With the NBA Draft now only two weeks away — as is always the case — it is prime time for pundits, fans and even front offices to over-index the value of high draft picks. But one misnomer that’s subconsciously reiterated year-after-year is that the majority of value in the draft often comes in the first three or so selections. And that’s simply untrue.
First, let’s step back and state for the record that draft picks are majorly important for two main reasons: They allow teams to lock in young talent relatively cheaply for fairly long periods of time – for example, the No. 14 pick in this month’s draft will make only $2.78 million in his first season and will be locked in for at least three years. Additionally, these picks afford teams the opportunity to invest in their futures by selecting players with desirable upside. When those type of long-term picks pan out, franchises can end up with high ceiling guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 15 or Jimmy Butler at No. 30 overall.
But drafting is far from an exact science and selecting at the front end of the draft offers no guarantees that players will maximize their potential. In fact, one could argue that there is tremendous pressure on teams to hit a home run with a top-three pick. And there is more that goes into a selection than just the perceived talent alone. Of course, there’s the potential for players to develop differently than anticipated, while injuries or an inability to withstand the pressures can also derail careers –- all of the above can turn a sure thing into a bust.
Sure, the success rate of talent materializing in the NBA is at least as good as it is in MLB, NHL or even the NFL; however, there are still a lot of missteps that take place on the early side of most basketball drafts.
And the opposite is also true: There are tons of hidden gems in most drafts that go overlooked by front offices, those who end up being All-Stars, All-NBA or even MVPs. For proof, you don’t have to look any further than this year’s Finals to see that teams can succeed without high-end lottery picks on the roster.
The Golden State Warriors have a fair amount of high draft picks, most notably Kevin Durant — who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007.
But when examining the Warriors’ core-four, Durant is the only former top-three pick. Stephen Curry was drafted No. 7 overall in 2009 from the mostly-unknown Davidson College — and after two other point guards. There was doubt around his durability and how well he would translate to the pros considering the level of competition he played against in the Atlantic 10 Conference, so six other teams passed on him. Remember, David Kahn, former President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, passed on Curry with consecutive picks — instead selecting Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn.
Klay Thompson was selected No. 11 overall in 2011 behind a number of guys who are no longer in the NBA, including Derrick Williams, Jan Vesley and Jimmer Fredette. (Of note, Fredette played for the Phoenix Suns for the final six games of the 2018-19 season after a two-plus season absence.)
Then there’s Draymond Green, who was picked No. 35 overall in 2012. The second-rounder epitomizes this concept better than any other Golden State contributor to-date. And it’s not like Green flew under the radar or came up through a less-visible program — on the contrary, he played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Naturally, Green was drafted just prior to the beginning of the position-less era — in which his value has increased significantly — but Green has had as much to do with ushering in this new age as anyone. And, yes, he’s developed on a very different trajectory than most pro-scouts expected, but therein lies the point.
Looking beyond the Warriors’ core-four, there are two other players worth mentioning: Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Iguodala was selected outside of the top three — at No. 9 overall in 2004 — and Livingston went with the fourth pick in 2004.
So the Warriors support the argument in that their main rotation today consists of just player selected in the top three. But if the Warriors support the notion, then the Toronto Raptors are the fully-fleshed out realization. The Raptors’ entire team is built on the premise that talent can be identified and cultivated outside of the first few selections (and even outside the lottery).
Exhibit 1: Kawhi Leonard, the current frontrunner for Finals MVP should the Raptors pull off the upset, was selected No. 15 overall in 2011.
Additionally, Kyle Lowry was selected No. 24 overall in 2006, while Pascal Siakam — the frontrunner for 2018-19 Most Improved Player who scored a career-high 32 points in Game 1 — was taken No. 27 overall in 2016. Both are key contributors on a team up 2-to-1 in the NBA Finals. And both were less-than-heralded prospects relative to the top of their respective draft classes.
Beyond that, there’s Serge Ibaka (No. 24 overall in 2008), Danny Green (No. 46, 2009) and Marc Gasol (No. 48, 2007) as veteran standouts as well. To top it all off, the Raptors frequently utilize both Norman Powell (No. 46, 2015) and Fred VanVleet, who went undrafted in 2016, and they’ve been essential to Toronto this postseason.
To summarize, the 2018-19 Eastern Conference winner’s entire roster features zero top three picks. And zero lottery picks. Zero.
Contrast the success of the Warriors — and, more importantly, the Raptors and their limited top-end lottery picks — with that of the New York Knicks’ current squad.
The Knicks closed the 2018-19 season with six lottery picks on their roster and they finished with the worst record in the league.
While the Knicks’ front office has been led by four different Presidents of Basketball Operations since 2010 (with Steve Mills serving in that role twice) — a conclusion that has surely resulted in a less-cohesive vision for team building and development — the team won less than three games per lottery pick on its roster this past season. Ultimately, the fact that the Knicks have six former lottery picks on their roster and the Raptors have none speaks volumes.
So, then what are we to take from this?
The point is not to say that drafting early is a detriment and, needless to say, some high-end lottery picks turn into the best players — e.g., LeBron James, James Harden and Anthony Davis, for starters. But rather, it shows that selecting in the top three, five, etc. does not guarantee future successes. More importantly, perhaps, that despite all the noise made about the top prospects every season, that loads of talent exists outside the early ends of the draft.
Inevitably, the most successful teams capitalize on all draft selections — they don’t trade their mid-first round picks, nor do they package away future picks. Great organizations do their due diligence on players available to them and make the best possible selections accordingly. So, even if a team you follow is picking outside of the lottery this month, you can rest assured that there is still ample opportunity to add top-tier talent, both now and years down the line.