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March 26, 2010
Rookie of the Year
An Impassioned Plea for Brandon Jennings

by Bradford Doolittle

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Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings has never fallen from the top spot in my rookie rankings. He's come close--Tyreke Evans nearly passed him a couple of weeks ago--but it's been Jennings all along. Sadly, though, I seem to be an outlier on this topic. The Rookie of the Year race has been increasingly referred to as a two-horse race between Sacramento's Evans and Golden State's Stephen Curry.

The race really comes down to what you value. Unfortunately, many of the media members who will ultimately vote on the award will base their selection on scoring average. This article is primarily aimed at those voters, but also will touch upon the different conclusions reached by those who adhere to more advanced systems.

SCORING
Player            G    FG%   PTS
Tyreke Evans     64  46.1%  20.3
Stephen Curry    69  46.3%  16.5
Brandon Jennings 70  37.2%  15.8
Reggie Williams  13  54.6%  14.8
Marcus Thornton  64  45.4%  13.8
Jonny Flynn      72  41.2%  13.4
Darren Collison  67  46.0%  11.6
Omri Casspi      69  45.0%  10.6
James Harden     64  39.5%  10.1
Jonas Jerebko    69  48.1%   9.3
Wesley Matthews  72  48.3%   9.1
Ty Lawson        56  51.6%   8.9
Taj Gibson       70  49.6%   8.7
DeMar DeRozan    65  47.6%   8.5
Tyler Hansbrough 29  36.0%   8.5

I included each player's field-goal percentage because for a lot of voters, I'm sure that will be the factor that disqualifies Jennings. If you're a regular reader of Basketball Prospectus, you already know that scoring average is merely a jumping off point in player evaluation, and not a very good one. You also know that raw field-goal percentage only tells part of the story when judging shooters. However, Jennings does have some ground to make up in other areas.

SHOOTING
Player              TS%   eFG%   PTS
Tyreke Evans      53.4%  47.6%  20.3
Stephen Curry     56.7%  53.5%  16.5
Brandon Jennings  47.6%  43.1%  15.8
Reggie Williams   66.4%  62.7%  14.8
Marcus Thornton   55.3%  52.3%  13.8
Jonny Flynn       50.3%  44.9%  13.4
Darren Collison   52.8%  48.7%  11.6
Omri Casspi       53.3%  50.6%  10.6
James Harden      54.7%  47.6%  10.1
Jonas Jerebko     54.4%  51.0%   9.3
Wesley Matthews   59.0%  53.8%   9.1
Ty Lawson         60.6%  56.1%   8.9
Taj Gibson        51.9%  49.6%   8.7
DeMar DeRozan     53.7%  48.1%   8.5
Tyler Hansbrough  44.8%  36.0%   8.5

This tells us more about how efficiently our rookies have been getting their points. True Shooting Percentage accounts for the extra points a player gets from the line and from three-point range. Effective field-goal percentage is more a measure of pure shooting ability, giving extra credit for three-pointers made. Jennings comes up short of nearly every other rookie on the list. He's got his work cut out for him. Let's move on to some other categories.

NON-SHOOTING, OFFENSE
Player            USG%  AST%   TO%  ORB%
Tyreke Evans      25.9  25.5  13.4   2.6
Stephen Curry     20.9  23.4  17.0   1.7
Brandon Jennings  26.1  30.3  13.0   1.9
Reggie Williams   20.8  14.1   8.8   3.7
Marcus Thornton   25.5   9.8   7.4   4.5
Jonny Flynn       24.3  24.8  17.6   1.2
Darren Collison   23.2  33.4  19.4   2.2
Omri Casspi       19.3   7.8  11.7   4.4
James Harden      20.8  13.6  13.2   3.4
Jonas Jerebko     16.2   4.0  11.2  10.3
Wesley Matthews   16.6   8.4  11.5   3.2
Ty Lawson         18.1  23.9  16.1   4.0
Taj Gibson        16.9   5.3  15.0  11.4
DeMar DeRozan     18.3   5.0   9.9   5.2
Tyler Hansbrough  25.4   9.1   7.1  12.7

Here's a look at some non-shooting offensive categories. The reasons that Jennings is so highly-valued in my system, NBAPET, are starting to emerge. He's got the highest usage rate of all rookies. A high usage rate can obviously be a double-edged sword. Using and squandering possessions doesn't help a team, but someone's got to use possessions, or an offense will grow stagnant. Jennings has proven that he can get offense when he wants, even a little more so than Evans, which is a surprise. His shooting numbers, which are admittedly poor, are mitigated by how well he passes and takes care of the ball. The gap is closing, but it's still undeniable.

RAW PRODUCTION
Player             G   MP  AST   PTS   P+A   +/-
Tyreke Evans      64 2389  359  1296  2014  -3.7 
Stephen Curry     69 2470  388  1138  1914  +5.2 
Brandon Jennings  70 2307  417  1105  1939  +0.9 
Reggie Williams   13  328   29   193   251    -- 
Marcus Thornton   64 1547   88   886  1062  -0.1 
Jonny Flynn       72 2082  319   968  1606  -8.2 
Darren Collison   67 1799  375   779  1529  -3.2 
Omri Casspi       69 1778   88   732   908  +2.0 
James Harden      64 1472  127   648   902  +8.5
Jonas Jerebko     69 1877   45   639   729  +1.5
Wesley Matthews   72 1695   96   652   844  +0.5
Ty Lawson         56 1194  183   498   864  -6.9
Taj Gibson        70 1814   61   606   728  -1.8
DeMar DeRozan     65 1418   46   550   642  -5.4
Tyler Hansbrough  29  511   28   246   302    --

Efficiency stats and tempo-free metrics are golden for helping us to evaluate players on an apples-to-apples basis. They aid us in assessing concepts like roster-building, fair market value and future production. However, when you're looking backwards, those stats have to be balanced with raw production. A 70% True Shooting Percentage mark is great, but if it comes with 14 percent usage for a player that played a quarter of the available minutes at his position, that efficiency is mitigated. Staying healthy enough to play and getting your coach to have enough confidence in you so that you see the court are things that are just part of the gig. If nothing else, Evans, Curry and Jennings stand out because they've played so much.

In addition, because those players have played so much, they've accumulated some impressive counting stats. The P+A column denotes points plus (assists*2). This crude method of measuring points created is far from the best way to split up the responsibility for a team's points, but it does give us a broad outline of productivity. Here we see that given Jennings' ability to stay healthy and to play well enough to get consistent minutes, as well as his ability to set up teammates and get his own shots, means that the raw accumulated production between Evans, Curry and Jennings is very close. Jennings loses on the efficiency front (again, not as much as you might think given his ability to take care of the ball as a full-time point guard), but he's created more points for his team than Curry and not many fewer than Evans.

The plus-minus numbers you see here are the two-year, adjusted figures from BasketballValue.com. I present them just to acknowledge the on-court/off-court metrics of our group of rookies. I'm not big on plus-minus even in this advanced form other than for the evaluation of lineups and other player groupings. However, I know these numbers mean a great deal to many students of the game, so I present them here without comment and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

We've left out a big chunk of the equation: Defense. As always, these numbers have to be presented with the caveat that measuring defense is a much more inexact science than measuring offense.

DEFENSE
Player            DRB%  STL%  BLK%   +/-  dMULT  TEAM
Tyreke Evans      13.3   2.0   0.8  +0.5   .869    20
Stephen Curry     11.8   2.5   0.5  -1.3  1.025    29
Brandon Jennings  10.6   2.0   0.6  +1.3   .888     6
Reggie Williams   12.9   1.0   0.2  -9.8  1.010    29
Marcus Thornton    9.0   1.6   0.5  -0.4  1.035    21
Jonny Flynn        8.2   1.9   0.1  -8.2  1.089    28
Darren Collison    8.8   2.0   0.2  -3.2  1.008    21
Omri Casspi       16.2   1.5   0.7  +3.8   .978    20
James Harden      12.4   2.4   0.9  +2.3   .986     5
Jonas Jerebko     16.0   1.7   1.3  -2.1   .952    26
Wesley Matthews    7.6   1.5   0.6  -1.8   .955    10
Ty Lawson          7.0   1.8   0.1  -0.9   .984    17
Taj Gibson        19.1   1.2   3.5  +0.1  1.044    11
DeMar DeRozan     10.6   1.4   0.9  -3.4  1.136    30
Tyler Hansbrough  16.7   1.6   1.1  +1.3   .993    14

The winners here are clearly Evans and Jennings and it's primarily because of defense that I think Curry should be slotted as third in the rookie race. The +/- figures here are again from BasketballValue.com and reference the one-year, unadjusted on-court/off-court difference in defensive rating of each player. I've taken each figure times minus 1, as BV expresses it the opposite way that I prefer. A positive rating is good on this chart. dMULT is my metric, found on our player cards, that measures the production of a player's box score counterparts against their season norms, with 1.000 being average. Evans and Curry come out very close in dMULT, with both figures qualifying as outstanding. However, Jennings' Bucks are 1.3 points better in Defensive Rating when he plays, a 0.8 point advantage over Evans' showing with the Kings. Also, it's no small detail that Jennings' team ranks sixth in Defensive Rating, while the other top-scoring rookies all play on teams that rank 20th or worse. As a player that's logged over 2,300 minutes already this season, Jennings deserves a good deal of credit for Milwaukee's defensive success.

So we've covered a lot of ground and looked at the performances of these players from a number of different perspectives. At this point, it wouldn't surprise me if you haven't budged on your Evans-Curry-Jennings ballot, though I'd hope that the defense chart would at least convince you to drop Curry a notch. I have to admit, at this point, even I'd vote for Evans. Also, this would be a good time to remind you that I picked Evans to win the rookie award before the season. If I wanted to construct an argument in favor of Evans in order to pat myself on the back, it'd be easy to do. However, that's not what I believe. And we're not quite done with our comparisons.

TOTAL VALUE
Player             PER   WS  WARP  WP82
Tyreke Evans      18.3  5.1   6.4   9.8 
Stephen Curry     15.5  3.6   4.2   4.6
Brandon Jennings  14.8  3.7   4.6  12.1 
Reggie Williams   21.0  1.2   0.9   1.2
Marcus Thornton   17.7  3.4   2.3   4.1
Jonny Flynn       13.0  0.0   0.0   2.5
Darren Collison   15.7  2.0   3.1   4.7
Omri Casspi       13.3  2.5   1.3   3.0
James Harden      14.4  4.0   2.1   2.4
Jonas Jerebko     14.0  3.8   2.0   1.6
Wesley Matthews   12.5  4.0  -0.2   2.6
Ty Lawson         16.6  3.4   3.0   2.3
Taj Gibson        13.5  3.6   2.2   1.9
DeMar DeRozan     12.0  1.6  -0.6   0.7
Tyler Hansbrough  14.6  0.7   0.8   0.2

PER and Win Shares were taken from Basketball-Reference.com (as were a lot of the numbers in these tables.) WARP and WP82 came from our player cards at Basketball Prospectus. WARP is Kevin Pelton's core metric; WP82 is mine.

I'm not going to address the first two columns. PER is a very popular bottom-line metric and I'm not about to try to talk you out of using it. Win Shares is based on the Bill James concept, but I have to admit I've never really studied how the brilliant folks at Basketball-Reference calculate them. WARP is a excellent player-value metric that I use a lot. Kevin's system differs from mine in that it doesn't as aggressively estimate individual defense, but the system does have a strong defensive component, while incorporating the indispensable concept of replacement value.

WP82 aims to be exactly what you'd think it would be. It estimates the wins produced by a player over the course of a full season. (The '82' part of the name signifies that the metric is prorated for 82 games, but at the end of the season, the metric is simply 'Wins Produced.) I make this estimate in a few steps: 1. Estimate a player's raw points created; 2. Adjust this figure based on how efficiently a player used his offensive possessions; 3. Adjust this figure a second time based on how much a player has held his counterparts above or below their expected production; 4. Square the result of each player's adjusted points created figure; 5. Calculated the percentage of each player's squared points created of the team total; 6. Multiply the percentage calculated in Step 5 times team wins. Thus, a player's WP82 total is hard-wired into the team total. Does this give an advantage to players on good teams and hinder the Brook Lopezes of the world? You bet it does.

Those that have spoken out in favor of Brandon Jennings for the Rookie of the Year Award have cited his contribution to helping his team to a breakout season. This is the sort of intangible-based media-speak that makes statheads cringe. However, WP82 is telling with numbers the same story those people are telling with anecdotes.

All through our comparison of the top rookies, we've seen that the top three players everyone is pointing to--Evans, Curry and Jennings--deserve to be the top vote-getters, though Darren Collison might have entered into the discussion if Chris Paul hadn't returned from injury and Marcus Thornton is coming on fast. I think we've seen that once you account for defensive contribution, Jennings and Evans stand above Curry. After that ... it's all about what you value when you mash the numbers together. To me, the fact that Jennings is close to Evans in production, a little behind in efficiency and a little ahead on defense makes this a close race. However, the fact that Jennings plays on a team on pace to win 46 games, while Evans plays on a team on target to win 27 is the tiebreaker. Brandon Jennings is the Rookie of the Year.

You can pick apart this argument and get future Twitter updates twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.

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

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