In a present seemingly monopolized by the Warriors, one of the most exciting aspects of the 2017-18 NBA season was the future. The rookies selected last summer in the 2017 NBA Draft delivered some of the sport's biggest headlines over the last year.
None of them snatched those headlines quite like Utah's Donovan Mitchell. The 21-year-old, selected by the Jazz with the 13th pick following a trade with the Nuggets, averaged 20.5 points per game on a usage rate equal to some of the NBA's biggest stars.
Mitchell's scoring success, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, has already inspired the NBA media writ large and the league's franchises themselves to start searching for the "next Donovan Mitchell."
Given a Google search for that phrase already produces over 10,000 results, you'd think the search for the next Mitchell would be a relatively easy one, but in reality, finding a prospect as productive as Mitchell at a similar draft position is nearly impossible.
Only five rookies during the one-and-done era have averaged better than 20.0 points per game in their first season. The non-Mitchell selections - Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Tyreke Evans and Blake Griffin - were all top-five picks. It takes reaching back to the 1986-87 season and 23-year-old Ron Harper, selected No. 8, to find the last non-top-five pick to average more than 20.0 points per game as a rookie. Mitchell is a very serious outlier.
Prospects hitting such a high point on their development curve so early is a rarity. With the right framework, though, it might be possible to identify prospects similar to Mitchell, ones who didn't shine as scorers in college, but possess high upside as NBA players, even if the likelihood of hitting the tail-end outcome is lower.
Prior research from Layne Vashro, now an analyst for the Nuggets, and more recent work from Nylon Calculus' Andrew Johnson can serve as a guiding hand in these discussions. Both pieces attempt to identify which box score statistics are likely to improve for a prospect over time. Don't expect young players who don't rebound, block shots or create steals to suddenly get better at them in the pros, for example. There's more room for growth in other areas.
Vashro's research, in particular, is helpful for potentially identifying prospects who might blossom as scorers.
"Steals and assist-to-turnover ratio seem to say something about a player's awareness and understanding of the game that makes them useful markers of potential," he wrote at the time.
Mitchell checked both boxes as a college prospect, as he averaged 2.6 steals per 40 minutes and posted a 1.66 assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore. Even his freshman season - 1.7 steals per 40 and a 1.73 ratio - portended a potential future breakout. Search for similar numbers, and you'll find Kyle Lowry's sophomore season at Villanova, Kemba Walker's early years at Connecticut and Terry Rozier's time at Louisville.
Which brings us to Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith, the No. 8 prospect on our most recent Big Board. When the college basketball season started, he wasn't on the NBA's radar. Smith entered his freshman campaign ranked as the 194th-best recruit in the high school class of 2018, according to 247Sports' Composite Rankings. Neither Rivals nor ESPN even had him on their boards. Now, he's slated to be a first-rounder.
Smith posted similar measurements to Mitchell at the NBA Draft Combine last month:
And his freshman statistics aren't dissimilar to Mitchell's first college campaign:
|Player||PTS/40||TS %||USG %||TRB/40||AST/40||STL/40||BLK/40||TOV/40|
Smith possesses positive statistical indicators in terms of high level feel and basketball IQ. According to data compiled by Will Schreefer from RealGM's database, just 12 college freshmen (min. 500 minutes played) averaged 1.5 steals per 40 minutes this season with a better than 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Two of those players, Oklahoma's Trae Young and Kentucky's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are projected lottery picks. Another, Duke's Trevon Duval, will be drafted (perhaps lower than he should be).
Smith is arguably the most athletic player of the bunch, especially when it comes to translating it functionally on the floor. His intersection of feel and athleticism is exemplified by a collection of highlight-reel putback dunks. Smith had 11 of them this season. That's the most for a player shorter than 6-6 since at least 2009, according to Schreefer's database:
The hesitations with Smith center around a lack of certainty. He spent much of the year effectively playing power forward for the Red Raiders and rarely created offense. He finished just 47 possessions all season as the pick-and-roll ball-handler or out of isolation, per Synergy.
Instead, Smith often spent offensive possessions lingering in the dunker spot on the baseline. He accounted for 54 "basket cuts," which includes dump-off passes, this season. That's on par with bigs like Deandre Ayton (62), Marvin Bagley III (62) and Wendell Carter Jr. (60).
In the right situation, Smith should be afforded an opportunity to develop as a creator. He's not a total zero with the ball in his hands. Although he dribbles in a relatively stiff manner, he has a good first step, can change directions and is able to use his strength to generate separation on step backs in the midrange:
Smith also needs to improve as a shooter. He attempted just 40 3-pointers this season, and while he made 45.0 percent of those attempts, the low volume and a mediocre 71.7 free throw percentage aren't inspiring. The mechanics aren't awful, though, and it's a skill he can build on with more repetitions.
Smith is rightfully viewed as a long-term project given his lack of actualized offensive skill, which could be depressing his value with NBA franchises. It's possible he won't hit his stride for a few seasons. Remember, it took Victor Oladipo three teams to find his niche.
Even so, he's the type of player NBA teams should be willing to bet on if they're looking for real upside. Smith played his entire freshman season as an 18-year-old. Mitchell, on the other hand, turned 19 nearly two months before his freshman campaign started. His leap this season came after he turned 21. Smith has a long runway and a unique combination of feel, IQ and athleticism. Those are traits worth the risk.
There are other prospects in the 2018 NBA Draft who fit a similar mold, although they project to be different players than Mitchell. Consider USC's De'Anthony Melton. He's ranked No. 13 on our Big Board, considerably higher than his projected draft position.
Melton was held out of his sophomore season due to the FBI's college basketball probe, but his freshman year numbers, including 2.8 steals per 40 minutes and a 1.95 assist-to-turnover ratio, are suggestive of a similar upside potential.
Melton compares favorably to current Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday both in terms of physique:
And freshman year production:
|Player||PTS/40||TS %||USG %||TRB/40||AST/40||STL/40||BLK/40||TOV/40|
Melton isn't quite the same quick twitch athlete on the perimeter Holiday was in college, but he gets the most out of his 36.5-inch max vertical leap on the floor, as evidenced by his 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes and impressive one-foot slams:
Whereas Smith's play as a power forward limited his creation opportunities, Melton had plenty of chances as a freshman. He excelled as a playmaker for others both in the halfcourt and in transition. Melton has excellent vision and reads defenses well, allowing him to make quick passes to shooters on the perimeter.
He's also a patient passer in pick-and-rolls, using his dribble penetration to draw in defenders before sneaking passes to teammates.
Melton needs to make strides as a scorer in these situations, though. He lacked the strength as a freshman to finish through rim protectors and relied on contorting his body to avoid them instead. Notably, Mitchell also struggled to finish at the rim in college.
The 20-year-old Melton also struggled as a jump shooter. He made just 28.4 percent of his shots from behind the arc and converted only 70.6 percent of his free throws. Holiday posted similarly poor shooting numbers during his lone season at UCLA. The development of his jump shot - he's a career 36.0 percent 3-point shooter - has been an important aspect of his NBA career arc. Melton's commitment to reworking his shot, as he's apparently done during his year away, will be vital.
Like Smith, Melton is an unfinished product, but he was also an 18-year-old freshman at USC, so he has a bit more runway compared to other sophomores. And like Smith, he's an excellent team defender with instincts that range from hard to impossible to teach. He'll be another worthwhile upside play on draft night.
Betting on these types of players is a risky proposition for NBA teams given their uncertain outcomes. If Smith never develops as a ball-handler or shooter, his path to offensive value is incredibly limited. Melton may be a safer prospect due to his secondary playmaking ability, but if he struggles to score, he'll top out as a smaller version of Marcus Smart.
History suggests, though, that if you're interested in finding players with a higher chance of outperforming their draft positions, investing in prospects with a high basketball IQ and positive athleticism is the risk worth taking.