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The Problem With Player Comparisons

Player comparisons are common in prospect analysis, but are they doing more harm than good?

Ben Dowsett

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Early in his tenure as Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey was scouting the 2007 NBA Draft with his front office team. At one point, the staff landed on Marc Gasol, an older-but-intriguing Spanish big man prospect. What happened next has become lore in NBA circles, and is captured in an excerpt from author Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds:

Freshly exposed to the human mind, Morey couldn’t help but notice how strangely it operated. When it opened itself to information that might be useful in evaluating an amateur basketball player, it also opened itself to being fooled by the very illusions that had made the model such a valuable tool in the first place. For instance, in the 2007 draft there had been a player his model really liked: Marc Gasol. Gasol was twenty-two years old, a seven-foot-one center playing in Europe. The scouts had found a photograph of him shirtless. He was pudgy and baby-faced and had these jiggly pecs. The Rockets staff had given Marc Gasol a nickname: Man Boobs. Man Boobs this and Man Boobs that. “That was my first draft in charge and I wasn’t so brave,” said Morey. He allowed the general ridicule of Marc Gasol’s body to drown out his model’s optimism about Gasol’s basketball future, and so instead of arguing with his staff, he watched the Mem­phis Grizzlies take Gasol with the 48th pick of the draft. The odds of getting an All-Star with the 48th pick in the draft were well below one in a hundred. The 48th pick of the draft basically never even yielded a useful NBA bench player, but already Marc Gasol was proving to be a giant exception. (Gasol became a two-time All-Star in 2012 and 2015 and, by Houston’s reckoning, the third-best pick made by the entire NBA over the past decade, after Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin.) The label they’d stuck on him clearly had affected how they valued him: names mattered. “I made a new rule right then,” said Morey. “I banned nicknames.”

In reality, what Morey was banning wasn’t simply the use of nicknames during the draft process. No, he was banning an underlying factor: In Gasol’s case, the nickname became a psychological crutch.

Every time Morey’s staff evaluated him, it stuck in their predisposed thinking about him – something Morey often refers to as “anchoring,” a subconscious effect that none of them even noticed as it was happening. Every time they heard his name, watched him play or talked about him, they were unknowingly influenced by that negative “Man Boobs” bias they so often reinforced to each other verbally. Morey wasn’t having it after that.

As Lewis’ book and other popular outlets have discussed at length over the years, this general theme has been among the foundations of Morey’s time at the helm in Houston. No NBA GM spends more time thinking about the way they and their staff think, to use a common parlance – as Morey told Lewis, “Your mind needs to be in a constant state of defense against all this crap that is trying to mislead you.”

All of which takes us, conveniently, to one of the most well-worn traditions in NBA draft analysis, and often one of the most misleading: Player comparisons.

At their core, player comps are some of the easiest psychological crutches to reach out for. They offer the mind a quick, convenient way to compartmentalize a whole bunch of granular details into a much simpler package. The average human brain will struggle to accurately recall and give accurate value to a couple dozen stats and measurables for a prospect; the same brain won’t have nearly as much trouble with simpler breakdowns of the same information: “He looks a lot like (Pick Your Comp).” It makes basic sense.

Look even a single level deeper, though, and some of the issues with this approach become clearer.

“If you say, ‘This kid is going to be the next MJ,’ for example, you are really putting a ton of pressure on that kid,” a former Western Conference scout told Basketball Insiders.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened to DeShawn Stevenson, likely the most infamous example of the draft comp gone wrong: Stevenson’s single NBA comparable was His Airness. We obviously have no idea whether that comp made its way into the Jazz’z front office before they selected him in 2000, but the theme transfers across fans, draft experts and even team scouts. And on the organizational side, it’s much more than just a problem of occasionally placing the wrong expectations on a given player.

Again, a lot of this is just natural human psychology. Our brains spend every waking hour breaking complex things down into simpler ones for us to process, from elements like vision spectrums to basic, everyday conversations.

“We all think in comparables,” Morey told Basketball Insiders via a phone interview. “[Comparables are] actually a good heuristic, but with everything you use in life, usually the greatest strength of something also becomes its greatest weakness.

“One of our greatest strengths is being able to quickly make heuristics that allow for quick, fairly effective decision making while using comparables. But it also becomes our greatest weakness that we get overly anchored and hung up on those comparables in terms of how we think of that person.”

There’s that word again – “anchored,” or anchoring. It’s a psychological term, a cognitive bias that describes the human tendency to rely far too heavily on the first piece of information that’s offered to us.

Car dealers, as an example, are masters of anchoring. Do you know a single (non-wealthy) person who ever paid the full sticker price listed on a vehicle while it sat on the lot? No, right?

Everyone likes to think they used their leverage and negotiating skills to talk the dealer down a bit. In reality, that sticker amount was never even the price they intended to sell it for. By starting you at a higher number and then allowing you to think they’re giving you a discount later, they’re fooling your brain. In many cases, this psychological pull is easily strong enough to make people go way over their original budget.

Now apply the theme back to basketball: If one of the first things you hear about a prospect is a player comparable, that’s going to stick with you whether you think it will or not. Every subsequent bit of research you do on the prospect will be colored by that impression, even if only in tiny, unnoticeable ways. The biases will show through, whether or not you’re even aware they exist. That’s how you get Eddy Curry as the next Shaq; it’s how you get Darius Miles as the next Kevin Garnett.

* * * * * *

Part of the problem is a bit more practical, something Morey and multiple current or former team people mentioned: The ages being compared.

You’d like to think most NBA teams themselves are past this, but look at the ages and experience levels of the comps being made on popular draft boards littered across the internet. These prospects are often teenagers and are rarely over 22 or so; we’re comparing them directly to full-grown NBA men who have often completed their entire career already. Even for the discerning analyst who looks to more evenly match the ages, that same anchoring theme will be nearly impossible to get past once the name of an NBA veteran is already in your head.

“That’s one thing that’s challenging with comparables, is that you can’t help but be anchored to how that player looks and plays now,” Morey said, using one simple pre-draft measurable as an example. “If you ever compared the weights of players in the league now to when they were at a pre-draft camp or one of their age ranges while they went through college, generally people are shocked at the body changes that have happened.”

The use of these kinds of comparisons differs between organizations at the team level. Most team officials who discussed the theme for this story said that their prevalence was simply a natural thing – even among front offices that are ostensibly against placing value on these kinds of broad comparisons, eliminating the shorthand from everyday conversation among basketball lifers is pretty much impossible.

In fact, the largest danger of player comps on the team side often doesn’t come from the teams at all. It comes from the prospects themselves.

The Rockets grabbed point guard Aaron Brooks with the 26th pick in 2008; Brooks became a solid NBA player, which is a big win for that draft slot. In Lewis’ book, Morey describes how small guard prospects who interviewed with the Rockets after 2008 constantly named Brooks as someone they modeled their games after. Even when the comp came from a separate party, Morey considered the anchoring effect so strong that he banned all intraracial comparisons – from then on, if a member of his staff wanted to comp a player, it had to be to another player of a different race. In subtle ways, this made it more difficult for the mind to make the connection.

“It’s a very smart strategy for a player to comp himself,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “It has to have some grounding in reality, in that otherwise people can’t even process it.”

What he’s saying is that the comp has to be just close enough to give the mind a solid framework to build around, but often nothing more than that.

“The reality is, the anchoring effect is so strong. If I was a prospect, I’d name-drop as many successful players that are within – not even close, but in the orbit – of the player as possible,” Morey continued. “Because it will be literally impossible for evaluators to get those names out of their heads.”

A bigger guard with speed and good passing instincts? Tell them you model yourself after John Wall. A big with even the slightest hint of shooting or passing touch? You’ve spent hours studying Dirk Nowitzki or Nikola Jokic, whether or not that’s actually true. Make these comps early in your interview, and reinforce them – even some of the sharpest basketball minds on earth will struggle to discard them.

Look, this isn’t to suggest some glaring league-wide issue. Morey isn’t the only guy in the NBA capable of focusing more heavily on the thinking processes that drive team decisions, even if he was one of the first to implement a particular level of thought here. Other smart front offices are hip to the gaps in this kind of analysis, to one degree or another. Even among media and popular draft analysis, the best never attach themselves too closely to a single comp.

“I’m not saying comparables aren’t useful,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “What I’m saying is that you have to use them very carefully and in a broader way.”

In Lewis’ book, he offers an apt description for a new definition of nerd: “A person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.” When the best the mind can come up with is “Man Boobs,” does it deserve to be trusted? Maybe not. The next time you see a player comparison, just remember that even the information you think you know can still fool you.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.

Simon Hannig

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.

Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.

Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.

Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.

NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.

Quavo was named MVP.

BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game

There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.

However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.

It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.

All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.

The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.

Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.

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