Five Things I Might Know About The Draft
These things, I know for sure. (Probably. Maybe. I think.)
We’re only a day away from the most magical time of the basketball year—it’s draft time! It’s the one day when every player gets viewed in the best possible light, when most teams get a player to be excited about, and hope reigns supreme. No matter how things play out over the rest of his career, no player is a bust on draft day. (Except maybe Renaldo Balkman.)
Yes, for a nation still struggling to cope with Jon and Kate’s divorce, the NBA Draft is the perfect event to begin the healing process. (Sources indicate the draft will proceed as scheduled despite the divorce.)
There’s only one thing that prevents me from enjoying the draft with every fiber of my being; the creeping feeling that I have no idea what’s happening. Every attempt I’ve ever made to come up with some sort of unifying draft theory has fallen woefully short. It’s not always the most athletic guys. It’s not always the most skilled guys. It’s not always the guys who produced in college. There just aren’t concrete patterns that dictate which prospects are going to live up to expectations, reveal themselves as diamonds in the rough, or live in infamy.
So this year, I’m coming into the draft not with one big theory, but with a few mini-theories that I’ve formulated over the years and just might have some truth to them.
1. There Are No Safe Picks.
The first rule, and the most important. It’s as simple as this: Everybody busts. Guys who were go-to guys in college, guys who were freak athletes, rock-solid role players in college, specialists, everybody. Acie Law is an example of a guy who had the reputation of a “safe” pick; versatile and cerebral, not a freak in any one area but a guy who knows how to play the game and use his skills effectively. In the League, he’s been “safe” in the sense he hasn’t been able to hurt the Hawks while sitting on the bench. Same deal with Corey Brewer.
Al Thornton was considered an incredibly polished player in his draft who was ready to play in an NBA rotation right away, and only fell to 14 because the feeling was he didn’t have any upside left at age 24. One metric just rated him as the worst player in basketball. (I know, I know, Wages of Wins is flawed. But I still think it’s safe to say you really don’t want to be on that list.)
It’s not just the athletic freaks that never learn to knock down jumpers or the volume scorers who can’t scale down their games who can fail to adjust. Everyone is bigger and everything is faster in the NBA. The effect of that is that it can be especially difficult for guys who’ve figured out their game in college to un-learn the habits that made them successful at the NCAA level. If JJ Redick can’t be effective knocking down open threes in the NBA, then there are no guarantees for production at the next level.
Corollary to Rule #1: “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” Is Code For “I Hope He Has A Great Time Playing In Europe.”
2. Draft What the Player Does, Not What You Think He’ll Learn To Do.
This rule comes somewhere in between traditional projection-heavy scouting, based mostly off projecting what a player will become with molding, and “performance scouting,” which is based on looking at what the player’s already done based on his stats.
College stats can often be misleading for pro potential, because the system is so important in the NBA and the college game is so much different from the pro game. But just as often, if not more often, teams project skills that a player could theoretically develop or muscle he could theoretically add and draft something out of their imagination over a real player.
My theory is this; if a guy didn’t demonstrate a skill in college, don’t assume he’ll develop it in the pros. But if he’s shown that he can do something well in college, chances are he’ll be able to do it in the pros. Take Rajon Rondo. Rondo didn’t produce much in college, but he did show the ability to finish inside, shooting 54 percent on two-point baskets, and make plays, with averages of 4.9 assists against 2.3 turnovers. In Kentucky’s slow-down offense, his lack of a jumper killed him. If a team drafted him looking for him to be a scoring guard or a guy to stretch the floor, they would’ve gotten a bust. But there was an NBA job for the skills he demonstrated, and he obviously flourished.
If you want a shooter, don’t draft a guy with “good form” and who “shows range out to 27 feet.” Draft a guy who makes shots. If you want a rebounder, don’t draft a guy who “should fill out.” Draft a guy who rebounds. If you want a playmaker, don’t draft a guy who “shows good court sense.” Draft a guy who makes plays.
Corollary to Rule #2: “Versatile Forwards” Who Aren’t Absolute Studs Will Break Your Heart.
And the draft that first made me suspicious of these “hybrid tweener point forwards” or whatever you want to call them:
Rule #3: The Most Important Asset For Guards Who Nobody Talks About Is the Ability To Finish Inside.
People generally talk about three things with guards on offense-quickness with the ball, outside shooting, and passing. But what might be more important than any one of those three skills is the ability to convert inside once a guard is able to get into the paint. More than pure speed or even speed with the ball, it’s what separates Tony Parker and Devin Harris from Sebastian Telfair and Raymond Felton.
Mike Conley is as quick as they come, and is actually a phenomenal shooter with an eFG% of 49.5 percent on jump shots, but when he gets to the basket he’s barely more effective, converting inside at only a 52 percent rate. Raymond Felton only converts 47 percent of his shots from inside. Rajon Rondo might still be a horrible outside shooter, but he converts inside at 61 percent and forces defenses to regard him.
Brandon Roy and Randy Foye went in consecutive picks. Roy has become a superstar, while Foye is still merely solid as a player, although most in the draft though Foye had more “superstar” potential, and was much quicker. (“I’ll say it—he’s Dwyane Wade, baby!”) Roy and Foye are almost identical as jump shooters, with Roy shooting 46.5% eFG from outside and Foye at 45.3 percent. Roy gets to the rim a little more, with 34 percent of his shots coming “inside” to Foye’s 28 percent. But the real difference in their scoring games is the fact that Roy finishes inside at a 58 percent clip, while Foye converts at only 46 percent. That’s a massive gap. It’s hard to be effective as a player when you can’t turn a shot directly at the rim into 2 points more often than not. Without the ability to finish in place as a bedrock, many highly talented guards have seen their games collapse upon themselves. And this skill, like most, is something players almost never pick up after they get to the NBA.
Rule #4: Long Arms Make It Harder To Shoot.
OK, this one isn’t all that important, but it’s my little pet theory and I’ve never seen anyone mention it before. Everyone likes wingspan-it allows for players to guard bigger players and shoot over smaller ones without any of the loss of speed that size generally comes with. But isn’t there definitely a negative correlation between relative wingspan and the ability to cultivate a good shooting stroke? Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Josh Smith, Tyrus Thomas, the list goes on. And even the guys who make shots with long arms have to compensate with odd releases—Tayshaun Prince, Marion, even Kevin Martin.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course: currently, the most obvious one would be Durant, and historically Jerry West was famous for having a massive wingspan. But as a general trend, I think it stands up, and it kind of makes sense on a basic logical level-a good jumper has as few moving parts as possible, and with longer arms it’s tough to find a place to put all of that arm and keep the shot quiet, so you get Marcus Camby releases.
For my microcosm, I’m going to the giants: Yao Ming, when he first came over, disappointed some NBA people with his (relatively) “stubby” wingspan-his wingspan is about an inch shorter than his height, which is uncommonly short. Is it just a coincidence that Yao Ming is easily the best shooter, especially free-throw shooter, among the NBA’s supergiants? Meanwhile, Manute Bol, who had an 8-6 wingspan, could barely make a free throw, and was a career 56 percent FT shooter. (Of course, Manute would also occasionally bomb in threes under Nellie’s guidance. The purpose of this column is certainly not to take away from the extreme awesomeness that was Manute Bol and Nellie.)
There are, of course, a million other factors, nature-related and nurture-related, that go into a good or bad jumper. But I think this might be a significant factor, and it’s pretty much the only drawback of the coveted massive wingspan.
Rule #5: Occam’s Razor Is Your Friend.
Look, it’s fun and sexy to try and draft the hidden gem, or the player who would be the last piece of the puzzle for your team, or the guy with the unorthodox skills that nobody else has envisioned how to utilize. But more often than not, the obvious pick is the right one. It doesn’t get much simpler than this: just draft the best player. Don’t try to be the hero GM—people want to be amazed by the players, not the GM. (Failing to understand this is sometimes referred to as “going Jerry Krause,” who was so completely preoccupied with his own ability to find rare talent that he ended up continually making moves that messed with the chemistry of the mid-90s Bulls, and whose final major draft move was to trade Elton Brand for the rights to Tyson Chandler.)
Look at the 2005 Draft, everyone knew Chris Paul was the most talented and accomplished player in that draft. But the Bucks, who had T.J. Ford, went for the right “fit,” and drafted Andrew Bogut, who was also seen as the “safer” player because of his height. The Hawks went for Marvin Williams, who had more “superstar potential” and projected to be able to do more things. The Jazz decided that Paul wouldn’t “fit their system,” so they went with size and drafted Deron Williams, which was (Brilliant and led to the Jazz’s head-to-head domination of the Hornets for years to come).
Finally, New Orleans happily grabbed CP3 and got one of the best young point guards ever. See also 2006, where the Hawks passed on Brandon Roy because of a bizarre commitment to Shelden Williams (perhaps they now have the rights to him and Candace Parker’s child?), and the Wolves traded Roy because Foye was a “sexier” pick with his athleticism. The final rule is the simplest-unless there’s a heck of a reason not to, draft the best player. Especially in the high-lottery spots; if what you have going is so good you didn’t want to risk messing it up, you wouldn’t be picking here in the first place.
So those are my set of mini-theories; hopefully they’ll help you to make sense of this crazy draft, or at least provide entertainment when they blow up in my face. Until next time.
Final Mini-Theory: Big Men in the Draft are Like Good-Looking Women: If It’s Past 12 and There’s Still One Waiting To Be Picked Out, There’s A Catch Involved.