Sabermetrics. They have been a continous hot topic of conversation in modern sports circles, recently sparked (and fueled) by Jonah Lehrer’s Grantland column, The Math Problem. Lehrer argued that while sabermetrics — the computerized measurement of statistics, in this case basketball data — can be extremely useful at times, the allure of definitive measures of production leads us to ignore the oft-underrated intangibles. Worse, the popular obsession with quantifiable sports values has resulted in shortsighted personnel decisions. The horror!
But this post isn’t about the great paradox of sports statistics nor whether dismissing math in sports is the right call. It’s about how Washington Wizards 2011 draft pick Jan Vesely played on paper — was he a slam dunk in Europe or something less spectacular?
The Wizards brass had their hearts and minds set on adding the 6’11” combo-forward to the roster for over two years, so I wanted to take a look at what attracted the team’s attention (assuming, of course, that the front office dabbles in advanced hoops data).
Our friendly neighborhood basketball statistician, ESPN.com’s John Hollinger, has determined that there is a predictable relationship between how a player performs in the Euroleague and how he will compete as a rookie in the Association. When transitioning to the NBA, a Euroleague player’s pace-adjusted per-minute stats will be affected as follows:
- Scoring rate decreases 25-percent
- Rebound rate increases by 18-percent
- Assist rate increases by 31-percent
- Shooting percentage drops by 12-percent
- Overall, player efficiency rating drops by 30-percent
To take a look at how Vesely did in Europe (in both the Euroleague and the Adriatic League), I pulled data from Draft Express:
2009-2010 PER 40 PACE ADJUSTED (AVG)
14.2 PPG | 55.95 FG% | 36.25 3P% | 63.5 FT% | 2.5 OREB | 7.05 TREB | 2.05 AST | 1.5 STL
2010-2011 PER 40 PACE ADJUSTED (AVG)
15.55 PPG | 56.05 FG% | 30.75 3P% | 49 FT % | 2.9 OREB | 6.25 TREB | 1.9 AST| 1.95 STL
Vesely made small improvements in several statistical categories, partly because of increased playing time — on average, he saw an additional 1:51 of game action during his 2010-2011 Partizan campaign. His field-goal percentage stayed consistent despite him taking an extra 0.75 attempts per game, which is a good sign.
Big dips in 3-point and free throw percentages, however, are not what you would like to see. His inaccuracy from range is less of a worry, since scouting reports indicate that he only shoots when all other options have been exhausted — Vesely has attempted under 10 field goals per game for his career and was rarely asked to create his own shot.
Shooting below 50 percent from the stripe is a glaring disappointment, especially considering that he earned an extra 1.3 trips to the free throw line during his last season in Serbia. But on the bright side, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus has evidence that player can significantly improve his free throw shooting with practice and do so at about 0.7-percent per season through age 27.
There are also two prime examples of forwards turning their ‘luck’ at the free throw line: Chris Webber and Karl Malone. Webber improved his free throw shooting from a woeful 45.4-percent during 1998-99 to 75.1-percent in 1999-00. Malone shot 48.1-percent during his rookie season, but climbed to 70-percent during his third year in the NBA. Both players only dipped below 70 percent once for the remainder of their careers — pretty damn impressive. Obviously, these are best-case examples, but serve to illustrate that poor free throw shooting is correctable.
(The Curious Case of Brendan Haywood: Wizards fans will remember the anomalistic 2007-2008 season in which Haywood shot a career-high 73.5-percent from the free throw line. He had never approached that figure and has failed to sniff percentages that high since.)
Now, let’s see what story Vesely’s rebounding numbers tell. His 3.975 non-pace adjusted rebounds per game over the past two years looks disturbingly low, but are they really? European basketball gurus In The Game noted that while Vesely is not a game-changing rebounder, he does have the skillset and physical attributes to be a force on the boards. According to available data, Vesely recorded 4.6 rebounds per game in 2009-10. While that total didn’t rank him as one of the elite rebounders in the Euroleague, it put him in the top-10 in both offensive (9.3-percent) and defensive (16.2-percent) rebounding percentages among small forwards with more than 150 logged minutes. Those percentages were good enough to rank him 4th and 8th respectively, and above one of the better rebounding guard-forwards, Josh Childress, who played for Olympiacos Piraeus in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Unfortunately, Vesely’s 2010-11 rebounding percentages took a hit. He pulled in 7.2-percent of the available offensive rebounds and 8.2-percent on the defensive end. Two important things to note: Partizan Belgrade was the fifth-best rebounding team in the Euroleague, hauling in 33.6-percent of offensive rebounds and 70.5-percent of defensive rebounds. Second, Vesely had a penchant for getting into transition — and why not, with the rebounding powers on the team? — where he used his made-for-YouTube speed and athleticism to punish defenses, a la Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers. His rebounding will make a difference for a Wizards team that is loathe to collect loose balls, so we can forgive some empty space on his Euroleague stat sheet.
It is time to talk briefly about detailed scoring statistics, per 28 minutes. Cue the applause. Vesely hit 65.2-percent of his shots from close range, which ranks him in the top-50 among all players in the Euroleague and top-20 among small forwards. He sank 37.5-percent of his jumpers, putting him just out of the top-50 Euroleague players, but inside the top-25 small forwards.
In 2010-2011, Vesely’s Effective Field-Goal Percentage (eFG% – a statistic that adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a two-point field goal) was 58.2. Richard Jefferson and Peja Stojakovic had similar eFG% numbers in the NBA. His True Shooting Percentage (TS% – a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws) was 56.8. Vesely’s TS% compares him to Chris Bosh, Matt Barnes, Hedo Turkoglu and, coincidently, Andrei Kirlienko, who he’s often been compared to.
Vesely has never been a great shooter, but that’s okay. Vesely doesn’t ride the J-train to work, he runs. As an added bonus, he knows his way around the rim and has a lot of potential as a back-to-the-basket scorer.
Last year, Vesely ranked in the top-20 among small forwards in Efficiency, a traditional NBA evaluatory statistic. Efficiency (PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – FG missed – FT missed – TO) is far from being the favorite sabermetric among basketball writers, bloggers and fans, due to a lack of formulaic emphasis on scoring efficiency. In terms of worth for the hoops community, efficiency most closely resembles the friendly neighborhood tweener who shovels your driveway during the winter — he pushes some powder, but doesn’t exactly offer an earth-moving contribution to the community. Regardless, Vesely’s efficiency rating was 10.64, not far from the Euroleague leader Fernando Sanemeterio (15.78) but well above those scraping the bottom of the barrel in the red.
Plus-minus, an estimate of his contribution to the team’s point differential per 140 possessions, is the final stop in today’s mystery metrics tour. In 2010-2011, Vesely was in the middle of the pack at plus-1.4. His team scored more points with him on the floor than without and played better defense. Even though he didn’t make a significant difference to Partizan’s box score, he didn’t hurt them either. That’s a small victory.
And perhaps plus-minus is the measure that best characterizes Jan Vesely, because when you look at the big picture — analytical metrics, statistics and game tape included — he is better than your average European small forward. Do his numbers jump off the page? Not at all, but Vesely justifies his selection with good grades in many statistical categories alone, particularly in a weak draft class.
Tagged with the hype, hope and high expectations associated with all lottery selections, the fact that Vesely is a paper tiger cub with a fierce determination to win games, even if that demands hitting the hardwood, has to make you smile.
Jan Vesely won’t win multiple scoring titles or bag handfuls of individual accolades — meaning no, he probably won’t be the next Dirk Nowitzki – but you have to give the Wizards credit for doing their homework. Vesely will have the immediate opportunity to be a reliable rotation player as soon as the next NBA season tips off. He also has the capacity to have a long, successful playing career. The question, of course, is to what extent?
[Top image courtesy of Emily Van Tassel]