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Just how much caution should the Wizards have with Bilal Coulibaly?

Benchmarks and indicators to watch throughout the season.

Washington Wizards v Indiana Pacers
Wizards rookie Bilal Coulibaly
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

After the Wizards’ opening night debacle, I have questions about their plans for helping Bilal Coulibaly grow into an NBA star. This is as it should be, because there’s no “right” way to develop players. There are techniques, tools, and approaches that worked for some guys...and failed for others.

If the Wizards are to become the winning franchise the new front office wants to create, there’s no higher priority for the franchise than figuring out how Coulibaly can become great. Not in game two of his first season — though that would be nice — but over the course of the next 10-plus years of his career.

At just 19 years old, Coulibaly is the very definition of an unfinished product. The athletic tools are easy to see. It’s also easy to see he needs work to on his body and every aspect of his game. He’ll need an abundance of teaching, practice, and in-game reps.

The Wizards are taking a cautious approach, at least at the beginning.

“He’s going to get some minutes,” head coach Wes Unseld Jr. told reporters after the team lost to the Indiana Pacers. “I think we’re going to progress him slowly. We’re not going to heap too much on him too soon, but his minutes will vary.”

In the first game of the season, Coulibaly was 10th man off the bench and had an offensive usage rate of just 11.5%. This is fine at the beginning, but Wizards fans should hope to see both playing time and offensive role increase significantly in the days and weeks ahead. Because the history of teenage rookies suggests there are statistical benchmarks that are reasonable indicators of future success.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Wizards should spam Coulibaly with minutes and possessions for the sake of hitting these benchmarks. Rather, him being good enough at age 19 to hit some of these marks is a good sign that he’ll improve in the future.

As I’ve written previously, when I looked at teenage rookies through league history, in general, the more minutes the better (though not always). While the high-end of minutes played by teen rookies looks awesome, even barely playing is hardly a death knell. Six-time All-NBA big man Jermaine O’Neal played just 458 minutes as an 18-year old rookie.

What seems to matter more is usage. A key benchmark: 15%.

I found 24 teenage rookies with a usage rate below 15%. That list produced zero All-Stars . Probably the guy from this group who ended up with the “best” career was Andris Biedrins.

There are some “incompletes” like Patrick Williams, Dyson Daniels, Darius Bazley, and Moses Moody.

Most of this group is comprised of busts or deep bench guys — the likes of Jamal Sampson, Dante Exum, Robert Swift, Yaroslav Korolev, Rashad Vaughn, and Terrance Ferguson.

Nudging the slider just to 16% and we get Giannis Antetokounmpo, Aaron Gordon, and Andrew Bynum, as well as “incompletes” like Jaxon Hayes and Jalen Duren.

Another one point in usage adds Brandon Ingram, Tyus Jones, Isaiah Stewart, Kevon Looney, and Marvin Williams. And some scrubs, busts, and incompletes like Sekou Doumbouya, Ousmane Dieng, Georgios Papgiannis, Noah Vonleh, and Vernon Carey Jr.

One more to 18% and there’s Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Thaddeus Young, Jarrett Allen, Derrick Favors, Tyson Chandler, Trevor Ariza, Andre Drummond, and an assortment of busts, scrubs and incompletes like Troy Brown Jr., Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thon Maker, A.J. Griffin, Kosta Koufos, Isaac Bonga, and Nikoloz Tskitishvili.

At 19% and under, there’s Jayson Tatum, Tony Parker, and Josh Smith, as well as Shaedon Sharpe, and lesser players like Kwame Brown, Frank Ntilikina, and Kira Lewis Jr.

In the 19-20% usage group there are Jrue Holiday, Myles Turner, Tracy McGrady, Shaun Livingston, Wendell Carter Jr., and Ivica Zubac.

At 21% and under, the list includes: Tobias Harris, Jermaine O’Neal, Bradley Beal, and Jamal Murray.

At 22%: Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr., Luol Deng, Jarred Vanderbilt (somehow), Andrew Wiggins, and Gerald Wallace. Of the 12 teen rookies on this list, four didn’t pan out — Anthony Randolph, Keon Johnson, Ike Anigbogu, and Sebastian Telfair. Even DeShawn Stevenson, who barely played, later contributed to the Dallas Mavericks championship team.

At 23% and under: Devin Booker, J.R. Smith, Al Harrington, and Zach LaVine.

At the high end of the usage chart for teen rookies are players who became some of the game’s biggest stars — Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, LaMelo Ball, Kevin Durant, Anthony Edwards, Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant.

There are some lesser players too — Marvin Bagley III, Darko Milicic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Ricky Davis, Malik Monk, Coby White, D’Angelo Russell, Tony Wroten, and DaJuan Wagner. And some guys still in the formative years of their careers.

The point here is NOT that higher usage causes the player to become good — the causal relationship is unclear. Rather, it’s that usage rate is a signal of how good the player is, how good the coaching staff thinks the player is, and how good the player may be in the future.

What about efficiency? Does it matter? The answer is not really, but...

Of the 21 teenage rookies to play at least 500 minutes and have a usage rate of 23% or higher, only three posted offensive efficiency that matched or beat the league average during their rookie season: Zion Williamson (+5.1 relative offensive rating), Kyrie Irving (+3.3), and Stephon Marbury (average).

Nine more had efficiency within 10 points of league average:

  • Marvin Bagley III -0.6
  • Carmelo Anthony -4.0
  • Cliff Robinson -4.7
  • Luka Doncic -5.3
  • Lebron James -5.7
  • LaMelo Ball -6.1
  • Alperen Sengun -6.5
  • Kobe Bryant -6.9
  • Kevin Durant -9.2

Teen rookies with a -10 or worse relative offensive rating:

  • Dajuan Wagner -10.5
  • Anthony Edwards -11.4
  • D’Angelo Russell -11.5
  • Ricky Davis -11.5
  • Coby White -12.2
  • Malik Monk -14.1
  • Josh Giddey -15.3
  • RJ Barrett -18.7
  • Emmanuel Mudiay -20.1

Some useful players, even in that bottom group with some still young enough to continue improving.

Remember: all of this is in the spirit of looking for indicators and benchmarks to get a read on Coulibaly’s development.

In general, fans should want him to play as many minutes as he can handle without becoming overwhelmed or losing confidence in himself. When I looked at this issue before, I semi-seriously suggested the Wizards target 3,000 minutes this season. Of course, only one teen rookie played that much (Lebron).

A number of teen rookies played fewer than 2,000 minutes and went on to be excellent players, including Zach LaVine, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Jamal Murray, and Bradley Beal. Kyrie Irving got just 1558. The aforementioned Jermaine O’Neal played just 458 minutes as rookie. Rashard Lewis: 145.

Under 15% usage is a red flag, even for a teen rookie. He needs to have enough game to be an active participant on the offensive end, and he’s not doing that at 11-12%. There’s little reason to worry about offensive efficiency until it’s hitting an extreme (like -15 relative to average).

My sense looking into these numbers (again) is that Wizards fans shouldn’t be concerned if Coulibaly’s getting 18+ minutes per night with a usage rate above 15%. Less playing time shouldn’t be much of a concern, so long as he’s getting real NBA minutes and not filling up on garbage time.