Will Kevin Durant Be the Best Rookie?

Posted on October 31, 2007 by

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How much does the pre-season data tell us about a rookie’s first season? Last year there were 17 rookies who played at least 100 minutes in the pre-season and at least 500 minutes in the regular season.  Yes, 17 is a small sample.  Still, it’s all we got so let’s tell a story about Kevin Durant and the 2007-08 rookie class.

The 2006-07 Rookies

Table One: Evaluating the 2006-07 Rookies in the Pre-Season and Regular Season

Our story begins with Table One.  This table reports the 2006-07 regular season performance of our 17 rookies, as well as what each did in the 2006 pre-season (pre-season data taken from Doug Steele’s web site).  At the top of the list are Paul Millsap and Rajon Rondo.  Millsap led all rookies in Estimated WP48 (see table for calculation) while Rondo finished second.  In the regular season, Rondo led this sample in WP48 while Millsap finished second.  So the identity of the top two rookies was pretty consistent from pre-season to regular season.

And then there is the bottom of the list. Adam Morrison was the least productive rookie in the pre-season last year.  And in the regular season he maintained this ranking.  In fact, three of the four rookies who were in the negative range in WP48 in the pre-season were also in the negative range in the regular season. 

Overall, pre-season Estimated WP48 has a 0.70 correlation with regular season WP48.  No, it’s not a perfect correlation.  And the sample is too small.  But pre-season performance seems to be telling us something about rookie performance in the regular season.

The 2007-08 Rookies

The 2007 pre-season is now history.  Again we consult the data from Doug Steele.  With this data I have calculated Win Score, PAWSmin, and Estimated WP48 for the 23 rookies who logged at least 100 minutes in the pre-season. The results are reported in Table Two. 

Table Two: Evaluating the 2007-08 Rookies in the Pre-Season

The analysis reported in Table Two reveals that this rookie class didn’t play well in the 2007 pre-season.  Only four rookies posted an above average WP48 in October.  Last year, in our sample of 17 (which leaves out the rookies who played 100 minutes in the pre-season but didn’t play 500 minutes in the regular season) there were seven above average rookies.  And last year was not a “good” rookie class.  So although it didn’t look like we could see less productive rookies, it appears we might in 2007-08.

Although most rookies played badly in October, there was one big exception.  Al Horford posted a 0.302 WP48 in the pre-season.  Let’s put that number in perspective.  If Horford is an average player (i.e. posts a 0.100 WP48), and he plays about 2,300 minutes this year, he will produce about 4.8 wins.  If he posts a 0.200 WP48, his Wins Production rises to 9.6.  And if he does what he did in the pre-season he will produce 14.4 wins.  In sum, if Horford goes from average to what he did in the pre-season, the Hawks win about 10 more games.  And that might be good enough to put Atlanta in the playoffs.

But would that be good enough to win Horford Rookie of the Year? No, that honor will probably still fall to Kevin Durant.  Durant played very well at Texas last year.  Then he played very badly this summer in two rookie leagues.  Then he had a good game with Team USA in a team scrimmage.  But in the pre-season, where he posted a 0.006 WP48, he was again quite bad.  Nevertheless, he did lead all rookies in the pre-season in points per 48 minutes.  And scoring is what attracts attention in the NBA.  Consequently, if Durant scores, he can expect to be named to the first All-Rookie team by the coaches and he will likely be named Rookie of the Year by the media.

Unfortunately for Seattle, although Durant will score, he won’t produce many wins if he keeps playing like he did in the pre-season.  And in the first game of the season, that kind of play did continue.  This is what Durant did against Denver tonight.

Points = 18

Rebounds = 5

Steals = 3

Blocked Shots = 1

Assists = 1

Field Goal Attempts = 22

Free Throw Attempts = 4

Turnovers = 2

Personal Fouls = 3

That’s the data.  Let’s look at these numbers via Win Score.

Win Score = PTS + REB + STL + ½*BLK + ½*AST – FGA – ½*FTA – TO – ½*PF

Given this formulation, here is Durant’s Win Score against Denver.

Durant’s Win Score = 18 + 5 + 3 +0.5 +0.5 – 22 – 2 – 2 – 1.5 = -0.5

Now what Win Score means depends on the position played. At least, that’s true when Win Score is a positive number.  When you see a negative number there is only one meaning for all positions – you played badly. 

Yes, this is just one game.  But Durant didn’t play well in the pre-season.  And he didn’t play well in summer ball.  At some point, all these little samples are going to start telling us something.

For now, it doesn’t look like Durant is going to be the most productive rookie in 2007-08.  But if he gets to take 22 shots each game, he certainly is going to get a chance to score.  And scoring is going to earn you some honors and get you paid.  

This all leads to an obvious question – if Durant plays badly this year but is told by the coaches and the media that he’s “great, will he have any incentive to improve in the future?

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics