Whether it’s an art or a science, comes down to thorough preparation or just plain old luck, projecting how an NBA prospect will pan out is complex and difficult no matter the draft position.
Selecting the right player can be a game-changer for a franchise, while the wrong move could set the organization back for years. Those considered can’t-miss players only come along once in a blue moon and are often gobbled up with that celebrated first overall pick.
Even in years like this one when there’s not a clear-cut No. 1, there’s a reason why Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas said he’s “excited for the possibilities” after landing the top pick in Wednesday night’s draft despite entering the lottery with just a 14% chance of winning it.
But considering that nearly a third of 2011-16 first-round picks are out of the league, including 10 of 84 lottery picks, how much actual value is there in the top overall pick? What is a top-five selection worth? A lottery pick?
We’ve dug in deep over a 21-year stretch in an effort to get a better handle on quantifying the value of individual picks in relation to their draft position using career-long statistics of selections that took place between 1996-2016. This large sample size includes several variables, including the career averages of all active or retired players drafted in that timeframe. The 2017-19 draft classes have been omitted because we can’t yet draw meaningful conclusions this early in their careers.
In order to value each player, we combined their points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game to determine what we’ve called their “score” or total game-by-game contribution. While adding those data points isn’t the most granular way to measure players, it isn’t an unreasonable way of determining their worth either.
It’s important to note that the No. 1 pick has proven to live up to expectations, at least in relation to other spots. But the second overall selection has been disappointing when looking at the gap between Nos. 1 and 2, and where it stands in comparison to the third and fourth picks. There also appears to be a huge decline in production after the 10th pick, as noted in the significant drop on the average score chart.
Picks 15- 60 present a steady decline in score, as expected, with another tremendous dip occurring around the end of the first round. The 59th selection has the lowest average score by far, only because two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas has skewed the 60th and final pick of the draft.
With the same selection data, we’ve taken a shot at determining the likelihood that a draftee will be a perennial All-Star, a complete flop, or anything in between by creating classifications based on career average scores. Here’s what that looks like:
All NBA – 30 and above: These guys are special. Only 39 out of 1,240 players in the data meet this benchmark.
Star/Starter – 20-29: This is a pretty broad category. It could include starters and some players who have earned All-Star appearances. There are 159 draftees that fit here.
Role/Bench – 10-19: These players might specialize in metrics that are unaccounted for in this model, or are just designated backups. There are 407 players meeting that criteria.
Bust – 0-9: These players did not work out for whatever reason and were out of the league relatively quickly. The majority of players drafted between 1996-2016 fell here: 635 of 1,240 (51%).
Taking all that into account, we’ve generated the chart below which represents the chance a team has of selecting each of these types of players with a given pick.
The numbers represent the percentages of each probability. For example, history tells us that while teams have only landed an “All NBA” player 14% of the time with the second overall pick, they’ve selected that caliber of a player 19% of the time with the third or fourth picks.
So what is the value of the top pick in the draft? Well, 52% of the first overall picks from 1996-2016 went on to be what we called “All NBA” players. That’s easily the highest probability of any slot.
But it also only produced a star/starter 29% of the time and a role player 14% of the time, meaning the No. 1 pick is very much a boom or bust proposition.
How much is a pick that lands in the top 10 worth? Consider this: No “All NBA” players were selected past pick No. 15 during this span and as expected, the best chance of securing a franchise-changing star – or even a reliable starter – has been inside of the top 10.
On Tuesday, we’ll reveal our NBA Draft Model’s prospect rankings and player comparisons for the long-awaited 2020 draft when the Timberwolves hope to add someone who turns out to be one of the special 52%.
Research, data modeling and analysis by Parker Kaplan.
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