The problems with high school stats

During the holidays, I decided to take a look at a perplexing question. Namely, the fact that college data can tell you a lot about who will succeed in the WNBA, but that high school data will tell you little about who will succeed as a college player. The high school scouting process is still driven by eyes-on-the-ground, and looking at a high school player's stats will not be helpful, especially in a limited context.

One things statheads love to do is to apply metrics and then crunch numbers based on those metrics - you create a filter on data by using some mathematical definition of "best" (a metric) and then filter the data to see what floats to the top and what falls to the bottom.

There are two places where the process can fall apart. It can collapse at the filter level, where your mathematical definition of "best" isn't accurate. Or it can collapse at the data level, where the data isn't representative of the entire universe of items and you're not really looking at everything.

Whereas WNBA data and college data is fairly complete, the high school level is the toughest level to look at when it comes to filtering data. There is no national high school data base of statistics. Even if there were such a database, the idiosyncrasies of that data make applying a universal metric a daunting task.

A mystery player

My interest in this question was an attempt to find some "green flags" that would indicate that a high school player might make a good college player. The very first stat I looked at was points per game. Certainly, anyone who has a very high ppg average should be an excellent college player - shouldn't they?

The first player on my list was a player who averaged about 37 points per game during the 2011-12 season - an astonishing level of offensive output. The name didn't ring a bell, but I figured that she must be playing for some power conference. Instead, she's playing at a low major DI university. So how come someone scoring 37 points a game as a senior in high school didn't get picked up by UConn or Tennessee or Stanford?

(I've not decided to provide the name of the player that I'm writing about. Anyone who has earned a scholarship to a Division I university was undoubtedly a good high school player. I don't wish to imply that they were a failure at any level.)

Her academics were good - at the A-minus level - so it wasn't that she couldn't make it at a Duke or Stanford. We can eliminate academic issues from consideration.

The first thing is that she was listed as a forward - a 5-9 forward. Height isn't everything in high school basketball, but it's a lot when it comes to college ball. At Division I, most coaches want their forwards to be at the very least 5-11 - and that's in the traditional small forward position, a power forward needs to be at least 6-0. She is really under sized even for a shooting guard.

Another question becomes - is her height accurate? When a coach accesses a player by visiting them at a high school, NCAA rules forbid any exchange beyond a "hello" until a certain point in the recruiting calendar. However, coaches will maneuver themselves into a position where they can shake hands with a player and get that "hello" for one reason - the famous "eyeball test" where a coach can look at a player close-up and determine if her listed height is her actual height.

Assuming that her listed 5-9 height is accurate, the next question then becomes where do you put her on a Division I team? If you're going to move her to the 1 or the 2, she has to be (among other things) a player who can knock down shots from the perimeter.

Her 3-point shooting was 3-for-8. For the season. This is definitely an inside the arc player. Her average of 11.8 rebounds per game indicate that she actually playing a post position instead of as a small forward. This leaves coaches with a dilemma. She's not a threat as an outside shooter...but if you move her to the 4/5 spots the much-taller Division I players are going to make mincemeat out of her. A major D1 coach is not going to take the chance.

There are three levels of high school basketball in her state - AAA, AA, and A. The AAA schools have at least 780 students and might have as many as 1900. The AA schools have between 430 and 780. The A level schools are the smallest schools in the state.

Our top scorer's school is in AA, but is the smallest school in AA - if the dividing line had been moved every so slightly, her school would have been Class A. So, in effect, the schools that she's been scoring against come against a more limited variety of players. I'm not saying that players from lower high school divisions aren't any good - on the contrary, they often send players to high-level DI schools - but it is something to keep in mind.

So against the middle classification of schools, how well did her teams do? They went 18-7 for the year, and 9-4 in their division. They ended with a state ranking of #17. The year before that they were 28-0 and ended up with a #2 ranking in the state. However, before that they had three straight seasons of 28-0 and the school's win streak ended at 105 games during her senior season.

So you can't say that her team didn't know how to win games. But we don't know anything about her usage level or if other players took the scoring burden in her freshman through junior stats - we don't have the values to look at.

One interesting stat to look at is her shooting percentage. She shot just under 50 percent (296-for-600) in her senior year. You'd expect a dominating post player to have a shooting percentage of +50 percent.

She had 38 blocked shots in 28 games - nice, but not really devastating. Her offensive rebound/defensive rebound split was 106/178 - more tilted toward the defensive rebound hustle side. She did have 177 steals, indicating some defensive ability. Her A/TO ratio was 87/93, not bad for a post player.

So where did our player end up? She ended up at a low-major DI school. She averages 20 minutes a game there as of this writing but does not start. She is only shooting 33 percent from the floor (22-65) but has 61 rebounds, or 5.1 rpg. Her 5.3 ppg is a far cry from what she did in high school.

She was assigned as a guard. There are only two other 5-9 players on the team and only two players shorter than 5-9 (5-5, 5-6). Everyone listed as a forward on her team is at least 5-10 and taller. She is probably going to have a learn a new role as a college player, a little late in the game to be learning a position.

Note that if she had gone to Division III or NAIA play, she probably would have been an outstanding player at that level. Height would never have been an issue; you can find post players at 5-9 at that level of women's basketball.

Our mystery player's 37 ppg/11+ rpg is a very misleading pair of stats. She's not Sylvia Fowles. She's not scoring 60 percent at the bucket. She is severely undersized for a post, she's playing in the second division of school size, and she can't shoot from outside. No DI school power conference coach is going to take the chance.

Could playing on an good AAU team help her? Definitely. She played on an AAU team, but it wasn't Tennessee Flight or one of the premiere teams. There are some AAU exceptions that allow a player to play for an AAU team in an adjoining districts, and most AAU districts are based on state boundaries. I did find her AAU team results on-line for a single tournament, and they were unimpressive.

To summarize:

a) One big high school stat is height.
b) Important questions: Could you identify the player's position based on her stats? And does her stat-based position match the position she's playing now? If you had to move this player to another position, do her current stats indicate that she'd be successful?
c) Important questions: Are her stats impressive for a player of her stats-based position, or do they appear to be generated by volume?
d) What was the player's quality of competition? That's hard to determine at the high-school level unless you get a chance to see the player.
e) Does the player's state have a history of great HS talent?
f) Did the player play in AAU ball over the summer? Did her AAU team have any national success?

Sadly, our mystery player's high-scoring ways came to an end in college. The lesson learned? If you hear that Suzie SoAndSo is averaging 25.0 ppg and 12.0 rpg in college, you're going to have ask a lot of other questions before you can get a handle on those numbers.