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Jazz big Derrick Favors is on the right track, but has Enes Kanter been somewhat derailed after a delayed start?

How do young, raw bigmen develop . . . if at all? A historical look at the process.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a number of players who could best be described as young, raw, bigmen. I'm clearly interested in investigating them because the Utah Jazz have three young bigmen on the roster right now, and two of them should have shed the 'raw' label by now. Derrick Favors was picked #3 in the 2010 draft, and had a slow rise towards NBA competency. He still shows flashes of his potential, but after being traded in his rookie year he was out of sight / out of mind for most of the NBA, he only played in the rookie / soph game as a 2nd year player, and as an injury replacement at that. Enes Kanter was picked #3 in the 2011 draft, and was even more raw as he played high school basketball in near obscurity at a private school in a quiet, pastoral part of California; then had to sit out his entire NCAA career because of violations. Favors has had a slow and steady rise to prominence; Kanter has had to fight obscurity and systematic limitations in order to get to where he is today -- a young man looking for a team that values him. Rudy Gobert is fresh on everyone's lips (if not also butts), but still has a long way to go.

Of the raw bigmen in NBA History I decided to look at:

  • Players 6'10 and above in height, while discounting tall wing players like Rashard Lewis, Jonathan Bender, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and so forth
  • Players who have played in the NBA for at least three seasons
  • Players who were 21 years old in their third season, or younger

These raw, young men turn out to be an interesting bunch. There are 27 of them in searchable NBA history, with 20 of them being 1st rounders, and 16 of them were lotto picks. It's clear that it's not out of the question for NBA teams to draft a raw bigman. But these gems need a lot of work to become polished, and then brilliant. Some teams manage to do it, while others, well, do not. Furthermore, sometimes teams draft a dud. If you have been following along I have a certain idea of the amount of polishing a raw gem needs, and the most polishing that's done early in their career the better.

All in all, the players who fit the bill are Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Moses Malone, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Derrick Favors, Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown, Andris Biedrins, Zaza Pachulia, Andrew Bynum, Darryl Dawkins, Andray Blatche, Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal, Darko Milicic, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Randolph, Jamal Sampson, Bruno Sundov, Anthony Davis, Enes Kanter, Andre Drummond, Maciej Lampe, Olumide Oyedeji, and Jackie Butler. Some are Hall of Famers, or will be when they retire. Others are solid starters or rotation guys for good teams. Still others are entirely forgettable.

If you add it all up these players had early starters to their careers that tend towards getting playing time.

Games Minutes Total
Situation Players Reg Playoff Reg Playoff MPG
1 Rookie Year 27 1,322 21 25,004 298 18.84
2 Soph Year 27 1,596 42 34,014 421 21.02
3 3rd Year 27 1,501 48 39,144 1,292 26.10
4 4th Year 22 1,330 73 34,855 1,724 26.07
5 5th Year 21 1,365 130 38,482 3,595 28.15
Totals 27 7,114 314 171,499 7,330 24.07

Not every player in the n = 27 list of players has made it through 5 years in the league, so there's some *work in progress* numbers -- but for the most part these are young, raw bigmen who are picked in the first round and end up playing a lot of minutes during their rookie contracts.

Quick Sidebar! The normative, inclusive, growth for the entire searchable history for young, raw bigmen is 18.84 mpg -> 28.15 mpg over five seasons. In case you forgot Derrick Favors didn't quite get their minutes on such a pleasant curve.

2014 2015 Raw Bigmen Minutes Sidebar 1

Kanter is getting more minutes now than ever before, and it's a big jump. Favors flatlined to start, at 20 mpg, 22 mpg, and 23 mpg. Things are looking better now; however, crucial development time was lost due to a logjam that was constructed on purpose. Because that is how you brilliantly rebuild. The +7 minute jump for Derrick, and +10 minute jump for Enes was necessary, and perhaps a little overdue.

Anyway, back to the actual information on all 27 players, and not just our Jazzmen.

I think there is a critical development period where important things need to be learned, and important things must be done. If a baby learns how to sit up, turn over, crawl, stand, walk, run, and do all these motor skills, but doesn't learn how to talk then while they may appear fit for their age, they still can be severely behind schedule. Being able to get that experience to the point where on court confidence can occur is something we don't want to prevent.

After all, the best way to get a young, raw player to become a polished one is to smooth the edges by getting them out there. If we simply look at the MPG values from above, and look at what the Jazz did with Favors and Kanter against what the n = 27 group average is, well, our guys were held back for better or for worse.

My theory is to aim for 2,000 minutes every season when you are trying to develop a young player and get them to the point where you can get a return on investment DURING their rookie contract. So for the first three seasons that means a player who has played at least 6,000 regular season and playoff minutes.Some players get there, others do not.

      2014 2015 Raw Bigmen Minutes First Three Seasons

Yeah, six players satisfy this 6k threshold -- Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond are on pace to go past 6,000 minutes after this season is finished. And those six players CLEARLY demonstrate that a) they got enough playing time despite being raw bigmen with little to no NCAA experience to feel good on the court, and b) they also appear to be the most talented of this group. I will go out to say that 100% of the players who get 6,000 minutes in their first three seasons are able to have solid careers and shed the limitations of being a young, raw bigman. What about the rest though?

Somehow the Jazz found it in their hearts to play Favors less than Kwame Brown or Eddy Curry; and Kanter less than Zaza Pachulia. Because . . . . #playoffpush. There is not a linear relationship between minutes and success, but there's a threshold -- so it's more like action potential (which I think even people who ran away from home and dropped out of high school should know about, they teach that in 9th grade). Some players don't get to that threshold, and some do. Still, others are able to have successful, but limited, careers in the NBA.

It's likely that Zaza wasn't going to be a star, after all he was drafted 42th. Kanter and Favors were both drafted 3rd. You're making a series of mistakes if you draft a guy that high who isn't worth minutes, or if you draft a guy that high, and you keep them on the bench and retard their development.

Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry had big bodies and big injuries, and thus didn't make the 6k cut. Darko shouldn't have been picked so high. Jermaine O'Neal had a huge logjam, but made it though. If you are looking for the exception to the rule it could be this guy. But for the most part, guys who are picked high have high potential. Limiting the ability of a player to reach that potential makes the player less valuable. Tyson Chandler is a great one way player, but perhaps he could have been more? I don't know. The players who averaged 20-24 mpg all seem to be in this morass. You can be a solid role player, but if you don't play early, and you are raw, you may never get good enough, quick enough, to ever be more than a role player.

What about teams that try to play 'catch-up' and give a player lots of minutes in their 4th and 5th seasons? (Aka, the Jazz plan) Five seasons means 10,000 minutes. To achieve this you have to a) be good, b) be in a stable situation where your minutes aren't in question, and c) you stay healthy.

2014 2015 Raw Bigmen Minutes First Five Seasons

Here only four players meet, or exceed, my lofty ideals: Dwight, KG, Bosh, and Moses. All four will be HOFers. So sure, they were the best player, all very talented and athletic, all highly sought after when they were teens, and all have good careers. The cream rises to the top, as it were; right? Well, while we cannot prove or disprove that more minutes to a bad player makes them good. I think it's within the known laws of the universe that giving hardly any minutes to a good player will help obscure his value. Minutes may not directly lead to development (but I think they do); however, no minutes will lead to no development.

If you look at the Amar theories (6k for first three years; 10k for the first five), being suck in the 60+% to 80+% range helps a young, raw player get seasoned enough to be a solid NBA player. Not all raw, young, bigmen get to be stars. But of the ones who do get there, they are all Top 5 picks who get a lot of minutes early in their careers, and consistently.

An NBA team can play "catch-up" to limited results. Chandler was in the 60% range after three seasons, and got up to 85% after five. He's a great player on one side of the ball, and can help a team win the games that matter. His inability to make free throws, or even have a hook shot, tell me that he's not really as good as he could have been though. Is that fixed by minutes alone? No. Are there flaws to the games of Favors and Kanter that are? Yes -- court vision being one of them.

Jermaine O'Neal remains the one outlier to my theory or the historical data. He went from 8 to 13 to 8 to 11 mpg before busting out for 33 mpg his first year with the Indiana Pacers. He didn't play much, but he was an NBA All-Star for a number of years. Enes Kanter could be busting out as well if he goes to the East and gets big minutes in his 5th year. He moved away from being a raw, young bigman over time and his own efforts -- but it's clear that even at his peak he wasn't HOF worthy. Few are.

When you are young and raw being on a team that has you playing catch up means you are trying to keep up with your peers by going slower. Bart Simpson had to do this when his father moved to another city to work on the nuclear program for Hank Scorpio. It became clear to him that it was fundamentally flawed to try to catch up by going slower. The Jazz are playing catch up, and I think our players are good enough to make up the difference.

But if you are a young guy who wants to be a big star, it's a lot easier to do that when you are playing early and often. It's hard to move past the rawness, but over time father time is undefeated. And eventually these guys all have to grow up.

Kanter is on the precipice of being one of the best bigs in the league, regardless of age qualifier. Kanter can score 20 a night most nights when his shot is falling, but there are parts of his game which are really behind the curve. (Parts, mind you, that Jonas Valanciunas doesn't have ... guess who got played early. Valanciunas, by the way, isn't in this discussion because he was more seasoned by playing pro ball in Europe for longer, and as a consequence was 22 in his 3rd season.)

If you are Favors, you are on the right path now after a very sparse climb in his first three years in the league. If you are Kanter, you do understand that time is gone from your career that you'll never get back again. Most raw bigmen who are Top 5 picks do get played earlier and more often than he did. Is that enough to hold a grudge against the new GM and new Head Coach?

I hope not.