The First-Round Pick Myth

There is a persistent criticism of the Washington Huskies’ basketball program and Lorenzo Romar that the Huskies win games largely on the strength of their recruiting as opposed to coaching. I’ve addressed this in general before, but I want to discuss a complaint specific to this season: How could Washington not be better with two first-round picks?

(Actually, some people have said two lottery picks, but that’s a stretch. DraftExpress has Terrence Ross No. 18 and Tony Wroten No. 28 at the moment. If they both end up going in the lottery, it will be a bit of a surprise.)

Ross and Wroten are both terrific players, among the 10 best in the conference and therefore deserving of All-Pac-12 honors and Player of the Year consideration. Unfortunately, this isn’t NBA Jam, and the Huskies can’t play their opponents two-on-two. After Ross (fifth) and Wroten (seventh), the next-best Washington player in terms of in-conference WARP was C.J. Wilcox (25th). From there you have to go Aziz N’Diaye (38th) and Darnell Gant (54th). All were effective, but not overwhelmingly so. None of the three were highly touted as recruits. According to the consensus ranking at RSCIhoops.com, Gant was the nation’s 100th-best recruit. N’Diaye and Wilcox were unranked.

There’s this myth out there that the Huskies are loaded with elite recruits that I just can’t quite understand. In fact, only one other Husky besides Ross and Wroten was a big-time recruit: point guard Abdul Gaddy, ranked 11th, ahead of both Wroten (18th) and Ross (33rd). As it turned out, Gaddy’s talent was overstated, and he wasn’t quite the same athlete this season after tearing his ACL last January. No other player in the Washington rotation was ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school.

For comparison purposes, I looked at seven-man rotations for the rest of the conference’s top six teams. Here’s how their lineups rated:

Arizona
14 Turner
22 N. Johnson
56 Hill
59 Chol
NR Fogg, Lavender, Perry

California
71 Crabbe
NR Cobbs, Gutierrez, Kamp, Kravish, Smith, Thurman

Colorado
NR Booker, Brown, Dinwiddie, Dufault, Harris-Tunks, Roberson, Tomlinson

Oregon
41 Woods
NR Ashaolu, Emory, Joseph, Lloyd, Sim, Singler

UCLA
18 Smith
37 T. Wear
38 D. Wear
39 Lamb
42 Anderson
53 Powell
NR Jones

There are a few takeaways here. One is that recruiting rankings are not very accurate. You too can prevent Recruiting Overhype by pointing out that the conference’s most valuable player by WARP, Andre Roberson, was not a top-100 recruit. (Or my classic choice, Kyryl Natyazhko being rated higher than Derrick Williams as part of Arizona’s 2009 recruiting haul.)

Another is that the Huskies’ talent is not out of line with the rest of the conference’s power teams. Arizona has two top-25 freshmen plus another pair of top-60 recruits. It’s just that nobody talks about Josiah Turner as a lottery pick or better than Wroten anymore. UCLA can’t quite match UW’s top-end talent, but despite the number of defections, Ben Howland had nearly a full rotation of top-55 recruits at his disposal. From a pure talent standpoint, both of those teams should have been as good as the Huskies.

Of course, there are more factors at play here. If you average the experience of the seven-man rotations, UW (1.3 years), UCLA (1.4) and Arizona (1.6) were also the youngest of the conference contenders. By contrast, Oregon (2.3) and California (1.9) put more experienced teams on the floor. Colorado (1.6) had three senior starters, but Tad Boyle deserves tremendous credit for winning the conference tournament with two freshmen and a sophomore among his top-six players, none of them top-100 recruits.

The other aspect nobody talks about is depth. The reason I used seven players was because none of the Pac-12’s most talented teams was capable of going much further than that. Due to transfers, injuries and youth, Arizona, California and UCLA all went mostly with seven-man rotations. Romar used eight, but never was able to find a consistent option for that eighth spot among his freshmen big men. Against Oregon State in particular, the Huskies’ youth in the frontcourt behind N’Diaye proved costly.

Those players count too. I know they’re not as fun to discuss as the stars, but when you’re evaluating a team’s talent level, you have to include the whole team.

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