I’ve always been fascinated by player comparisons. To me, it’s one of the best ways to plot the future of players. With a bit of extra time on my hands due to the quarantine, I set out to build a basic player comparison model. By using the following stats, I can compare each individual player season to every other season in the sample. Every player from 1985 through 2020 is represented in the database. In order to make the comps, I look at the following: age, minutes played, oﬀensive plus/minus, defensive plus/minus, true shooting percentage, 3-point attempt rate, free throw attempt rate, oﬀensive rebound rate, defensive rebound rate, assist rate, steal rate, block rate, turnover rate and usage rate.
There are plenty of diﬀerent players we could start with, but as a jumping oﬀ point, I wanted to take a look at this past year’s rookie class.
There’s a lot going on in the table above, but it’s relatively easy to read once you know what you’re looking at. The 25 most similar statistical seasons since 1985 are shown in the table, from most similar to least similar. The “Score” column is what measures this. The rest of the table is simply the stats that person scored in the season listed. For example, 2006 Jameer Nelson had the most similar season to Ja Morant’s rookie year. The stats highlighted in the red/yellow/green cells represent the current season. The stats in blue summarize what happened in the player’s following season. This gives us a bit of information on how we can expect the player in reference (Morant) to perform the following season.
Morant had a fantastic rookie season. He was on his way to being the Rookie of the Year before the quarantine derailed the NBA season. The names on his comp list point to the building blocks of what could be a long career. Tony Parker and Kyrie Irving each have three seasons comparable to Morant’s rookie year. Irving’s rookie season is actually Morant’s second-most-accurate comp. I like to pay close attention to the player’s age in the listed season. Nelson was playing in his age-23 season, which makes Morant’s rookie year look more impressive. Irving was actually a year younger than Morant, while Parker’s 2003 season happened at the same age.
The only other player to make the list more than once is current Sacramento Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox. Morant doesn’t have the same defensive chops as Fox, but you can see the similarities in athleticism. The Ringer listed skinny John Wall, Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. as three comps in their final NBA draft guide last year. All in all, the future looks bright for Morant (obviously). Calculating some averages based on the data in blue, Morant projects to be worth 4.4 wins in 2,079 minutes in the 2020-21 NBA season. That makes for an excellent sophomore campaign. 4.4 wins on the open market would cost roughly $16 million. Morant will make just $9.1 million for the season. This is why rookie contracts can be an enormous bargain for the team when it goes right.
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Morant wasn’t the only Grizzlies’ rookie to make his mark on the NBA this past season. The Grizzlies traded the 23rd overall pick in the 2019 draft along with a 2024 second-round pick to move up two spots to select Brandon Clarke. Clarke was ranked No. 10 on The Ringer’s draft board with a blurb stating he is “a super-versatile defender who plays team-first basketball and has made encouraging progress on oﬀense,” with comps of Paul Millsap, Pascal Siakam and Kris Humphries.
Clarke’s 2019-20 season was unquestionably a success. He finished with the second-highest wins added for the entire rookie class, just behind his teammate Morant. There’s a chance he would have been caught by Zion Williamson if the season were able to finish, but that’s still more than you would ever expect from the 21st overall pick. While that seems like a dream start, there are reasons to temper your expectations. This was Clarke’s age-23 season. That’s a bit older than your normal draft prospect. I expect to see quality play from Clarke for the foreseeable future, but his age likely mutes his upside. The list of his comps in my model have a similar average age. Five diﬀerent players showed up twice on his comps list: Montrezl Harrell, John Collins, Brandan Wright, Richaun Holmes and Thomas Bryant. Each one of those names stands out to me. The consensus opinion on those guys is with regards to their oﬀensive ability. Clarke, on the other hand, came into the league with more of a defensive pedigree for the modern game. Pairing him with Jaren Jackson in the Grizzlies’ front court looks like a perfect marriage of skills for the modern game. I expect him to provide a ton of value on his first contract which would take him all the way to restricted free agency in 2023. You can’t ask for a better outcome at that point in the draft.
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