But is this a skill that translates to the NBA? (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

NBA: LeBron’s choice of Shabazz Napier analytically driven?


One of the more outrageous subplots to last week’s NBA Draft was the Miami Heat’s naked pursuit of Shabazz Napier, the starting point guard and leading scorer from this year’s championship-winning University of Connecticut team.

The hijinks started this April, when LeBron caught up with some of the NCAA tournament in his down-time. He tweeted:

The fallout from this months-old tweet is still reverberating around the basketball marketplace. Draft-night rumors (or rumors at any other time in the NBA calendar, for that matter) shouldn’t be trusted until a transaction has officially gone through, and Miami’s pursuit of Napier was the rare story that was both hotly rumored and actually consummated.

Picking 26th overall, Miami was of course at the mercy of all the teams in front of them if they wanted any chance at getting “their man.” The Charlotte Hornets, picking 24th overall (they also had the 9th pick earlier in the round) selected Napier and thus immediately held leverage over Miami in any trade negotiation — and those calls were indeed happening.

By the end of the night it was announced that Napier was indeed on his way to Miami. In exchange, the Hornets received the 26th overall pick, P.J. Hairston, the 55th overall pick, Semaj Christon, and a second-rounder in 2019. While 2019 is a long ways away, think about it like: the Heat gave up two second-round prospects in order to move from 26 to 24.

It’s most definitely a favorable trade for Charlotte. (They would end up trading Christon to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash.) In theory the Heat got robbed — unless, of course, the value conceded in this trade is canceled out by the value that came from appeasing King James, which, hard as that would be to quantify, may well be the case.

Even though Heat mastermind Pat Riley has contended that he did not listen to LeBron when he concluded that Napier was the right pick for his team, the fact that the Heat really did proactively pursue Napier sets up a bizarre precedent.

When established NBA superstars privately meet and “recruit” one another, as Miami’s Big Three have famously done both in 2010 and again here in 2014, it’s a lot easier for me to trust their judgment during these particular moments of acting as surrogate General Managers. A superstar, almost by definition, has a large and volatile personality, a long checklist of (usually quite reasonable) demands as to what they expect a team to provide for them in matters both on and off the court. If a cabal of superstars commit to finding a way to make sharing cap space and the basketball work — as the transcendent trios in Miami, San Antonio, and at one time Boston have done — I’m inclined to trust their judgment.

The draft, however, is a different beast. Properly monitoring and appraising each annual yield of prospects is a full-time, year-round job, and Mr. James is usually quite busy with winning all the basketball games and developing the new Sprites and whatnot. With his influential tweet, LeBron claimed expertise in a field that he (most likely) hasn’t dedicated much time to truly studying and learning.

It’s easy to see why LeBron took an affinity to Napier: Shabazz delivered brave, confident performances on the very biggest stage afforded to an NCAA player. It’s fair for LeBron to see shades of himself in Napier — LeBron more than anybody in the basketball world knows the physical and emotional demands of seizing control of a big game and leading your team to victory. James is in a better position than any of us to appreciate the difficulty of what Napier did throughout March Madness, and to profoundly respect Napier for being able to do it.

LeBron makes a big mistake in logic here, however: the Draft is not about ordering players based on what they have done — it is about ordering players based on what their past performance projects that they might do.

While no projection system in the world is perfect, or close to perfect, there is a broad consensus about which factors of a player’s collegiate career are or are not relevant to projecting their success once they arrive in the NBA. Some of the more prescient statistics are Assist%, Steal%, and Block% (with % meaning an estimate of the occurrence of each statistic per 100 possessions). These statistics are interpreted as proxies for a player’s “feel” for the game — with a more conscious and aware player supposedly compiling higher percentages in each statistic by sensing opportunities to find assists, steals, and blocks that others don’t see. These skills are believed to be more likely to translate over to the NBA compared to factors like scoring average, or advancing through the March Madness tournament — an achievement that should largely be credited to a team and a program, not an individual prospect.

Here’s a look at how Napier’s 2013-14 performance compared to the 2013-14 performance of NCAA point guards who were drafted in front and behind him:

 

Pick # Assist% Steal% Block%
Marcus Smart 6 30.1 5.0 1.9
Elfrid Payton 10 32.9 3.6 1.7
Tyler Ennis 18 32.3 3.9 0.7
Shabazz Napier 24 30.8 3.2 1.0
Spencer DinWiddie 37 26.3 2.9 0.8
Jordan Clarkson 46 23.3 1.9 0.6
Russ Smith 47 31.6 4.0 0.4
Semaj Christon 55 25.3 2.3 0.8
Xavier Thames 59 23.7 3.3 0.5

 

Looking at these metrics is only the very, very start of how an actual NBA team would begin evaluating these prospects, a process that includes scouring dozens of hours of tape that I haven’t seen and face-to-face interviews that I, of course, don’t have access to.

But even with just these three stats, there is certainly a close correlation between each point guard’s metrics and the order in which they are drafted. While Marcus Smart assists about roughly as often as Napier, Smart has almost doubled Napier’s Steal% and Block%, traits that made him a far more valuable prospect. Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ennis posted superior statistical profiles to Napier despite each having less NCAA experience than Shabazz (Ennis was a freshman this season, Payton a junior), a factor that indicates greater room for growth. Russ Smith is the only player who interrupts the pattern, with his draft position as low as it is most likely due to his size and tendency to commit turnovers.

At this point, in 2014, LeBron James wouldn’t make for a good General Manager. The Heat may well have gotten a great player in Napier at 24, but if LeBron were in charge the Heat might also have sacrificed significantly more assets in order to move up higher and reach for him. This bizarre happenstance of a player influencing a team’s decision in acquiring role players has me wondering if/when:

-We’ll see a superstar urge his front office to make a trade/pick that ends up a total disaster, or:

-When we’ll see a superstar tweet out that they like a certain prospect because of that player’s outstanding Steal% — and their General Manager, somewhere, will nod in agreement.

Statistical support via sports-reference.com.

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Tags: Elfrid Payton Featured Jordan Clarkson Lebron James Marcus Smart Miami Heat NBA Pat Riley Russ Smith Semaj Christon Shabazz Napier Spencer Dinwiddie Top Stories Tyler Ennis Xavier Thames