Is Kevon Looney a lottery pick?
ESPN Insider's Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton return to provide the kind of discussions that are happening in front offices around the NBA -- where scouts and statistical experts are breaking down NBA draft prospects using their "eyes, ears and numbers."
Question: Is UCLA's Kevon Looney really a top 10 pick in this year's draft? Is he really ready for the NBA?
Ford: You really have to divorce those two questions from each other. NBA readiness is part of the draft equation, but it isn't the draft equation. Too many people look at box scores or see a player have an unimpressive game and dismiss them as NBA prospects. That especially happens with young players who aren't physically ready to dominate college, let alone the pros.
Scouts have consistently ranked him in the top 10 all season. He's gone as high as No. 5 on our Big Board and currently is No. 7. If he declares for the draft (a big if), I think he'll go somewhere in the 6-to-12 range.
Where do the numbers have him ranked Kevin? Is he worthy of a lottery pick?
Pelton: I have him ranked 22nd in projected WARP, but that sounds worse than it is. There's a logjam in the late teens in early 20s of players with WARP projections right around 2.0 (Looney is at 2.0 on the dot). That typically puts players in the third tier of my projections and suggests a player who's likely to become a quality starter. Because there's so little separation, when Looney's rank on Chad's big board is factored in, Looney ranks ninth in the consensus draft projection I recently introduced.
As for readiness, he does project slightly better than replacement level next season. Given the recent history of one-and-done prospects outside the top five, however, I wouldn't be stunned if he ends up taking something of a redshirt year.
Question: What are Looney's strengths and weaknesses?
Ford: Scouts love Looney despite the fact he's raw in several areas.
He has great size for his position, has a freaky wingspan and is a good athlete for someone his size, so he checks all the boxes when it comes to size and athleticism. Looney also possesses NBA skills. He's very good on the offensive boards thanks to his pterodactyl-like wingspan and can step out and shoot. He led the country in double-doubles for a freshman, nearly averaged a double-double for the season and shot 43 percent from 3 this season.
And despite his slim frame, he's much tougher than he looks. When Kentucky beat down UCLA in Chicago, he was the only UCLA player out there still fighting. He's playing the role of power forward at UCLA, but he has small forward skills, as well. He can handle the ball and see the floor. Scouts got to see that whenever they showed up at UCLA practice. There's more to his game than he shows.
On the downside, his midrange game is a work in progress. He shot just 24 percent on his 2-point jumpers this season. He needs to get stronger and more assertive as an offensive player. He's definitely a work in progress and might need time to develop at the next level. But it's not like he had a terrible freshman season by any means.
Kevin, what do the numbers say about his strengths and weaknesses?
Pelton: Comparing Looney to combo forwards, rebounding is naturally a strength. Surprisingly, that wouldn't be the case if we considered Looney a pure power forward. His double-doubles overstate his rebounding ability a little bit. His steal rate is also good for a frontcourt player, and Looney rarely turned the ball over.
Looney's only statistical weakness relative to combo forwards was his low usage rate. His 2-point percentage also is a bit of a concern. Because of the poor percentage on 2-point jumpers you mentioned, he made just 47.7 percent of his 2-pointers overall. That's poor for an NBA prospect who played primarily on the interior.
Question: Who does Looney compare to as an NBA player?
Ford: I've heard a lot of scouts compare him to a young Lamar Odom. I see that potential as a long, versatile forward who can do lots of different things on the court. Noah Vonleh, who went No. 9 in last year's draft, is another comp -- though Vonleh was more of a traditional power forward.
Pelton: The closest comparisons at the same age in my database are almost entirely perimeter-oriented combo forwards: Thaddeus Young, Maurice Harkless, Marvin Williams and Rudy Gay score better than 95 in terms of similarity. The other interesting name is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was a year older when he entered the NBA, and has a slightly lower similarity score (93.6) in large part because he'd showed more perimeter skills. Leonard was a better free throw shooter, handed out more assists and created more offense. But their other stats are reasonably similar.
The danger of mentioning Leonard is that he nailed the conversion to small forward faster than anyone could have possibly imagined, developing into a capable 3-point shooter during the lockout before his rookie season. That's an unfair standard for any prospect. But it does speak to Looney's potential.
Question: How much should NBA teams weight potential versus production?
Ford: Ideally you have both, but it rarely turns out that way. Players with great potential are able to use their athleticism and physical gifts to get by without great skill development in high school. Guys without elite physical skills are forced to develop their basketball skills to keep getting minutes.
Once players get to high-level college teams or the NBA, physical skills or basketball skills alone rarely cut it. You need both. That said, I know that many scouts believe that you can't teach the physical skills. You can't make players grow and there's only so much you can add to a player's athletic ability. But you can teach a player how to shoot. Or how to defend. Or how to see the floor better. There are hundreds of examples. So when in doubt, you take potential and hope for production.
That's why Andrew Wiggins went ahead of Jabari Parker last year or Dwight Howard over a seasoned Emeka Okafor in 2004. It's why Russell Westbrook went ahead of more seasoned prospects like D.J. Augustin. But it's also why Greg Oden went ahead of Kevin Durant and why Tyrus Thomas went No. 4. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't.
Pelton: I think that answer depends on the team. A franchise in the middle of the rebuilding process can certainly afford to wait on player development in a way that one battling for a playoff spot might justifiably not want to. I would say potential is more important because the difference between players three years down the road is likely to be bigger than the difference in Year 1. But potential is also more difficult to evaluate. It can't be wishcasting a player into what you want them to be.
If that sounds wishy-washy, it's because I'm not sure what to think anymore. Studies have consistently shown that teams do better when they draft for youth.
However, the exercise of looking back on the best prospect in college basketball year by year suggested to me that older prospects have more room for development than they're generally believed to have. So I guess the answer is fundamentally no more complicated than picking the right guy, no matter which stage of his development he's in.