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Team Building Analysis: Portal vs. High School

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A deep dive on the performance of players from the portal versus transfers

Washington v USC Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Over the past several years the strategies around talent acquisition in college basketball have been turned completely on their head. Transfers certainly existed before the last 2 years but they were usually rare at the high major level. You either had a grad transfer who had 3-4 years of college experience or someone so unhappy with their current situation that they were willing to sit out for a year to get out.

Now of course the transfer portal makes that seem quaint. Nearly 1/4th of D1 players have entered the portal this cycle with the hopes of finding a better situation. Some will. There are certainly star players from small teams who will be stars in next year’s NCAA tournament because they were willing to take the plunge. Bryson Williams went from a good player on a so-so UTEP team, picked Texas Tech (over Washington), and earned a #3 seed and a Sweet 16 trip. Of course there are also guys who either never found a new home or languished on the bench with their next team.

What I want to focus on today though is what should a coach at a school such as Washington be planning for in this current era when they’re really trying to win now? I ran a poll on twitter this week and 77.2% of respondents said Hopkins needed to make the NCAA tournament this upcoming year in order to avoid being fired. That means the priority is winning now.

For a team in UW’s situation are they more likely to find success by heading to the portal for a makeover or is the suddenly old-fashioned trend of scouring high school gyms for under the radar players a better bet? How should we evaluate the average transfer against a 4-star freshman for example?

Before I start let’s talk about some of the numbers involved. Synergy Sports assigns every possession to a player along with how many points are scored on that possession on both offense and defense. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell who is actually responsible on defense (especially in transition) so generally the total number of player-assigned defensive possessions is less than the offensive ones. One way to try to figure out the impact a player had over the course of the season is to take the total number of points they were responsible for and subtract the points they gave up on defense to come up with a net points calculation. I do some minor adjustments for players that have a vastly skewed ratio of offensive to defensive possessions versus the norm.

There are flaws in that number. If you’re the only good perimeter defender on a team then maybe your defensive possession numbers get inflated because you’re always guarding the other team’s best player. On the other hand though maybe the worst defender gets targeted more by offenses and so they end up with more points surrendered. Overall though I think it’s a solid way to try to compare players across situations and make an attempt at quantifying defense beyond just blocks or steals per game. In genera,l anything above 100 net points typically corresponds to an above average starter, above 200 is an all-conference candidate, and above 300 is an All-American candidate.

We also need a way to categorize transfers. Adding a good player from Kentucky who got squeezed out by more incoming 5-stars (think Quade Green) is potentially a different story than adding the do everything point guard for a bad mid-major from a one-bid league who averaged 20/5/5 on low efficiency because they played 38 minutes per game. I have transfers divided into 3 categories: ones who came from another power-6 league (football power 5 plus Big East), ones who came from other traditional multi-bid leagues (American, Mountain West, A10, etc.), and ones who came from traditional single bid leagues. It’s not perfect but again it seems the best way to try to judge competition appropriately.

Let’s first look at how players have fared coming from smaller conferences over the past 2 seasons when due to COVID and then the official transfer policy change there has been more freedom of movement. In all of the below analysis I’m only looking at players who played at least 40 offensive possessions at both their previous and subsequent stops in order to prevent something like a torn ACL at one school or the other unfairly painting a different picture for a player.

(Note: It’s recommended to view this on a desktop or tablet to take advantage of the Tableau visualizations. They might not appear on mobile.)

There’s a slight positive correlation between how they did the previous season on the X-axis and how they did with their new power conference school on the Y-axis but it’s very slight. The r-squared value which measures the strength of the correlation is just 0.05 where 1.0 is perfect correlation. That tells us it’s essentially a crapshoot. In 2019-20 Adam Kunkel at Belmont averaged 16.5 points per game and put up 289.5 net points at Belmont which is traditionally one of the best single bid league programs in the country. He went to Xavier and averaged 7.0 points per game and 43.1 net points. On the other end Braelen Bridges scored 9.9 points per game with 106.2 net points as a 6th man at University of Illinois-Chicago. Last year he ended up at Georgia and put up 12.9 points per game and 186.7 net points in the SEC (admittedly on an atrocious team).

For multi-bid non-power conferences the ability to judge based on past performance is even less settled. The trend line is essentially a flat line as there’s basically no correlation on their prior season to their next one. Nick Honor scored 15.1 points per game with 257.9 net points for Fordham in the A-10 then went to Clemson and averaged 8 points per game over the last 2 years with 89.2 net points in his first year with the Tigers. Meanwhile, Tari Eason had 55.6 net points as a true freshman (although with rate stats that flashed his major potential) then jumped to 284.4 this past season on the way to becoming a possible lottery pick.

There’s much more correlation for intra-power 6 transfers with an r-squared of 0.13 but that’s still only a little better than random. Oscar Tshiebwe, Terrell Brown Jr., and Alondes Williams all went from putting up fewer than 100 net points at their previous stop to winning or finishing runner-up as players of the year in their conference. Although admittedly Tshiebwe had more than 100 net points as a freshman and was lower as a sophomore because he decided to transfer mid-season.

Still, players that had 150+ net points from another power conference team were generally pretty reliable as 17 of the 18 had at least 100 net points at their 2nd stop. The only exception was Jalen Coleman-Lands who joined a loaded (and national title winning) Kansas team this year and couldn’t quite crack the starting lineup despite shooting 45% from 3. This shouldn’t be a surprise but if your team manages to bring in a very good player from another power conference team then as long as they stay healthy they’re almost certain to be very good still even if not quite at the level they were at previously.

Looking at the averages though shows us more of the trends we expect. Your average single bid transfer had 171.9 points at their smaller school and then 93.4 the next season arriving at a P6. Again, I’m already excluding the transfers who averaged essentially fewer than 1 possession per game so this only looks at ones who are probably part of the rotation for at least half the year. For context, the closest recent Husky season to end up near that mark was PJ Fuller this past year with 90.9 net points on a 7.4 points per game average as a 6th man occasional starter. Overall though that’s a loss of about 80 net points by moving up multiple levels.

When we upgrade to multi-bid conferences that gap closes but the performance doesn’t improve much. The average multi-bid transfer has 118.3 net points at his first school and 96.2 after jumping up to a power conference school. That’s basically the same level of performance as we saw from the lower level transfers just with a lower starting point as well.

Finally, when we look at intra-power conference transfers we see a big leap. Before transferring those players averaged 93.2 net points and then went up to 122.5 net points at school #2. Those are certainly helped by the aforementioned trio of Tshiebwe, Brown, and Williams but even when taking those out it only knocks the average down to 117.5. In general it seems clear that if you manage to find a player who is going to be a part of the rotation then the upside is higher going with someone coming from an established program.

Now that we’ve figured out some of those numbers we can compare it to what we expect from incoming freshmen. I’ve done a lot of work in previous years comparing net points across recruiting rankings and have come up with 9 tiers: 1-5, 6-10, 11-25, 26-50, 51-100, 101-150, 151-300, 301-400, 400+/unranked. Obviously they’re smoothed out a little bit to hit round numbers but I stand by them. Your average #3 overall recruit is going to be a tier above your average #9 overall recruit even if they’re both 5-stars. Your average #172 recruit will perform about as well as the average #284 recruit because the talent pool flattens out once you get past the guys most consider 4-star players.

Here’s what that looks like in action. The number on top of each bar shows how many players are a part of that sample.

As you would expect there are pretty big gulfs between each tier when it comes to true freshmen but those even out over time. Players begin to self-select out as they head to the professional ranks. If someone is an absolute stud one and done they aren’t going to be there as a sophomore. At the same time if you’re a top-20 recruit and you’re still in college as an upperclassman it probably means your career went sideways to not have gone to the draft by then. By the time you get to your seniors you’re looking mostly at guys who aren’t going to make the NBA (or need to make a massive leap to do so) and so the playing field by that point has evened out.

In order to make it a fair comparison though I’m going to take out those same players that had fewer than 40 offensive possessions to weed out redshirts or guys who never cracked the rotation. Tier 1 players (top-5) average 248.1 net points which is still the best you can hope for. Land a recruit of Isaiah Stewart’s ilk and your medium case scenario is an all-conference caliber player. Things continue to drop off down to 181.9 and 142.8 net points for your tier-2 and tier-3 recruits which represent the top-25 and are mostly analogous to what would be called 5-star players.

That brings us to our tier-4 recruits who average 106.2 net points. That’s a little lower than the P6 transfers without Tshiebwe, Brown, and Williams and a decent amount below the 123 with them. That range represents the 26th to 50th ranked recruits. If you’re getting a contributing P6 transfer then the average one is going to perform similarly to a low-5 star or high 4-star freshman. Washington saw this last year bringing in Terrell Brown Jr. (289 net points), Emmitt Matthews Jr. (180 net points), PJ Fuller (91 net points), and Daejon Davis (59 net points). Davis had injuries that kept him lower and I would argue this system under-captures his defensive brilliance but that’s 2 above and 2 below that average.

For the 2021-22 season only one of the 10 freshmen ranked between 26-35 ended up playing at least half of their team’s minutes. Bryce McGowens averaged nearly 17 points per game with 242.5 net points and is going to be a one and done from Nebraska. Alabama’s Charles Bediako finished with 128 net points and Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman (from Eastside Catholic) had 87 net points as a backup point guard for the #1 overall seed in the tournament. The other 7 though all fell below 85 net points.

If we drop down to the tier-5 recruits (51st to 100th) they average 71 net points which falls below the averages for both the single bid and multi-bid conference transfers. That means if you’re adding a transfer from outside of the P6 the average performance level will be somewhat akin to the 60th ranked freshman. However this year there was only one true freshman between 51 and 70 who averaged more than 90 net points (Creighton PG Ryan Nembhard).

This offseason Washington needed extra help at point guard and ended up bringing in Wazzu transfer Noah Williams instead of 27th ranked freshman Skyy Clark who committed to Illinois. We don’t know for sure which one was the staff’s preference and which was a contingency plan but this analysis suggests that in most circumstances when focused on one season only that there’s a good chance they end up being pretty even this year. If a player leaves a P6 school and still has enough cachet to end up at another P6 school then you’re looking at an addition comparable to that caliber recruit.

There are obviously other clear benefits to bringing in freshmen other than their day one impact. They have 4 years of eligibility remaining versus some amount less than that for a transfer which also means there’s probably more room for them to grow. But this analysis certainly suggests there are guys on other P6 teams who may be miscast in their current role that could be extremely valuable in another system with a change of scenery. And if you manage to land one of those players and they clear the bar of being able to crack your rotation then that’s going to be a much more effective short-term boost than what’s possible through traditional high school recruiting for all but the upper crust of the sport.