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April 5, 2013

A Brief Examination of 3rd Overall Picks

-- Spoiler Alert: the Jazz aren't good at them

As the trade deadline passed away two weeks ago and it became apparent that our months spent pondering potential Jazz trades had been spent in vain, my mind turned to the pair of number three draft picks that comprise the Utah Jazz’s future: Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.

Presently these two building blocks are consigned to bench duty and a meager xx and xx minutes of playing time a game, stuck behind starters Big Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. With Al and Paul demanding the majority of frontcourt playing time, it was expected the Jazz front office would move one of the two as a way of freeing up extra minutes for the ongoing development of Favors and Kanter. No moves ended up happening, which I’m fine with, because teams that force moves for no reason beyond “we need to make a move” often end up looking a lot like the Sacramento Kings. Still, it made me wonder. Were the Jazz hesitant to move one of their bigs because they think Favors is still not ready to be a starter? Because they don’t trust Enes to play more than 13 minutes a night?

Like many Jazz fans, I wonder if Favors and Kanter are falling behind on their development track. Shouldn’t players selected third overall in their respective drafts be causing more of an impact on a game-to-game basis? This question led me to spend a Saturday morning comparing some simple statistics from players drafted third overall since 1970.

What should be expected from a Number Three Pick in the NBA draft?

The first statistic I looked at was points per game; specifically career scoring average through three seasons (or in Kanter’s case, through his second season). The ability to score points reveals, among other things, playmaking ability and it seemed as reasonable a place as any to start comparing Favors and Kanter to their third pick contemporaries. What do the career points per game numbers tell us? Of the 43 players drafted third overall since 1970, Favors’ career scoring average of 8.33 points per game and Kanter’s career scoring average of 5.45 rank 39th and 42nd. Allow me to rephrase that statistic this way: only one player drafted third overall since 1970 – Chris Washburn, he of 3.43 points per game fame – has had a lower career points per game average through three seasons than Enes Kanter, and only four have scored worse than Derrick Favors. These are not particularly encouraging numbers. When immortal third picks like Rick Robey and Adam Morrison showed a greater ability to score than your two building blocks of the future, I start to worry.

Of course points per game isn’t a perfect statistic. It doesn’t take into account the limited opportunities that Kanter and Favors get (see: Favors 7.3 shots per game; Kanter 5.1) nor is it the only measure of a players worth. Most number three picks are thrust into the starting lineup and relied upon to resurrect a lottery team from the get go. Favors and Kanter on the other hand have been entrusted with an understudy role, relied upon to anchor a bench unit while hopefully absorbing some of the play-to-play intensity of Millsap or the offensive acumen of Big Al. Points per game per 36 minutes takes the common points per game statistic and expands it such that one can get a view of how many points a player scores per 36 minutes of court time; a valuable tool for predicting what low-minute players might be able to do if they were given starters minutes. While I had hoped this statistic would paint Favors and Kanter in a more favorable light, well, that’s not quite the case. Kanter’s career points per game per 36 minutes average of 14.2 ranks 32nd of 43; Favors’ average of 12.9 slots him 39th of 43. The numbers remain discouraging, especially when you consider most of Favors and Kanter’s production come against second-tier, bench players.

Disappointed with what the points per game and points per 36 minutes stats revealed about Kanter and Favors, I decided finally to compare the players’ player efficiency rating, a supposedly all-encompassing statistic which according to the ever trustworthy Wikipedia “boils down all of a players contributions into one number.” Here Kanter and Favors finally improve in the rankings, but with career PER averages of 15.3 and 14.4 the duo still only rank 25th and 29th out of the last 43 players drafted third overall.

What Do the Numbers Mean?

They may not mean anything to be quite frank. Stats don’t always tell the full story, especially the cherry-picked trio we examined. Surely if we compared blocks per 36 minutes or rebounds per 36 Favors and Kanter would be painted in a much more favorable light. Still, the numbers we saw suggest that Favors and Kanter at this point in their early careers are performing below average at least when compared to other players taken with the third pick. And what does that mean for the Jazz? Maybe the team was right in choosing not to deal Millsap or Jefferson, maybe they’ve been right in slowly bringing Favors and Kanter along as understudies. Or maybe the Jazz managed to pull off some of the worst luck in recent memory, acquiring back-to-back number three picks that may turn out above average at best and duds at worst.

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