Back around 2008, I became aware of an NBA study called the Milsap Doctrine, named after Paul Milsap. I believe it was written by Kevin Pelton pre-ESPN days, but I’m not sure. It studied reserves and bench players in the NBA that were highly productive per possession and later thrust into starter roles to find out how they performed.
What the study found was the majority of players were more productive/efficient as starters than as backups. That’s somewhat counterintuitive to the general narrative that reserves have it easier vs 2nd units or couldn’t do what they did in back up minutes as a 30+ minute game starter with fatigue, foul trouble etc.
The article has since been lost to time but from my memory, some of the reasons hypothesized to explain this were:
1. Players that had a more defined starter role weren’t looking over their shoulders expecting to be pulled at the first mistake. They could play more free and mentally went into the game knowing more what to expect. That was seen as an advantage.
2. Players weren’t coming off the bench cold. They were starting the game warm fresh off taking shots and warming up.
There may have been a couple more theories I’ve forgotten but you get the idea. It all made logical sense to me at the time, and the last 15 years tracking it really has been mostly true in both the NBA and college from my experience.
I’ve seen hundreds of examples where guys were highly productive in per possession stats and efficiency in under 20 minutes a game. When they got their chance to be a starter most excelled. They seem to have matched or exceeded the efficiency and per possession stats in expanded roles if they got them, many with in the same season if they were elevated by injury or cutting of the rotation which is typical in college. Since these were generally younger players on the ascent in both college and the NBA that would make logical sense as well. We’ve written about this on the NBA side some as well.
Boban isn’t the greatest example since he never really got a chance. Anytime he did get spot starts or extended minutes he was nearly the same efficiency player though. Of course, their are many other examples of the young player that were on the bench, got to start, and become and All Star people quickly forget there was ever a time they weren’t. Even guys that weren’t stars like Montrez Harrell, Lou Williams, or from the Gleague like Hassan Whiteside, Chris Boucher, or Christian Wood put up similar production per possession as when they were a end of the bench guy when they got an expanded role. Typically these are the guys that didn’t go through a progression and improve efficiency over time which is a more normal trajectory, but rather were putting up a high level of efficiency early on even before they got an expanded role or chance. They just needed the minutes.
Perhaps no better example exists than the last two College Basketball Players of the year.
The Milsap Doctrine and years of evidence is why we ranked Zach Edey as the #1 player in college basketball last summer and projected nearly to the exact number what his stats would look like this past season. Really the only question was would Matt Painter actually play him like the super star he was. It’s still wild despite posting a 41 PER he only played him 19 minutes a game two years ago. I know they had Williams as well but the way Williams could pass the ball there had to be a way to get both on the court together even with his lack of outside shooting.
It was a waste of talent and travesty Edey was relegated to a 19 minute a game role that season. The common narrative last summer seemed be he couldn’t do it in starter minutes with an expanded role. His per possession stats and efficiency were almost identical even scaling from 19 minutes a game to 32.
Oscar Tshiebwe is another example who posted a 28.3 PER as a freshman playing only 23 minutes a game vs one of the top strength of schedules in the nation. As a sophomore, he only played 10 games and was under 20 minutes a game but still productive. When he was given a 32+ minute a game role the last two seasons at Kentucky his efficiency exceeded that of either year jumping to 35 PER in 32 minutes his player of the year season. This should also not have been a shock given how efficient he was as a freshman. We ranked him in the top 5 transfers that season.
Other prominent examples in recent seasons also include the jump Keegan Murray made going from an 18 minute a game 23 PER player to 32 minute 38 PER player as well. I can’t say we saw that jump at the same level but we did predict the jump for his brother last season among many other examples.
Adjusted Efficiency (ADJeff) TRN’s Preseason Rankings
Our Adjusted Efficiency model is evolving as we try to make it better each season, now on our third go around. Even last seasons model did a pretty good job of identifying these undervalued players. These players were previously back-ups that would become some of the best players in the nation in expanded roles beyond just Zach Edey. Guys who were clearly killing it in small roles. We included them in our 2022 summer sleeper selection last year. Here are some of the players we identified and their ADJeff rank in last years preseason model, and how they subsequently preformed this past season.
16th Preseason: Kris Murray
Murray would go from and 18 minute bench player to 1st team All Big Ten. His PER and True Shooting were identical both years. This one really wasn’t a hot take considering he has identical DNA to his brother who made an even bigger leap the year prior.
17th Preseason: Kalib Boone
|2021-22||Oklahoma State||Big 12||26||4||11.0||2.4||0.4||1.3||5.8|
|2022-23||Oklahoma State||Big 12||36||30||21.3||4.9||0.7||1.2||10.6|
The raw numbers are still unimpressive because his minutes were still very low. Even playing only 21 minutes a game he was 3rd team All Big 12 in the best conference in the nation and had a 25 PER. Guess what if you don’t play the guy he might leave, and he did. He will be at UNLV this season and needless to say we expect an amazing season next year.
21st Preseason: N’Faly Dante
Dante only played 20 minutes a game last year and still had his minutes suppressed some by Kel’el Ware. Beating out an NBA prospect like Ware was a big deal in itself. Now that Ware has moved on Dante should really soar and could have bigger minutes. He improved his PER from 24.8 to 28.5 last year vs a tougher SOS and ramped up the minutes as well. He was 1st team all Pac-12.
29th Preseason: Oumar Ballo
Ballo’s true shooting and PER were identical to last season. From a 15-minute game to 1st team all Pac-12 player.
71st Preseason: Jaylen Clark
Jaylen Clark was known as a defensive role player but with more minutes he maintained his efficiency and was a 2nd team All Pac-12 performer. He improved his PER from 20.7 to 23.4 even with more minutes.
75th Preseason: Ed Croswell
Ed Croswell did not earn any all-conference accolades, but he should have. Even expanding the role his PER went from 22.9 to 25.6.
76th Preseason: Anton Watson
The PER for Anton Watson was almost identical in an expanded role. 22.9 to 22.7.
There were some missed along the way, but overall the previous model held up pretty well in predicting these types of players. The biggest takeaway is if you have a player that is highly, highly productive even in a small role they have lots of upside. Many will improve their efficiency even as the minutes and roles expand.
Who to Watch For in 2023-24
There is one name that stands above all others. Donovan Clingan
Clingan was behind Adama Sanogo who was a beast in his own right. This is a situation where his lack of minutes were more understandable, unlike some others. Now that Sanogo is gone he should take off this coming season. The only thing to worry some about is his foul rate. Most players figure out how to dial that down as well when they know they need to. I expect a massive season. The floor is probably similar to Walker Kessler at Auburn. Kessler is another guy in his own right buried on the bench at UNC putting up insane per-possession numbers. He was freed the next season at Auburn. I believe there is plenty of evidence especially when you hit the levels Edey, Clingan, or Kessler did in limited minutes.