"A bird in hand is better than two in the bush." This proverb rings especially true for the NBA draft, although the proportion is a bit more dramatic. General managers, scouts, media personalities and fans often overvalue draft prospects when compared to existing NBA talent, and the 2013 NBA Draft is no different. Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press recently joined the club by suggesting that a draft selection of Cody Zeller could make Detroit's Greg Monroe expendable, and that the latter should be traded in turn:
Zeller would have a higher upside than Monroe at a much cheaper price. Zeller already has the midrange offensive game Monroe still lacks. Pairing Zeller with Drummond would improve floor spacing and create potential matchup difficulties because Zeller’s midrange shooting ability would force an opposing big away from the basket.
While Sharp's sentiment is fair, he's broken a fair amount of logic to make these assumptions. First, he's comparing the upside of a proven NBA player to an unproven, not-yet-drafted college prospect. Second, he's operating on poor information about Zeller's ability. Third, he's ignoring Monroe's superior college showing, his potential for range and the spacing value of high-post passing. Finally, he has implied that the Detroit Pistons should make both of these moves for an improved fit with a guy who has only started 10 NBA games to date. There's also the ill-conceived assumption that Greg Monroe has reached his peak, and the implication that Detroit can find the right return in a trade with his rookie-scale contract.
"Zeller would have a higher upside than Monroe at a much cheaper price."
Darko Milicic would have a higher upside than Ben Wallace at a much cheaper price. Forgive my hyperbolic analogy for a moment and consider the point it illustrates. Sharp has compared a player who has not even played a minute of summer league to a guy who joined Tim Duncan, David Lee and Dwight Howard in a group of five elite offensive big men that averaged 16 and 10 or more at Greg's efficiency level last season. Greg is the youngest in that group by 5 years. By comparison, Sharp is not even talking about a top draft prospect, he's suggesting this late lottery pick has greater potential. Without playing a single second in the NBA, isn't it a bit risky (and unfair to Greg Monroe) to pencil in Cody Zeller in a group where everyone other than Greg is a multiple All Star in the worst case or a multiple MVP in the best case?
Who knows, there might be a second round pick in this draft that ultimately has a higher career arc than Greg Monroe. With that, Sharp may not be wrong. But to compare the two players now, and to declare Cody Zeller the higher upside player is not only foolish and presumptive, it's also quite dismissive of the accomplishments of Greg Monroe.
"Zeller already has the midrange offensive game Monroe still lacks."
As I mentioned above, Sharp is operating on poor information to make this statement. In his sophomore season, Cody Zeller only attempted 24 jump shots in 36 games. That's less than one per game on average, and a tiny shred of a sample even if we assume Zeller made every single jumper. To suggest this is a defined competency that Zeller will bring to the NBA is either untruthful or just ignorant of the hard numbers. 24 shots is about as many as Cody Zeller might attempt in pre-game shoot-around, it is far from conclusive evidence of ability.
In fact, if we're making declarative statements about tiny amounts of data, let's take the last 30 three-to-fifteen foot jumpers Greg Monroe shot in 2012-13. His 42% shooting over those last 30 is above the league average for power forwards, but I doubt I'll hear anyone rushing to his defense on such a tiny sample. Doing so would be inconclusive and pointless-- just as inconclusive and pointless as making assertions about Cody Zeller's midrange jumper.
"Zeller ... would improve floor spacing and create potential matchup difficulties because Zeller’s midrange shooting ability would force an opposing big away from the basket."
Having freshly poked holes in the assertion that 24 shots in a year makes a midrange shooter, there's a second flaw in the above statement by omission. Sharp omitted Greg Monroe's passing game, a rare ability that provides floor spacing with a similar value to mid-range shooting. Greg Monroe averaged roughly as many assists per game as he did shot attempts from 3 to 15 feet. When operating in the high post, Monroe's defender is pulled out of the paint to facilitate cuts to the basket and perimeter shots from players moving off-the-ball. It's a central element of the Princeton-style offense Monroe practiced in Georgetown, and it was used last season effectively to create floor spacing for penetration and easy buckets off of the pass from Greg.
The question of what is more valuable -- high post passing vs. midrange 2-point shooting -- is a philosophical discussion but from where I sit, I'll opt for the pass. There's an argument to be had for the value of 3-point shooting from a stretch big, but the same doesn't hold true for big men who shoot long 2's. Long 2-point shots are low quality shots that connect at less than 40% on average and they rarely get whistled for an extra point. Passing from midrange is a better alternative because the players attempting the shots are usually cutting to the basket (and potentially picking up a shooting foul) or attempting a spot-up three-pointer. The passing big usually findsman a higher percentage shot that brings home 3-points instead of just two, and converts at a better clip. The one counterargument is the potential for a turnover from a bad pass, but in our examples, Greg Monroe only averaged half a turnover a game more than Zeller did in pace-adjusted, even minutes.
"Pairing Zeller with Drummond"
The logical flaw here is one of implication. Sharp implies that Detroit should make these moves, a draft pick of Cody Zeller and a trade of Greg Monroe, to present a better pairing with Andre Drummond. The excitement about Andre Drummond is warranted, but it should be guarded. Sharp is suggesting rather drastic changes to the Detroit Pistons to fit around a guy who started only 10 games last season, who missed a good chunk of the season with a back injury, and is a long-term work-in-progress on the offensive end. The implication here, and I'm paraphrasing, is that Drummond is the centerpiece and despite only a fraction of playing time together, Greg Monroe is an unsatisfactory fit and should be traded.
Patience, Pistons Faithful
Greg Monroe has earned plenty of time to determine how well he can handle the role of a power forward. There is no rush nor reason to pass judgment on his ability thus far. Even as the Pistons approach the negotiation of a contract extension with Monroe, they should see a post-rookie max contract as a very tradeable value. Players like Roy Hibbert and LaMarcus Aldridge and others were hot commodities even after the ink was dry on their $13M starting salaries. Big men who can score efficiently and rebound strongly are a rare commodity, a commodity with a cap value higher than the post-rookie max will allow. Detroit should not feel it necessary to trade Monroe to avoid that level of commitment, because players of his production deserve that kind of commitment. His skill, his upside, his age and durability command that kind of commitment.
If Andre Drummond does indeed become a dominant All Star player, and Greg Monroe does not ultimately pan out at power forward, the Pistons can make that decision when it has enough information to do so. It doesn't yet have that information, and it's in no rush to make knee-jerk decisions in the mean time. I, for one, feel no reason to rush based on Cody Zeller's 24 sophomore jump shots or Andre Drummond's 10 career starts. I feel Greg Monroe deserves a lot more credit and faith than many fans -- and apparently sports writers -- have honored him with to date.