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How soon will fans know if Bilal Coulibaly is good?

2023 NBA Summer League - Oklahoma City Thunder v Washington Wizards
Washington Wizards player Bilal Coulibaly at summer league.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

On his first draft night for the Washington Wizards, general manager Will Dawkins paid a couple second round picks to move up one spot and select French teenager Bilal Coulibaly. Moving up is a bold move that communicates the team’s belief in the youngster’s talent. The Wizards are investing in the hope that he’s a future cornerstone of a championship-level team.

As regular readers may remember, Coulibaly popped high in YODA, my draft analysis tool. He rated like a top five pick in nearly any draft, and I liked Dawkins’ willingness to make sure he got him.

During my final doppelgänger article of the 2023 offseason, I applied that approach to my YODA database and produced these comps for Coulibaly:

  1. Scottie Barnes, 4th overall pick, 2021 NBA Draft — Rookie of the Year, had a somewhat disappointing second season but is still considered among the game’s most promising youngsters.
  2. Jonathan Isaac, 6th overall pick, 2017 — Me rookie season but made big improvements in years two and three. Then the injuries started, and he’s managed to play just 11 games over the past three seasons.
  3. Moses Moody, 14th overall pick, 2021 — Talented player who’s played and produced very little for the Golden State Warriors.
  4. Bradley Beal, 3rd overall pick, 2011 — First team All-Rookie whose overall production stayed pretty flat his first four seasons. Then, after signing his first max contract, he jumped to an All-Star level, burnished his offensive game into a high-level scorer, and brushed up against All-NBA a couple times.
  5. Brandon Ingram, 2nd overall pick, 2016 — Struggled a bit his first couple seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers but found new life with abundant playing time, opportunities to make plays, and shooting coach Fred Vinson.

The comps continue in this vein — wings and guards who have mostly been good NBA players.

The range here isn’t exactly definitive, though. Barnes and Beal were pretty good immediately. Ingram and Isaac took a year or two. Moody is still a wait-and-see. At minimum, I think it’s fair to characterize it as four good (and better) players, and one maybe.

Casting the net wider, I have 173 teenage rookie seasons in my database, which begins in the 1977-78 season. Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, both of whom came straight to the NBA from high school, played two seasons as teenagers. Go back a few years, and we can add Moses Malone, who was a 19-year old rookie with the ABA Utah Stars, as well as Bill Willoughby (who also played two seasons as a teenager).

Digging through the list is interesting. Let’s start at the bottom for the first lesson of a teenager playing in the NBA: While there are exceptions, how a guy plays — even as a teenage rookie — provides valuable information about the shape of his future career.

Starting at the bottom are some guys who stunk as youngsters and didn’t get much better like Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Ha Seung-Jin, Peter John Ramos, Jalen Lecque, Maciej Lampe, Robert Swift, and Dzanan Musa.

Some exceptions: there’s C.J. Miles, who was atrocious in his first two seasons out of high school but worked his way into being a useful and productive player who sustained a 16-year career.

Also towards the bottom: Rashard Lewis, DeShawn Stevenson, Lou Williams.

The exceptions are kinda illustrative. Lewis barely played as a rookie and came closest to a star as a key contributor on a team that went to the NBA Finals. He was a two-time All-Star. Williams became an outstanding scorer and Sixth Man, though never a high-level starter. Stevenson was loved by teammates and coaches, and he developed into a good defender and competent shooter.

The results are much more promising for teens at the top of the list. Here’s the top 10 in my catch-all production Player Production Average (PPA) stat (in PPA, average is 100, higher is better, 175+ usually denotes an All-NBA player, 150+ is All-Star level production:

  1. Zion Williamson, 186
  2. Anthony Davis, 178
  3. Andre Drummond, 154
  4. Kyrie Irving, 152
  5. Luka Doncic, 151
  6. Dwight Howard, 148
  7. Jarrett Allen, 127
  8. Jayson Tatum, 125
  9. Lamelo Ball, 122
  10. Kevin Garnett, 119

After Garnett: Marvin Bagley III, Thaddeus Young, Chris Bosh, and Lebron James.

The least productive of those 14 (Andre Drummond) still has had a good NBA career despite the game evolving away from what he does best throughout his years in the league. Bagley hasn’t done a lot yet, though he was better than average with Sacramento Kings and got better with the Detroit Pistons. Ball has impressed when he’s been able to stay on the floor.

Between the poles is a mix of players that — to my eye anyway — looks less and less promising as I go down the list. Between the pinnacle and league average performers as teens are names like Josh Smith, Stephon Marbury, Josh Giddey, Andrew Bynum, Carmelo Anthony, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., and Luol Deng. But also in that group: Jabari Parker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Dipping below league average the names get a bit dicier though still with some high-level performers. The good: Beal, Kevin Durant, Ivica Zubac, Myles Turner, Tony Parker, Jrue Holiday. The not-so-good: Anthony Randolph, Thon Maker, Maurice Harkless, Eddie Griffin, Kosta Koufos.

To give you an idea of where we are: Beal’s rookie PPA was 92; Durant’s was 88. Parker and Holiday both scored an 80.

In the 70s were players like Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry — one an eventual champion, the other a bust. Also in that range, Andrew Wiggins (who took several years and a trade to become a consistently above-average player), Enes Kanter (now Enes Freedom), and Patrick Williams.

The 60s are hit-and-miss: Trevor Ariza, Bismack Biyombo, Derrick Favors, D’Angelo Russell, Troy Brown Jr., Marquees Criss, and Jermaine O’Neal.

Even in the PPA 50s, there are hits like Jamal Murray and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as Aaron Gordon, Marvin Williams, and Tyus Jones.

Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, Brandon Ingram, and Zaza Pachulia each rated replacement level or lower as teenaged rookies. On the other hand, so did a long list of others including Kwame Brown, Terrance Ferguson, Dajuan Wagner, Archie Goodwin, Kevin Knox, and Emmanuel Mudiay.

One last point: total minutes seems to be a reasonably good indicator of a player’s future status in the league — perhaps even better than actual production. Here are the leaders in minutes as a teen rookie:

  1. Lebron James, 3122
  2. Carmelo Anthony, 2995
  3. Andrew Wiggins, 2969
  4. Kevin Durant, 2768
  5. Dwight Howard, 2670
  6. Chris Bosh, 2510
  7. Jabari Smith Jr., 2451
  8. Jayson Tatum, 2438
  9. Stephon Marbury, 2324
  10. Luka Doncic, 2318
  11. Anthony Edwards, 2314
  12. Kevin Garnett, 2293
  13. Brandon Ingram, 2279
  14. Tony Parker, 2267
  15. D’Angelo Russell, 2259

Scanning down the list, Booker played replacement level. LaVine: 1902, also at replacement level. Giannis: 1897. Davis: 1846. Beal got 1745.

Many of these guys were productive as rookies. But many weren’t, and they stayed on the floor anyway.

So what’s the hope for Coulibaly? First, that he plays well. Second, and more importantly, that he plays a lot. Unless he’s suffering a debilitating loss of confidence, feed him as many minutes as he can physically handle — and it should be a lot. As in, he should lead the team in playing time, and a 3,000 minutes target seems about right.

And don’t be shy about incorporating him into the offense in a big way. Lebron had a usage rate of 28.4%. Carmelo: 27.9%. Durant: 26.4%. Marbury: 25.2%. Doncic: 32.8%. None were very efficient. All got there.

Other players started with smaller offensive loads — as low as 17% usage — and developed into higher usage, high efficiency players. But barring a skills deficit that didn’t show in France or summer league, there’s little reason for Coulibaly stand aside and watch Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole guzzle possessions.