NBA Draft analysis is a crock of shit.
We don’t know who any of these players are, really. We don’t know their work ethic, how they will respond to their coaches in the NBA, how determined they are to improve their craft. We don’t know what injuries will occur, who will suddenly figure it all out, or who will fold under the pressure of the NBA.
We don’t even know what the NBA will look like five years from now — will we follow the trend of extreme small-ball, or have Bam Adebayo and Nikola Jokic renewed the importance of multifaceted big men, or will there be a completely new trend changing the game? We don’t know how these 19-year-old prospects will fit into the NBA by the time their rookie deals expire, so why do we pretend to know which picks are good fits and which picks are high upside?
This doesn’t even consider how players themselves change the way they play. Did you imagine, even four years ago, that Brook Lopez would be chucking threes and getting DPOY votes? What is even a high-upside pick when a 24-year-old second round pick develops into an All-Star player, as Malcolm Brogdon has? Keeping it a buck, Khris Middleton was a second-round pick, was waived by the Detroit Pistons, then turns into an 2-time All-Star who nearly had a rare 50/40/90 season.
We don’t know anything about anything when it comes to the NBA Draft. We’re mostly just throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. I was on the Giannis hype train from the very start. I’m very proud of that, but I also said “Markelle Fultz is the perfect point guard,” and “Jayson Tatum suffers from Rudy Gayitis.” Even then, was I right because Giannis grew three inches, gained 50-lbs. of muscle and became a Monstar? Was I wrong because Fultz literally forgot how to shoot the basketball?
This article isn’t about draft experts being right or wrong, or NBA teams finding value late in the draft. It’s mostly a critique that we pretend to know what’s going on, when we clearly don’t. We — ‘we’ meaning people who study the draft — refuse to learn from mistakes and failures, mostly because we know nothing except recent trends, industry hype and hindsight bias.
Team Fit over Player Talent
To begin with, this is where teams get themselves in the most trouble. The way the draft works is that the worst teams tend to get the highest picks, yet there is a tendency for those teams — who are very bad, mind you — to draft the player who fits best in their current construction. The issue is two-pronged: (1) your team isn’t good, obviously, so maybe this roster construction isn’t worth building around, and (2) you’re leaving talent on the board when in reality, truly good players will figure it out. The Kings chose Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic because they already had De’Aaron Fox; on the flip-side, good luck stopping an offense with Fox running the transition offense and Doncic running half-court sets.
In the 2020 NBA Draft, this tendency can be found at the very top of the draft board with the Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s no consensus top talent, but everyone mostly agrees there are three prospects ahead of the rest. Yet neither LaMelo Ball nor James Wiseman make sense with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, while Anthony Edwards’ weaknesses resemble that of Andrew Wiggins and Dion Waiters.
If trading down isn’t an option, going for the most talented player should be the default path. If Ball is the highest upside prospect, shouldn’t he be talented enough to play in a two-guard lineup, and won’t he have to learn to play defense anyway? I understand diminishing returns with having too many ball-dominant players, but good NBA teams generally have as many shot-creators and ball-movers as they can find. Truly good players figure it out and adapt.
Projecting shooting ability when it isn’t there
There’s talk of Deni Avdija going in the top-5, possibly as high as second overall. He’s a point forward who is limited by inconsistent shooting, which may be more mechanics or just lack of shooting touch. But the issue with judging Avdija (as well as Isaac Okoro, Patrick Williams, Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton, Josh Green, Nico Mannion, etc.) is that future shooting ability is very difficult to predict.
You could fill a phonebook with talented prospects who were a consistent jump-shot from being an All-Star-caliber player. None of us are shot doctors — except Sam Vecenie, the only draftnik I trust — so we can’t pretend which players have naturally good shooting touch, which need simple adjustments to hit their marks, and which players are getting lucky or unlucky with their shooting percentages.
Shooting is the most important single skill in the NBA. It unlocks everything for a player who suddenly finds their jumper. Teams think they can identify what’s real and what’s not, that they can fix someone’s broken jumper, but it’s not that easy. They look at Isaac Okoro and think, with his physical abilities and basketball IQ, I could turn him into a star with this simple trick. Teams think they will be the one to scout and develop the next Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was a complete two-way prospect, but fell from a projected top-5 pick to out of the lottery because he shot just 25% from three at San Diego State. The Spurs gobbled him up because shooting coach Chip Engelland thought he was a special talent with only a couple flaws to iron out. It worked out nicely for San Antonion, but this doesn’t happen with every Mario Hezonja and Dante Exum who comes to the NBA. Not every team has the best shooting coach in the world, and not every player has the workmanlike mentality of Leonard.
Also please don’t say “Josh Green fits onto any roster as a 3-and-D wing,” because that dude’s shooting mechanics are a mess. He’s a talented player who could be good, but if you think he can be an immediate 3-and-D contributor, you will be calling him a bust two years too early.
Just because someone looks like a good defender, doesn’t mean they are one
This is the other side of the supposed 3-and-D prospect, but defense is even harder to predict than three-point shooting ability. It’s almost impossible to judge these prospects within the college environment, because these players are in team-specific defenses (like Matisse Thybulle in Washington’s 2-3 zone), they’re shouldering a huge burden offensively (Ben Simmons didn’t play a lick of defense at LSU), or they look good because they’re so much more athletic than anyone else (Karl-Anthony Towns is a dreadful NBA defender).
Unless a player has been dominating for multiple seasons, the only thing to go off of is prospects’ athletic profile, such as wingspan, leaping and agility tests, and physical strength. That’s how teams draft Stanley Johnson at No. 8 overall, thinking he’s going to be a defensive menace because he’s buff and fast, and therefore looks capable of guarding LeBron James. This is why Tyler Bey might be a first round pick, because he’s athletic, has a 7’1 wingspan and has active hands, even though he misses rotations, gets bullied by more explosive players and struggles with focus. He looks like a good NBA defender, regardless if he will become one.
Better Basketball Prospect over Better Basketball Player
This is the latest thing that has hurt my soul, even though I have always valued long-term potential over short-term ability. It makes sense to swing for the fences in a star-driven league. If you can find a star player after the lottery, that’s franchise altering. But teams overrate their ability to develop those talented but raw prospects. For every Zach Lavine, there will be many more Noah Vonlehs, James Youngs and Bruno Caboclos.
There’s also the issue of thinking a 21- or 22-year-old prospect is a finished product, when there are so many Jimmy Butlers and Khris Middletons who continue to get better well into their NBA career. What’s ironic about all this is that NBA contracts should be favoring these older prospects who, even if they don’t become a star, will contribute real value while on cost-controlled rookie deals.
It’s obviously not that easy to determine who will be immediately valuable or even who will stick in the NBA, but drafting ‘better basketball players’ would be a start. Why spend first round capital on Nico Mannion or Jaden McDaniels when you could draft Devon Dotson or Malachi Flynn? Even if Dotson wasn’t a five-star prospect, and even if he’s two years older than Mannion, he’s flat out better at basketball and will probably remain that way.
This goes against every fit of one-and-done culture, that teams should be targeting ‘good basketball players’ rather than ‘good basketball prospects’. Draft analysis has conditioned us to think Rui Hachimura is a better prospect than Brandon Clarke, because Hachimura has longer arms, even if he’s worse than Clarke at every other component of basketball. What’s more is that we knew this by watching them in college, literally on the same team, and we still couldn’t figure it out.
In all honesty, we all think we’re correct. Every draft scout thinks their opinion on a player is the most accurate, every draftnik thinks they can pinpoint what will make or break a prospect, and every team thinks they can develop that raw prospect into a star. (I think I’m so smart criticizing draft analysis, when in fact I watch hardly any non-CU college basketball.) The reality is that we don’t know anything, even when it’s obvious in hindsight, because there’s so much noise that we don’t know what’s real and what’s not. We grasp at straws thinking it’s the truth, because it’s safer to think we know something than nothing at all.
“Potentially a game-changing [_____]”
Okay last thing: don’t say Tyrell Terry is a “potentially game-changing shooter with limitless range.” We literally had Steph Curry change the game with limitless range and it’s not going to happen again with someone who is a considerably worse shooter. Please chill out on the hyperboles, please don’t go overboard on the newest trends, and please remember that good basketball players are usually better than good basketball prospects. We know nothing, but the least we know is that Deni Avdija shouldn’t the second pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.