Is there room in the NBA for Thomas Walkup?

I posted this steam of consciousness “take” on Thomas Walkup at the APBRmetrics board, decided to go ahead and post it here:

kjb asks:

Has anyone seen Thomas Walkup play? He’s older and he played against weaker competition, but was very productive. Looks like he’ll go undrafted. Might be a nice UdFA for someone.

Thomas Walkup is an exceptional player. I watched him a few times last season – including every minute his stand out play in the NCAA tourney against supposedly “better” competition.

There’s an element of play that can’t be easily pinpointed that results in exceptional production at the college level (adjusting for comp, etc) – it’s a court awareness, hand eye coordination, alpha male type thing. Combine data (length, standing reach, etc) usually does it no justice. In football – it’s like Tom Brady going into the draft. Or Tony Romo. There’s just something, innate ability to feel the rush, read the defense, stay cool under pressure. In college basketball – it usually manifests itself in ACTUAL high level performances again & again that greatly outpaces many players who will be drafted well ahead of said player. Now, these players do tend to be older – so there’s an easy excuse to overlook them. Draymond Green was one of these guys coming out of college. Denzell Valentine is one. Brice Johnson is one. Buddy Hield would have been one if he wasn’t breaking three point records – which got him lottery attention.

Obviously my ratings love Walkup, my projections will love him (despite low three point attempts for a guard and his advanced age). He has a very nice shooting stroke – I don’t see any reason why he won’t be an effective 3pt shooter. To me, I FULLY EXPECT him to be a BETTER Dellavedova type player. He was easily THE star (NO teammates anywhere close to a next level player) on a top 30 college team. Stephen F Austin ended up MUCH better than LSU & Simmons (NOT saying he’s a better prospect than Simmons btw, just making point about player impact). They were MUCH better than Washington – who somehow could have TWO players in the lottery who weren’t even close to the best players on their own Huskies team. Stephen F Austin was a fairly high level college team almost solely because of Thomas Walkup. He’s obviously a immense gym rat by looking at his level of usage, assist rate, mid range efficiencies. He’s built like a 6’4″ piece of granite.

Slightly related note – would Larry Bird or Charles Barkley be high lottery picks if they came out of college in today’s game? Bird was OLD, slow, not athletic, and starred on a team not much different than Stephen F Austin. Would be an elite three point shooter – that’d maybe get him in the lottery?

Barkley was a 6’4″ fat post player with little face up game yet – although he ran the court great for a fat guy. I can’t imagine an NBA team giving him the time of day in today’s draft (fear of injury, eating himself out of the league, not being able to defend any position).

In terms of college production, Bird & Barkley would have easily been right at the top of their draft classes according to my draft model. Teams OFTEN drafted back then more according to relative college production (although at times did a poor job of adjusting correctly for pace, SoS, etc – think Bo Kimble) – and it seems when they ventured away from that (like they do often now) they usually failed miserably (think Chris Washburn & Olowokandi). It seems when high school kids became part of the draft – NBA teams started to put MUCH more importance into combine results and private workouts, in many cases almost completely ignoring relative college production. I think this is part of the reason why the draft has turned so much into a crapshoot for many teams – it’d be like baseball teams almost completely ignoring minor league production when considering who to call up – relying instead on 40 times, bench press, shuttle runs, and private workouts to judge players. Makes it easy for a draft model like mine (through retrodictions) to historically outperform actual draft positions while ignoring 95% of the data (combines, workouts, interviews, medical records, etc) most NBA teams consider.

So, again, my draft model will love Walkup. My eye’s saw a next level player – I saw a college player that produced in a way I would have expected a 23 year old Manu Ginobili to produce if he played on that SFA team – high motor, high usage, great efficiency across the board, good assist rate, etc. I’ll bet about anything he’ll prove to be well worth the “risk” of a late 2nd round pick or FA signing.


NBA teams, and allocation of resources

I was perusing the APBRmetrics board, and this question came up by Crow:

Suppose somebody went to a team (or a forum…) and suggested adding 100 people to basketball operations (across all sub-departments / disciplines) above team current or NBA average. I’d guess you could do that for $10-15 million a year. How many GMs and owners would even consider it? Has any done it to that scale? Why not on trial basis and then judge value? 50 adds? 25?

My response:

Similar to what I’ve mentioned before – these teams are, theoretically, billion dollar companies. Having such an insanely small (relative) amount of paid salary going out to basketball operations & analytic departments seems pretty short sighted to me. A quality full TEAM of analysts/basketball people of varying approaches and abilities working with the gm, coaches, & has to make for better decisions. A single bad decision (let alone MANY bad decisions) can cost teams many, many MILLIONS of dollars. Putting these decisions in the hands of a couple people (think, Vlade Divac being one of a couple) – with maybe some input from some scouts & maybe a little input from an analyst – just seems SO risky long term.

One example, the Dallas Mavs (luv ya Mark, don’t unfollow me or cross me off your possible future hire list) & the Rajon Rondo debacle. The time of their trade for him, I died (as a fan) a little inside. I knew it was a horrible trade for the Mavs, just horrible. I told everyone who would listen how I felt- just not a ton on Twitter for, honestly, fear of losing said billionaire follow I previously mentioned. Would a team of quality analysts and basketball people have traded for an expiring Rondo contract (while the possibility of resigning him would have been tied to an almost max offer – think about that, offering a MAX contract to Rajon Rondo) – and to get Rondo give up Jae Crowder (! – already a poor man’s Draymond Green, but the Mavs hadn’t fully figured that out yet), Brandan Wright (also very underrated, but more in a post box score stuffer way than Jae), Jameer Nelson, a FIRST round pick, and a 2nd round pick? Remember – they did this at a time when the Mavs offense was #1 in the league in efficiency by a solid margin.

I know, the Mavs also got Dwight Powell. Yay.

The assets the Mavs gave up in that trade will probably cost them many, many millions of dollars over the next number of years. A more depleted roster, a roster that will be tough to rebuild with those future draft picks gone. Would a team of analysts (honest analysts who aren’t sycophants) allowed that trade without screaming at the top of their lungs “please, PLEASE, no!”? Just in this one case – spending greater resources in basketball operations would have SAVED the Mavs millions in lost revenue (ie, lost wins) the next number of years.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Boston Celtics probably have put more focus and money into basketball ops and their analytics department than the Mavs or most other teams.

Main point, teams need to WIN games. Having much greater amounts of salary paid to a sales department (trying to sell tickets & get sponsors) than an analytics team devoted helping with proper roster construction, game planning, and player usage (help keep players fresh & avoid injuries) makes little sense to me.

My final point – maybe I’m wrong. Maybe many of these teams are already putting, say, more than $10 million a year into their analytics department? Maybe they are spending more money on analytics than they are their sales department? Honestly, these are mainly (slightly educated) assumptions I am making, from what I’ve been told by others (some more in the know) and from what I see (media reports).

If that already twice mentioned certain follow reads this – I bet there’s a chance I may get lambasted in DM if my assumptions are off. That’ll be interesting. Hell, if ANY NBA admin DM me (there are a number who follow) – I am ALL ears. If better info is presented to me, I’m more than willing to add any future illumination or clarification to this write up if need be.

But, if that is true (teams are spending way more resources on basketball ops than I assume), my 17 year draft model retrodiction results are even scarier. One guy with ZERO financial resources, using only college box score data (ie, a fraction of info available to teams), can project players that correlate to real future NBA success (tested historically) MUCH better than actual NBA teams of GMs, coaches, scouts, and analysts can? How is that possible?


Please, Michael Wilbon, STOP being part of the problem

I know I’m a little late here, but been off the grid a bit. I’m back.

Anyway, first, an article by Steve Shea that I am all on board with:

Basketball Analytics : Still Misunderstood

The article that precipitated the Steve Shea response really made me lose what little respect for Michael Wilbon I had left. He almost made it sound like young black men and women couldn’t possibly be good enough at math to become quality analysts (thus making the field exclusionary and possibly racist) – which really infuriated me the more I dwelled on it. I know that’s not what his intent was – most current analytics people are white males (asian males making up almost all the rest), so to him it must be exclusionary – but WITHOUT A DOUBT that can change. Teams start paying better $ for analysts and creating a team of analysts of varying approaches that work well with each other (hand in hand with coaches, scouts, gm) – making basketball analytics seem like a real career option to at least slightly rival (for those who love basketball) the plethera of Silicon Valley companies – maybe some young black and hispanic kids might start embracing mathematics more if they want to increase their chances to be part of the NBA (or NFL) landscape.

Warning, personal diatribe coming.

I LOVE basketball. I listened to Piston games every night (coincided with Isiah Thomas arrival) on the radio, keeping scoring stats at age 9. I consumed all Bill James’ abstracts, and immediately tried to tie concepts I learned to basketball. I PLAYED basketball daily. When we moved to Texas – I played pick up every day at 14 years old with all the tough, grizzled adults who still played every day. At at the University of Arizona, when not recovering from injuries (ankles, dislocated fingers), I played pick up ball 6 hours a day at the rec.

I played ball my whole life, I re-acquired my childhood love for basketball analytics pretty much as soon as my body (bad knees) and doctors told me and needed to stop playing any more than once a week, if at all. So, now, the numbers fill that void. I am a basketball guy first, who also LOVES to TRY to solve any/all basketball riddles (who will project best, what players fit best together and why, who were the greatest historically, etc.). Love for basketball spurs the math – which is what I ASSUME would make possibly the best team analysts.

By the way, I am not championing that I should be working for a team (although, obviously, I personally do think I should be – I’m very biased) – I’m just making a point about love for basketball. No one can tell me that ANY kid who loves basketball and math – no matter their ethnicity – couldn’t put together a similar (or MUCH better than mine – actually majoring in programming and/or something relating to statistical analysis instead of “learning about life” and majoring in Humanities like I did) road towards a love for basketball analytics. Heck – those kids won’t even have to run off to Alaska for 15 years to “learn even more about life” – they might actually get a basketball gig (relating to their major) out of college.

As a dad, if either of my boys want to be a pro athlete (my older for now says he wants to play major league baseball) – I will do whatever I can to help them. But, both my boys are good/great at math, and I am already preparing them for thinking about how math might help their future career in sports outside of or even after playing – if that’s where their hearts lead.

Future NBA teams will have ex pro basketball players who are also skilled and qualified analysts. I know there are parents out there who will remind their kids that loving a sport can extend well beyond the court. Analytics, in my opinion, is an exceptional way to show and expound on that love for the game.

So I suggest to Michael Wilbon – try his best to help his son acquire a love for math. Don’t spout every day about the worthlessness of analytics, all the while your Cubs have been transformed and are run by almost completely analytics minded people. Your son will learn from his father. Don’t limit him because YOU suck at math and thus can’t respect it and how it can apply to all forms of our life. Maybe your son, with support from his dad, might end up a future gm/president of the Bulls – with help from his analytical mind and training.

Also at the same time, please, stop telling everyone in earshot your overwhelmingly antiquated view of mathematics as it relates to sports. If you dream of future great opportunities for black youth, telling them “math is bad and is only for nerds” sure as hell doesn’t help the cause. Tell that to Neil Degrasse Tyson. Should young black males not learn about Astrophysics just because you and the people you associate with don’t understand all that “space nerd stuff”? Please, stop being part of the problem.