Big boards, scouting reports, game film. Copious amounts of preparation and speculation go into the NBA draft, the highlight of the off season.
Free agency is a much safer time, where a potential signee has proven their skills at the highest level. But prospects — international, college, and high school alike — haven’t once stepped on that stage.
Patently, one of a franchise’s worst fears is wasting a lottery pick. The trepidation is heightened with the new trend of “tanking”; if a staff forces an inferior lineup on the floor to lose more games, which in turn creates a better chance at the top pick, the stakes are higher than ever.
Despite the incredible advancements in scouting technology, player tracking, and team data, general managers and their staffs still fall for those infamous busts.
Which type of player possess the lowest odds to become a bust? I’ll begin the analysis with some important definitions.
A “bust” label is obviously completely dependent on the draft position of a player. But that can get tricky the lower one gets in the lottery, because such a label becomes very opinionated in that territory.
I examined picks 1-15 in the 2002-2012 drafts using these “bust” parameters:
- #1 picks need to be franchise-shifting players that start immediately and produce at a high level during their first 2-5 years in the league. This time frame is used to encompass the years that a player is under team control, and to avoid penalizing poor rookie numbers on a bad team.
- #2 – #5 need to be above average starters, ideally all-stars.
- #6 – #10 need to be average starters, with some margin for below average, or a sixth man.
- #11 – #15 need to be productive role players, or below average starters, that held a consistent role during years 2-5.
- Each player had to be listed at their respective position for a majority of their games played.
While it’s technically been enough time for the 2013 draft to be considered (Anthony Bennett), it’s still too early to tell for some (Otto Porter, Victor Oladipo).
Some of the biggest busts for each year:
- 2002: Jay Williams (Chicago, #2); Nikoloz Tskitishvili (Denver, #5); Dejuan Wagner (Cleveland, #6)
- 2003: Darko Milicic (Minnesota, #2)
- 2004: Shaun Livingston (LAC, #4); Josh Childress (Atlanta, #6); Rafael Araujo (Toronto, #8)
- 2005: Marvin Williams (Atlanta, #2); Sean May (Charlotte, #13)
- 2006: Andrea Bargnani (Toronto, #1); Adam Morrison (Charlotte, #3); Tyrus Thomas (Chicago, #4)
- 2007: Greg Oden (Portland, #1); Yi Jianlian (Milwaukee, #6); Brandan Wright (Golden State, #8)
- 2008: Michael Beasley (Miami, #2); Joe Alexander (Milwaukee, #8)
- 2009: Hasheem Thabeet (Memphis, #2); Johnny Flynn (Minnesota, #6)
- 2010: Wesley Johnson (Minnesota, #4), Epke Udoh (Golden State, #6)
- 2011: Jan Vesely (Washington, #6); Derrick Williams (Minnesota, #2); Enes Kanter (Utah, #3); Jimmer Fredette (Sacramento, #10)
- 2012: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Charlotte, #2); Dion Waiters (Cleveland, #4); Thomas Robinson (Sacramento, #5); Austin Rivers (New Orleans, #10)
What does this data tell us? Guards are the safest picks, while forwards are the biggest risk.
However, there isn’t any beat-all formula. Teams can’t stay away from one trait, like size (Isaiah Thomas is a perfect example of why short ≠ bust) or athleticism (Shane Battier is one of the best role players of all time despite his nonathletic build).
The ideal draftee is an athletic guard that can shoot and/or pass. Not a forward that uses his girth to beat down inferior opponents, not a center than uses purely height to score or rebound over college-level defenders.
Those types of players meet high odds in the NBA against superior opposition, and more often than not, are unable to adjust their game.
There are exceptions, of course. LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin. But the common theme between these ‘exceptions’? Athleticism. When talking about the lottery, the biggest risk is drafting a nonathletic forward over 6’8″.
If they do need to adjust their play style, they won’t have any speed or elusiveness to fall back upon.
Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller are great examples. In college, they look like world-beaters, each hailed to be the player of the year in some sort. In the NBA — specifically the Charlotte Hornets — each is struggling to find their way because of limited skill sets.
College basketball plays differently in many ways compared to the NBA: the talent gap is wider, the pace is faster. So what are the stats that can translate over with the most reliability?^
- 2-point shot attempts per minute
- Assist percentage
- Offensive rebounding percentage
- Usage rate
- Effective field goal percentage
- Steal percentage
There is still one outlier. Off-court and work ethic problems are big red flag that are often ignored in favor of a player’s basketball ability.
Eddy Curry (above) is a great example of a player who struggled with the latter. After signing a 6 year, $60 million contract with the Chicago Bulls, the seven foot center was traded to the Knicks. He laxed off, his weight ballooned to over 350 pounds, and his career was essentially over.
Kwame Brown is a similar case. After a 1st overall selection to the Washington Wizards, it didn’t take much time for his laziness and immaturity to bubble to the surface. Other than the fact that he couldn’t palm a basketball despite his almost seven foot frame, he wasn’t fit for the team environment whatsoever, and had no desire to win.
There is a crucial similarity between Curry and Brown — they were both drafted out of high school. Unless there is clear evidence of positive personality traits, drafting a player purely for size and domination of high school defenders is a ticket to bust-land. If both had time to figure it out at the college level, their careers likely would have turned out differently.
TL;DR: The ideal draftee is an athletic guard who create shots for himself within the arc, with efficiency. If a forward has to be drafted, one that can rebound well on the offensive end is ideal (because they generally improve with the defensive variety in better time than vice versa). Stay away from nonathletic forwards over 6’7″. Never look past off-court problems, and stay away from high school prospects — who get by on their size — at all costs.
^Get explanations for statistics here.
18 year old Washington sports fan and Penn State freshman. I'll cover the MLB, NFL, and NBA.