One of the most popular parlor games surrounding the NBA draft is finding comparisons for this year's prospects. Is Andrew Wiggins the next Kevin Durant or the next Corey Brewer? Which NBA player represents the best-case scenario for Jabari Parker? Who represents the worst-case scenario for Joel Embiid?
These types of comparisons aren't about scouting as much as they are a shorthand for true scouting. Comparisons can give you an idea about the game of a certain player, but they can also leave out a lot of information, missing nuance or inadvertently implying things that simply aren't true.
Even with those flaws, looking for draft-prospect comparisons is a useful tactic to begin building context around a player's skills while starting to dig into what type of player they might be in the NBA.
In an effort to leverage these comparisons into their most useful form, I borrowed a technique from Basketball-Reference to build a statistical model for making these comparisons.
Draft prospects from each season are compared across 21 different statistical categories, weighted equally, to draft prospects from previous seasons. Unfortunately, this method only works for comparing apples to apples, so the system is limited to collegiate draft prospects and doesn't include any international players.
The output of the model is a Similarity Score between 1-1000, representing how similar the player's statistical profiles are. For example, when we run Marcus Smart through the system these are the three closest profiles we find:
Iman Shumpert, Tyreke Evans and James Harden would seem to be a fantastic blend of potential career paths for Smart. Obviously, there is a wide gap between Harden and Shumpert, but if Smart's ultimate NBA path where to fall somewhere in between those two, whoever selects him in the draft would be assured of landing a pretty good player.
However, these Similarity Scores are not a projection; that is to say they are not directly indicating that Smart's NBA career will be similar to Shumpert's. They are simply a snapshot of what each player accomplished in college.
If we dig further into the numbers, we can start to add some context and really begin to suss out what they are telling us about Smart.
For example, while the talent level is strong in this set of comparable players, none of them actually play point guard in the NBA, which is Smart's listed position. All three were primary ball-handlers in college and frequently play with the ball in their hands in the NBA, but none of them play the same position as Smart.
In fact, if we extend the list to his 10-closest comparable players, we add the likes of Dominique Jones, Frank Williams, Dwyane Wade, Willie Warren, Tony Allen, Ronnie Brewer and Brandon Paul. Again, there is plenty of talent there, but of that list only Williams was actually a point guard.
The implication then is that there are some pieces of in Smart's statistical profile that make him more similar to other wing players than NBA point guards.
If we focus solely upon Smart's rebounding numbers (split into offensive and defensive rebounds per 40 minutes), here are his three-closest comparisons:
The percent match column shows how close of a match these players would be if we just looked at just the rebounding numbers instead of all 21 categories that make up the Similarity Scores. As you can see, Smart is a much better rebounder than most point guards, with numbers that compare favorably to wings and small forwards.
We see the same pattern with his defensive numbers—steals, blocks and personal fouls per 40 minutes:
Here, we again see Smart's numbers matching more closely with wing prospects. The good news is that they place him alongside some of the best individual defenders to come into the league in the past few drafts. Although Waiters has been mediocre defender so far in the NBA, he was a ferocious on-ball defender in college.
Between his steals and his fouls, Smart has the resume of a high-pressure defensive presence—a resume that is more than supported by actually watching him play. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com highlighted some of the same points in his draft profile for Smart:
Another area Smart is likely to excel in very early in the NBA is on the defensive end. With his size, strength and length, Smart is capable of guarding multiple positions, which gives his coach nice versatility to take advantage of in different schemes. He even proved strong enough to put a body on big men in certain stretches, showing the type of toughness and competitiveness NBA executives love.
Smart is prone to gambles and off-ball mistakes, but there is no doubt that he will be able to play NBA-caliber on-ball defense right away.
If we move into his passing numbers, we again see some distance between Smart and the players we would think of as true point guards. Looking at just those numbers—assists per 40 minutes, assists per field-goal attempt and turnovers per possession—here are his three-closest comparable profiles:
Of the three, only Jackson has been able to carve out an NBA career, and he is as much of a scorer as a shot-creator. The bottom line is that Smart's assists and ratio of assists-to-field-goal-attempts are both fairly low. Both of these things are influenced by his collegiate role at Oklahoma State and the scoring demands that were put on him. But they raise some questions about his ability to effectively facilitate in an NBA offense.
The last two groups of stats to look at are Smart's scoring and shooting numbers. Here are the three-closest comparable profiles focused on scoring:
Here are the three-closest comparable profiles based solely upon shooting percentages:
These are a less than inspiring group of comparable profiles on both accounts, particularly on the shooting side. Holiday has become a respectable shooter, but the lack of an outside shot continues to be Evans' Achilles' heel, and Jones is out of the league.
The good news is what the numbers appear to say about Smart's ability to get into the lane, draw fouls and finish around the basket. He accumulated free throws at a prodigious rate in college and clearly has the ability to make things happen off the dribble.
Those numbers temper some of the discouragement that comes with the players he compares to as a passer. Smart has the ability to break down a defense, but at Oklahoma State his offensive balance leaned slightly toward creating for himself. However, the potential would seem to be there for him to develop into a more effective shot-creator in the NBA—if the team he winds up with helped nudge him in that direction, of course.
Having sifted through all of these different smaller categories, a clearer picture of Smart as a draft prospect emerges. Even as a rookie, he should be able to make a significant impact as a defender and rebounder, as he possesses the potential to make elite contributions as a point guard in both categories.
On offense, things are slightly more murky. His outside shooting is questionable, and while he has tremendous off-the-dribble ability, he hasn't channeled as much of that ability into shot creation for his teammates as you would normally see from a point guard.
But when you put the puzzle pieces back together, we arrive at that initial list of comparisons: Iman Shumpert, Tyreke Evans and James Harden. Obviously, there are no sure things when it comes to the NBA draft, but the numbers seem to be saying that Marcus Smart could be "good," "very good" or "great."
Those are three outcomes any lottery team can live with.