Time to Play Balkman and the Genius of Isiah

On Sunday the Knicks defeated the Toronto Raptors. The hero of the game was Renaldo Balkman. In 32 minutes he captured 12 rebounds, had 3 steals, blocked 2 shots, and hit all 7 of his field goal attempts. For the game he had a Win Score of 20.5, which translates into a PAWS of 14.5 (if he is a small forward/power forward), and a PAWSmin of 0.439.

Quick interruption: For a brief summary of PAWSmin, see the following link:

Introducing PAWSmin – and a defense of box score statistics

For the PAWSmin of every NBA player in every NBA game, check out

Jason Chandler’s NBA Babble Win Score and the Win Score Stats.

Okay, back to the story.

After this game the Knicks head coach had this to say:

“I love what I’ve seen from Renaldo the whole year,” Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said. “Defensively he can change the game, his rebounding. Whenever we give him 30-plus minutes, he normally has double-figure rebounds and double-figure points. He’s just a guy that somehow finds a way to change a game.”

If we look over at NBA Babble and Win Score, we can see that Thomas is right.

Balkman played 38 minutes on March 3rd. In that game he captured 13 rebounds and hit 83.3% of his field goal attempts. On December 18th he played 33 minutes, finishing with 15 rebounds, two blocks, and a steal. In each game his PAWSmin was above 0.200, which is well above the average mark of 0.000.

Unfortunately, our sample of Balkman playing 30 minutes or more is limited to just three contests. So if all we do is focus on these games it is hard to infer whether or not Balkman is truly a productive NBA player.

Fortunately we do have a larger sample. In 58 games this year Balkman has played 800 minutes. And in these minutes he has produced 4.2 wins. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stands at 0.252 (by my calculations, which are a bit different from what Chandler does). This is well above the average mark of 0.100 and indicates that Balkman is truly having a productive rookie season. This performance does lead to a couple of questions.

Why is Balkman Not Playing More?

Isiah Thomas the coach says he knows that Balkman is outstanding when he plays more than 30 minutes or more a night. Yet, Balkman only average 13.8 minutes per contest.

Part of the reason for Balkman’s limited minutes is that he is a rookie. Rookies tend to be less productive, although Balkman is showing he is an exception to that rule. There is also the issue of whose minutes can be reduced to give Balkman more time. One possibility is Jared Jeffries. Jeffries is only an average player this year (which is what he was in Washington last year, so this is not a surprise). Certainly taking minutes from Jeffries might make some sense.

Is Isiah a Genius?

Okay, I just questioned how Isiah allocates minutes. But I think the bigger issue is how much guts it took for Thomast to take Balkman in the first place. Over at Knickerblogger, Owen Breck (a frequent commenter at both Knickerblogger and at the Wages of Wins Journal), neatly summarized (in the comments of the post I linked to) what people thought about Balkman on draft night last summer.

The Knicks’ choice of Balkman in the first round surprised many, notably ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who noted that projected lottery pick Marcus Williams was still available. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, among others, joked that perhaps Isiah Thomas thought he was drafting Rolando Blackman, a former Knicks player.[2] There was further controversy when the Knicks’ general manager, Isiah Thomas, claimed that the Phoenix Suns were prepared to take him; the Suns claimed that he wasn’t even “on [their] radar”. In the NBA’s official draft guide, which was released to all reporters covering the draft, Balkman was not included in the list of the 300 top players eligible to be drafted in the 2006-07 rookie class. However, the Knicks selected Balkman with their first of two draft picks, which was 20th overall.

Update: Owen has noted in the comments that his summary came from the Wikipedia entry on Renaldo Balkman.

Clearly, if we consider what the NBA thought about Balkman before the draft, Thomas was going out on a limb taking the forward from South Carolina. Looking at what Balkman did in college, though, indicates that it was possible to know he might be a productive NBA player.

At South Carolina in 2005-06 Balkman posted a 0.327 Win Score per minute. Compare this to other prominent small forwards. Adam Morrison posted a 0.246 mark, while Rudy Gay offered 0.233. Both Morrison and Gay were taken in the lottery. Rodney Carney was taken with the 16th pick despite only posting a 0.211 mark. We should not just pick on these three players. If we look at all small forwards drafted last summer, Balkman posted the best numbers in college.

Now it’s important to note that

a. there is a link between college performance and what a player does in the NBA.

b. the link between college performance and professional productivity is not exactly perfect. It’s quite possible to do well in college and not be a productive pro. It’s even possible to be not so good in college and become a productive professional (although that’s not common).

Nevertheless, knowing what Balkman did in college, one could have suspected he might be able to contribute in the NBA. At least, if you looked past his scoring average in college (which was not in double digits) you could have seen something in Balkman.

As detailed in this forum, Isiah Thomas built an expensive roster of scorers for the 2005-06 season. And this roster failed miserably (which is what Wins Produced would have predicted). Although I doubt Thomas considered Win Score in drafting Balkman, he certainly knew that he didn’t need any more scorers on his roster.

Whatever his reason, Thomas does look like a drafting genius. In 2005 he took David Lee, who has developed into one of the game’s best players. In 2006 he took Balkman. Now if Thomas could find a productive center (no, Eddy Curry is not becoming more productive) and some productive guards, he might have a team that does more than hope to land the 8th spot in the playoffs of a very weak conference.

There is good news. The Knicks have another late first round draft choice. If Thomas can repeat what he did with Balkman and Lee (which may be a big “if”), the Knicks might have one more productive player at the start of the 2007-08 season.

- DJ

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