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Real vs. Ideal: What to expect from elite freshmen in Age-Limit era

Texas' Kevin Durant and Kansas State's Michael Beasley may have ruined it for everyone.

By competing for national player-of-the-year honors in the first two seasons after the NBA barred players from jumping straight into the draft out of high school, they became -- and almost unfairly so -- the benchmarks for top-10 recruits. Ohio State's Greg Oden and Memphis' Derrick Rose didn't help, either, leading their teams to national title-game appearances as freshmen. Too often, fans obsessing over loaded recruiting classes hope their incoming freshmen ranked in the top-10, top-50, or in most absurd cases, top-100, will be capable of star-level production from day one.

Those same fans might temper their expectations after examining the past three years of freshman-class data.

Using the RSCI (the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, an aggregator of class rankings), I built a database of the top 100 recruits from the classes of 2006, 2007 and 2008, recording their ranking alongside their freshman-year statistics in a number of categories, the most telling being percent of overall minutes played, percent of possessions used while on the floor (to gauge the significance of their offensive role), and Offensive Efficiency Rating (to gauge how many points they'd score per 100 possessions used).

(The inspiration for this came from an April 2008 post on the now-defunct blog Tyrone Shoelaces, which took a look at the freshmen from the '07-08 season. The blog, named after the 1975 Cheech & Chong song Basketball Jones Featuring Tyrone Shoelaces, died after three posts, sadly.)

Obviously, not every recruiting class is created equal, nor is every freshman walking into an identical team situation. But the averages from a three-year, 255-man pool (45 redshirts, injured players and non-enrollees, like Brandon Jennings, were removed) provide us with a decent statistical baseline. The production for RSCI top-100 freshmen, broken up into 10 brackets, looked like this:

That table may not mean much to you at first glance, but there are important things to be learned from it:

1. It's better to compare freshmen against the "average" players in their rankings bracket, not the gold standard.

For real-life context, I picked out a player from each RSCI bracket whose freshman-year stats bore the closest resemblance to the three-year average. As the table below suggests, rather than worrying if your team's top-10 player is better than Durant in '06-07, you should just be happy if he's better than Washington's Spencer Hawes was in that same season. If you're evaluating a player ranked between 11-20, compare him to UConn's Kemba Walker in '08-09 ... and so on:

It's far from an exact science, but it gives us better tools for making comparisons. If your team brings in a big man ranked No. 45 overall, don't burden him with pressure to perform like Oden, or even Cincinnati's YancyGates of Cincinnati, who had 57.5%/103.1/24.6% splits as the No. 32-ranked freshman in '08-09. Compare the kid to '07-08 JaJuan Johnson instead: His splits were 41.1%/98.3/18.9%.

Individual possession-based stats aren't yet available from kenpom.com for '09-10, but Kentucky's John Wall, the No. 2 overall player in the RSCI, looks as if he'll easily surpass the Spencer Hawes baseline, averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists while playing 36 minutes per game. Meanwhile, North Carolina's JohnHenson, ranked No. 5 in the RSCI, is averaging just 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 10.1 minutes per game. He's coping with learning a new position -- small forward -- on a team deep in big men, but still, those are sub-Hawesian numbers.

2. Don't expect recruits outside the top 40 to play starter minutes.

The chart to the right looks at the average percent of minutes played by each RSCI bracket -- and shows a precipitous drop between the top 10 and top 40. Top-20 recruits earned valuable-starter playing time (60-plus percent minutes), while top-30s and top-40s earned mid-rotation minutes (near 50 percent). After that, the average player was in a reserve-like role.

Fluctuation beyond the top 40 seems to indicate that evaluation in that range is less accurate, leaving plenty of sleepers lower on the list. Instant backcourt starters such as Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor (66.0 percent, '08-09) and Arkansas' Patrick Beverly (85.6 percent, '06-07) were ranked in the 70s, and USC's DanielHackett (66.9 percent, '07-08) and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez (71.8 percent, '06-07) were found in the 90s.

3. Only top-10 recruits tend to be "major contributors" or "go-to guys" on offense as freshmen.

When kenpom.com breaks down a team's possession usage, players who use more than 28 percent of possessions are "go-to guys", between 24-28 percent are "major contributors," between 20-24 percent are "significant contributors," between 16-20 percent are "role players," and between 12-16 percent have "limited roles."

For example, of the members of Texas' absurdly good 2006 recruiting class who played more than half the team's minutes in '06-07, second-ranked Durant was a go-to guy (31.6 percent of possessions), 29th-ranked D.J. Augustin was significant (22.8 percent), 15th-ranked Damion James was a role player (17.1 percent) and unranked Justin Mason was a limited-role player (14.5 percent).

The top chart to the right shows that only top-10 recruits' average possession usage (24.7 percent) fell above the "major" threshold. Top 11-40 recruits' average usage fell into the "significant" zone, while averages beyond that alternated between the significant and "role" zones. This season's freshman class, which isn't nearly as strong as the '06 and '07 crops, isn't likely to produce more than a few major players outside the RSCI's top 10. Kentucky's Wall, Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors (No. 1 overall), Kansas' Xavier Henry (No. 6), Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson (No. 8) and Florida's Kenny Boynton (No. 9) are the most logical high-volume possession-users -- and after that crew, it's slim pickings.

The lower chart shows the decline in offensive efficiency as one moves down the RSCI rankings. Top-30 players were the only ones who consistently averaged over a point per possession (and thus had average offensive ratings higher than 100). Players with ratings below 100 tend to be liabilities, while players above 120 are major assets. North Carolina's title team last season had four starters with 120-plus offensive ratings: Tyler Hansbrough (124.0), WayneEllington (123.1), Danny Green (121.1) and Ty Lawson (who ranked first in the country at 134.3).

4. Centers and power forwards outside the top 20 see significantly fewer minutes as freshmen than their counterparts in the top 20.

I made four groupings of recruits from the 255-man list -- point guards, wing guards, wing forwards and power forwards/centers -- and analyzed their statistics separately, grouping them into larger brackets (1-20s, 21-40s, 41-60s, 61-80s, 81-100s) to create better sample sizes. The chart below shows how minutes played differed by RSCI bracket and position.

Point-guard minutes dropped only 0.1 percent (from a 67.0 percent average to 66.9 percent) from the top-20 bracket to the 21-40 bracket, suggesting excellent depth at the position over the previous three seasons. Power-forward/center minutes, meanwhile, dropped 28.3 percent (from a 60.8 percent to 32.5 percent) from the top-20 bracket to the 21-40 bracket -- solid proof that most non-five-star big men tend to be mutli-year projects rather than instant-impact freshmen.

5. Near the bottom of the top-100 list, you're more likely to get quality offense out of wing forwards (threes or perimeter fours) than any other position.

The chart below shows how Offensive Rating changed by RSCI bracket and position:

All four position groupings (point guards, wing guards, wing forwards, and power forwards/center) start have Offensive Ratings of 106-plus for their first bracket, then begin declining. Wing forward is the only position with an average offensive rating of 100-plus throughout the entire RSCI, however -- and the average rating of its 61-80 bracket (106.5) is almost equal to that of its 1-20 bracket (106.7).

There have been some impressive sleepers at wing forward with rankings of 61 and above: Purdue's Robbie Hummel had a 126.7 rating as the 62nd-ranked freshman in '07-08, Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor had a 106.6 rating as the 97th-rated freshman in '08-09, and West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler had a 107.1 rating as the 99th-ranked freshman in '06-07. All three of those players are All-America candidates this season.

The sleeper in this year's freshman class might be Alabama's Tony Mitchell, a non-qualifier from '08 who's ranked 93rd in the RSCI. He scored 24 points in the Tide's second game, against Jackson State, and is shooting 57.5 percent from the field thus far. He could singlehandedly keep the trend of underrated wing forwards alive.

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