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Friday, April 29, 2011

Using History to Gauge Expectations for the Draft

Note: This article isn't meant as a way to help scout players. It is more meant to show what to expect from certain draft ranges. Don't take it as me saying that numbers don't fluctuate or history can't be rewritten.

The draft can almost be looked at as a science. There are years of data from previous drafts that can show teams what they can expect from picks from their slot, and unlike what many think, the lottery is not an automatic ticket for an all-star. In fact, using data from 1997-2007 (found here), only 25% of top ten picks reach all-star status.

That is not to say the draft is overrated. The draft can turn a franchise around if they land a gold medal superstar type player (defined as a top 5 player in the NBA). For small market teams, it is almost impossible to acquire a player of this caliber unless they are drafted. You saw what LeBron James did for Cleveland and what Kevin Durant is doing now in Oklahoma City. Both of these franchises struck gold through the draft. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they lost LeBron to a more appealing city, which makes the reason for small market teams drafting well that much more important. The Thunder on the other hand have managed to gather complementary players through the draft to help Durant. With their strategy of targeting athletic, long, and defensive-minded player with high character, the Thunder are now in the second round in the playoffs and have an extremely bright future.

The only problem is there are only so many franchise changing players. Not every draft has one. This draft is arguably one of the weakest all time, mainly for the reason that there is no huge superstar. Irving and Williams are nice, but could they turn around a franchise? A great deal of luck is required to end up in position to draft LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Durant. For other franchise level players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki it also takes some risks and good scouting.

The draft is a little different now that high school kids can't declare, but taking a chance on a high upside guy in the 5-15 range were the ways some teams got competitive. It may take a teams a few tries before finding their man, but once they hit a home run, they were set for a decade (see Mavs, Lakers, Wolves). In this year's draft, Perry Jones could have been that big lottery ticket that could be had after the the first few players were off the board. There is still some hope for a gold medal superstar in this draft, though, for teams outside the top 5. The hope is through the international players.

The international phase has slowed down since its peak about 6 years ago, but with a weak NCAA crop, there are quite a few internationals in the lottery discussions. Motiejunas, Valanciunas, Kanter, Vesely, and Biyombo all offer that sort of mysterious upside that NBA teams are intrigued by. Without high school players, international players are the great hope for "getting out of the hood" (aka the lottery). Dirk managed to do it, so for over a decade, everyone has been searching for the next Dirk. Maybe this draft has it, maybe not. But there will be plenty of teams willing to take a shot at one of these guys in the lottery.

Why?

Besides the fact that some of the NCAA guys have lower ceilings (no Gold Medal Superstar potential), but also because the lottery is a lot more of a hit and miss than what is perceived. When only 25% of the players in the top 10 become all-stars, why not swing for the best chance of turning your entire team around. Often times, teams find solid starters in the NBA by selecting sure things in the lottery (see Timberwolves by taking Wes Johnson over Cousins), but it does nothing to help them in the win column. Golden State may find an above average player like Curry, but all it does it take them farther away from their chance to strike gold in the following draft.

It is all very much a guessing game and weighing your options. Many scouts opinions on actual players aren't far off from one another, the main difference I see is the way they approach the draft. Do you want a high risk/high reward player or a player you know will end up being a solid starter, but nothing else?

Answering that question really all depends on the situation and how you feel about certain players. You don't take Perry Jones if you have a bad feeling about him just because of the notion that he has high upside. Talent evaluators should trust their instincts, but also be sure to look at the bigger picture. It also depends on your current roster. When the Thunder had another top 5 pick in 2008 after drafting Durant in 2007, they didn't need to find another superstar. They needed to find a player that could fit in with him. And they did by taking Russell Westbrook. To read more about finding players that fit your team, check out this article.

Anyway, to examine realistic expectations for this draft, I will use the chart posted at the beginning of this article as a basis and apply it to my current mock draft. Keep in mind that this draft is a little weaker than normal so it may be necessary to round down the numbers.

Current Top 5
1. Kyrie Irving
2. Derrick Williams
3. Bismack Biyombo
4. Jan Vesely
5. Brandon Knight

On average, one or two players from the top 5 turn out to be all stars (one and a half to be exact). Since players can't be split into two and this is a weak draft, I'll choose Derrick Williams as the only all-star. Another one or two players from this group should become starters (again, one and a half to be exact). I'll go ahead and choose two to bring us up to a total of three players. Kyrie Irving and Jan Vesely will be my choices, with Irving being closer to landing an all-star bid.

There is still hope for the other two guys. If you are picked in the top 5, it is almost a guarantee that you become a rotational player. Only 10% (one every other draft) have failed to contribute at least in that way. It would make sense for both Biyombo and Knight. Knight has the making of a solid 6th man off the bench while it isn't hard to see Biyombo not living up to the hype but still contributing on defense.

Part of the reason I like Biyombo so much is because of the realities of the draft. He offers that mystery and upside, but also should be a positive addition even if he doesn't develop because of his defense and character. He is the kind of guy the Thunder would have looked for in 2008 to help out Durant. It is hard to go wrong with a hard working, defensive-mind, player with great length and athleticism. Plus, centers are expensive. You can find cheap backups for any position except center. There are too many backup centers out there making the full mid-level exception. That is one of the reason centers are always drafted higher than their talent may suggest - they are cheaper than finding one in free agency.

Moving on to picks 6-10...

6. Kawhi Leonard
7. Enes Kanter
8. Kemba Walker
9. Jonas Valanciunas
10. Donatas Motiejunas

The international players hold a strong presence in this draft. If you are looking for the next big thing, go ahead and take one in this weak draft. A guy like Motiejunas has a high bust rate, but some scouts have likened him to the next Dirk. Think he will slip past the top 10? Doubt it.

Out of this block of players, one of them should make become an all-star. If I had to guess, it would be Enes Kanter. I love Kawhi Leonard more than most, but he doesn't offer that kind of upside. Neither does Walker. Motiejunas is more of a gamble, even though he has actually played competitive basketball recently. I don't see the intrigue in Valanciunas as much as others, at least not as an all-star.

At least one more guy figures to be a starter based on draft history. I have to stick to my guns here with Kawhi Leonard. He doesn't have the upside, but he has the makings of a very solid player, which is why I rank him so high despite of his ceiling.

The numbers get foggy from here between a rotational player and a bust, but there is usually at least one of each. With Kemba's scoring ability, he looks like a great bet for a role player. It would be tough for Valanciunas to not be a role player wither if he decides to come over. Motiejunas is the wildcard of this group. He defines high risk/high reward. He could end up being the best or worst of this array of players. Most teams would agree with that, but different teams would have different ideas of what it means his worth is.

This is where it can get depressing for teams with a lottery pick. Since the 1997 draft, there have been no all-stars draft in the 11-15 range (Kobe, Peja, and Steve Nash were all picked in this range in the 1996, however). Once every two years a team can find a player worthy of starting. Half end up having no real impact while the rest find spots in the rotation.

11. Terrence Jones
12. Alec Burks
13. Tristan Thompson
14. Jimmer Fredette
15. Marcus Morris

In this case, the above statistics really make a lot of sense to me. I see Jimmer as a likely bust. I haven't been a fan of Terrence Jones all year. Marcus Morris is an underwhelming pro prospect. Tristan Thompson has some upside, but isn't ready to contribute. Even my favorite player of the group, Alec Burks, is far from a sure thing. Rather than picking a player to end up being a successful starter from this group, I'd rather place my money on whoever the Houston Rockets pick. The later in the draft you go, the more important it is that the guy goes to a team with a good coaching staff and player development team. The Rockets always put their players in good situations to succeed (Landry, Patterson, Brooks, Lowry, Hayes to name a few).

Remember at the beginning of the article how I noted that this isn't a way to scout players. See the next draft range (16-20) as a reason why. This range has actually produced a few all-stars in the past ten years - Ron Artest, Jamaal Magloire, Zach Randolph, David West, Jameer Nelson, and Danny Granger. Its very weird indeed how the previous range was unable to produce all-stars, but you would be foolish to believe that picking in this range is somehow better. Talent evaluation is more important than draft position. In the end, you have to have trust your drafting abilities over a ten year snippet of history.

16. Kenneth Faried
17. Klay Thompson
18. Nikola Mirotic
19. Nolan Smith
20. Jordan Hamilton

One of these guys likely becomes a starter. Nolan Smith and Kenneth Faried are both viewed as solid backup types. Mirotic may not ever come over to the NBA. I'd say this would be between Hamilton and Thompson and I like Thompson better. At least one other should become a rotational player. This is tough because I see role playing abilities in all of these guys. As other people have said, this draft is weak up top, but around this area, there are some solid players to be had. If I had to choose one, it would be Nolan Smith I guess. The only reason I wouldn't take Mirotic, even though I like him more than any other player in this group, is become his interest in the NBA seems very low. He just signed a big contract with Real Madrid to enforce this belief.

21. Josh Selby
22. Markieff Morris
23. Tyler Honeycutt
24. Justin Harper
25. Travis Leslie
26. Tobias Harris
27. Chris Singleton
28. Jereme Richmond
29. Reggie Jackson
30. Iman Shumpert

By now, you get the point. We are grasping for straws here. A lot of these guys I believe can contribute in the NBA, but the situation they are placed in will play a big part in their career path. There have been some all-star caliber players, but not every year. In this group, Richmond and Honeycutt have the best chance of making that happen in my opinion. Selby offers some upside too, but as more of a 6th man scorer.

As you can see from the success rate of previous drafts, these players often just fade out of the league. Teams picking in this range are likely playoff teams, so they have to fight hard to get playing time. If I had a pick in this range, I'd prefer to swing for Honeycutt or Richmond in most situations (some reservations though with Richmond if the lockerroom isn't perfect. Cant have him being a distraction for a contending team...but there is always the D-League). For other contenders, they might be looking for something specific. Some teams might need a stretch four to play ten minutes a game. Justin Harper is your guy. Others need a lock down defender - consider Shumpert or Singleton. A big body? Markieff Morris. Scorer? Josh Selby. You get the point. Rankings can go out the window here unless there is a guy you really think is underrated. Here, it is all about putting your player in the best position to succeed.

In the second round, without guaranteed contracts, you just want to pick a guy that has a chance of sticking on your roster. International players or guys with passports are pluses because you can hold onto their rights while they play overseas. The second round has had some gems like Michael Redd, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, Manu Ginobili, and Marc Gasol. There is hope, but be happy if you ever see the guy logging minutes for your team

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