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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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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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