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March 17, 2010
Understanding the Numbers
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love John Wall

by Kevin Pelton

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When John Hollinger debuted his new college PER this week, he revealed something statistical analysts who follow both the NCAA and the NBA have noticed for a while now: John Wall's statistics aren't all that great.

Wall arrived at Kentucky as the sure No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and proceeded to blow away the hype with his highlight-reel heroics, all the while leading the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed. But it is fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins, not Wall, who has posted the nation's best PER and was in the discussion for Basketball Prospectus' prestigious Player of the Year Award. Meanwhile, granting that the list was heavily biased toward players in lower conferences, Wall did not rank in the PER top 100.

Looking at his stat line, there are a few obvious explanations for why Wall looks relatively weak by the numbers. Foremost among these is turnovers. While the proneness to miscues of Ohio State's superstar Evan Turner has drawn attention because of his tendency to pile them up in individual games (10 apiece in a loss to North Carolina at Madison Square Garden in the 2K Sports Classic and Saturday's overtime win over Illinois in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament), Wall has turned the ball over more frequently as a percentage of the possessions he has used--23.6 percent to Turner's 21.1 percent.

Second, Wall isn't yet an effective outside shooter. He's made just 31.3 percent of his three-point attempts and could stand to improve from the free throw line, where he attempts nearly seven shots a night but makes them at a 76.9 percent clip.

More surprising are a couple of areas where Wall's athleticism hasn't yet translated into results. Despite the ability to finish off the glass from a variety of improbable angles, Wall isn't yet great around the rim. That and poor shooting on long twos explains why Wall's two-point percentage of 50.5 percent is nothing spectacular. Wall also isn't the kind of presence on the glass you'd expect from a player with his size and explosiveness. He's grabbed 6.3 percent of all available rebounds, which is below average for a point guard.

Of course, Wall has his strengths by the numbers as well. His 33.9 assist rate is outstanding and ranks him 33rd in the nation, and Wall's ability to get to the free throw line on a regular basis has boosted his True Shooting Percentage. Naturally, the success enjoyed by the youthful Wildcats also speaks well to Wall's leadership from the point.

To better gauge Wall's NBA potential, let's compare him to a pair of obvious peers--his predecessors playing point guard for John Calipari, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. The No. 1 overall pick, Rose won Rookie of the Year in 2008-09, and Evans seems well on his way to joining him. Here's how their NBA translations (which account for strength of schedule) looked compared to Wall entering the NCAA Tournament in a variety of key metrics.

Player     Usg    TS%   Reb%   Ast%    TO%   FTA%    Win%
---------------------------------------------------------
Wall      .189   .472   .053   .075   .217   .111    .393
Rose      .192   .476   .073   .067   .168   .112    .426
Evans     .240   .446   .093   .056   .187   .091    .405

The similarity between the numbers posted by Wall and Rose is pretty remarkable. Rose was a better rebounder in college and turned the ball over less frequently, but Wall has demonstrated superior ability to set up his teammates, both in terms of assist numbers and the court vision he's flashed this season. Evans was a slightly different player--more of a go-to player on offense but less of a passer, befitting the debate over whether he is really a point guard or a shooting guard--but his overall performance was relatively similar to Wall's.

In the cases of both Evans and Rose, the numbers underestimated their ability to star from day one in the NBA. Rose's numbers have continued to lag his hype as a pro, but he still easily outplayed that projection, while Evans has posted 6.3 WARP this season, tops among all rookies. It's possible that Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense, despite enjoying phenomenal success at the team level, is somehow holding these players back, at least statistically.

A more likely explanation in my opinion is that by using nearly a decade's worth of NCAA-to-NBA translations, the translation system doesn't realize how much more capable young point guards are of playing well in the modern NBA. Because the league has put such a premium on quickness and ability to create off the dribble since the rules reinterpretations prior to the 2004-05 season, the painful learning curve rookie point guards once had to go through may no longer exist.

The success enjoyed by his predecessors is a good reason not to worry about Wall's relatively pedestrian statistics. He also still has time to improve them during the NCAA Tournament. That's what Rose did two years ago, saving his best basketball for the month of March as Memphis advanced to the championship game before falling to Kansas. Already, Wall's numbers are better than they were a week ago thanks to a solid SEC Tournament.

If there's one downside to Wall's statistics, I think it's that they fail to provide justification for the notion that he is a once-in-a-generation prospect. To rise to that level, he'd have had to significantly outplay Rose and Evans. But if those two players provide a template for Wall's future, it is a bright one indeed.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Tournament Preview (03/16)
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Is it Duke or Cameron ... (03/17)

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