NBA Draft: Quick Hits on Walker, Alkins, and Vanderbilt

By Dr. Ankur Verma

Over the last few weeks, we have chronicled a few NBA Draft prospects that have injury questions.  We have tried to determine if there is anything we can glean about their NBA futures from their injuries.

With the draft now rapidly approaching, I wanted to conclude our NBA Draft Injury Series by briefly hitting on three prospects with varying levels of ability that are expected to go in the draft Thursday night: fast-rising Miami guard Lonnie Walker, energetic Arizona guard Rawle Alkins, and former five-star Kentucky recruit Jarred Vanderbilt.

To read up on the prospects we have already reviewed, click the following links:

Michael Porter Jr.

Bruce Brown

Justin Jackson

Kevin Hervey

With time winding down, let’s go through them in quick succession:

Lonnie Walker. (TonyTheTiger).

Lonnie Walker IV, Miami, SG, Age 19, 6’5”, 196 lbs.

A once heralded recruit, Walker has been a fast-riser in the draft and is now getting buzz to go as high as the top-10.

In July 2017, before the college basketball season, Walker underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee.

The meniscus provides cushioning, shock absorption, and stability to the knee.  Meniscus tears are generally due to a twisting motion with the foot anchored; they are commonly associated with ACL tears.  However, in Walker’s case, it appears his ACL was unaffected.  Given that he was able to return only a few months after the surgery, it is easy to see how an isolated meniscus tear is less severe than an ACL tear (read the profile on Kevin Hervey to get a sense of the recovery for ACL tears).  There is a high return-to-play rate associated with this injury.

There are two menisci: medial meniscus and lateral meniscus. (BruceBlaus).

Walker was able to return in time for Miami’s season opener on November 10.

Given the meniscus’ importance to the knee, it would be heavily relied upon for a player whose game involves a good amount of cutting, misdirection, and sudden changes in speed.

Is Walker this type of player?  According to The Ringer NBA Draft Guide, Walker’s strengths are his ability to use hesitations to create shots and to use agility and lateral quickness to defend both guard spots.  A player who is able to do both of these things is indeed a high-upside NBA prospect.  Without those traits, Walker wouldn’t be the sought after player that he is.  Unfortunately, these things mean that he would be relying on the absorption and stability of his meniscus in the future.

So the question now is…did Walker trust his knee when the college basketball season started?

To answer this question, it is interesting to note two of the weaknesses listed in The Ringer.  One is that he tended to take far away layup attempts instead of taking an extra dribble to get closer to the rim.  Did he lack confidence in his knee to drive the ball completely to the rim?

A look at the numbers shows that Walker took 30% of his shots at the rim, per Hoop-Math.  That would place him at about the 50th percentile among NBA players at his position, using data from Cleaning The Glass.  Considering he was about an average driver to the rim, then, it is hard to say that he really lacked confidence in his knee, which is a point in his favor.

The second weakness feeds into the first: The Ringer comments on the fact he settles for too many floaters.  Walker took 19% of his shots in two-point range; again, this places him at about the 50th percentile if he were in the NBA.  We can surmise that a decent chunk of that 19% is likely to be floaters.  To be a better player, he will likely have to shift some of those shots to actual drives to the rim, where he was far more accurate (60th percentile at the rim compared to 30th percentile for short-range two-pointers among his position if he was in the NBA).

Walker is a very fast, agile player.  He finished no lower than ninth among guards and wings at the NBA combine for the agility drills.  While his performance was promising in that it presents further proof that he likely is not tentative due to his knee, it also means that he is heavily reliant on his quickness to be a good basketball player.

If Walker is unable to do the things mentioned above because of future knee injuries or recurrent issues with the meniscus, he will not be as effective a player he needs to be to justify using such a high pick on him.

Rawle Alkins, Arizona, SG, Age 20, 6’4”, 217 lbs

Alkins was a celebrated player during his two years at Arizona.  After an impressive freshman season, he declared for the NBA draft before ultimately withdrawing.

His sophomore season wasn’t as promising.  Despite seeing a slight bump in minutes, his three-point shooting, free-throw shooting, and overall field-goal percentage declined.  He missed the start of the season due to a broken right foot and some games in the middle of the season due to recurrent soreness from the same foot.

It was reported that Alkins suffered a Jones fracture.  Jones fractures were discussed in depth in my profile of Bruce Brown, so check that out to get a better understanding of the injury itself.  Right now I want to focus on the table that listed NBA players with Jones fractures as their initial injury.  Here it is reproduced below:

NBA players with Jones Fx as Initial Injury

NameAge at time of InjuryHeightWeight (lbs)Minutes Played%Recurrent?
Anthony Bonner226-821591.5Yes
Cedric Ceballos246-619079.2No
Bryant Stith226-520899.1No
Mike Bibby246-119068.0No
Kwame Brown226-1129063.9No
Brian Scalabrine236-9241100No
Rodrigue Beaubois226-017075.8Yes
Terrico White206-52150Unknown
Dominique Jones226-421581.2No
James Anderson236-621397.5No
Danny Fortson236-726063.5Yes
Minutes Played%= Percentage of career minutes played AFTER the Jones fracture
Recurrent= Subsequent Jones fracture that caused missed games
Initial injury is defined as an injury that causes player to missed more than five games.
I only included players if they had a confirmed fracture in the fifth metatarsal and if they were draft picks. This naturally excludes undrafted players, which is a limitation.
There are far more players who had a Jones fracture at some point in their career, but I was more interested in those that had it as an initial injury.
I only included players that are no longer active.

 

Alkins has two pretty close physical comps in Terrico White and Dominique Jones.  Even Bryant Stith is a decent comp, though Stith is a little smaller.  White eventually returned to NBA training camps, but was unable to make teams, so I wouldn’t read into his zero minutes played after the injury too much.  More promising is the fact that Jones and Stith played a high percentage of their career minutes after the injury and neither had recurring fractures.

However, recurrent fractures and lingering soreness are two different things.  It’s somewhat concerning that Alkins missed games due to lingering soreness; he seems to have had enough time to recover, considering his surgery was in September and he didn’t return to the court until December (recovery is usually 7-8 weeks).  Yet, the foot still bothered him.  This is not unlike the situation with Brown.

Though his agility times at the Combine were middling, Alkins’ NBA calling card will be similar to Brown: provide defense and spot-up shooting.  Therefore, like Brown, a Jones fracture would likely be less detrimental to his utility as an NBA player than it would for a player that would be more heavily reliant on speed.  However, a sore foot is a sore foot, and nagging issues can prevent any player from getting onto the court.

Alkins is projected as an early-to-mid second round pick.  If he can buff his three-point shooting (thanks to his sophomore shooting struggles, he is projected to be among the bottom third of NBA players at his position in three-point shooting using the calculator from this study), he will be a valuable pick.

Jarred Vanderbilt. (TonyTheTiger).

Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky, SF, Age 19, 6’8”, 214 lbs

Vanderbilt was a five-star recruit when he committed to Kentucky.  Unfortunately, he brought a lot of injury baggage with him: he suffered two left foot stress fractures and a right ankle sprain in high school, fractured the left foot again before his freshman season began at Kentucky (causing him to miss three months), and then suffered an ankle sprain in his left ankle at the tail end of the season.

The end result is Vanderbilt played only 14 games.   While he had a monstrous rebounding rate, he had little time to show off any other skills, so any team drafting him likely will be hoping they will be getting the high-school version of Vanderbilt.  The fact that he kept his name in the draft past the withdrawal date has fueled speculation that an NBA team has promised to draft him at some point.

Because there is little information on the type of fractures Vanderbilt sustained and his lower extremities are generally a mess, let’s take a different look at his situation.  Using my internal NBA injury database, I compiled a list of drafted college players from 1995-2003 who sustained multiple foot/ankle injuries that caused them to miss several games in the NCAA.  Therefore, teams were drafting these players with the knowledge they had multiple such injuries.  Were NBA teams able to get good mileage from these players?

NBA Draft Prospects with Multiple Foot/Ankle Injuries 1995-2003

NameHeightWeight (lbs)NBA Games PlayedCareer MPGDraft Position
Jason Caffey6-825546219.620
Cory Alexander6-118530715.829
Courtney Alexander6-520518721.713
Curtis Borchardt7-02408313.518
Average26018.420
Career MPG - Minutes per game in NBA career. Weighted average calculated by dividing total career minutes by total games played from the aggregate list.

Usual caveats apply. May not be a comprehensive list and some information may be inaccurate. 2003 used as en endpoint as this is when my database ends, though it at least gives us a look at the complete career arc for most players.

 

On first glance, the list doesn’t look too great.  First of all, all of these players were first-round picks, which indicates that teams weren’t too afraid of investing a valuable resource in a player with known recurrent foot issues if they thought the player’s talent was worth it.  Considering the average draft position is 20, the type of team drafting in this range is a playoff contender; perhaps these teams felt they could be patient with the player they picked if the foot/ankle injuries recurred given that the rest of their team was reasonably talented.  On average, these players only provided three seasons of play and played role-player level minutes.  These players also bounced from team to team in their careers.

However, research by Roland Beech studying drafts from 1989-2008 found that the average return of the 20th pick in the NBA draft is 253 games played and 16.8 minutes per game.  Therefore, the above group falls right in line with those numbers (and even a little better), meaning their longevity isn’t that much different from any other player drafted in their average draft slot.

Thus, there is some optimism that Vanderbilt can provide value despite his recurrent foot/ankle injuries if a team takes a swing on him in the late first round.  Given that his stock seems to be falling a bit, if the team that has been rumored to promise him waits until the second round, they will almost assuredly be getting a steal.

 

Thanks to Brukner and Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine for providing information.