Tag Archives: Kawhi Leonard

Jonny Be Good

If not for the strongest point guard crop since 2009, the story of the upcoming NBA draft would be the talented and versatile freshman forwards Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, and Miles Bridges. While Jackson (8.0 DMX), Tatum (7.7), and Bridges (7.0) have met or even exceeded lofty expectations, the real standout in my numbers has been Isaac (9.8), a wiry 6’10” combo forward with tantalizing two-way potential. After 27 NCAA games, Isaac grades out as the fourth best forward prospect since 2002, edging out Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh, and Ben Simmons. That begs the question, is Jonathan Isaac truly an elite prospect?

It is easy to see why the numbers adore Isaac. He is tall, young (19.7 years old on draft day), efficient, rebounds like a PF or C (11.2 REB/40), and has an elite combination of steals (1.8 Per 40) and blocks (2.3 Per 40). His only blemish statistically is a low assist rate, which is offset in the model by a relatively low turnover %. Moreover, he has done this in arguably the toughest conference in the NCAA and has helped the Seminoles to a #18 KenPom rating, up thirty spots from #48 last season.

Passing

Let’s go back to Isaac’s one conceivable red flag; his lack of assists. Between his statistical brilliance, age, tools, and team success, it seems pretty obvious that Jonathan Isaac is good. The question is whether or not Isaac is a prospect on the level of Bosh or Griffin as his projection suggests, and his passing may be a deal-breaker to that end.

In the NBA, passing the is skill that often differentiates the great from the good. This is pretty intuitive; players who are elite at creating for themselves and also for teammates are completely unstoppable. Since BPM is generally a good measurement of the value of NBA players, here is a list of the top 13 players by BPM along with their AST% this season:

PLAYER AST%
Russell Westbrook 56.5%
James Harden 50.7%
Chris Paul 49.7%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 26.5%
LeBron James 41.7%
Kevin Durant 22.6%
Nikola Jokic 27.3%
Draymond Green 28.3%
Kawhi Leonard 17.7%
DeMarcus Cousins 28.0%
Kyle Lowry 29.2%
Stephen Curry 28.8%
Jimmy Butler 23.3%
Jonathan Isaac 6.8%*

*NCAA

Only Kawhi Leonard, the league’s best perimeter defender and a ruthlessly efficient offensive player, has an AST% under 20%. Even if you expand the list to 50, the only non-center with an AST% lower than 10% is Otto Porter, who is leading the NBA in 3PT% and was an A:TO stud at Georgetown.

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Historically great DMX projection aside, Isaac seems unlikely to achieve NBA superstardom barring a Durant-like leap as a passer (note: Isaac ain’t KD on offense). Markelle Fultz, a supremely talented offensive creator (Westbrook/Harden), and Lonzo Ball, an outlier passer and basketball genius (Paul/Curry), have far clearer, if still mathematically unlikely, paths to being top ten players. Even Josh Jackson (18.6 AST%) is still drawing live to be Jimmy Butler 2.0. Jonathan Isaac projects as a better version of Marvin Williams, a former #2 overall pick who has had a solid career as a stretch four and versatile rim-protector. I wouldn’t draft Isaac over Fultz, Ball, or Jackson, but he has played himself into my top five in a loaded class.

Aaron Gordon and the “Skill Curve”

“In his book, Basketball on Paper, [Dean] Oliver introduces the “skill curve,” which examines the relationship between the usage and efficiency of NBA players. Oliver theorizes that players are efficient up to some usage threshold, but beyond that point they become less efficient. One reason bad NBA teams are populated by players with bad stats is that those guys are asked to perform beyond their limits.” – Kirk Goldsberry

This  quote is taken from a Grantland.com article about Rudy Gay, a really talented basketball player who has been reviled by the analytics community for being remarkably inefficient. Goldsberry goes on to suggest that Gay’s inefficiency was the result of coaches giving him free reign to chuck up low-percentage jumpers instead of playing to his strengths. The draft prospect who most embodies “The Rudy Gay Principle” is Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon.

Gordon has a blend of skills and physical tools that is as unusual as it is intriguing. He has adequate height and wingspan for a PF but has a slender 212 lb. frame that more resembles that of a wing player. Offensively he lacks anything resembling a post game or a jump shot, but he has surprising point forward skills and is an awesome finisher around the hoop. He is quick and smart on defense, but who is he defending?

Player FG% FT% REB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
Aaron Gordon .495 .422 10.2 2.5 1.1 1.3 2.9 15.8
David Lee (Fresh.) .579 .549 10.4 2.3 1.4 1.5 2.8 15.7
Thaddeus Young .478 .743 6.6 2.7 1.7 0.5 2.9 19.4
Shareef Abdur-Rahim .518 .683 9.7 1.2 2.1 1.4 3.6 24.3
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist .491 .745 9.5 2.4 1.3 1.2 2.8 15.3
Al-Farouq Aminu .516 .671 11.3 2.0 1.3 1.7 3.6 17.8

David Lee is a close statistical comparison right down to the awful FT shooting, but Lee shot 8.4% better from the field as a freshman at Florida. Gordon’s efficiency trends towards wing tweeners like MKG and Al-Farouq Aminu, and this accurately reflects the way he plays. Even though his greatest strengths are purported to be his length and athletic ability, Aaron spends a lot of time floating around the perimeter taking mid-range jumpers. This is where the “skill curve” comes into play. According to Hoop-Math.com, more than half of Gordon’s shots this season were two-point jumpers or threes, and he converted fewer than 30% of these shots. If AG is put in a role that caters to his strengths, he could be a really good player. If not, he could be the next Al-Farouq Aminu.  Essentially, Gordon’s NBA success hinges on whether or not the team that drafts him actually knows what to do with him.

One team that seems to utilize the skill curve exceptionally well is the Spurs. They have a knack for finding weird, undervalued players and putting them in roles where they are allowed to become the best possible versions of themselves. Most recently, the Spurs traded Nando de Colo for tweener and former draft bust Austin Daye. In nine games as a Spur, Daye has posted an 18.2 PER (“Solid 2nd Option” level), six points better than his career average. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that the only good NBA player I can see Gordon emulating is Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard.

Player 2P% 3P% REB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
Aaron Gordon .513 .356 10.2 2.5 1.1 1.3 2.9 15.8
Kawhi Leonard (Fresh.) .523 .205 12.6 2.4 1.8 0.9 2.9 16.3

I didn’t use Leonard as a comparison because his career path is so different than Gordon’s, but the stats are pretty similar. If AG eliminates the long twos and masters the art of the corner three, I could see him being effective in a small ball PF role like the one Kawhi played for the Spurs in last year’s Finals. Aaron Gordon has a lot of question marks as a prospect, but his upside is significant enough to justify using a lottery pick on him.