Draft Prospects to Watch

Nov 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons (25) shoots the ball against the South Alabama Jaguars during the second half at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. LSU won 78-66. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons (25) shoots the ball against the South Alabama Jaguars during the second half at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. LSU won 78-66. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

The NCAA is about a third of the way through the season with conference play about to start, for the draft watchers among us that’s enough time to start locking in on some of the more interesting NBA prospects. To do so I ran a few of my draft models on data from the season so far for both college and overseas prospects from Draft Express’s top 100 prospect list.

One trick in creating this list is that there are a number of difference ways to look at talent at this point. Certainly top prospects coming in to the season are players to watch; they’ll be the ones dominating the draft conversations and often end up being taken high up even if their one college or European season does not show much production. And all of the research I have done myself or seen from others indicates scouting opinions can add independent insight and predictive power when combined with statistical performance and demographic information.

Here are Draft Express’s Top 20 players as rated by my PAWS model with the ranking among the top 100 as assigned by the model.[1. Note this isn’t the version that includes draft board ratings I wanted to contrast the model to the scout based ratings for this one. The stats models and scout ratings tend to converge somewhat as the season goes on as top prospects either improve play or drop in the draft boards.]

top20 1222
top20 1222 /
  • Top prospects Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram clearly are players to watch, Simmons is rated as far and away the best prospect by the model, and all of the iterations I have of the model. If your team gets the number one pick, probably best just to make the simple play here.
  • Skal Labissiere and Jaylen Brown have struggled mightily so far, they need to turn it around to stay rated as top 10 prospects I suspect.
  • Jonathan Jeanne two minutes played!
  • Ivan Rabb and Thomas Bryant are semi-sleepers at the end of the top twenty, especially Rabb.

But, at this stage of the season there are always lesser known prospects that will shoot up the prospect ranks if they’re able to keep their early season performances. The table below has the top twenty as rated by the model with the players not included in the top twenty from Draft Express highlighted in orange.

paws20 1222
paws20 1222 /
  • A couple of players are only marginally outside of the top twenty in Draft Express, like Melo Trimble and Domatas Sabonis, so their inclusion here doesn’t represent much of a break with the scouts’ views.
  • The difference between Simmons and the next rated prospect, Rabb, is as great as between number two and number twenty.
  • Fred VanVleet, my model can’t quit you. Both VanVleet and Aleksander Vezenkov are this high because of their prior years’ performance. In the version below that weighs this year more heavily they both fall considerably[2. I would note Vezenkov is getting more minutes and having more success in Barcelona than Mario Hezonja did with the same team last year at close to the same age. However, their athleticism is not in the same league.]. Kyle Wiltjer is subject to this effect to an extent as well.
  • Monte Morris, Deyonta Davis and Tyler Lydon are a couple of players to watch that received less attention, along with Ante Zizic in Europe.

And lastly, there are certain statistical tricks that happen with small in season sample sizes in part because of how I regress players performance based on minutes played. But especially this is an issue for players with different levels of production in their prior campaign. In those cases the model rank may not match what observers see on the court this year, so I created a special “On Pace” version of the model that simply applies a full season’s worth of playing time to the production so far[3. Which is almost certainly not the best estimate of what will happen].

onpace /
  • Hey look, Fred VanVleet!
  • Dragan Bender’s numbers don’t include those from the Israeli league yet, as I haven’t done any estimates on the league’s relative competition level yet. Those have been better than his Euroleague numbers to date.
  • Caris LeVert, Chinanu Onuaka, and Ivica Zubac are among the most interesting players On Pace to rise.
  • The Kentucky kids need to play better.

All of these numbers are early, things can and will change, some of the players won’t even enter the draft this year. But this is hopefully a good start on who to keep your eye on this year.