Analytics vs. Observation: Value Add Spotted Heat’s Hassan Whiteside in 2010

USA Today summed it up Sunday: “Who needs Lebron James when you have Hassan Whiteside?”

After the unknown stunned a national TV audience with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 blocked shots playing half a game, fans and writers scrambling to figure out who Whiteside was and where he came from. They only had to check the Value Add all-time database to see him not far behind Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, and John Wall.

If you click on that database and enter “2010” under Year and “1 Fr” under class you see Whiteside was ranked in the top 10 of the 794 freshman with ratings that season. Kobe Bryant probably would have liked the heads up before Whiteside tossed one of his shots earlier this season (see AP photo by Chris Carlson):

Overall Top 10 Freshman 2010 College Value Add Pro Pts and Reb or Ast Rookie/Now
19 Cousins, DeMarcus Kentucky 7.02 14/9 now 24/13
47 Wall, John Kentucky 6.13 16/8 now 17/10 (assists)
63 Favors, Derrick Georgia Tech 5.78 7/5 now 16/9
67 Burks, Alec Colorado 5.69 So 7/1 now 14/3 (assists)
69 Cooper, DJ Ohio 5.67 6-foot, 176 pound MAC POY
97 Leonard, Kawhi San Diego St. 5.22 8/5 now 15/9
128 Henry, Xavier Kansas 4.91 4/1 last year 10/3
131 Williams, Derrick Arizona 4.87 9/5 now 7/4
150 Whiteside, Hassan Marshall 4.67 Disappeared until this year
152 Dellavedova, Matthew St. Mary’s 4.66 5/3 now 5/3 (assists)

He was the only one who was missed.

Seven of the others went to the NBA after their freshman or sophomore season to become either NBA stars (DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Derrick Favors and Kawhi Leonard), double figure scorers (Alec Burks and Xavier Henry) or at least bench players who have stuck (Derrick Williams).

The other two became long-time college stars with what we call “NBA red flags” in our reports to NBA teams–meaning they rank as very valuable players with skills that are unlikely to translate to the NBA:

Matthew Dellavedova was flagged for a low maximum vertical of 31 inches and relatively slow 11.7 second agility drill for a point guard. He went onto be one of the few players to ever be in the top 100 in Value Add for three seasons, yet logs few minutes in the NBA.

DJ Cooper was too small for an NBA guard at 6-foot, 176 pounds but went onto have the 13th most assists of any college player in history and now plays overseas.

And that leaves Whiteside–by all Value Add indicators a strong NBA player and yet he was missed until now. He played a few games with Sacramento, then had some nightmarish days overseas, as recounted in this AP story. Yes, he was too thin as a freshman–but the talent jumped out of the database. One reason freshman’s Value Adds more than double by their sophomore year is because they start to fill out with effort.

In the old “observations vs. analytics” debate, the point is not that the numbers alone can measure a player’s ability better than a long-time coach, NBA scout, or even a basketball journalist. The point is that none of those people can watch all 4,000 players and catch on that a guy putting up 13 points and 9 rebounds at Marshall can become a big-time NBA contributor.

The NBA gets it and makes wide uses of analytics in addition to observation. I do still get questions from basketball fans asking how I can claim to have a system that puts every player on the same plain–from point guards tearing up lower divisions to centers grinding it out in top level conferences. While admittedly Value Add’s attempt to summarize all contributions and mistakes into one total value for basketball is a microscopic feat compared to Stephen Hawking’s attempt to do it for a “The Theory of Everything,” but the reaction likewise has ranged from thinking it is insane to thinking it is a huge breakthrough.

Whichever side of the argument you are on–analytics is the only way to watch 4,000 players at once and realize early on that players like Whiteside are potential stars worth more observation.

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