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Kicking the Tires: The Roberto Petagine of the NBA

 

Rob Neyer, one of the great baseball writers of the Internet generation, used to mention Roberto Petagine as the classic example of a minor league player that couldn’t get a fair chance from an MLB team. Petagine would bash the hell out of the ball in the minor leagues, get a very brief call-up, hit .210 and get sent down immediately. Neyer wondered what Petagine could do if a Major League team just gave him some time to settle in. 

There is a Petagine-like fascination with Ike Diogu, the 25-year-old former Arizona State star who has played 187 games over the last four seasons with four different NBA teams. There are fans out there who believe Diogu could be a decent scorer-rebounder in the NBA if one of his teams could get over the perceived league-wide bias against 6’8” power forwards and just play the guy. His coaches mostly kept him on the pine after the ’06-07 season–until the final two games of this season, when Kenny Natt decided to just go crazy and play Diogu. And Diogu responded with 60 points and 24 rebounds in 80 minutes–more than a third of the 215 minutes he played through the entire season. 

A flash of what Diogu could be in the league? Or meaningless performances in a blowout loss to the Nuggets and a win against a T’Wolves team scanning the Kings crowd for some post-game fun? 

And how much would you pay to find out? 

Diogu is almost certainly going to be available to anyone who wants him. He’s a restricted free agent, but to retain his rights, the Kings have to tender him a qualifying offer of more than $3.9 million–a laughable proposition considering that Diogu has averaged fewer than five points per game and played only 500 or so minutes over the past two seasons. 

He’s the definition of a player who should be worth the veteran’s minimum, especially given the fact that half the teams in the league are losing money and the rest are trying to avoid spending when at all possible. And there happens to be a salary cap exception allowing teams to sign players for the veteran’s minimum even if they are over the cap. So: Should the Celtics pony up the veteran’s minimum–about $950,000 for a player of Diogu’s tenure? Is it only worth thinking about if they lose Glen Davis, since having two sub-6’9” bigs seems like a bad idea? 

There is no denying that Diogu has put up eye-catching per-minute numbers–17.7 points per 36 minutes for his career, with a PER (16.1) a point above the league average, according to Basketball Reference. He’s a good rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, and he’s an 80 percent career foul shooter who draws a lot of fouls. 

According to his game logs, he’s played 20 minutes in an NBA game 37 times. He’s scored at least 10 points in 32 of those games. 

So what’s the problem? 

Normally when a player puts up good per minute numbers but doesn’t play a lot of minutes, it means something is wrong with him. Either he just doesn’t get how to play basketball, he’s selfish and his teammates don’t like him or he’s bad at defense. 

With Diogu, it’s not his work ethic or his attitude. His coaches and teammates have praised his attitude in college and in the pros. So let’s look at some numbers, after the jump.

Offense

It may say something that his team’s offense has performed worse with him on the floor in each of his four seasons in the league, according to 82games.com. Of course, he’s been playing mostly with back-ups since his rookie year, when he set career highs in games played (69), games started (14) and minutes (1031). 

HIs career assist rate of 5.1 (meaning he assists of 5.1 percent of teammates’ baskets when he’s on the floor) is well below average, suggesting he may not be a good team offensive player. 

But he is a good individual finisher on the interior. He’s made at least 55 percent of his in-close shots in every season, including a 66.7 percent mark last year, according to 82games. 

Can Diogu shoot jumpers, like our pending free agent under-sized power forward, Big Baby? Well, he likes taking them, but the jury is out on whether he can make them. (All numbers from 82games.com)

 

                                      % of FGAs that were jumpers                           eFG%

’05-06                                       40 percent                                            38%

’06-07*                                      45 percent                                            48%

’07-08                                       46 percent                                             39%

’08-09**                                    56 percent                                             56.5%

Was Diogu on his way to being a good player at the end of his 2007 season with the Pacers? He looked to be developing into a solid bench player for Indiana at the start of the ’07-08 season, when he scored in double-digits in each of the first three games. But then he suffered a calf injury, missed nearly two months and never looked the same again, according to the geniuses who run Indy Cornrows

And if you look at his numbers, they pretty much fell off the map in the ’07-08 season. He went from being a nearly neutral offensive player in terms of plus/minus to an offensive disaster whose team scored about six fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. His jump shot disappeared, and his defensive numbers also started trending badly. 

About Diogu’s defense: His team has been worse defensively with him on the floor, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, in three of his four seasons. The exception? The 42 games he played in ’06-07 for Indiana, when the Pacers defense, for whatever reason, was 4.6 points stingier per 100 possessions with Ike in the line-up, according to 82games. But it’s been all down hill since then, as his individual defensive rating has jumped to nearly 115 (really, really bad) over the last two seasons. 

And it’s worth noting that despite those two monster games with the Kings, the team still performed worse on both ends overall with Diogu on the floor

Small sample size? You bet. But it’s all small sample size with Diogu, and we don’t have a huge sample of minor league numbers to help us out, as Neyer did with Petagine. But Diogu is undersized, and fans who have watched him closely say his defensive instincts aren’t great. 

The verdict from my end: Diogu’s an intriguing guy, but I don’t think he’s worth much more than the veteran’s minimum. And he likely doesn’t fit here if the Celtics re-sign Big Baby. Having two bulky yet under-sized power forwards on the second unit probably wouldn’t work. But if some team blows Big Baby away with an offer he can’t refuse, it’d be worth kicking the tires on Diogu. 

*Diogu played 17 games for Golden State and 42 for the Pacers in ’06-07, so I’m using Indiana numbers only.

** Diogu played 142 minutes in 10 for the Kings and 73 minutes in 19 games for Portland, so I’m using Sacto numbers only. 

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  • Abe

    I’m biased as a GW alum, but another guy that sorts of fits this category as someone who has had trouble catching on in the NBA is Pops Mensah-Bonsu. He doesn’t have the size to be a true NBA 5 but he brings energy off the bench and can rebound and block shots. He has done impressive things in the D-League and in limited minutes with the Mavs, the Spurs, and the Raptors. Apparently Toronto likes him but is having trouble finding a roster spot for him.

  • Charles

    I too think Diogu has a chance to be a legit NBA player. Like you said, he needs a chance. However, I don’t think that chance is Boston. A rebuilding team in need of a four is what he needs more then anything. Thunder, Grizzlies, and Nets seem to come to mind. I think with the Grizzlies in particular he would finally get his chance.

    Read more about players needing to find an opportunity here: http://therookiecontract.com/

  • Nick

    Only borderline on topic, but currently, Petagine is playing for the LG Bears in South Korea.

  • http://celticshub.com Zach

    @Nick–That is ESSENTIAL info. I am happy to hear Mr. Petagine continues to find a place to hit.

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