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NBA AM: Potential Draft Busts

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For several years now, I’ve been writing some version of this article, which looks at some of the biggest mistakes that teams historically have made when approaching the NBA Draft. Teams still are making the same mistakes, but many organizations seem to be figuring things out. Maybe it’s just because 2017 has a strong crop of players at the top of the draft, but it doesn’t look like many top teams are in any real danger of committing any particularly egregious errors.

But some team always makes an egregious error. It happens every single year, and usually, it boils down to one of the following:

#7 – Drafting players with questions about character

Why they do it: Because Dennis Rodman is a Hall-of-Famer. There’s more behind it than that, obviously, with other players like Ron Artest and Amar’e Stoudemire also having had tremendous careers despite questions about their character. Players like these are more the exception than the rule, however, and in many cases, when a player comes in with a history of bad behavior, it can be better to just let them go. No talent is worth locking yourself into a guaranteed first-round pick if they’re going to make the locker room miserable somewhere down the road.

Case in point: P.J. Hairston (Charlotte, 26th pick in the 2014 draft), Arnett Moultrie (Philadelphia, 27th pick in the 2012 draft) Terrence Williams (New Jersey, 11th pick in 2009 draft), Sean Williams (New Jersey, 17th pick in 2007 draft) and Sebastian Telfair (Portland, 13th pick in 2004 draft)

The closest thing we’ve got to real character concerns in the first round this year is Josh Jackson, who in April agreed to a diversion agreement stemming from a December incident in which he was alleged to have kicked the door and taillight of a car. He’ll have to attend anger management classes and refrain from alcohol and recreational drugs for 12 months as part of the agreement, which aren’t necessarily the worst parameters for an NBA rookie to have set on his newly-glamorous lifestyle.

Outside of Jackson, the biggest character concerns come from potential second rounders like LSU’s Craig Victor, who was suspended for using recreational drugs, and Houston guard Damyean Dotson, who was booted off of the University of Oregon basketball team because of rape allegations in 2014.

In other words, teams seem to be learning their lesson in at least this regard, though if one of the elite lottery talents did have a “history,” there’s little doubt that some team with a high pick still would take the plunge. That just isn’t a major concern this year, thankfully.

#6 – Drafting players with histories of injury

Why they do it: Because injuries heal, but talent is forever. At least, that’s what teams tell themselves when they use a first-round pick on a player who faced a lot of injuries in college. Every year, some player with injury concerns drops and drops and drops down the draft board, but every year there’s also a previously injured player who gets taken very, very high. In some cases, things work out okay (Kenyon Martin, Kyrie Irving), but other times (like with Greg Oden), it can be devastating. If all things are equal, and a GM has a choice between a player known for being hurt or a player with a clean bill of health, why not just draft the Kevin Durant?

Case in point: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia, 3rd pick in the 2014 draft), Greg Oden (Portland, 1st pick in the 2007 draft), Brandon Roy (Minnesota, 6th pick in the 2006 draft), Wayne Simien (Miami, 29th pick in the 2005 draft)

This draft’s potential culprits: Harry Giles, OG Anunoby. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Anunoby is the sort of defensive stud that can allow NBA teams to do all sorts of awesome things on that end of the floor, but he’s coming off a torn ACL and may not be ready for the start of the NBA season. If that injury lingers, he could even miss his entire first season, and are the lottery teams considering taking him really interested in a rookie who can’t help them crawl back into the postseason? Philadelphia has faced massive frustrations with Embiid, who is awesome but terribly fragile, so it’s hard to use picks that high on kids who are such risks.

As for Giles, it’s probably not a good thing that he tore his ACL twice before even getting out of high school. He’s healthy now, and it’s impossible to deny the talent of a young man that once was rated as the top high school prospect in the country, but the risk attached to Giles is just outrageous. At some point in the draft, it becomes more advantageous to take that risk over playing it safe with a healthier (but less talented) player, but most teams want to get real value out of their first-round picks at this point. Using that pick on someone who may never play meaningful minutes for your team is a hard sell.

#5 – Drafting for potential rather than experience

Why they do it: Because a high ceiling is better than a high floor. How many times do we see teams go with a kid that might be good rather than a player who already is undeniably reliable? Usually, the “potential” guys that succeed are the ones that pretty much everybody agrees on. The ones with a considerably smaller success rate are the “hope-so” guys, and that’s where the problem lies. You’re probably not going to strike out with LeBron James over anybody else in that amazing 2003 draft, for example, but in 2001, when three of the top four players drafted were high schoolers, we saw a lot of faith poured into young prospects when plenty of proven college studs were available. It gets teams into trouble more often than it saves them, even in the years since high school kids were banned from the draft.

Case in point: Anthony Bennett (Cleveland, 1st pick in 2013 draft ahead of Victor Oladipo and Otto Porter). Brandon Knight (Detroit, 8th pick in the 2011 draft ahead of Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard). Marvin Williams (Atlanta, 2nd pick in 2005 draft ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams). Shaun Livingston (LAC, 4th pick in the 2004 draft ahead of Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala). Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry (1st and 4th picks in 2001 draft ahead of Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, and more).

This draft’s potential culprit: Zack Collins, Ike Anigbogu, Tony Bradley. All three of these young players could end up being selected as first-rounders despite not having been among the top four or five players on their own college teams last year. Collins is tall and offensively gifted on both ends of the floor, creating that prototypical “stretch-five” that has become a staple in the modern NBA, while Anigbogu is a defensive freak with a highlight reel that would make any NBA scout drool. Bradley, meanwhile, is a fringe first-round selection based on potential alone. He showed flashes of brilliance at UNC but only played 14.6 minutes per game as a freshman last year. None of these guys played big minutes, but teams still are likely to make big bets on their talent, minutes be damned.

#4 – Trying to find the next big international success

Why they do it: Because nothing makes a GM look smarter when he pulls a diamond from the rough of overseas professional basketball. Also, there are times when a team wants to take advantage of a foreign market for financial reasons, and that helps fuel drafting an international prospect as well.

Despite their popularity, though, not all of these international kids will work out. There’s huge flop potential for these unproven players, but as long as there is a Kristaps Porzingis or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Rudy Gobert to be found, teams will keep digging.

Case in point: Georgios Papagiannis (Sacramento, 13th pick in the 2016 draft), Bruno Caboclo (Toronto, 20th pick in the 2014 draft), Lucas Nogueira (Atlanta, 16th pick in the 2013 draft), Jan Vesely (Washington, 6th pick in the 2011 draft), Yi Jianlian (Milwaukee, 6th pick in 2007 draft), Fran Vasquez (Orlando, 11th pick in 2005 draft), Darko Milicic (Detroit, 2nd pick in 2003 draft), Nikoloz Tskitishvili (Denver, 5th pick in 2002 draft).

This draft’s potential culprit: Frank Ntilikina, Rodionss Kurucs, Isaiah Hartenstein. These days, when teams are looking at the next crop of stud international stars, they approach the process in much the same way they do for domestic prospects. Size, length, and athleticism trump all, which leads to scouts tracking down buzzy international kids who weren’t big contributors on their international teams, usually because they were so much younger than their more established professional teammates.

Ntilikina is the highest-rated international player this year, having averaged 5.1 points and 1.4 assists as a reserve point guard for Strasbourg last season. Kurucs averaged 9.5 point and 2.8 rebounds for his Spanish team, and Hartenstein posted a miserly one point and 0.8 rebounds in Lithuania. The risks for these players are the same as for Anigbogu and Collins, though perhaps more heavily weighted because of how little teams have seen of them.

#3– Drafting big

Why they do it: Because you can’t teach height. The best seven-footers in league history have been borderline unstoppable, so teams often find themselves erring on the side of tallness. There have been myriad times when a tall, unskilled player has been selected over a smaller, much more skilled one, and it’s all done with the hope that a team will strike it rich with an influential big guy. Unfortunately, the list of gigantic flops (pun intended) is pretty depressing, and this is a mistake GMs will never stop making because the potential payoff is entirely too big. Literally.

Case in point: Jakob Poltl (Toronto, 9th pick in the 2016 draft), Frank Kaminsky (Charlotte, 9th pick in the 2015 draft), Meyers Leonard (Portland, 11th pick in the 2012 draft), Bismack Biyombo (Charlotte, 7th pick, 2011), Hasheem Thabeet (Memphis, 2nd pick in 2009 draft), Patrick O’Bryant (Golden State, 9th pick in 2006 draft), Mouhammed Saer Sene (Seattle, 10th pick in 2006 draft), Pavel Podkolzin (Utah, 21st pick in 2004 draft), Sagana Diop (Cleveland, 8th pick in the 2001 draft).

This draft’s potential culprit: Jonathan Jeanne, Anzejs Pasecniks. NBA teams love a good tall guy, even as the NBA has turned away from more traditional fives, in large part because protecting the rim and hauling in rebounds never will go out of style. Unfortunately, big guys are very often slow guys, and sometimes unathletic guys, too, and that’s where organizations have run into trouble in the past.

At 7-foot-2, French player Jonathan Jeanne is a mouth-watering prospect, even if he looks like he could simply blow away in a moderate breeze. His height doesn’t guarantee dominance at the NBA level. Pasecniks also is 7-foot-2, but while he’s a little more sturdily built, he still only managed to haul in 3.1 rebounds per contest for his Spanish team last year. Guys that tall with any sort of athleticism are intriguing, but outside of the elite prospects, it’s rare that those inhumanly tall players end up wiggling their way onto All-Star teams and All-NBA teams.

#2– Drafting undersized players

Why they do it: This is most common when it comes to drafting 5-foot-11 point guards and 6-foot-7 power forwards, and success stories like Isaiah Thomas, Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, Charles Barkley, Carlos Boozer and Dennis Rodman are enough to make GMs think that success can be repeated. These players all are/were awesome in their primes, but too often we see teams take risks on guys that are clearly too small to play their best position in the NBA because there’s this delusive phantom of hope that talent always transcends size. Occasionally, that can be true, but more often, the end result is players who are physically overpowered at the next level.

There’s a reason guys like this often slip to the second round; teams don’t want to guarantee contracts to players they aren’t sure can make it to the next level. Occasionally, though, these guys go way, way higher than they should, and that’s where the biggest mistakes are made.

Case in point: Johny Flynn (5-foot-9, 6th pick in 2009 draft), Ike Diogu (6-foot-8, 9th pick in 2005 draft), Sean May (6-foot-8, 13th pick in 2005 draft), Mike Sweetney (6-foot-8, 9th pick in the 2003 draft), Speedy Claxton (5-foot-11, 20th pick in 2000 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Frank Mason. In some ways, not drafting a great player because of his size could be seen as its own mistake. Kansas’ Frank Mason, for example, was one of the best players in college basketball last season but risks not getting drafted at all because he doesn’t crack six feet. Teams love him on a personal level, but can’t stomach the idea of taking a guard prospect that could be overwhelmed by the size of players with five or six inches on him at his same position. He was a great college player, but any team drafting him will have to bet that success can translate on the next level. If it doesn’t, Mason could be a wasted pick.

#1– Drafting for need over best player available

Why they do it: Because it’s the logical thing to do. Logic doesn’t always equal success, however, and that means we’ve seen some very logical picks go very wrong in the past. If you’re the Portland Trail Blazers in 1984 and you’ve already got Clyde Drexler, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to draft Michael Jordan, does it?

It can also go right, but occasionally this tactic gets GMs into trouble. In the big picture of big mistakes, however, this isn’t the worst one by far.

Case in point: Sam Bowie (2nd pick in 1984 draft, ahead of Michael Jordan), Darko Milicic (Detroit, 2nd pick in 2003 draft, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade).

This draft’s potential culprit: Philadelphia 76ers. If everything goes according to plan, the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers will take the two best players in this draft in Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball with the top two picks, which means the Sixers will be gifted the opportunity to either take the best player available or try to find the best fit for the rebuild that really has started to come together for them.

In this draft, it’s hard to go wrong, but so much has been made of Philadelphia needing a point guard that it’s easy to see them going after a player like De’Aaron Fox. He doesn’t shoot three-pointers any better than most of the rest of that roster, though, and Ben Simmons is expected to do a good amount of the team’s ball handling this season. In this case, drafting at a position of need might not actually be the best fit. Josh Jackson, arguably the best player available at number three if Ball and Fultz are off the board, could be the better long-term prospect for the Sixers.

***

Nobody’s perfect, and as our own fantasy basketball and fantasy football teams prove year-in and year-out, we all kind of suck at putting teams together in our own special ways.

The lesson to be learned is that it apparently is best to shoot for the stars with long, athletic, relatively young players with the highest possible ceilings. College pedigree is preferred but not necessarily requisite, and staying away big stiffs and overly-obscure international prospects improves odds of success. Take the best player available, regardless of “team need,” and hope that a player’s measurable and character live up to their potential.

If all teams could draft like that, our Basketball Insiders mock drafts likely would be a whole lot more accurate.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.