AP Photo/Kathy Willens
The Cleveland Cavaliers could take Andrew Wiggins at No. 1 on Thursday, but is he worth it?
Andrew Wiggins couldn't miss. Such was the consensus of NBA executives this time a year ago, before Wiggins had matriculated at the University of Kansas. One NBA general manager told Chad Ford last June that Wiggins would have gone No. 1 in every draft since 2007. Without naming Wiggins, another admitted to Jeff Goodman that his team was tanking the season to be in the best position to draft Wiggins No. 1.
So it's easy to understand the surprise when my WARP projections came out last week and Wiggins wasn't atop the board. In fact, he wasn't even in the top 10, unlike fellow freshmen Joel Embiid (No. 6) and Jabari Parker (No. 7). Wiggins is 21st.
In the NBA, the discrepancy between performance analysis and scouting has rarely been as divisive as in baseball after the publication of "Moneyball" put the rift into the spotlight. The best general managers incorporate both approaches, respecting their values and their limitations. But there are real disagreements between the two methods of evaluating prospects, and Wiggins is a source of conflict this year. There are several reasons.
What went wrong at Kansas
To be clear, Wiggins didn't struggle in his lone NCAA season. He was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a consensus second-team All-America pick. Given the level of hype, however, his performance was somewhat disappointing.
Per-game statistics are sufficient to tell the basic story. Wiggins averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. According to Sports-Reference.com, since 1997-98, four other players in major conferences have averaged between 16 and 18 points, 5 and 7 rebounds, and 1 and 2 assists: Alec Burks, Toney Douglas, A.J. Ogilvy and Bill Walker.
As Wiggins' WARP projection suggests, his advanced stats weren't necessarily more promising. Compared with other wings entering the NBA from college since 2003, his translated performance at Kansas put him in the top quartile of only one of the 10 core skill statistics I consider: free throw rate. Wiggins has few weaknesses -- he's only in the bottom quartile of this group in assist rate -- but that reinforces the overwhelming averageness of his statistical performance.
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Luol Deng, who had a 24.0 percent usage rate as a freshman at Duke, is a strong comparison to Andrew Wiggins.
In particular, Wiggins failed to showcase the elite ability to create his own shot that is a requisite for superstardom. He finished 25.5 percent of the Jayhawks' plays while on the court, per KenPom.com, as compared with 31.8 percent for Parker at Duke. As freshmen, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony finished approximately 28 percent of their team's possessions, and Kevin Durant was at 31.6 percent. Wiggins' mark is more similar to Luol Deng, who had a 24.0 percent usage rate.
Lingering value of potential
If Wiggins didn't play like a star at Kansas, why is he still in the mix for the No. 1 pick? Credit or blame, depending on your perspective, goes to the lingering effect of his pre-college expectations.
By comparison with some of his predecessors atop the recruiting rankings, Wiggins had a great freshman season. Shabazz Muhammad, the No. 1 recruit in 2012, was plagued by off-court controversy and showed few skills besides the ability to create his own shot. Harrison Barnes, who topped recruiting rankings in 2010, had an underwhelming career at North Carolina, much like Wiggins' season at Kansas. And Austin Rivers, ranked atop the 2011 class by some recruiting services, was inefficient and inconsistent in his lone campaign at Duke.
Despite their lack of college production, Barnes (No. 7 in 2012), Rivers (No. 10 in 2012) and Muhammad (No. 14 in 2013) all ended up being selected in the lottery. With a few exceptions, the NBA provides a soft landing for top prospects who struggle in college. Over the past decades, just two consensus top-three recruits in their class as ranked by RSCIhoops.com have slipped out of the first round: Richard Hendrix and Josh McRoberts.
In general, prep recruiting rankings explain about half as much of the variation in where players are picked as their WARP projections (based on college performance and age) despite adding nothing to the projections when determining a player's actual value (measured by WARP) in the NBA.
Said more plainly, teams put too much value on how prospects rated entering college. It's too early to tell whether Barnes, Muhammad and Rivers will be good draft picks, but so far they have performed in the NBA much as they did in college.
Hope for Wiggins
The good news for whatever team drafts Wiggins on Thursday night is that his future is no more certain now, at age 19, than it was a year ago. The trendy comparison for Wiggins is Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who averaged 14.3 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman against WAC competition. At that point, nobody would have pegged George as a future NBA All-Star. Since then, George has maxed out his development, and Wiggins can be a superstar if he does the same.
Statistical analysis also inevitably does Wiggins a disservice because his greatest strength, one-on-one perimeter defense, isn't reflected in the box score. Teams drafting in the top three picks have surely worked to gather more data to evaluate Wiggins' defensive potential.
Those caveats aside, the most likely outcome for Wiggins at this point looks more like quality role player than star. That would concern me if my team were drafting him with the No. 1 pick, as our ESPN Insider NBA Front Office decided to do on behalf of the Cleveland Cavaliers after Embiid's injury. Most worrisome to me is the inevitable hype that will follow Wiggins' selection. If Wiggins has Deng's career, which includes a pair of All-Star selections, that shouldn't be seen as a disappointment. But it will be if fans believe they're getting a historically great talent.