBA. Meanwhile, players that excel in categories such as shooting, limiting turnovers, and usage should not expect their abilities to stay with them at the next level. Two players to avoid in the draft for these reasons are Tyrese Maxey and Isaac Okoro. Some stats translate to the NBA while other do not.

Methods

The way that I found which stats translated to the NBA the best was by using correlation. I took each NBA first round draft pick that played in college from the last five years (omitting 2019 because of small sample size) and recorded both their college and NBA rate statistics. I avoided per game stats since most players play less in the NBA than they do in college. After recording the stats, I found the correlation between a college stat and its corresponding NBA stat. For example, the correlation between college offensive rebounding percentage and NBA offensive rebounding percentage was about 0.81. None of the correlations were expected to be negative since each stat ideally would be about the same in both college and the NBA, which would have been a correlation of positive 1, and no correlation was negative. After finding the correlations, I sorted the stats by their correlation from greatest to least, where the greatest were the stats that translate (like ORB%) and the least were the stats that do not translate well (like shooting stats). I was going to include a linear regression for some of the stats, but I decided against it as I did not want to make the article too long or stat heavy. To find the safest and riskiest draft prospects, I looked at which players excelled in which areas and made a formula ranking each player based on their safety using their ESPN Rank and their stats. The safe and risky players also match some of the predictions that I made in a previous article, called “Using Stats to Predict the NBA Draft.”

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