Is Bargnani the Next Nowitzki?

Posted on February 9, 2007 by


With the first pick in the 2006 NBA Draft the Toronto Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani. The story told at the time was that Bargnani was the “next Nowitzki.” This story was told on draft night and also many times since. Even Nowitzki has voiced this sentiment.

“He’s a better player than when I was 19 or 20,” Nowitzki said of the 21-year-old Bargnani. “He’s going to be a heck of a player. He’s a little more athletic than I even was back then. He can drive a little better than me.”

Although people see similarities on the court — both are tall, European, and athletic — one might wonder if the numbers tell the same story. Well, wonder no more. Here are the numbers for each player.

Table One: Bargnani vs. Nowitzki

The above table reports many of the numbers Bargnani has posted this season after 48 games, as well as the numbers Nowitzki has posted each year of his career (including this year after 49 games). To ease the comparison, the numbers are posted per 36.5 minutes played, or the number of minutes per game Nowitzki is playing this year.

If we compare Bargnani to Nowitzki today (first column to last column), it is clear these are very different players. Nowitzki has more points, rebounds, and assists. He commits fewer turnovers and personal fouls. And he is a more efficient scorer. In sum, the numbers tell us that Nowitzki today is one of the top five players in the NBA and Bargnani today is not even one of the top five rookies.

Of course, Bargnani is only a rookie. So perhaps we should compare Bargnani today to what we saw from Nowitzki his rookie season (first column to second column).

Now we start to see some clear similarities. In his rookie season, Nowitzki couldn’t shoot or rebound. He was prone to turnovers and personal fouls. In sum, he was quite like Bargnani.

Each player’s rookie Win Score numbers confirm the similarity. In his rookie season Nowitzki posted a Win Score per minute of 0.091. Thus far this season Bargnani has a per-minute mark of 0.098. An average power forward posts a per-minute mark of 0.215, so both players were far below average their first-season.

Of course, Nowitzki got better. By his second year he still hadn’t learned how to rebound consistently, but his shooting improved. Consequently, he edged much closer to average. In his third season Nowitzki finally became “good”, a description he has maintained ever since.

Can Bargnani become “good”? Right now he has much in common with the “bad” Nowitzki was saw back in 1998-99. Bargnani, like the young Nowitski, doesn’t do anything well right now.

People might look at this and say “well, if Bargnani currently has many of the bad qualities we saw Nowitzki have his rookie season, Bargnani will someday have many of the good qualities we see in Nowitzki today.”

I am a little hesitant to make this leap. Let’s look at it this way.

The following quote from Steve Levitt was reported in Freakonomics. “I just don’t know very much about the field of economics,” he told Dubner at one point… “I’m not good at math, I don’t know a lot about econometrics, and I don’t know how to do theory.”

We repeated this quote in The Wages of Wins. We also observed that Levitt is one of the better economists working today. He has a Ph.D. from MIT and works as a full professor at The University of Chicago. He has published more than 50 journal articles and Freakonomics is one of the better books recently published in economics. Finally, he was the recipient of the John Bates Clark award, which goes to the top economist under the age of 40. In sum, Levitt is pretty good.

I would observe that like Levitt, I am also not very good at math, econometrics, or theory. So in this sense, just like Bargnani’s lack of production his rookie season has shown that he is quite similar to a rookie Nowitzki, my lack of skills suggest that I must be the “next Levitt.” And given that I am not yet 40 years old, my lack of math, econometric, and theoretical skills must result in a John Bates Clark award in the next three years.

Obviously (and I hope this is obvious), this is a silly argument. Sharing “bad” qualities with a talented person does not mean that you will someday share the “good” qualities as well.

In reviewing the life story of many “great” economists I have observed the same sentiment expressed by Levitt. Many top economists thought at one point that they did not measure up well relative to other people in the field. And despite this sentiment, these “great” economists went on to do “great” research. That being said, many other economists also believed (like me) that they did not measure up, and these people (like me) never went on to do “great” research.

A similar story could be told about Bargnani. I have read that people have told Bargnani that many “star” players struggled their rookie season. And these “stars” got better. Certainly that’s true. But it should also be noted that many “non-stars” struggled their rookie seasons. And many of these “non-stars” never got better.

In closing, I do want to emphasize that I am not saying that Bargnani will never be a good player. It’s entirely possible that Bargnani will learn how to shoot and rebound, just like Nowitzki. And when that happens, we will be able to call him the “next Nowitzki” or the “first Bargnani.” As of today, though, the numbers tell us that Bargnani has far to go to become one of the next “good” players in the NBA.

— DJ