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NBA AM: The NBA Draft Is Complicated

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The Draft Is Complicated

With the 2017 NBA Draft Combine getting underway in Chicago today, NBA teams will get their first real chance to get to know the field of players likely to get drafted.

How important is the Combine you ask? In 2016, 70 players participated in the Combine; 42 of them were drafted. Six pulled out of the draft entirely. When you consider that the top overall prospects typically skip the process, the Combine usually sets the realistic field on draft day, especially the field for the second round.

With the Draft moving to center stage for many teams, here are some things to know about the process:

Talent Wins Out

As much as people tend to fixate on what’s already on a team’s roster, especially when it comes to draft picks, the truth of the matter is almost no player drafted is ready to truly compete as a rookie. If you look at the 2016 NBA draft top level picks like Laker forward Brandon Ingram or Wolves guard Kris Dunn, neither initially started; each were brought along slowly.

It’s fairly rare that a rookie is ready to play full-time minutes at the NBA level, meaning teams tend to focus on the best long-term talent more so than an immediate roster need. The ideal pick is a player that solves a roster need, with the best upside talent.

However, if it comes down to it, most teams are going to select talent first and sort out the roster later, especially after they get a sense of what the new player really is in their system.

The lone exception to this concept is when a team has a proven All-Star on the roster. Take Cleveland for example. Spending a high-level draft picks on a Small Forward would be foolish because that player would never play.

Teams do consider their roster when making a pick, but it’s always far easier to trade away talent down the road, especially when you consider anyone drafted is going to need time to develop.

The Eye Test Lies To You

It’s fairly common to fixate on what can be seen. That game film and how a player has played should trump everything, but it rarely does. That’s not to say that teams don’t value a fully fleshed out body of work, especially a lot of game film, but there is more to it than that.

Teams tend to over evaluate that draft and that’s led to some historically bad draft decisions, but the reason teams dig into everything they can know is because being a successful professional isn’t just about ability on the court.

For the most part, drafted players are not going to be the focal point of their team. Equally many are going to lose more games in their first professional year than they have lost in their entire life. How will a player handle that? Is a player wired to handle disappointment? How will that player handle pro-level coaching?

There is pressure in the NBA. Does the player have the mental make up to persevere? Or will that player get lost in the distractions that come with life as a pro athlete?

What you see on the court or in game film is only part of the equation.

Teams have to evaluate the whole picture, and while some pictures are easier to see than others, look back at any draft in the last 10 years. The process is littered with hyped players coming into the draft that simply never became what they looked to be on game film.

Equally, there have been dozens lesser thought of players that went on to become All-Stars or franchise cornerstones. That’s where the work in all of this comes into play.

Draft Picks Are Investments

As much as fans like to talk about who a team should draft, keep in mind a draft pick is an investment and as any broker will tell you, betting on a known stock does not often return the same a betting on a high upside, higher risk stock.

Teams in the lottery tend to look for highest possible upside. This makes the draft risky, but the idea is to bet on the future, not the present. When you consider that 14 teams passed on Giannis Antetokounmpo, it was a risky pick at the time—more risk than many teams were willing to make. The Bucks took the chance and got maybe the gem of that draft class.

Like venture capitalists, teams in the lottery are often looking for the “dare to be great pick,” not the safe pick.

Equally, teams that are further along and maybe already have their core players are looking at the draft differently, usually looking for the safe bet, rather than risk they do not need.

In all situations, keep in mind, teams look at draft picks not in what they are today, rather what they’ll be when it’s time to pay out real money in four years.

The Draft Is Brutally Inaccurate

While situation matters most to a player’s overall development, the draft process itself has proven to be brutally inaccurate.

Again, look at the last decade of draft picks and the history of the draft is littered with players like Jimmy Butler (30th pick), Draymond Green (35th pick), Malcolm Brogdon (36th pick) and of course Isaiah Thomas (60th pick) – all picked later in the draft, all turned out to be stars or future stars in the NBA.

Compare that with the number of busts in the top three selections and it becomes clear the draft is a crap shoot at best.

In the same vein, NBA pundits that cover the draft have been as wrong as the team themselves in predicting NBA success. Some of that has to do with players landing in tough situations like Darko Milicic in 2003.

Darko was raved about by pundits only to flame out, mainly because of the situation in which he landed—in Detroit, with a veteran championship team that never had a role for him, and a coach that wouldn’t play him. Ultimately, Darko quit caring about basketball and fell into a downward spiral, becoming the joke of a elite Hall-of-Fame draft class.

By every measure, Darko was a world class draft prospect. He simply never became the player many thought he’d be.

Missing On The Draft Can Cripple A Franchise

Missing on the draft can destroy a franchise, especially franchises drafting in the lottery. The Sacramento Kings have become the poster child for botched draft picks and their inability to get back into the playoffs is a result of years of missing on picks, especially picks the franchise often traded up to obtain.

Orlando is another example of a team that was supposed to rebuild through the draft but was never able to land the difference maker a team needs to jump start a rebuild, and it ultimately cost Rob Hennigan his job.

Equally, teams that continually trade away picks lose out on low cost players, often finding themselves with limited depth or trade assets.

Sometimes, teams need the player a draft pick can produce, not just for the talent, but for a potential future trade asset. So, when you wonder why a veteran team doesn’t trade away their pick, it’s often about preserving a future asset.

No Team Hits On Everything

As much as some executives in the NBA are lauded for their draft acumen, no franchise has hit on every pick, mainly because the circumstances for success vary so wildly. If you look at the history of each franchisefor every hit, there is an equal and embarrassing miss. That’s the nature of the process and one of the reasons teams spend so much time evaluating options—the margins between prospects is usually very small.

While it’s easy to say a player is a can’t miss prospect, the history of the draft has proven that to not only be untrue, but usually way off, especially as the draft gets into the teens and twenties.

While some teams tend to miss on the draft a bit more frequently than others, the hit/miss ration is better equal, especially over the longer term.

The NBA Draft Combine medical testing and personal interviews gets underway tonight, while the actual court work begins tomorrow. Underclassmen that have declared for the draft early have until May 24 to pull out and return to college without penalty . That is not an NBA rule, it’s a NCAA rule. The NBA’s deadline to withdraw is June 12.

There are some players in the 2017 NBA Draft class that are not likely to return to school, but may pull out of the draft, opting to use the Combine and workout to get themselves on some team’s radars for next year and explore playing professionally in either the Gatorade Development League or internationally.

Basketball Insiders will be on the ground in Chicago and pushing out video interviews with all of the notable players, so stay tuned throughout the week.

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About Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.