I would like to go over some of the main conclusions from the 15 Year Draft Review I recently conducted. That review covered every draft from 1997 to 2011, so it should give us some pretty good ideas of modern trends in NBA drafting.
The first thing I would like to talk about seems rather obvious: Great players almost always get drafted in the top ten. What is not quite as obvious is how rare it is for great players to drop past the first ten selections.
Let us define "great" players, in this context, as guys who make several All-Star teams, not just one or two. 25 players drafted since 1997 have made at least three All-Star teams. Only three of them were drafted outside of the top ten. They were Gilbert Arenas, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo. All three played point guard, traditionally the hardest position for which to project future pro potential.
So it certainly seems scouts and teams are excellent at identifying future great NBA players. Very few top prospects slip through the cracks and drop out of the top ten, or even the top five. In particular, superstars – like Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose – are almost always taken within the first five selections. Perennial All-NBA players like these are rather easily identified by teams, and selected very early in the draft.
When superstar-type players do drop out of the top five - like Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady and Amare Stoudemire did - it is usually because they were unable to prove their value in college. Nonetheless, they are taken by pick #10. With the establishment of the “Over 19” rule and the larger emphasis put on international scouting, superstars today seem even more unlikely to drop outside of the top five.
The drop off in talent immediately after pick #10 has been stunning since 1997. In that span 14 different players drafted from picks #6 through #10 have made the All-Star team. Meanwhile no players drafted from picks #11 through #15 have made the team:
Pick Number Number of All-Stars Drafted There Since 1997
That is pretty amazing - 75 players drafted between #11 and #15, and zero All-Stars. It certainly underscores the shocking drop in talent immediately after the tenth selection. It therefore seems late lottery picks have been incorrectly overvalued in recent draft history.
So picking in the top ten seems essential if you want a chance to draft a future big star. If you are drafting outside of the top ten you probably want to shift your draft strategy and acknowledge it is highly unlikely you will be in position to select a great player. It simply does not happen very often. In the rare cases when it does happen it is almost always a point guard or a relatively unknown foreign player that falls.
Now let's go back to the 25 great players drafted since 1997 that have made at least three All-Star games, with their draft position. We should notice how many elite players were selected very early. It is hardly a coincidence, and proves that NBA teams really do know how to identify the very best talent:
Player Pick Number
Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the draft review is how random draft results become after pick ten. It is not as if the the best players remaining after the tenth selection are always picked in the teens and early twenties. In many drafts we find that some of the better players available in the entire draft are not picked until late in the first round or in the second round. Overall 61 different players drafted since 1997 have been selected to the All-Star team. Let's look at where these 61 All-Stars were selected:
Pick Number Number of All-Star Players Selected There
#1 through #10
#11 through #20
#21 through #30
#31 through #40
#41 through #50
#51 through #60
Undrafted Free Agent
Once again we see how important it is to have a top ten pick in order to get a star. But there are the same number of All-Stars selected between picks #21 through #30 as there are at #11 through #20. And we see, contrary to popular opinion, that All-Star talent is sometimes available all the way through the forties.
Here is a partial list of notable players drafted 25th or later since 1997: Stephen Jackson (picked #42), Rashard Lewis (#32), Brad Miller (undrafted free agent), Manu Ginobili (#57), Michael Redd (#43), Gerald Wallace (#25), Tony Parker (#28), Gilbert Arenas (#30), Mehmet Okur (#37), Carlos Boozer (#34), Luis Scola (#55), Josh Howard (#29), Mo Williams (#47), Kevin Martin (#26), Anderson Varejao (#30), David Lee (#30), Monta Ellis (#40), Lou Williams (#45), Marcin Gortat (#57), Paul Millsap (#47) and Marc Gasol (#48.)
Those are some pretty impressive late picks. So while the very best stars are almost always gone after pick #10, extremely good players are available throughout the draft. However, teams often seem to treat the end of round one and round two dismissively. They regularly even sell their later picks in a blatant salary dump. In my opinion, the negligence in regards to the later part of the draft is unfathomable, and the essence of terrible NBA roster management.
I have discussed this subject before in detail. It almost goes without saying that contracts for late first rounders, second rounders, and undrafted free agents are some of the best deals in the NBA. Late draftees do not need to turn into really good players to still have value; they just need to be adequate. This is because it is a huge financial advantage to have cheap, young adequate players on your roster as opposed to their expensive, adequate veteran counterparts. However, most teams fail to acknowledge this.
A lot of untapped value is lost in every NBA Draft because the majority of the draft is not taken seriously. In the NFL Draft, by comparison, teams stress out over seventh round draft picks. Such drafting vigilance essentially never happens in the NBA, despite statistical analysts like Ed Weiland, John Hollinger and Arturo Galletti regularly pinpointing underrated second round prospects who would be excellent assets to many teams.
In general, the framework of how NBA teams draft should be updated to more accurately hone in on prospects, both in the top ten and everywhere else. Statistical analysis is probably the best way for teams to improve in this regard, especially with later picks.
A NBA team that drafts well will have an advantage over almost every other team in the league. This 15 year draft review hopefully makes that point even more clear than it already was.