Monday, May 16, 2011

2011 NBA Draft Card: Kyrie Irving

In today’s post, I will continue the series of comparative “draft cards” on college players who have entered the 2011 NBA Draft.  Today we will analyze the relative professional prospects of Kyrie Irving, from Duke University.  To make such an analysis more accessible, I will start with a glossary of statistical terms, which can be referred to by the reader:
SPR = [2PFGM + 1.5(3PFGM) + (FTM/2) + AST]/[FGA + (FTA/2) + AST + TOV]
TAPPS = PTS/[FGA + (FTA/2) + TOV]
TOT = TOV/[TOV + FGA + (FTA/2) + TRB + STL + AST]
SSI = FTA/FGA
SAR = [FGA + (FTA/2)]/AST
3PR = 3PFGA/FGA
3PS = 3PFGM/FGM
E = SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)
wCE = (MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
P/E = Salary/[SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
wP/E = Salary/(MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
EG = (Present Year’s E – Previous Year’s E)/(Previous Year’s E)
wEG = (Present Year’s wCE – Previous Year’s wCE)/(Previous Year’s wCE)

There is not a lot of data through which to parse on Kyrie Irving, the Duke University guard (Combination Distributor, to use Basketball I.Q. parlance) who declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year.  Not only do we have but a single season to provide us with data on Irving, he missed all but 11 games during his single collegiate campaign due to an unusual toe injury.  Because Irving is leaving three years of eligibility on the table, I have decided to compare his limited collegiate statistics to two players who also left for college with at least half of their eligibility remaining:  Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, who left college after his sophomore season, and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, who departed after his freshman year.

As such, we will not compare the growth of these respective players, since only Paul played for more than one season, and was thus the only player for which we could derive year-to-year development (we will use Paul’s freshman season for comparative purposes).  Likewise, because Irving’s minutes were somewhat limited this year (he averaged less than 30 minutes per game – in the beginning of the season, this was likely because he was brand new to college basketball; by the end of the season, this was probably due to a graded return from injury), we will not compare weighted earnings or weighted growth, either.

To be sure, an interpretation of Irving’s statistical achievements in college should be viewed cautiously, because of the small sample size.  Nevertheless, we have no choice but to work with what we have.  We will begin with a comparison of the qualitative statistics between Irving, Paul and Rose – the Shot-to-Assist Ratio (SAR); the Shot Selection Index (SSI); the Three-Point Rate (3PR); and the Three-Point Skew (3PS):

                                    SAR      SSI        3PR      3PS

Irving, FR                     2.97     .683     .375     .327
Paul, FR                       1.97     .654     .316     .296
Rose, FR                      2.85     .470     .239     .168

Upon review of the qualitative statistics, Irving has a very similar game to Paul.  Both players had extraordinarily high SSIs during their freshman seasons, taking about two-thirds as many free throws as field goal attempts (the NBA median is about .290, whereas both Irving and Paul were above .650), indicating that both players exhibited excellent shot selection.  This is supported by the fact that each player shot over 50% from the field as freshmen.  But what is so amazing about each player’s SSI is that both Irving and Paul were astounding free throw shooters – Paul shot above 80%, and Irving shot above 90%.  This means that, despite the fact that each player was a virtual lock from the free throw line, their opponents felt that their looks at the basket were so good that they still fouled them on a high proportion of their shot attempts.  For this strategy to make sense for the defense on a 90% free throw shooter, it would mean that the shots on which Irving was fouled had a 90% or better chance of going in.  When your SSI is .683 – and remember, this is a perimeter player who is playing away from the basket – and you are shooting 90% from the free throw line, you are making a ton of smart decisions on the court.  It should be noted that during his freshman year, Paul’s statistics in this regard were outstanding – not surprising for a player who has gone on to be a legitimate MVP candidate in the NBA – but Irving’s are a tad bit better.

The omission of Rose from the discussion is not meant as a disparagement – an SSI of .470 is very good, well above the average, and considerably so for a backcourt player.  It just was not quite as good as Irving’s and Paul’s.

The rate at which Irving and Paul both attempted and made three-pointers is also very similar, although Irving took (and made) more as a percentage of overall field goals.  As such, with the three-point arc moving back at the next level, you would expect this to have a mildly deleterious effect on Irving’s performance – but it would be expected to be similar to that experienced by Paul, and he does not seem to have suffered as a professional.  Rose, somewhat to my surprise, did not attempt a lot of three-pointers, in comparison to the rest of his shot attempts.

Looking at the SAR, Irving is actually more similar to Rose than to Paul:  Irving and Rose both qualify as Combination Distributors, whereas Paul is a Primary Distributor.  All three players appear comfortable with distributing the ball, and creating opportunity, for their teammates (although Paul is the more likely distributor).  Upon comparison of the qualitative statistics, one might conclude that Irving has a style and balance to his game that is on a par with aspects of both Paul’s and Rose’s games (he shoots like Paul, he passes like Rose).

Now let’s move on to the quantitative alternative statistics – the Successful Possession Rate (SPR), the Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot (TAPPS), the Turnover per Touch (TOT), and Earnings (E):

                                    SPR      TAPPS    TOT   E

Irving, FR                     .670     1.15       .101   2.72
Paul, FR                       .660     1.04       .101   2.60
Rose, FR                      .584     .925       .101   2.41

Again, Irving and Paul have very similar, excellent games.  Rose, too, was an excellent performer during his freshman year of college, but not quite as good as the other two – though there is an excellent reason for this:  Free throw shooting.  As freshmen, both Irving and Paul went to the free throw line much more than Rose did, and when they got there, they rarely missed, while Rose shot just 71% from the line in his freshman year.  Had Rose gotten to the line just a little bit more, and shot his free throws with similar accuracy, his numbers would have been every bit as good as Irving’s and Paul’s.

In fact, as a pro, that is exactly what Rose has done, especially this past year, when he won the MVP.  He now shoots better than 85% from the free throw line, which is a large part of why he is so dangerous, and he has an SSI this past year of .781 – which puts him on a par with the likes of Shaq during his prime (but imagine if Shaq hit 85% of his free throws).

But we are not talking about Derrick Rose as a third-year pro – we are talking about Kyrie Irving as a college freshman, and how he compares to Rose and Chris Paul at similar stages in their development.  And I would say that Irving is already doing as a college freshman what it took Rose two full years of professional ball to learn.  Now, this does not guarantee that this trend will continue – Paul, for example, still has an excellent SSI (.414), but it is not as good as where he was in college, whereas Rose has improved tremendously – but it is an excellent starting point.

All three players have identical turnover rates as freshmen.  Irving has the highest TAPPS and SPR because of his free throw shooting and successful three point shooting, with Paul right behind him.

In sum, Kyrie Irving’s college statistics compare quite favorably with those of Chris Paul and Derrick Rose.  Of course, due to injury Irving’s freshman season was only 11 games long, and so the reproducibility of these excellent statistics may be called into question.  Likewise, it is unlikely that any player would demonstrate the remarkable growth at the professional level that Rose has, though one would hope that he could keep it together as well as Paul.

To conclude, it is fair to compare the collegiate Kyrie Irving to both Chris Paul and Derrick Rose – he appears to have a similar potential to these MVP-caliber players.  With only two collegiate players having been analyzed, the current rankings would be:

1.      Kyrie Irving
2.      Derrick Williams

The next post will analyze the draft potential of Brandon Knight from the University of Kentucky.

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