- Kevin Pelton, ESPN Staff Writer
When it comes to the 2014 NBA draft, the numbers tell a clear story: Don't believe the hype. For all the excitement this year's crop of freshmen has generated, none of them rate as well in my projections as last year's top prospect, former Kentucky center Nerlens Noel.
To project how college and international players will perform in the NBA, I start by translating their performance in 14 core statistics, such as 2-point percentage and rebound percentage, to their NBA equivalents. Then I factor in past seasons, which, given how success for college prospects has carried over in the past, is now weighted more heavily. Finally, I regress the stats toward the average for rookies at the same position, generating a complete projected stat line for each player's rookie season.
For a long-term outlook, I project the wins above replacement player the player will average over his first five seasons in the NBA, adjusted so that immediate contributions are weighted more heavily. I come to this figure by combining the player's projected rookie win percentage (the per-minute version of WARP, akin to PER) with his age (as of the end of the NCAA season). Naturally, the younger the player, the more opportunity for improvement down the road. During their first NBA seasons, younger players display more development than their older counterparts, making age a crucial part of any prospect analysis.
This year, the top prospect in my rankings isn't any of the guys you've heard about atop Big Boards. Rather, it's a sophomore: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart.
Let's look at Chad Ford's top 30 prospects, ranked by their WARP projections, followed by a ranking of the top 10 second-round steals and a full list of the top 100 prospects ranked by projected WARP.
For more on WARP projections and how they forecast past drafts, see last year's introduction to the method.
1. Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Win%: .512 | Age: 20.1 | WARP projection: 3.6
Several factors propelled Smart to the top of the WARP projections. He is young for a sophomore, just 10 days older than Joel Embiid. Smart's projected steal rate is tops for any projected first-round pick, which is important because steal rate has been a strong indicator of NBA success. He is also an excellent rebounder and has been surprisingly good playing against star point guards. Players similar to Smart tend to perform better in the NBA as the professional floor typically is more open, allowing them to create off the dribble.
2. Clint Capela, PF, Switzerland
Win%: .497 | Age: 19.9 | WARP projection: 3.4
As I noted in last week's analysis of the top international prospects in the draft, which highlighted the overall strength of the group, Capela performed well both in the French Pro A league and in his team's brief stint in the EuroCup against more challenging competition. He is an excellent shot-blocker for a power forward and is arguably the best finisher in this year's draft, as reflected by his projected 54.4 percent 2-point accuracy.