Player Evaluation: Introduction
Hi, my name is Aaron.
I have been an avid basketball fan my entire life. After watching about a decade worth of basketball I think that I have a pretty keen eye to notice the makings of a star in the NBA. One of my favorite things to do is watch and rewatch my favorite players and their peak moments to capture and recapture the feeling that I had when they pulled off an insane play. I’m going to start evaluating some of these players and those moments in order to encapsulate the player’s playstyle and how their career has affected the NBA as a whole. One thing I am going to stray away from is ranking players, especially between eras because that always gets so controversial. I was born after Michael Jordan’s prime so it’s not really fair for me to evaluate him against Lebron James, who has dominated the league since the moment I started to watch. However, one thing I do like to compare between eras is playstyle and dish-out comparisons because the most successful hoopers watch the film of past players that they’d like to emulate.
When evaluating a player there are so many things that need to be factored in to understanding their complete game. For now, when I evaluate a player, I will consider their player archetype, the eye test, the analytics and stats, their career achievements, their league-wide perception, their ceiling, peak, or potential, and their past comparison(s) or influences on their game.
If you read my NBA writing at SemiPro Sports then you’ll remember the way that I categorized players involved certain archetypes rather than positions due to the positionless nature of the NBA. Additionally, comparing with the use of archetypes helps to separate the differences of comparing guys like Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard who are expected to play two completely different playstyles due to their build, yet they get ranked above and below one another constantly. Realistically, it is tough to compare the skill level between a 6-foot-3 guard that hits clutch daggers from 35-feet to an imposing versatile big man that has a mid-post game comparable to that of Hakeem Olajuwon. This discrepancy led to me looking at players through the lens of archetypes. The archetypes include play-makers/play initiators, slashers, three-and-d guys, transcendent wings, pure shooters, pure scorers, stretch bigs, and versatile bigs. Archetypes hold major importance in the NBA because general managers use them every day to evenly build their team. Every contender has benefitted from a mixture of these archetypes on their roster. To see examples of these archetypes and to get an expanded explanation check out this article.
The eye test is the most important aspect of player evaluation and it consists of many minor subsets. For example, when an average person turned on a Lakers game in the earlier parts of the 21st century your eye test would quickly tell you that Kobe Bryant was the best player on the court. Bryant moved with fluidity like no other player. He used that fluidity to get to his spot every time he touched the ball no matter who guarded him. He created space for himself to get a shot off, and more often than not, knock that shot down. It didn’t take an expert to know that Bryant passed the eye test. For someone who has played basketball for a long time one of the major aspects of the eye test is a player’s feel for the game. Feel for the game is similar to what I described with Bryant: instinctively knowing where to go on the court to get your shot off and knowing how to get there, feeling the pulse of the crowd and feeding off of that, understanding time and score without looking at the scoreboard, knowing where your teammates are and how to pass it into the shooters pocket. All of these instinctive traits are inclusive of a player’s feel for the game. The best way to understand it is that some guys have it and some guys don’t, and those that have it know when they have it and they can tell who else has it. If you don’t understand that, well, then you probably don’t have it.
The next aspect that I will use to evaluate a player is analytics and stats. Before I explain the importance of stats, I think it’s important that as a reader you understand how to value stats. Most statistics don’t factor context, which I personally think is a huge omission and why I value eye test above statistics because when you are watching a player you can understand the context, or the moment they are in. Statistics don’t factor in the importance of the moment because every stat is a calculation of numbers and the feeling of a moment is incalculable. For example, Damian Lillard knocking down the famous 37-footer over Paul George to send the Portland Trailblazers to the second round is a much different 37-footer than one that Trae Young routinely hits in the second quarter in the middle of a regular-season game in December. Now that I have severely diminished the value of stats, I hope you can understand the level of importance they have because statistics do help tell the story. Some of the main statistics I am going to look at when evaluating a player are: effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage(TSP), (which adjusts FG% to value threes more because they are worth more than twos, and TSP takes into account FT%), win shares (which shows how much a player affected his team’s outcome), usage percentage (which shows the percentage of plays ran for a player when they are on the court), as well as the basic points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks per game.
The next evaluation mark will be career achievement. Obviously, it’s tougher for younger guys to have achieved more in their career as they have played fewer seasons. That being said, career achievements that I value highly include playoff success, regular-season and playoff awards, as well as other historic stats that players have set. Similarly to statistics, career achievements are subjective to the player’s situation and the era they are in. For example, Michael Jordan never had to take down the 73–9 Warriors to win a ring, but that is an argument I’m not going to indulge, just an example to allow you to value career achievements properly.
The next aspect of player evaluation is the player’s league-wide perception. The perception of a player is usually manipulated by the media or fans that rival or have a bias towards that certain player, however, the perception definitely tells the story and should be included while evaluating a player. Narratives make the NBA fun even if they take away from the greatness of some player’s skill and analyzing the narratives and perceptions are vital to the evaluation process. To give an example of a league-wide perception that distracts from the skill of that player is the perception that Kyrie Irving “doesn’t care about basketball.” That is a stupid argument that again I don’t want to indulge but it is vital for me to bring up to maximize my evaluations.
The next evaluation tool I’m going to use is analyzing that player’s peak or what their potential ceiling can be if they have not peaked yet. The “peak” or “ceiling” means the player’s highest level of skill in their career. By analyzing the peak or ceiling you can get a better understanding of how dominant a player was and how they affected the league when they were at their best. For example, James’ peak seasons were in Miami when he won the league MVP multiple times. He was a lockdown defender, at his athletic peak, and had a knockdown jump shot. With that being said, it is important that we don’t let a player’s peak ruin where he is currently, because LeBron might not be at his athletic peak, but at 36, he is still the best player in the NBA and he dominates every night in different ways than he did while in Miami.
The last aspect of evaluation that I am going to use is player comparisons to past or current players. One of the only ways that I allow myself to compare through eras is playstyle, not achievements and stats because again that doesn’t factor in situational context. But comparing past and present individual playstyles allows me to see how the game has evolved and how player’s influence one another.
I hope you will take the time to read some of my player evaluations as I think they will be very helpful in sharing a new perspective of the NBA and allowing you to learn about a certain player and what makes them so great. Please feel free to comment and suggest players that you would like for me to evaluate, as well as other aspects I should factor into the evaluating process.