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What Do Joel Embiid's College Numbers Tell Us About His NBA Future?

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What Do Joel Embiid's College Numbers Tell Us About His NBA Future?
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Over the past few weeks, I have introduced Bleacher Report readers to the idea of Similarity Scores, a system I created for making accurate statistical comparisons between 2014 NBA draft prospects and those from previous seasons. We've already looked at Marcus SmartAndrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, sifting through their numbers and searching for information to help predict what they might look like as NBA players.

In this piece, we'll meander through the same process, but this time we will be looking at the statistical profile for Joel Embiid.

Unfortunately for Embiid, this process is made messier for two reasons. The first is that a back injury he suffered last year limited him to 28 games for the Kansas Jayhawks. That means he was on the floor for fewer minutes than many of the players he's being compared to, meaning his statistical profile could be subject to more random swings.

The second reason is that Embiid was recently diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot. The timetable for his recovery from the resulting surgery is reportedly four to six months. With a history of injury and a smaller statistical sample, all of the conclusions drawn from these Embiid comparisons need to be taken with several grains of salt.

The Similarity Scores are calculated in an effort to leverage predraft player comparisons in their most useful form by analyzing statistical profiles as opposed to just making subjective observations. Draft prospects from a particular year are compared across 21 different statistical categories, which are all weighted equally, to draft prospects from previous years. Unfortunately, this method only works when comparing apples to apples, so the system is limited to collegiate draft prospects and does not include any international players.

The output of the model is a Similarity Score that ranges from one to 1,000, representing how similar the players' statistical profiles are. When we run Embiid through the system, these are the three closest profiles we find: 

Player Similarity Score
Tyrus Thomas 868
Joakim Noah 863
Derrick Favors 856

Just looking at the names Embiid's profile is compared to would definitely give you a favorable impression of his potential. Noah is among the league's best big men, Favors could be headed in that direction, and Thomas' problems were much more about attitude than they were about talent.

But the most important thing here is the low numbers on the Similarity Scores. When we looked at Smart, Parker and Wiggins, we saw their top comparisons come in around 900. There is a much greater distance between Embiid's profile and his closest comparisons, which speaks to what a unique prospect he is.

In some areas, that uniqueness can be seen as a strength, in some as a weakness and in others as an unknown. We can begin to identify those areas specifically if we break his numbers down by category.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

For example, if we focus solely on Embiid's offensive numbers, here are his three closest comparisons:

Player USG% PTS/40 FTA/40 3PA/FGA PTS/POS Percent Match
Joel Embiid 14.4 18.6 8.5 0.03 1.12 -
Joakim Noah 16.0 18.5 7.7 0.00 1.11 95.3%
Ed Davis 15.2 19.2 8.2 0.00 1.16 95.1%
Hassan Whiteside 16.9 20.1 8.4 0.02 1.09 93.6%

The percent-match column shows how close of a match these players would be if we only took into account a handful of offensive numbers instead of the 21 total categories that make up an overall Similarity Score.

Again, Noah leaps off the page, but it's important to remember how much smaller his offensive role was on a University of Florida team that also featured Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Taurean Green.

If we were to summarize Embiid's offensive comparisons, the biggest key would be the usage percentage. We are looking at a group of efficient offensive big men who played an extremely small role in their team's offenses. Even among this group, Embiid's low usage percentage stands out as an indication of how little was asked of him offensively. 

If we focus the comparisons on shooting percentages alone, we again see a similar mix:

Player 2PT% 3PT% FT% Percent Match
Joel Embiid 63.9% 20.0% 68.5% -
Kyle O'Quinn 61.0% 18.8% 69.6% 94.5%
Anthony Davis 65.3% 15.0% 70.9% 93.8%
Andrew Bogut 63.6% 36.0% 69.2% 91.7%

The three-point percentages here are mostly irrelevant since none of these players regularly attempted shots from the outside. The free-throw percentage is an important point in Embiid's favor. He's not a fantastic shooter from the stripe at this point but is certainly respectable. That's a big advantage for someone who draws fouls as often as he does.

Embiid's two-point percentage is very strong as well, and all three of his comparisons have proved to be good finishers in the NBA. The difference is that low usage percentage that we mentioned before. All three of these comparisons for Embiid maintained those high shooting percentages with a much larger role in their teams' offenses. Davis had a usage percentage of 16.0, but both O'Quinn and Bogut were above 20.0.

The last piece of the offensive puzzle is ball-handling, not an area where we would expect much from a frontcourt player like Embiid.

Player AST/40 AST/FGA TO/POS Percent Match
Joel Embiid 2.3 0.22 0.24 -
Jason Smith 2.6 0.19 0.23 94.7%
Tyler Honeycutt 3.2 0.26 0.23 91.2%
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2.4 0.23 0.20 91.2%

Embiid actually passed the ball with some frequency and generated a fairly high number of assists, which is the reason we found small forwards like Honeycutt and Kidd-Gilchrist among his closest comparisons. Seeing that Embiid is a willing and somewhat proficient passer is certainly a good thing. It's also one of the big things that sets him apart from other frontcourt prospects.

But all of that enthusiasm needs to be tempered by his turnover ratenearly one turnover for every four possessions. That's an extremely high rate, one of the highest in my database, and shows just how much polish is lacking in his offensive game.

Matt Kamalsky of DraftExpress broke down some of Embiid's numbers himself and found a similar thread—talent, unrefined:

Though Embiid entered this season with plenty of hype, some of the things he showed offensively simply aren't common among freshman centers, regardless of how highly touted they are. His overall efficiency is impressive, which coupled with the coordination and skill he flashed at times, make it easy to see why he's viewed as the likely number one overall pick, even if he's still early in his development curve.

It's well-understood that Embiid's immediate potential lies mostly as a defender and rebounder. His comparisons get particularly interesting on that side of the ball. Here are the three most comparable profiles in terms of rebounding:

Player OREB/40 DREB/40 Percent Match
Joel Embiid 3.9 9.6 -
Kawhi Leonard 3.9 9.5 99.5%
Rafael Araujo 3.9 9.7 99.5%
Ed Davis 4.1 9.6 98.4%

Kawhi Leonard may be a surprise to some people, but he played primarily as a power forward in college and was devastatingly active on the glass. Embiid's defensive rebounding numbers are a little bit low compared to some other prospects, but his work on the offensive glass is strong.

Here are his defensive comparisons:

Player STL/40 BLK/40 PF/40 Percent Match
Joel Embiid 1.5 4.0 5.6 -
DeMarcus Cousins 1.7 3.0 5.5 98.3%
Dewayne Dedmon 1.9 3.7 5.2 97.6%
Daniel Orton 1.7 4.2 7.0 97.6%

Although this might not be an impressive list of names, Embiid's defensive numbers show nice balance between blocks and steals. However, his foul rate is an enormous red flag. These four players are the only ones in my entire database of draft prospects, going back to the 2001 draft, who averaged five or more fouls per 40 minutes.

We don't often think of not fouling as a defensive skill, but it is, and it's an incredibly important one. For the sake of comparison, Anthony Davis averaged 1.7 steals and 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes in his last season at Kentucky but did it with just 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes.

Peeling back all of these numbers, we see a player with tremendous potential but lacking a lot of polish. His high level of offensive efficiency, ability as a passer and potential to be disruptive defensively all set him apart from his peers. But he's just as unique for his low level of offensive involvement and sky-high turnover and foul rates.

Simply put, Embiid is a project but is one with tantalizing possibilities. There are few players with his combination of size and athleticism, and you can already see places where he has begun putting the pieces together. But in other places, you can see just how far away he is from being able to dominate an NBA game.

You can see in this DraftExpress video breakdown some of Embiid's strengths and weaknesses as he tries to deal with some NBA-caliber centers.

Unfortunately for Embiid and the teams at the top of the lottery, the risk/reward calculus on drafting him is made infinitely more complicated by his latest injury. If completely healthy, he's almost certainly worth the gamble at the top of the draft. But if a team has to worry about just getting him on the floor, let alone getting him polished, that risk seems much larger.

An unnamed NBA general manager told Sporting News' Sean Deveney that line should be drawn around the fifth pick:

I think there is a point at which you use a pick on him, where you're hoping maybe these are just fluke things that are not going to be recurring. But that point is not in the Top 5 or so. You can't use a Top 5 pick. I think there are too many other good options there to think about using the pick on one who has these injury problems.

At some point in the lottery, that math will work out for some team, and Embiid will be taken. But wherever he winds up, he'll be bringing plenty of uncertainty with him.

You can find the rest of the 2014 NBA draft prospect Similarity Scores at Hickory-High.

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