The NBA Combine isn't nearly as publicized as the NFL’s version, probably because basketball isn’t a full-on contact sport like football is. In football, speed is important, how high you can jump is important, and whether you’re stronger than your competition is important. In basketball, you don’t have to worry about a 250-pound linebacker hitting you, so more attention is given to a player’s finesse and “measurables” – their height, wingspan, vertical leap, etc.
Of all these measured statistics about a player, which of them are useful and predictive? What about ones that don’t really have usefulness in projecting long term success? Let’s look at a couple examples of each.
While a player’s height is certainly important, wingspan is much more so. And this makes sense – Serge Ibaka doesn’t jump up and block a shot with his head, right? We’re interested in how much space a player can cover, so that means fingertip to fingertip, since hands are such a vital part of the game.
Interestingly enough, Kevin Durant, while being a couple inches shorter than the guy who went before him in the 2007 draft, Greg Oden, actually had a larger wingspan. Durant’s reached 7 feet, 4.75 inches while Oden’s was at 7 feet, 4.25 inches. Being taller doesn’t necessarily equate to a larger wingspan.
This is particularly important on defense and rim protection. Some of the best defenders (and projected defenders for newer players) were top of the charts in regards to wingspan at the combine. In 2008, DeAndre Jordan and Brook Lopez were at the top of the board. In 2009 it was Taj Gibson, in 2010 it was Larry Sanders, in 2011 we had Kawhi Leonard (6’6’ with a 7’3’ wingspan!), and in 2012 we had Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis. While having a large wingspan doesn’t equate automatically to elite rim protection, it is necessary for it.
Three Quarter Sprint
Now this is an interesting one. There are two speed or agility drills that players do at the combine – lane agility time (I’ll talk about this below) and three quarter sprint. The lane agility time drill is specifically aimed at measuring lateral quickness, which is very important for perimeter defense. The three quarter sprint is pretty self-explanatory – a player is timed running from the baseline to three quarters of the way down the court.
Basically, we’re looking at speed versus quickness in these two drills. Before I started compiling information, I would’ve guessed that the agility drills measuring quickness would be much more predictive in the NBA than just pure speed. However, that is not what I found.
Let’s look at a couple of the better perimeter defenders in the league and how they rated. Mike Conley did the agility drill in 11.63 seconds. That's about average, and is actually just 0.04 seconds faster than Greg Oden. Conley was slower than many other prospects, with Demetris Nichols and Aaron Brooks taking the top two spots at 10.39 and 10.57 seconds respectively.
However, Conley was the top prospect in regards to three quarter sprint. He did his in 3.09 seconds. Bigger perimeter defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler had similar splits between the two drills. Kawhi posted an 11.45 in the agility drill – not bad, but not top of the board either. He was higher on the list for the three quarter sprint, running it in 3.15 seconds. Butler was a bit quicker in the agility drill posting an 11.12 mark, but was even better in the three quarter drill at 3.15.
Why does this trend exist? Now that is a good question.
Lane Agility Time
Let’s go back to that 2007 draft with Mike Conley. Two of the slowest guys in terms of the lane agility time drill were Kevin Durant and Al Horford. They weren’t amazing in the three quarter drill either, but still better. I would say those guys are turning out to be pretty good players.
In 2008, George Hill was one of the slowest 12 players in terms of agility, posting a mark of 12.2 seconds. However, he was the seventh-fastest in the speed drill. Hill has been getting bashed in the media recently because of all the Pacers internal problems and because he was traded straight up for Kawhi Leonard, who is the now the reigning NBA Finals MVP. However, Hill is still a positive defender and is a big part of that defensive identity in their starting lineup.
Saying these stats are “useless” is probably going a bit far. I think we can still find some value if we adjust the way we interpret them. Guards are generally going to be quicker than bigs and will probably dominate the top of the list. So when a big guy tests above average for an uncommon measurable – that is where we can find use for it. For example, in 2002 Nene and Amar'e Stoudemire both posted above average marks in the agility drill. In fact, Nene had the fourth best time at the combine. Put that with a 6’11 frame and now we have something significant.
Standing Vertical Leap
With interpreting these statistics, some teams can get into trouble by separating it from the bigger picture. While the standing vertical leap can be significant in that it tells us how high a player can jump without taking any steps, it shouldn’t be more important than other things. While it can be another positive for a player, it shouldn’t be a negative.
Let’s go back to the 2011 draft. The top five players in the standing vertical leap were Iman Shumpert, MarShon Brooks, JaJuan Johnson, Travis Leslie, and Scotty Hopson. The following players were all in the bottom 10: Nikola Vucevic, Kawhi Leonard, Chandler Parsons, Enes Kanter, and Klay Thompson. Yeah, that last guy is the dude who’s about to be traded for Kevin Love.
If a player has an NBA skill, then that should matter significantly more than whether they can jump high from a standing position. When does a player even ever do that other than at a jump ball and possibly for a rebound? And it doesn’t tell us much we already don’t know by watching a game for three seconds. In 2009, Blake Griffin was third in the standing vertical leap. I’m not sure anyone really needed to test Blake to make sure that he can jump high – it’s pretty obvious by watching his game.
All of these statistics should be used together to evaluate prospects. No one area, be it incredibly good or bad, should make or break a player. Kevin Durant is well on his way to being the best player in the world, and he tested very badly in several categories. If an organization decides to base a decision on one of these stats, they could very well end up making a huge mistake tomorrow.