Back in the good old days — before every NBA team had an analytics department — finding potential breakout players was a matter of simple math. Basically, calculate a player’s per game production in your preferred overall metric, calculate his per 48 minutes production in the same metric, and subtract.
Run a screen for age, and...voila — what I dubbed my Diamond Rating.
In the analytics era, teams pick off the low-hanging fruit during the season, which makes it a little tougher to find undervalued bench guys the coaches haven’t noticed is actually good. But not impossible.
The first rule of diamond hunting is to look at the biggest players on the floor. Does he play center? He’s probably playing less than his production would suggest he warrants. For example, the top guys in this year’s Diamond Ratings (without an age cutoff):
- Robert Williams, BOS — Injuries kept him sidelined.
- Walker Kessler, UTA — An example of teams finding low-hanging fruit. In Oct. and Nov., Kessler averaged about 16 minutes per game. In Feb. and March, about 29.
- Kevon Looney, GSW
- Jared Vanderbilt, UTA/LAL — Good defender and rebounder who can’t shoot.
- Thomas Bryant, LAL (but NOT DEN) — Played excellent basketball for half a season while Anthony Davis was injured. Got traded to the Nuggets where he couldn’t figure out how to crack the rotation. He’ll get another shot with the Miami Heat next season.
If I leave off the age cutoff, Wizards start showing up. The first non-big on the list is Delon Wright, who played well off the bench last season but missed 32 games due to injury. The next non-big in the Diamond Rating? Tyus Jones, who averaged 24.3 minutes per game as Ja Morant’s backup in Memphis. Jones will likely start this season in Washington.
Daniel Gafford unsurprisingly lands high on the Diamond list. He didn’t become a starter until well into the season, spent a stretch of games languishing on the bench, and...well...he’s young and a center.
So let’s get a little more organized in looking at this. Here’s how the lists look by position grouping with a minimum of 250 total minutes played, and age of 26 or lower.
In addition to the names above:
- Mark Williams, CHO
- Xavier Tillman, MEM
- Onyeka Okongwu, ATL
- Jalen Duren, DET
- Jalen Smith, IND — Right about average overall at age 22. Needs to improve his three-point shooting, but he rebounded well last season.
- Bol Bol, ORL — Weird mix of size and skills who was logjammed by better young prospects with the Magic. He’s signed cheap with the Phoenix Suns, who will need his production.
- Sam Hauser, BOS — Terrific shooter (41.8% from deep) who was happy to launch from the three-point line (12.6 three-point attempts per 100 team possessions). Could be challenged for minutes by newly-signed wing Diamond Svi Mykhailiuk.
- Tari Eason, HOU — Eason got just 21.5 minutes per game last season, perhaps because head coach Paul Silas couldn’t quite figure out what to do with his run around do stuff game. New coach Ime Udoka might have some ideas.
- Santi Aldama, MEM — Productive last season in a smaller role (just 21.8 minutes per game), Aldama doesn’t turn 23 until halfway through the upcoming season. Brandon Clarke’s torn Achilles should open some playing time for Aldama.
- Svi Mykhailiuk, NYK and CHO — Mykhailiuk just signed with the Boston Celtics. He’s a helluva shooter (42.4% from three last season) who needs to do more defensively to unlock his offensive contributions. Especially since one of the forward Diamonds is new teammate Sam Hauser.
- Luke Kennard, MEM and LAC — Great shooter (49.4% on threes — not a typo). His playing time got limited by guys ahead of him with the Clippers and Grizzlies, as well as the lack of dimension to his game, and his crummy defense. Might get more opportunities during the Morant suspension.
- Terance Mann, LAC — The guy the Clippers keep refusing to trade. At 26, Mann just makes the age cutoff (he’s entering his age 27 season). Good enough shooter who does a lot of stuff pretty well, I don’t think he’s been good enough to warrant LA’s clinginess.
- Isaiah Joe, OKC — Another excellent shooter. During his still-young career, he’s been blocked by better overall prospects with the 76ers and Thunder. That probably won’t be alleviated this upcoming season barring a trade.
- Tyus Jones, MEM — Touted the past 2-3 seasons as the league’s best backup PG, Jones will get the chance to prove he should be a starter with the Wizards.
- Malik Monk, SAC — Good scorer and playmaker who found a home coming off the bench behind Kevin Huerter and De’Aaron Fox.
- Jordan Goodwin, WAS — Goodwin would make a good sleeper pick for Most Improved next season. Playing on a two-way contract much of the season, Goodwin played well. His reward? Getting traded to the Phoenix Suns along with Bradley Beal where he’ll have the chance to earn a spot in the backcourt rotation of a potential title contender.
- Cole Anthony, ORL — Came off the bench last season for the Magic. Anthony shoots decently, rebounds like crazy (9.2 per 100 possessions) and is a decent playmaker. What’s holding him back: poor finishing inside and a lack of defensive impact.
My “favorites” for breakouts this season:
- Isaiah Joe
- Jordan Goodwin
- Santi Aldama
- Cole Anthony
- Daniel Gafford