Sizing Up the NBA’s Under-Sized Guards

“God blessed me with a lot of heart and no height, and I’ll take that any day.”

Nate Robinson, 5’9″ guard and 2006 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest Champion

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The Cleveland Cavaliers traded $2.4 million in cash considerations for Oakland point-guard Kay Felder, selected with by the Atlanta Hawks with the 54th pick of the 2016 draft. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding Kay Felder, including a video of him claiming to be the best player in the draft:



The emergence of first time NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas created more openings for short point-guards, like Kay Felder (5’9″), in the NBA.  Kay Felder’s selection got me thinking: are draft picks 6′ 1″ or shorter usually busts or steals? For my research, I ignored un-drafted free-agents, looking only at players who were drafted from 2005 until now.

2005 NBA Draft

Chris Paul and Lou Williams both successful NBA players despite being selected at opposite sides of the 2005 NBA Draft

Chris Paul and Lou Williams both successful NBA players despite being selected at opposite sides of the 2005 NBA Draft

Since 2005 there have been 11 drafts to judge small point-guards like Kay Felder, beginning in 2005 when Chris Paul and Raymond Felton went back-to-back at the 4th and 5th overall picks, respectively. Chris Paul is now a multiple time NBA All-Star and one of the best-point guards in NBA history.

Felton, however, has experienced ups and downs over the course of his NBA career, but he has still managed 12.4 points per game thus far in his career.  His level of production hasn’t been great for a top 5 pick, but he’s still a useful role-player going into his 12th season in the league.

Nate Robinson was selected 21st overall in 2005 and stands at 5′ 9″ – the same height as Kay Felder; he averaged 11 points per game over the course of a long NBA career that saw him play for 9 different teams.

Salim Stoudamire was selected with the first pick of the second round and averaged 8 points per game in only three seasons in the NBA.  It’s difficult to judge Stoudamire’s production because, while 8 points per game from a second round pick is great value, playing in only three NBA seasons translated into a career points total of only 1,260.

Travis Diener was the 38th pick of the draft and had a 3 year career as well, but only averaged 4.8 points per game over the course of his time in the league. 

Lou Williams, selected with the 45th pick, was the last guard drafted at 6′ 1″ or shorter in 2005.  Particularly for a player selected so deep in the draft, Lou has had a long and successful NBA career that continues to this day, averaging 12.3 points per game in his career, including back-to-back seasons with over 15 points per game in the last 2 seasons.

2006 NBA draft

 

Lou Williams and Chris Paul were two of the best players from the 2005 draft despite their size; value from short point guards continues with the 2006 draft, starting with Kyle Lowry.  The Villanova point guard was selected with the 24th pick of the draft and has consistently improved his game, including a fantastic season in ’15-’16 with the Toronto Raptors in which he led his team to the first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.

Dee Brown, a 5 foot 10 point guard from Illinois, only scored 2.1 points per game in a two-year Nba career.

Will Blalock was selected with the 60th in 2006, but he did not have the same success as other under-sized players before him, only scoring 25 total points in his career.  Fellow under-sized guard also selected 60th overall in his draft, Isaiah Thomas has scored more points in a single game than Blalock did in his entire career.

2007 Draft

After being selected in 2007, Mike Conley and Aaron Brooks both forged successful careers in the NBA

After being selected in 2007, Mike Conley and Aaron Brooks forged the most successful careers in the NBA among the under-sized guards selected that year.

In 2007, the Grizzlies selected Ohio State point-guard Mike Conley with the 4th pick of the draft.  Conley is a leader on his Memphis team, and is due for a huge contract in free-agency this year.

Aaron Brooks was drafted 26th overall and stands at exactly 6 feet tall. Over the course of his NBA career he’s been a consistent scorer off the bench for numerous teams.

Tauren Green was selected with the 52nd pick, and only scored 27 points in his NBA career.

2008 NBA Draft

 

2nd round

Sean Singletary is one of many second round picks who failed to score over 300 career points in their Nba careers.

DJ Augustin was drafted by Charlotte 9th overall and has had an average career output for a player picked at his draft position.  Augustin is nothing special, but is talented enough to have survived in the NBA even until now.

The other player was Sean Singletary, drafted 42nd overall, who scored 90 career NBA points in an unimpressive 2-year career in which he appeared in 37 total games, becoming one of the many second round picks who failed to score over 300 career points in their careers.

2009 NBA Draft

 

Johnny Flynn is by far the biggest bust of any players on the list; he’s most famous for being the point guard drafted ahead of Steph Curry, rather than any of his on-court accomplishments.

Ty Lawson was the next player selected, and provided great value for a mid-first round draft pick. Lawson’s NBA career has been volatile, averaging over 15 points per game over four consecutive seasons, then failing to break the 6 points per game mark in the ’15-’16 season.

Patrick Beverly, the 42nd pick of the draft, has made a living in the NBA by playing physical defense; he’s known for being a dirty player and someone you want on your team but hate playing against.

6′ 0″ Jack McClinton never even appeared in an NBA regular season game after being selected by San Antonio with the 51st pick.

2010 NBA Draft

 

The 2010 NBA draft did not have a single draft selection shorter than 6′ 2″.

2011 NBA Draft

 

( Boston, MA,02/10/16) Boston Celtics owners Steve Pagliuca, right and Wycliffe Grousbeck honor guard Isaiah Thomas getting into the All Star game before the first half of the NBA game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the TD Garden on Wednesday, February 10, 2016. Staff photo by Matt Stone

( Boston, MA,02/10/16) Boston Celtics owners Steve Pagliuca, right and Wycliffe Grousbeck honor guard Isaiah Thomas getting into the All Star game before the first half of the NBA game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the TD Garden on Wednesday, February 10, 2016. Staff photo by Matt Stone

After leading UConn to a national title, Kemba Walker was selected with the 9th pick by the Charlotte Hornets. In his last four seasons in the NBA, Walker averaged over 17 points per game.

However, the gem of the draft is the 5′ 9″ Isaiah Thomas, drafted with the 60th pick and the shortest player we have covered yet.  As the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, Thomas has blossomed into an NBA All-Star, definitely proving his doubters wrong by becoming a great point guard for a Celtics team ready to contend.

2012 NBA Draft

 

As in the 2010 Nba Draft, not a single player was drafted under the 6′ 2″ mark once again.

2013 NBA Draft

 

After a year with no under-sized guards, the 2013 draft had the more players under 6′ 1″ than any since 2005.  The first of these players was Trey Burke, who was selected with the 9th pick and has averaged 12.1 points per game in his three-year NBA career.  

Shane Larkin, standing at exactly 6 feet tall, has been fairly disappointing for a mid-first round selection, only averaging 5.8 points and 3.2 assists per game. 

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Trey Burke shooting over his fellow 2013 first round selection, Shane Larkin

Russ Smith (left) and Peyton Silva (right) both failed to make their mark on the NBA.

Russ Smith (left) and Peyton Silva (right) both failed to make their mark on the NBA.

Isaiah Canaan was selected with the 34th pick, and shows promise for a player selected in the early second round.  He’s averaged 9.4 points per game in his career, and 11 points per game in the ’15-’16 season, demonstrating great value from a second round pick.

Pierre Jackson, selected with the 42nd pick, did not score a point in his short NBA career.

Louisville guard Peyton Siva was selected with the 56th pick and scored 54 points in his disappointing NBA career – but most players drafted late in the second round typically don’t survive in the NBA for long.

2014 NBA Draft

 

With the 24th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Shabazz Napier was selected by the Miami Heat. He’s averaged 4.4 points per game, which is fairly disappointing for a first round selection.  

The other under-sized player drafted in 2014 was Russ Smith, another Louisville guard, this time standing at exactly 6 feet tall.  After being drafted 47’th overall, he has scored only 53 points in his NBA career to date.

2015 NBA Draft

 

In the 2015 NBA draft, there was not a single player drafted under 6′ 2″.

Making Sense of the Numbers

 

I decided to put each of the point guards into one of four tiers:

  1. ESPN The Magazine's 2005 College Basketball Preview Is On Sale Wednesday (Photo: Business Wire) J 11-11-04, F2, D. Collins reporter.

    ESPN The Magazine’s 2005 College Basketball Preview (Photo: Business Wire) D. Collins

    The first tier includes only Chris Paul. Paul, a top 5 pick who lived up to the many expectations he was given coming out of Wake Forest. He was a fantastic player for the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers, but has never made a conference finals appearance.  Despite his inability to lead teams on deep Playoff runs, Chris Paul lived up to massive expectations despite his size.

  2. The second tier of players includes Kemba Walker, Mike Conley Isaiah Thomas, Ty Lawson, and Kyle Lowry. These are players that have proven themselves as starters on competitive NBA teams, but not consistent All-Star level player. These players are also from many different points of the draft, from Mike Conley in the top 5 and Kemba Walker in the top 10, to Isaiah Thomas as the last pick.
  3. nba-100108-jonnyflynnjpg-10595ea6cb394977_large

    Johnny Flynn, selected before Steph Curry, is the most notable 1st round bust of an under-sized player

    The third tier includes Raymond Felton, Nate Robinson, Lou Williams, Aaron Brooks, Dj Augustin, Patrick Beverley, Trey Burke, and Isaiah Canaan.  These players have successfully contributed as role players in the NBA for a fair amount of time. but haven’t been consistent quality starters with multiple consecutive seasons in a starting role. Early expectations for players in this vary greatly, from top 10 picks Trey Burke and Raymond Felton, to 2nd round selections Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Isaiah Canaan.

  4. The fourth and final tier are the draft busts, among whom are Travis Diener, Sean Singletary, Salim Stoudamire, Dee Brown, Will Blalock, Tauren Green, Jonny Flynn, Jack McClinton, Shane Larkin, Pierre Jackson, Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, and Shabazz Napier. While all of these players have been disappointing, only 2, Jonny Flynn and Shane Larkin, are first round draft picks.

2016 NBA Draft

 

Finally, in the 2016 NBA draft, Tyler Ulis was drafted with the 34th pick and Kay Felder was drafted with the 54th pick.  

Felder (left) is known for his athleticism, while Ulis (right) is known more for his play-making

Felder (left) is known for his athleticism, while Ulis (right) is known more for his play-making

Kay Felder has Spud Webb athleticism and Isaiah Thomas ability to score with either hand and step back for a jump-shot.  I could see him developing into a player like Patrick Miller or Saah Nimley. While neither of these players were drafted, both of these players averaged over 21 points per game and were dominant scorers in their respective conferences.  This is a worst case scenario for Kay Felder: a Horizon league and Oakland legend who just couldn’t cut it in the NBA.

Tyler Ulis reminds me of Patty Mills, an under-rated defender with the fifth best defensive rating for guards according to Fox Sports.  Ulis was a fantastic defender in college, but often failed to shut down star point-guards.  Ulis gave up 23 points on 6/9 shooting to Steffan Moody, and 18 points to Yogi Ferrell.  While this does raise some concerns, when playing opposite the most NBA ready point-guard last season – Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin IV – he held Baldwin to a combined 5/24 shooting, 21 points and 6 turnovers over two games.  Baldwin is also a much taller point guard, standing at 6 foot 4 with a wingspan of over 6 feet 10 inches.  On offense Ulis reminds me of Chris Paul: though he is nowhere close to the passer that Paul is, Ulis controls the game with his leadership and decision-making. While they are both smart players and great leaders, both Paul and Ulis have a tendency to hold the ball too long and put their teams in bad situations late in the shot clock.

Under-sized vs. Under-valued

 

Most of the under-sized point-guards selected in the first round had solid NBA careers or are on the path to create them – Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, Ty Lawson, and Kyle Lowry are the premier point-guards selected in the first round.

The second round had some steals with Lou Williams, Patrick Beverly, Isaiah Thomas, and Isaiah Canaan.  Most second round picks don’t make it in the NBA long, so this is actually a promising rate of past success that suggests that Felder and Ulis could each breakout as valuable players in the future. 

By Michael Roth (@fhsseasonticket)