Before They Were Superstars: Joel Embiid vs. Aaron Gordon
Dynasty owners tend to want to see a few weeks of high-end production before buying unproven prospects with full confidence. For dynasty owners who are rebuilding, a tier below the leagues’ standard-bearers, or like to live on the edge, we can benefit from investing in potential stars before they breakout. This week, in honor of Halloween, I’ll take on two frightening (and exciting) prospects – Joel Embiid and Aaron Gordon.
A 22-year-old, 7-footer on a minute limit due to a history of foot problems should frighten even the most courageous of dynasty owners. However, in his first three NBA games Joel Embiid reminded Philadelphia fans why they trusted former general manager, Sam Hinkie, and “The Process.”
Perhaps just as terrifying in the modern NBA is a 6’9” forward who can’t shoot. Where does Aaron Gordon, who shot under 30% from three and under 70% from the line last season, fit in a league where even centers are expected to space the floor?
Before I dive into Embiid vs Gordon (there can be only one!), here is how I like to evaluate prospects for dynasty.
- Identify the median outcome (or “base case”), upside and downside scenarios by looking at the prospect’s pedigree (draft slot, WARP projection and CARMELO forecast and player comparisons) and existing NBA age-adjusted production (if applicable).
- I take a look at the current fantasy player rater (year-to-date fantasy production) and Basketball Monster player projections for general estimates of a player’s present value. I weight Basketball Monster about four times as heavily as the player rater.
- Next I use upside to differentiate between players within a similar base case tier, based on my preference for upside (a riskier approach). For example, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s base case is a top 150 player, but I value him more in the 110-120 range because I think he has top 40 upside and there aren’t that many players with a reasonable path to that kind of value.
- The last piece is to take into account variable factors such as injury risk and context (opportunity, role, coach, etc.).
Pre-Draft WARP – 2.9 (6th in draft class)
CARMELO Projection – 5-Yr market value $116.2m (Great Prospect)
ESPN Projections – 26 min, 11.5 pts, 8.3 reb, 1.1 ast, .7 stl, 1.4 blk, 52.4% fg, 62% ft, .1 3, 1.7 TO
Stats to Know – .9 stls / 1.4 ast / 2.7 Blk in 23 minutes as a Freshman at Kansas. Five three-point attempts in 63 NBA minutes.
NBA Fantasy Comp: 2014-15 Derrick Favors (30.8 min, 16.0, 8.2, 1.5, .8, 1.7, 52.5%, 67%, 0.0, 1.6)
I like using Derrick Favors as a starting point for examining Embiid’s base case because they both entered the league as athletic bigs that needed to put on some weight, were unrefined offensively and had very healthy steal rates in college. Embiid’s steal rate wasn’t Nerlens Noel level as a prospect, but 0.9 steals per game and 2.2% of possessions in college is very good for a center. His 11% block rate in college puts him in the highest percentile. As compared to Favors, Embiid will provide value with threes and usage at the expense of more on field goal percentage and (for those of us who play 9-category fantasy) he will kill our turnovers. Embiid’s 22% turnover rate in college would be awful for a point guard.
NBA Fantasy Comp: 2012-2013 Tim Duncan with more 3’s and turnovers (30.8 min, 17.8, 9.9, 2.7, .7, 2.7, 50.2%, 81.7%, 0.0, 2.1)
NBA Fantasy Comp: 2015-2016 Al Horford (32.1 min, 15.2, 7.3, 3.2, .8, 1.5, 50.5%, 79.8%, 1.1, 1.3)
While it has only been three games, Embiid has already shown what could differentiate him. However, he was still very raw coming out of college and his future skill set could take different forms. 2012 Duncan and 2015 Horford represent two very different directions Embiid’s career can take. If he continues to shoot 3s and plays alongside another big who dampens his rebounding and blocking, he would have similar statistical profile to 2015 Horford. Coming out of college, his size, defensive stats, quickness and mid-range capability led to common upside comparisons of Duncan and Ha’keem. With a WARP of 2.9, Embiid, while still an elite prospect, was not the prospect Tim Duncan was and a prime Duncan upside case would be extremely optimistic even for a historic prospect. Duncan’s 2012-2013 season is a good proxy for Embiid’s upside, perhaps excluding Duncan’s (flukey) 81.7% free throw shooting that year.
While my Embiid base case is a top 40 or so player and he has elite upside, I’d fade his overall ranking due to injury history. As a result, I would rank Embiid, at present, closer to 50th overall.
Pre-Draft WARP – 1.7 (14th in draft class)
CARMELO Projection – 5-Yr market value $165.1m (Future All-Star)
ESPN Projections – 25.1 min, 12.5 pts, 6.7 reb, 2.0 ast, .9 stl, .5 blk, 49.5% fg, 69% ft, .4 3, .9 TO
Stats to Know – Post All-Star break in 2015-2016 season Gordon averaged 1.1 steals per game in 27.9 minutes. In four games this year, Gordon has averaged three steals per game.
NBA Fantasy Comp: 2009-2010 Luol Deng with fewer points and slight uptick in rebounds and threes (37.9 min, 17.6, 7.3, 2.0, .9, .9, 46.6%, 76.4%, .5, 1.9)
Aaron Gordon’s comps according to fivethirtyeight’s CARMELO projections are all over the place with names ranging from names such as Anthony Davis, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That’s due to his unique skillset as a big with some skills more commonly found in wings, which makes Luol Deng’s 2009-2010 season a good proxy for his base case. Aaron Gordon’s base case looks like a slightly better version of Tobias Harris last season, which returned 51st overall value for nine category leagues. Similar to Embiid, I believe his base case is in the 40-50 range.
NBA Fantasy Comp: 2014-2015 Draymond Green with more points and fewer assists (31.5 min, 11.7, 8.2, 3.7, 1.56, 1.27, 44.3%, 66%, 1.4, 1.7)
While one is a human pogo stick and the other only jumps for an excuse to kick a man in the groin, Draymond Green before he became an assist machine, is a good upside case for Aaron Gordon, both in real life and in fantasy. Gordon is a versatile defender who can guard guards and bigs alike, much like Draymond. While he doesn’t yet have the accuracy from deep or the playmaking skills that Green does, he continues to shoot from distance and has shown capability as a ball handler. I expect Gordon’s upside to be 17 points per game and top out around three assists a game. Green isn’t as perfect a comp as Luol Deng, but it underscores Gordon’s versatility and capacity to help fantasy owners on defense, in threes and on the boards.
NBA Fantasy Comp: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2014-2015 (28.9 min, 10.9, 7.6, 1.4, .5, .7, 46.5%, 70.1%, 0.0, 1.1)
I include MKG as a risk factor, because instead of injury history, Aaron’s risk factor is a decrease in playing time due to an inability to space the floor in a set offense. Gordon has a high floor thanks to his ability to guard a variety of positions, hurt opponents in transition and rebound. I find it hard to think of a scenario in which he doesn’t get at least 25 minutes per game. In other words, the worst case scenario for Gordon is still probably a starting caliber fantasy player in a 12-team league around top 100 or so overall value.
I’ll take Gordon eight times out of 10 as I view him to be five to ten percent more valuable than Embiid. The base case scenarios are very similar, but I think Embiid’s upside is better than Gordon’s, the injury history tilts the needle in favor of Gordon. As a rebuilding team I’d move Gordo’ and Embiid up in the top 30-40 asset range with Gordon closer to the front of that tier and Embiid lagging behind him. For a contending team I see them in the 45-55 range, since Embiid will be hurt by a minute limit in the short term and it will take some time for the 21-year-old Gordon to reach his potential. Gordon is especially valuable for punt FT% teams, while I’d prefer Embiid to Gordon for punt-turnover teams or had a five category strategy that includes an emphasis on blocks, points and rebounds.
For rebuilding teams, I’d use Serge Ibaka, Carmelo Anthony, Brook Lopez and Lamarcus Aldridge as bait for Gordon and similar trades with Embiid, but I’d like to get another flier in addition to bridge the value gap. For example, a Michael Carter-Williams or Tyler Johnson type throw-in would make me feel better about the risk of injury.
On the next edition of “Before they were Superstars,” I’ll dig into why Myles Turner is the upper-middleclass man’s Kristaps Porzingis.