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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why NBA teams should be wary of Josh Jackson

Always draft shooting.

In today's NBA, players will get eviscerated if they can't shoot. How many long, athletic, grindy players with broken shots do we need to see drafted high in the lottery before we realize it doesn't work? The draft is full of players like Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Thomas Robinson, who came in with questionable shots and haven't made progress as a result.

The only real exceptions to this rule are the truly transcendent bigs, guys like Pau Gasol or Karl Anthony-Towns. And even those two have developed three-point strokes to compete in the modern league.

This goes deeper than surface arguments like Greg Oden, the plodding center, vs. Kevin Durant, the thin sniper. The draft history of the past decade-plus is one where three point shooting is an important barometer of talent. Chris Paul was a better shooter than Deron Williams in college, and has been the better NBA star. James Harden vs. Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, and others in his draft class is the same story.

I went through the past 16 years of top-five picks and looked at what they shot in their last collegiate year, and what value they've produced in the league via career win shares:
Data supports the assertion that shooting is important. Of course there are aberrations like Adam Morrison, whose temperament and diabetes made things harder. Or Marvin Williams busting after a few seasons in Atlanta. Wesley Johnson had a few good years but never put it all together. 

There are also players (highlighted in yellow) for which their college performance wasn't a great indicator. Jay Williams' career was ended by an off-court injury, so his win shares figure isn't helpful. James Harden shot extremely well as a freshman but regressed a bit as a sophomore as his team relied on him even more. Thomas Robinson and Derrick Williams hit over 50% of threes on extremely limited sample sizes.

But those weaknesses are the case in any draft study. The draft is a crapshoot. Heavily weighing 3P% makes it less crappy. The point is to combine film and other analysis with a player's three-point shooting ability to figure out which of these guys will be successful.

Shooting produces stars. It worked for Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Paul, Durant, and Harden. Looking at the eventual best players from each draft, ranked by All-NBA and All-Star appearances, shows that shooting is heavily involved. I've coded by green/yellow/red for their ability to shoot for their position:
Guys who shoot well have longer, more productive NBA careers. Others like Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook have only succeeded because they are generational talents. And both of them have struggled with injuries. Derrick Rose could also fall int that category.

But it's also about avoiding guys that can't shoot. This model would have discouraged picks like Drew Gooden, Tyrus Thomas, Hasheem Thabeet, Derrick Favors, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, and Jahlil Okafor. Others, like Al Horford, Deron Williams, and even Anthony Davis have added three-point shots to their game.

Which brings us to Josh Jackson. He shot 37.8% from three this year, but looking at him shoot makes me nervous. He has a hitch in his shot, it's not consistent, and he doesn't have the quick release that he'll need in the NBA.

And that should scare teams like the Celtics and Suns who are looking to add him in the first few picks. Shooting is the most important skill in basketball, now more than ever. I'm not sure his defense, ball-handling, and passing vision can make up for it. That's why I didn't like the Celtics trading out of Markelle Fultz into the third spot. Sure, they may be confident of getting Gordon Hayward, a good shooter, in free agency. But their other guards couldn't play against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals this year because they weren't good enough shooters.

I'm hopeful that Jackson can learn to shoot and have a productive, NBA career. I hope he can become a star. But the history of the draft shows that he'll have to get better at shooting to get there.

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