Given how little we can really know about what the future holds for even the brighest of prospects, the top of a NBA draft every year is a bit scary. If you have a top 5 selection you have a pretty good chance of being able to select a future all-star. But you also have a pretty good chance of drafting a player who ends up being simply adequate. The difference is jarring.
It's okay to strikeout with picks later in the first round, but when you have a very high pick and you use it on a guy who ends up being mediocre, it always hurts. Not all drafts are created equal. Some years there seem to be more "sure things" than other years. Sometimes there is a general consensus that at least three or four players in a draft should be very good. 2007, 2008, and 2010 were all recently like that. Last year and this year are not.
The top portion of the 2012 draft is pretty dubious. After we get past Anthony Davis with the first pick, everything becomes unclear. There are no other players that are unanimously considered future All-Stars. It seems quite possible that there will be as much future value with the players picked in the mid-teens as there will be with the players selected between picks #2 and #8.
If I were a team with a pick between #2 and #5 I would be scared. Nothing seems surefire after Davis, and you want a player that seems too good to pass up when you have that high a pick. Don't get me wrong - I expect a few players in this draft to make several All-Star games. The problem is besides Davis I have no idea who those players will be.
When you don't feel very good about the top of the draft and you possess a top 5 pick the best thing you can do is trade down, or trade your pick for an established star. It is the most pudent and risk-adverse action you can take. And being risk-adverse in regards to the lottery is usually the way to go.
There are probably some executives who have a very good feeling about who the second and third best players in the 2012 draft are. If they feel very certain in their opinion they should do what they can to get in position to draft those guys, whether it be through trade or simply selecting them with their pick. But honestly I think most teams don't really have any idea what to make of most of the players in this draft. I could easily see someone nobody expects - like Moe Harkless, Quincy Miller or John Henson - becoming the second best player in the draft. Of course I could also see any of those three players becoming busts, and that is what makes this draft so confounding.
When we aren't sure who will be very good it is best to hedge our bets, and the easiest way to do that is with multiple picks. Houston is probably better off with picks #14 and #16 than Washington is with pick #3. They have two chances to get it right; Washington presently only has one. Most drafts are not as extreme as this; the #3 pick is almost always (much) more valuable than two picks in the teens. This year is kind of like last year, where after the first pick we really are left pretty clueless.
It is worth adding that there are several lottery-projected picks that I think have a decent chance of becoming All-Stars. I like Bradley Beal a lot. I also like Jared Sullinger, Henson, Dion Waiters and Damian Lillard. And it's pretty easy for me to see why some scouts are so fond of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson and Harrison Barnes.
But I wouldn't draft any of them with the second or third pick. It's too risky. Sometimes having the fortitude to say no to something you like but don't love is painful but necessary. NBA teams picking high in this draft would be wise to remember this.