3 cardinal rules about the NBA Draft
Keep these in mind as you analyze and assess what happens this week.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, Ambroise Dubois, 1500s
The 2022 NBA Draft is on Thursday. It feels like there’s strong consensus about the order of the top three picks and low likelihood any of those picks get traded: Jabari Smith No. 1 to Orlando, Chet Holmgren No. 2 to Oklahoma City, Paolo Banchero No. 3 to Houston. Tons of rumors are flying around about Sacramento’s No. 4 pick — whether they’ll trade down or out to let someone else slide up for Jaden Ivey, whether they’ll take Jaden Ivey themselves, whether they’ll take Keegan Murray. And from there, anything can happen.
Other analysts are much better suited to break down individual prospects, but I’ve followed enough draft seasons closely to be able to offer up these ironclad rules regarding the draft. (Note: there are always exceptions. So maybe not ironclad. Aluminumclad?)
1. Do not draft for fit. Always draft for talent.
What is “drafting for fit”? I define it as when a team looks at the board, sees a player at a certain position or of a certain skillset where the roster is actually in good shape, and chooses a different player based on positions or skills of weakness on the team.
This is a huge mistake. You should pretty much always be drafting for talent, not fit.
Usually, if you’re drafting in the top-10, your team is not good. There are exceptions due to trades and random tank seasons. But look at the draft order this year: you have one good team (New Orleans) and one OK team (San Antonio) and eight bad teams.
None of those bad teams — not one — are in position to draft for fit over talent. If you’re one of those teams and you have a promising point guard in place but a point guard is the best player available according to your scouting efforts … take the point guard!
When you’re drafting in the top 10, you’re trying to get stars. And if not stars, you want starters. And if not starters, you want rotation players. You’re not trying to fill out your roster perfectly in the draft — that would be a fool’s errand because there’s so much uncertainty in translating college, international and prep games to the NBA game. Just add talent.
Later down the draft, there’s one good NBA player for every 10 or so picks. You’re just trying to find those good players. Who cares if you have three rostered centers heading into draft night? If you have the No. 26 pick and there’s a center available that you think could be something moreso than the other wing and guard prospects available, TAKE HIM. The draft isn’t about building a roster. It’s about acquiring the rights to talent.
2. Draft pick market value is highly volatile and totally unpredictable. Don’t get trapped in the machinations.
Thinking about the life cycle of value for a draft pick hurts my brain sometimes.
Let’s go through it. It’s the February 2019 trade deadline. A team in the playoff hunt (we’ll call them the Yaks) thinks they can make a run by adding Player A. The cellar-dwelling team that has Player A under contract (the Tortoises) needs to rebuild and wants picks, so they agree to the deal in exchange for an unprotected 2021 first-round pick plus an expiring contract. You would say that at that moment the value of the 2021 draft pick — 18 months or so before the selection is made — is high.
The path of value for that pick is now directly dependent on the Yaks’ status. If Player A does push the Yaks over the top and they are now a perennial contender, the Tortoises’ extra pick falls in the low 20s and has relatively little value. But say the star of the Yaks gets injured or leaves in free agency, and the Yaks tank out, setting up for a rebuild. Now that pick that the Tortoises own is REALLY valuable. The Tortoises didn’t do anything to make it so; fate and maybe a smart bet on the Yaks’ roster construction helped out. Regardless, this draft pick is now high-value.
We get to the 2020-21 season. The Yaks stink, the Tortoises have their pick. Really high value. We get to the lottery. The lottery gods are displeased with the Tortoises over a bad jersey reboot. The pick slips to, say, No. 8, when it had a great chance to be top-3. The pick loses value. No fault of the Tortoises, just how the game is played.
But then we get to Draft Week! And Teams 3 (the Ocelots) and 4 (the Earthworms) fall in love with a prospect who will certainly be off the board at No. 9. So they have a bidding war over trading for the pick. The value is back up dramatically! The Tortoises did nothing (except perhaps seed some dodgy rumors in the media).
The Ocelots pull off a deal, sending two picks to the Tortoises and picking Prospect B in the draft. The value of that pick, now made, is now an actual player and not a future choice of players. The value of the pick made real PLUMMETS … until and unless the prospect pans out, in which case the value of Prospect B increases considerably.
So the draft is an enormous inflection point in the value of what each pick represents. There’s a window from basically last week through the moment each pick is made where the value for each pick will be much higher than it will be on Friday morning. What I propose is that some teams and A LOT of fans and pundits get really caught up in the chaos of this moment when determining what to do (for the teams) and how to judge what is done (for the fans and pundits).
But honestly, in the end, the perceived value of each pick doesn’t matter at all compared to the value of what the teams end up with on Friday. As has been said before, you don’t build a contender by “winning” individual trades. You need to build a good basketball roster. So whatever deals you do with the picks eventually has to result in getting talented players in uniform. That’s the goal here. Don’t get caught up in the tit-for-tat grading of each move based on perceived value.
3. There are almost no safe picks.
Teams and analysts trick themselves into thinking their safe picks and risky picks. I fall into this as well, even moreso when I was closely watching the draft through the prism of a specific team.
Here’s the deal: you can count the number of “sure things” over the past two decades on one hand. In retrospect, great NBA players look like they would have been can’t-miss prospects coming out of school or the international scene. Luka Doncic is the most recent example: a proven winner at the highest level of European basketball, a complete offensive player, a fierce competitor. Beyond him, there hasn’t been a player that obviously ready since … uh … I might say LeBron James?
Kevin Durant was skinny, couldn’t bench 135. Anthony Davis lacked a jumper and had a knock about being injury prone. Zion Williamson was heavier than players of his athleticism usually are. Stephen Curry was slight and had back issues. Deandre Ayton lacked attention to detail. Cade Cunningham didn’t have top-level athleticism.
Safe picks: Luka, LeBron, Tim Duncan. Pretty much everyone else can go either way or somewhere in between. Your little cerebral guard who can read the floor and get where he wants? He can do that at lower levels, but what about at the NBA level with NBA speed and NBA bodies? You don’t know until you see it. Your hulking 6’10 post player with big hands and agile feet? No longer being the biggest guy on the court might completely box them in. Your hyperathletic wing with good range may find NBA defenses too confounding to beat reliably or to be a part of. You don’t know until you see it.
This comes up in debates between high-potential mystery players — kids who didn’t play in college due to this or that, internationals for whom there is sparse tape — and your traditional AAU-circuit, P5-program, high-profile prospects, or your FIBA U-whatever tournament vets. But the thing is that what you think you know about the players you think you know is only what you know in a competition that simply is not the NBA.
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Sky 104, Aces 95 — Holy s—t. Las Vegas was up 41-18 at the end of the first, and went up by 28 points at 51-23 with 7:25 left in the second quarter. Game over, right? Aces well on their way for yet another statement win, right? NOPE.
The Sky cut it to 11 by halftime and went on an 18-0 in the third quarter to take the lead on a Candace Parker lay-up. Biggest comeback in WNBA history. Huge game for Courtney Vandersloot (25-8). The champs showing they will have something to say in the playoffs.
Lynx 84, Mercury 71 — Skylar Diggins-Smith sensed blood in the water from the start, and the Mercury have been getting into their flow … but Kayla McBride just disrupted everything (five steals and hot shooting). Good win for the Lynx in a season where none of them come easy.
Mystics 82, Sparks 84 — Washington is 8-3 this season when Elena Delle Donne plays and 3-5 when she doesn’t. Big CP2-Sky 2021 vibes. No EDD in this one and the score was not as close as it looked before a late, ill-fated flurry. L.A. needs all these wins, especially with the Fever and Lynx winning some games of late.
Liberty at Sun, 7 ET, ESPN2
Rest in peace, Caleb Swanigan. You will be missed.
Be excellent to each other.