Real vs. Ideal: What to expect from elite freshmen in Age-Limit era
Top incoming recruits are often burdened with unrealistic expectations from fans
Stats of former elite freshmen show those outside the top 20 rarely start
Those near the bottom of the top-100 often provide quality offense on the wings
Texas' Kevin Durant and Kansas State's Michael Beasley may have ruined it for everyone.
By competing for national player-of-the-year honors in the first two seasons after the NBA barred players from jumping straight into the draft out of high school, they became -- and almost unfairly so -- the benchmarks for top-10 recruits. Ohio State's Greg Oden and Memphis' Derrick Rose didn't help, either, leading their teams to national title-game appearances as freshmen. Too often, fans obsessing over loaded recruiting classes hope their incoming freshmen ranked in the top-10, top-50, or in most absurd cases, top-100, will be capable of star-level production from day one.
Those same fans might temper their expectations after examining the past three years of freshman-class data.
Using the RSCI (the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, an aggregator of class rankings), I built a database of the top 100 recruits from the classes of 2006, 2007 and 2008, recording their ranking alongside their freshman-year statistics in a number of categories, the most telling being percent of overall minutes played, percent of possessions used while on the floor (to gauge the significance of their offensive role), and Offensive Efficiency Rating (to gauge how many points they'd score per 100 possessions used).
(The inspiration for this came from an April 2008 post on the now-defunct blog Tyrone Shoelaces, which took a look at the freshmen from the '07-08 season. The blog, named after the 1975 Cheech & Chong song Basketball Jones Featuring Tyrone Shoelaces, died after three posts, sadly.)
Obviously, not every recruiting class is created equal, nor is every freshman walking into an identical team situation. But the averages from a three-year, 255-man pool (45 redshirts, injured players and non-enrollees, like Brandon Jennings, were removed) provide us with a decent statistical baseline. The production for RSCI top-100 freshmen, broken up into 10 brackets, looked like this:
That table may not mean much to you at first glance, but there are important things to be learned from it:
1. It's better to compare freshmen against the "average" players in their rankings bracket, not the gold standard.
For real-life context, I picked out a player from each RSCI bracket whose freshman-year stats bore the closest resemblance to the three-year average. As the table below suggests, rather than worrying if your team's top-10 player is better than Durant in '06-07, you should just be happy if he's better than Washington's Spencer Hawes was in that same season. If you're evaluating a player ranked between 11-20, compare him to UConn's Kemba Walker in '08-09 ... and so on:
It's far from an exact science, but it gives us better tools for making comparisons. If your team brings in a big man ranked No. 45 overall, don't burden him with pressure to perform like Oden, or even Cincinnati's Yancy Gates of Cincinnati, who had 57.5%/103.1/24.6% splits as the No. 32-ranked freshman in '08-09. Compare the kid to '07-08 JaJuan Johnson instead: His splits were 41.1%/98.3/18.9%.
Individual possession-based stats aren't yet available from kenpom.com for '09-10, but Kentucky's John Wall, the No. 2 overall player in the RSCI, looks as if he'll easily surpass the Spencer Hawes baseline, averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists while playing 36 minutes per game. Meanwhile, North Carolina's John Henson, ranked No. 5 in the RSCI, is averaging just 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 10.1 minutes per game. He's coping with learning a new position -- small forward -- on a team deep in big men, but still, those are sub-Hawesian numbers.
2. Don't expect recruits outside the top 40 to play starter minutes.
The chart to the right looks at the average percent of minutes played by each RSCI bracket -- and shows a precipitous drop between the top 10 and top 40. Top-20 recruits earned valuable-starter playing time (60-plus percent minutes), while top-30s and top-40s earned mid-rotation minutes (near 50 percent). After that, the average player was in a reserve-like role.
Fluctuation beyond the top 40 seems to indicate that evaluation in that range is less accurate, leaving plenty of sleepers lower on the list. Instant backcourt starters such as Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor (66.0 percent, '08-09) and Arkansas' Patrick Beverly (85.6 percent, '06-07) were ranked in the 70s, and USC's Daniel Hackett (66.9 percent, '07-08) and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez (71.8 percent, '06-07) were found in the 90s.
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