#RealTalk – Rankings & Evaluating Prospects

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

#RealTalk – Rankings & Evaluating Prospects

One of the most frustrating aspects of the recruiting world is the amount of misinformation that prospects and their families have to sort through. So much of the “noise” filling gyms and social media outlets comes from people who have, at best, no clue what most college coaches are looking for because they’ve never been there and have no frame of reference, or at worst, an agenda they’re trying to promote by perpetuating certain narratives that they know to be false. So, in an effort to try to provide some transparency, our new #RealTalk series will run every week throughout the winter season and provide candid thoughts on a variety of subjects. We aren’t claiming to be definitively right on all subjects, only experienced enough to have an educated opinion that will hopefully be of some help to players and families as they navigate through this unpredictable world of youth basketball and recruiting.

Up first, evaluating prospects and rankings.

After 12 years of evaluating high school prospects, sometimes I ask myself ‘what’s the point?’

Even the best evaluators are going to be wrong when asked to predict the future. Look no farther than NBA Draft history for proof of that. Front offices paid hundreds of thousands of dollars with millions more at their disposal to travel the world, conduct background checks, measure quantifiable physical tools, conduct interviews, come up with statistical models, and manufacture psychological profiles are…very often…dead wrong. 

Markelle Fultz was the 1st pick in the 2017 draft and Donovan Mitchell was 13th. 

Dragan Bender was the 4th pick in 2016 and Pascal Siakam was 27th. 

Jahlil Okafor was the 3rd pick in 2015 and Montrezl Harrell was 32nd. 

Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were 1 and 2 in 2014 leaving Joel Embiid available at 3 while Clint Capella went 25. 

Anthony Bennett went 1st overall in 2013 and Giannis Antekokounmpo went 15th. 

It happens every year, and that’s the NBA. Some executives like Miami’s Pat Riley have even publicly indicated they don’t believe in building through the draft because it’s too much of a crapshoot. 

Evaluating prospects even earlier in the process, is even more unpredictable. Far more so actually, and the younger the prospect, the more margin there is for error. 

So again, what’s the point?

Well, there are lessons to be learned and best practices to be adopted. 

The irony of almost all of the examples cited above is that none were considered bad decisions at the time they were made. No one would have picked Mitchell over Fultz 18 months ago or Siakam over Bender the year before that. Forget about Okafor and Harrell. The New York fans booed when the Knicks picked Kristaps Porzingis in 2015 and Celtics fans were mortified when Boston picked Terry Rozier 11 spots later. Now, those are considered two of the best picks of that draft. 

This illustrates one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to evaluating – that it is about the past or even the present, when it is actually about the future. Consequently, some of the best evaluations are also the most unpopular, as in Porzingis and Rozier, because they are weighing markers for future success more heavily than past success. Ironically, these types of evaluations are also a slippery slope because you’re essentially betting on potential, which can be extremely risky, or as they say in college coaching ranks, “potential can get you fired (more on that in the coming days). 

When it comes to high school evaluations, it’s important to start with a disclaimer. I’m not a big believer in rankings as a medium for evaluating high school prospects. But I try to be a pragmatist, and the reality is that rankings aren’t used because it’s the way evaluators want to convey their work, but instead because it’s the way in which readers want to consume it. 

In other words, there are numerous factors, variables, and subtleties that go into projecting a prospect’s future. Those can’t all be conveyed on a simple list, but ask any sports media company in the world and they’ll tell you people are going to be much more likely to click that list than they are a detailed explanation of the markers that could potentially indicate the direction a prospect is heading. 

Second, as previously noted, to project prospects’ futures is to accept that you’re going to be wrong a good portion of the time. While the public may not realize that, and some fans ready to pounce at every opportunity to remind you that you were wrong, being 100% right isn’t an obtainable goal. Instead, the goal is to be right more often than others and adopt criteria to rely on that yields the highest possible degree of success. 

We’ve been wrong plenty in the last twelve years, but far less than anyone else rating prospects from New England. Our rankings archives remain open all the way back to 2007 to prove it. 

More importantly though, going back through previous years provides us with an opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Its why NBA front offices go through the exercise of “re-drafting” years after the actual draft takes place, because they are hoping to learn from those mistakes. Some are going to be acceptable – like a jump-shot with great technique that hit the back of the rim, some evaluations are made based on sound reason and typically translatable criteria, but just don’t pan out. Those are acceptable from an evaluator’s standpoint. 

What we’re looking for is patterns or commonalities among prospects that were either ranked too high or too low. Again, the goal is to find criteria and markers that enable us to adopt best practices when weighing different factors against each other. 

Over the next few days and leading up to the new year, we’re going to go through this process publicly and see if there were any factors we weighed too heavily or others that we didn’t emphasize enough. Because being more accurate than other outlets is great, but continuing to learn and grow, especially in a basketball landscape that is continuously evolving, is the only way to ensure that continues.