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Stat of the Week: Managing elite young talent

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In this edition of SOTW, we look at how teams build around their young superstar.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A question has been raised about how many young prospects the Nuggets should be developing at the same time, and whether they were doing enough to develop these players. There is no rock solid answer for this, but through some research of what teams have done in the past, an answer can be found.

The goal for a rebuilding team above anything else is to identify a young superstar prospect to build around early in their career. Using this criteria, here are the young players in their first three seasons, since the year 2000, that have accumulated a .200 Win Shares per 48 over a period of 1,500 minutes or more. This is “we appear to now have a star” criteria:

  • Vince Carter - (2000-01)
  • Dirk Nowitzki - (2000-01)
  • Elton Brand - (2001-02)
  • Yao Ming - (2003-04, 2004-05)
  • LeBron James (2004-05, 2005-06)
  • Amar’e Stoudemire (2004-05)
  • Dwyane Wade (2005-06)
  • Chris Paul (2007-08)
  • Brandon Roy (2008-09)
  • Kevin Durant (2009-10)
  • Kevin Love (2010-11)
  • Derrick Rose (2010-11)
  • James Harden (2011-12)
  • Anthony Davis (2013-14, 2014-15)
  • Rudy Gobert (2014-15)

Nikola Jokic is on the verge of joining this group at 1,393 minutes and a .220 Win Shares per 48 currently, so it’s safe to use this group of 15 players as examples. There are a multitude of NBA championships, even more MVP trophies, and boundless star power in this group, but how did the teams do in building around these young prospects?

Star Player Young Prospects under 25 playing more than 1,500 minutes Total Minutes for under 25 players Did the team go to the Conference Finals in 3 years?
Vince Carter Morris Peterson 1,809 No
Dirk Nowitzki None (Steve Nash broke out late though) 2,119 Yes
Elton Brand Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette 7,148 No
Yao Ming None (traded for Tracy McGrady next year) 702 No
LeBron James Drew Gooden 4,699 Yes
Amar'e Stoudemire Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson 9,218 Yes
Dwyane Wade None (Traded for Shaquille O'Neal) 1,498 Yes
Chris Paul None 1,441 No
Brandon Roy LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Greg Oden just missed 11,896 No
Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka just missed 10,268 Yes
Kevin Love Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson 9,914 No
Derrick Rose None 1,112 Yes
James Harden Same OKC team: Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka 8,469 Yes
Anthony Davis Al-Farouq Aminu, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday missed minute cut due to injury 8,462 No
Rudy Gobert Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum. Also Rodney Hood and Alec Burks 12,939 Incomplete

In total, there are 14 players with conclusive grades on whether they were part of a successful rebuild back to the conference finals. Seven players were successful, while seven were unsuccessful.

Of the seven successful players, four were on teams that played their young players MORE than 4,000 minutes: James, Stoudemire, Durant, and Harden. The three other players were Nowitzki, Rose, and Wade, who each were assisted in different ways:

  • Nowitzki had Steve Nash break out late and become a superstar caliber player on the Dallas Mavericks
  • Rose had two 25-year-olds assist him in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, along with 29-year-old Carlos Boozer
  • Wade was assisted by the trade for 33-year-old Shaquille O’Neal

Of the seven unsuccessful players, three were on teams that played their young players LESS than 4,000 minutes: Carter, Yao, and Paul. The other four players were Brand, Roy, Love, and Davis, and each had reasons for failure:

  • Brand was surrounded by the wrong talent. The Clippers let Quentin Richardson walk and contribute to a Phoenix Suns championship caliber team, while Brand had Marko Jaric and Quentin Ross instead
  • Roy and the Portland Trail Blazers’ story is tragic. He was injured before that team got off the ground, as was Greg Oden. So much young talent on this team
  • Love was surrounded by Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Ricky Rubio, Johnny Flynn and Anthony Randolph as the best Minnesota could do in terms of young talent
  • Davis and the Pelicans have been repeatedly bashed by the injury bug. Who knows how well a full season of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson, and Davis could have performed?

Conclusions

There are four categories of teams outlined above: teams that played young talent and had success, teams that played young talent and failed, teams that didn’t play young talent and had success, and teams that didn’t play young talent and failed. The odds of falling in each category are roughly the same. The Nuggets’ young players have played a total of 4,901 minutes this season (not counting Jokic), meaning that they are already across the minute threshold. That means the following players and teams are most comparable to Jokic:

  • LeBron James
  • Amar’e Stoudemire
  • Kevin Durant
  • James Harden
  • Elton Brand
  • Brandon Roy
  • Kevin Love
  • Anthony Davis

From this, I gather three takeaways:

  1. Build around the right young players. LeBron, Brand, and Love were all surrounded by poor young players, guys that just didn’t develop and ended up busts. Only LeBron was able to work past it, but he needed one of the best all-time performances to do so.
  2. Identify another alpha dog. Durant and Harden were so successful because of the presence of Westbrook. They struggled to mesh at times but it helped get the group there. Stoudemire had Steve Nash to defer to, but Brand, Roy, Love, and Davis had no one. LeBron is still LeBron.
  3. Pray for health. Roy and the Blazers could have been great, and Davis might have succeeded with the core that left him in Gordon and Anderson. It’s telling that those two are having massive success with Harden right now: Gordon and Anderson are healthy.

That’s it for SOTW this week. To answer the initial question, the Nuggets don’t HAVE to commit to a bunch of young prospects to surround Jokic, but if they can identify the right players to pair him with, it makes sense. If the right players don’t emerge though, the Nuggets can’t delay too long. The fear of becoming the Clippers with Elton Brand or the Timberwolves with Kevin Love is a legitimate one.

The three players outside of Jokic that I would commit to are Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Juancho Hernangomez. If one of those guys doesn’t develop into the secondary star needed, then Denver needs to go outside the team and acquire said player, or else they risk wasting Jokic’s talent for the next few seasons and hoping he sticks by them in the future.