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Has Philly Already Won the Lottery?

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The NBA played the final games of the regular season last night. For fans of the worst teams their long regional nightmare is over with bright shiny ping pong balls as their solace for a season of futility and “quality losses” (Or a series of humiliating nationally televised losses if they are Lakers fans).

Those ping pong balls will get cashed in when the NBA holds its draft lottery on May 20th, rewarding some team for their inefficacy and suffering, planned or not, with the number one pick. The number one pick, of course, affords the team the opportunity to try to identify and take the best talent available that year.

Obviously the team with the first pick isn’t always successful identifying the best talent and, even if they can the talent available every year varies fairly significantly, one year the best player available is Anthony Davis or LeBron James, the next it’s Kwame Brown.

This year the consensus both at the time of the draft and since is that the Cleveland Cavaliers did not identify the best player available, selecting Anthony Bennett ahead of a number of more heralded prospects (most of whom have had more successful rookie seasons). After compiling and testing a couple of Draft Models based on statistical production, that were not calibrated with the 2013 draft class, I certainly agree.

According to my models Nerlens Noel was the best player available in the 2013 draft. He was traded on draft night, has yet to play a minute in the NBA and, if fully recovered from his knee injury, may be the best rookie in the NBA next year. Before his season-ending knee injury Noel was putting up numbers that, given his age, projected him as not only the best player available in the 2013 draft, but would arguably put him ahead of the most famous names in the 2014 draft class.

On draft night last year the New Orleans Pelicans traded the rights to Noel along with their 2014 pick for Jrue Holiday in an attempt to “Win Now” that has gone perfectly to date.

While there is no consensus top pick this year, generally a bad sign by the way, Joel Embiid is one of the possible number ones this year, projecting similarly to Jabari Parker and higher than Andrew Wiggins. As a center Embiid is the easiest to compare to Noel. The center that actually projects the best in my models is Clint Capela, a Swiss 19 year old playing pro ball in France.

P-AWS and % Player Player Projections

The models are based on statistical production using Alternate Win Score (AWS) in the player’s third or fourth of their NBA career year as the independent variable. I chose AWS primarily because it has been shown to be one the least context sensitive efficiency metrics and it is relatively straight forward to calculate. You can read more gory details here or here if you’re so inclined.

There are two relevant models, the Predicted AWS (P-AWS) model and the % Player model, they’re closely related with the only difference being the regression format. Essentially the difference is that the % Player model is an ordinal regression model based on the chances of the player being a starting caliber player by the end of their rookie deal, the difference is primarily that this model is less influenced by outlier stars and gives the results as an estimated probability. For example, Anthony Davis was projected as having a 99% chance of being at least a quality starter level starter.

The knee injury isn’t factored in the model and has to be considered as a caveat, though Noel has claimed the knee is fully recovered and he could have played this year. Embiid’s season was also cut short by an injury, but it is reportedly not expected to limit him in his rookie year.

Below are their ratings in the models:


Based on the stats Noel is rated as a likely star while Embiid is projected as a solid starter. Interestingly both were lowered in the model projections by playing a low number of minutes. The overall efficiency ratings were fairly close with Noel’s somewhat higher even though they affected the game in different ways. Embiid being better on the offensive end scoring more and more efficiently and assisting more. Noel on the the hand racked up more steals and blocks and committed fewer mistakes with many fewer turnovers and personal fouls (all numbers pace adjusted).

Even though Noel was a freshman the year before Embiid, they are almost exactly the same age, meaning Noel’s stats were compiled when he was a year younger.  Normally age is a pretty important factor based on studies I have done outside of these models and in calibrating these models. Of course, famously, Embiid is newer to the game than most twenty year old first round draft picks, though there is not enough data to tell if that is a significant factor in development with only a few examples of big men coming late to the game getting drafted in the first round, one being the great Hakeem Olajuwon and the less great Feb Melo.

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