End mock draft and draft grade culture

Acting like we know things when even NBA GMs apparently don't know things is getting old.

Good morning. Let’s basketball. But first, The Hulsenbeck Children by Philipp Otto Runge, a Romantic era German painter.

Here’s something fun about this year’s NBA Draft. Consider that every year more and more total man-hours go into producing mock drafts and draft analysis than the year before by professional and semi-professional reporters and analysts.

And yet, despite just about all mock drafts agreeing on the top three in the draft (11 of 12 in NBA.com’s final consensus mock draft), almost no one nailed the No. 4 pick, Scottie Barnes to the Raptors. In that consensus mock, published less than 24 hours prior to the actual draft, none of the 12 inputs had Davion Mitchell in the top 10. He went No. 9 to the Kings. All of the mocks had James Bouknight in the top 10 (most around #6), with many reporters writing about the UConn guard’s rise up team big boards through the draft process. Bouknight went No. 11 to the Hornets. Not a single one of the 12 mocks used by NBA.com for its consensus had Josh Primo in the lottery. The Spurs took him No. 12.

What’s interesting is that the smokescreens hit the hardcore 12-month draftniks just as hard as they hit those outlets and analysts we don’t think of as specifically focused on the draft. ESPN Insider’s Jonathan Givony — probably the single most well-known draftnik in basketball, the purveyor of the old DraftExpress brand — hit on exactly one lottery pick outside of the top three in his final pre-draft mock (Chris Duarte to Indiana at No. 13). If Givony — who dedicates his life’s work to this stuff — can’t get it right, what hope is there for anyone else?

So the mock drafts were really wrong this year beyond the top three. So what, right?

Well …

What happens when the Kings take Davion Mitchell higher than he was projected to go, or when the Spurs take Josh Primo 10-15 picks higher than the mocks had him? Armchair analysts and fans start talking about value, about trading down, about reaches. And then come the draft grades, where analysts penalize teams for digressing from the mock drafts. The Spurs get dinged for taking a player too early instead of trading down to get him, even though the person writing the grades has no earthly idea if there was any deal to move down available or whether other teams near the No. 12 pick were prepared to take Primo well before Pick #20 or whatever.

You know how we know they don’t know: because they had no clue the Spurs were interested in Primo at #12!

I don’t want to single anyone out, so I’m skipping the link and the citation. But this is a draft grade for the Spurs from a major website that spends a lot of energy on the NBA Draft and it perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.

This is the biggest reach of the draft so far. But Primo is only 18, and he is a shooter. Even so, I'd probably go a lower grade if this were a different franchise than San Antonio. He simply has not had the track record of other prospects still available in terms of his production in college. It's not what I would have done, but we'll have to see how it plays out.

The Spurs were given a C+, tied for the lowest grade given by this particular website in the first round. A quick review of other early draft grades shows a similar sentiment.

This reminds me of the reaction to the Suns trading back from No. 6 (Jarrett Culver) to pick up Dario Saric and take Cam Johnson No. 11 in 2019. The Suns got destroyed by most draft analysts and pilloried on Twitter. Meanwhile, just two years later, Johnson is just about the sixth most valuable player from the 2019 draft after Zion, Ja and some combination of Brandon Clarke, Tyler Herro, P.J. Washington and Matisse Thybulle. Phoenix did what draftniks and armchair analysts implore teams to do: drop back to take the player you want. Phoenix did that, made what the draft world still considered a reach and ended up proving everyone wrong. But there’s not a whole lot of revisiting that before criticizing the next team that blows up the mock drafts.

The other element of draft grades that is just completely a waste of everyone’s energy is the idea of fit, filling roster holes and meeting team needs. Why? Because free agency is always a few days after the NBA Draft. Many teams will undergo radical changes one out of every three offseasons. Dinging a team for taking a big when they have three bigs already without knowing what they are going to do with those bigs come the start of free agency and heavy trade season — just … why? This is the start of a team construction or augmentation process, not the final touches. We’re grading an essay test after the first paragraph is written.

Where draft analysis and even post-draft grades can be valuable is completely divorced from the mock drafts. It should really focus on big boards or rankings. I trust several draftniks’ analysis of prospects. Going back to Givony: he’s been in college and international gyms for 20 years, he’s seen a lot of talent before anyone but top scouts has, he has great perspective on signs, signals, noise and potential. His co-star Mike Schmitz is similarly well-equipped to do the work. I worked for a long time alongside Ricky O’Donnell at SB Nation, a beautiful soul who has really sharp commentary and insight on the best American prospects — I trust his player analysis. I think Kevin O’Connor (The Ringer) and Sam Vecenie (The Athletic) really dig in and provide lots of good context and information on prospects, basically bibles of analysis on players that individual team fans should go seek out after the draft.

The actual prospect analysis — not where they might go in the draft, not where they fit best, not even necessarily their value vis a vis other prospect — the actual analysis is interesting, valuable and welcome. Draft grades based on individual assessment’s of prospects’ potential: that can be valuable. If you’re a draftnik who believes Josh Primo is dead in the water in the NBA, give the Spurs that bad grade and tell us why. The rationale that “no one indicated anyone in the lottery would pick him so it’s bad value” serves no one and nothing.

Of course, we all know why all this human capital goes into creating mock drafts and draft grades: because this is a commercial enterprise and mock drafts and draft grades get a whole lot of attention. I used to write one (1) mock draft per season for exactly this reason. I had no inside knowledge, no particular insight into these prospects. But if you want Chartbeat to go brr in April, you post a mock draft. If you want to capitalize on heightened attention the Friday morning after the draft, you break your brain staying up all night to write draft grades. If you want to avoid being pilloried for your analysis around the draft, you stay within the bounds of commonly accepted takes. If you want some extra attention on Twitter, that firehose of angst and contrarianism, you jump outside the bounds of commonly accepted takes. You write that, Actually, Josh Primo is a top-5 talent and the Spurs should be commended.

(I spent something like 14 years writing basketball takes for corporate or venture-backed websites and I’m still trying to rewire my brain away from the requisite style to survive doing that. It’s a work in progress. If you notice me slipping into it, call me out.)

Many analysts are moving in a saner direction. You see far fewer Ds and Fs in the most visible draft grades. You see more reporters and analysts announcing that they know nothing, that this is all best-guess and assessment stuff to meet fan interest. You see more draftniks acknowledging the limits of the enterprise. This is good. The next step is for a basketball fandom addicted to mock drafts and their suppliers in the media to ween ourselves off of it and focus way more on big boards, prospect analysis and more comprehensive looks at team-building in the NBA.

And now, all that said … has anyone seen a 2022 mock draft yet?

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Russell Westbrook to the Lakers!

An incredible trade hit Thursday night as the draft began: Russell Westbrook to the Lakers for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the No. 22 pick, which ended up being flipped for Aaron Holiday.

In the spirit of my mock draft culture rant, there are some other chips to fall here before we know what it all means. Early indications are that this trade did not immediately push Bradley Beal to ask for a trade. And frankly, it shouldn’t: the Wizards had serious depth issues last season, and turning one player and a pick into four rotation players, at least two of which could start for Washington from Day 1, helps solve that issue. Again, we don’t know what else the Wizards are going to do or who they will lose over the next couple of weeks. The Wizards also took Corey Kispert at No. 15 overall, adding another piece. On the surface, I think this opens the Wizards up to being better. But it’s really still all about Beal.

The Lakers too have additional work to do. The rumored Buddy Hield trade is off the table, given L.A. traded the pieces supposedly in play in that deal to Washington. One imagines the likelihood of Dennis Schroder signing a lucrative deal to remain with the Lakers has decreased to zero. Shooting was already a seemingly huge need for L.A. One presumes it is an even bigger need now given Westbrook’s poor outside shooting.

On the upside, Westbrook is a legitimately great passer and that will relieve playmaking pressure on LeBron and get more easy buckets for Anthony Davis and whoever else the Lakers run out there. If LeBron, A.D. and Westbrook all remain healthy — never a given considering the ages and injury histories involved — this team should score just a ton of points in the paint. Losing KCP hurts the defense but the Lakers’ resistance is so good and the championship allure so strong that it’s not worth being worried about much loosening on that end, in my opinion.

Fun trade!

Scores

Women’s Olympic Tournament

Belgium 87, Puerto Rico 52

United States 86, Japan 69 — Slow start for Team USA but they pulled away. Eager to see them against a top-tier opponent.

France 87, Nigeria 62

China vs. Australia (in progress)

Men’s Olympic Tournament

Spain 81, Argentina 71 — Ricky Rubio had another stellar Olympic game and then got traded to the Cavaliers.

Schedule

All times Eastern.

FRIDAY NIGHT
Men’s: Iran vs. France, 9 p.m.

SATURDAY
Men’s: Nigeria vs. Italy, 12:40 a.m.
Men’s: Australia vs. Germany, 4:20 a.m. (Boomers lost Aron Baynes after he slipped in the team’s locker room at halftime, huge blow)
Men’s: United States vs. Czech Republic, 8 a.m. (must-win for USA)
Women’s: Canada vs. Spain, 9 p.m.

SUNDAY
Men’s: Argentina vs. Japan, 12:40 a.m.
Men’s: Spain vs. Slovenia, 4:20 a.m. (HUGE GAME!)
Women’s: South Korea vs. Serbia, 8 a.m.
Women’s: Nigeria vs. Japan, 9 p.m.

MONDAY MORNING
Women’s: France vs. United States, 12:40 a.m. (good test for USA)
Women’s: China vs. Belgium, 4:20 a.m.
Women’s: Australia vs. Puerto Rico, 8 a.m.

The knockout round in the men’s tournament begins Monday night. The knockout round in the women’s tournament begins Tuesday night.

Free Agency and Trade Season

Free agency officially begins Monday afternoon. In practice, it’s happening. No major new rumors about where free agents will land, but we did have a few trades involving NBA players go down between Thursday and early Friday, in addition to the Westbrook, Holiday and Rubio deals already mentioned.

  • The Nets traded Landry Shamet to the Suns for Jevon Carter and Phoenix’s first-round pick.

  • The Jazz traded Derrick Favors and a future first to the Thunder for a second, saving Utah some salary space. There are rumors that Utah is planning a fairly major roster shake-up.

One presumes we’ll have more action to discuss on Monday!

And Finally

Incredible, heartbreaking moment as the NBA recognized, honored and drafted Terrence Clarke, the prospect from Boston who played at Kentucky and died in a tragic car accident in April.

I can’t imagine what his mother felt and feels. I hope she finds peace in her life.

Be excellent to each other.