The NBA draft is just a week away, and the Wizards are well-stocked with needs. Due to the management skills of Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis, the team has a corpulent payroll while lacking elite performers and depth. That’s some kind of trifecta.
If they hope to step off the treadmill of mediocrity, the franchise needs an infusion of cheap talent -- preferably young and cheap. For some strange reason, Grunfeld hasn’t traded either of their picks yet, and, as luck would have it, this year’s draft is deep with NBA-caliber prospects.
Picking 15th, the Wizards probably won’t find a franchise-changing talent, but they should be able to select a quality contributor. If they’re smart, they’ll try to obtain an additional second round pick or two to take swings on talented performers who slip for various reasons. While it’s true that most second rounders don’t become quality rotation players, second round selections are cheap bets with little downside and potential for a big payoff in the future. For a team that needs young, cheap players, an extra pick or two makes sense.
In analyzing draft prospects, there’s no one “right” way. Teams use an array of tools, which include scouting, workouts, interviews, psychological evaluations, medical examinations that include analyzing how a player runs and jumps in an effort to determine if he’ll be more or less prone to injury, statistical evaluation, and background checks.
Some superfans, without access to all that information, such as Nathan Froe (find him on Twitter @Dat2U) make prescient forecasts about NBA prospects. One of Froe’s best predictions was when he called Stephen Curry “close to perfect” for the NBA when Curry was a sophomore at Davidson. Others, like Ken Holmes (Twitter @CCJKen1), have a gift for finding oddballs that teams overlook, but turn out to be good. One of Holmes’ great picks was Paul Millsap.
In recent years, analysts have developed statistical models that attempt to answer various questions about draft prospects. I built one myself (dubbed Ye Olde Draft Analyzer -- YODA for short), which uses publicly available information. But, stats aren’t a magic bullet. Jerry West, arguably the best drafter in league history, reportedly paid no attention to stats. He watched games and workouts, talked to the college coaches, and then made his best guess.
All these approaches converge on a few guidelines about the draft:
- Embrace the uncertainty. The analysis, research, and attention to detail is important -- perhaps even necessary -- but certainty isn’t possible. Draft prospects are 19-23 year olds, and there isn’t such thing as fully formed human being at that age. And, especially in the “one and done” era, we’re often dealing with tiny sample sizes. For example, Oregon shooting guard Troy Brown shot just 29.1 percent from three-point range this season. That’s pretty bad, but it was just 110 attempts. The difference between “bad” and “adequate” (35 percent) was seven made shots on the entire season -- one additional make every fifth game. For Kawhi Leonard (who shot 29.1 percent on 86 attempts during his final season in college), the difference was five makes on the entire season.
- Context matters. A lot. The level of competition varies significantly throughout college and international basketball. Identical stat lines mean very different things depending on the opposition they faced.
- Don’t automatically discard players from bad teams or who played against lesser competition. Usually, the top players come from the elite NCAA conferences and stronger international leagues. But, there are enough players like Paul Millsap, Paul George, Kenneth Faried, and Damian Lillard to show that it’s best to cast a wide net. Players who made the BIG leap have at least one thing in common: they dominated. That said, no one in this year’s draft fits this profile.
- Production matters. Eye-popping athleticism is tantalizing, and teams still pick great athletes they think might be great players if they “develop.” The list of players who never “developed” is lengthy. Basketball is a game of skill at least as much as athleticism. What matters is the application of physical tools, and meaningful athleticism almost always shows up in the numbers.
- Look at relevant physical attributes. Height doesn’t matter. What’s important is standing reach or wingspan. Millsap, for example, was deemed “undersized,” but his standing reach was about average for an NBA power forward.
- Age is an important factor. Older players should post better numbers than younger ones because they’ve had additional years to develop physically and gain basketball experience. If you’re deciding between players with similar production against similar competition, take the younger guy. But...
- Don’t overvalue youth. When in doubt, go young, But, often a highly productive senior will become a productive NBA player. A team looking for an immediate contributor might prefer drafting a junior or senior in hopes of getting someone more experienced, mature, and physically developed.
- Beware the lure. These are guys who look great when they’re on the floor. They’re tall, fast, and strong. They would look great on a team’s marketing materials. But, they don’t produce when they’re on the floor.
- Pick oddballs and weirdos, especially in the second round. These are the “defective” guys who have problems with height, weight, body shape, or injury histories. These are the guys who don’t seem to have an NBA position, but actually have game. Think Gilbert Arenas, Jae Crowder, Paul Millsap, Carlos Boozer, Isaiah Thomas, Draymond Green, DeJuan Blair, and so on.
- Don’t worry about fit. The NBA is home to The Puzzle Theory of roster construction. Teams add certain skills to the team, and the combination of skills packets form a cohesive team. Support for this approach is often found by pointing to whichever team just won the championship and genuflecting at how well everyone “fits.” Whether or not this is the best method of constructing a roster, it’s definitely the wrong approach to the draft. By definition, draft prospects are not fully formed players. Every prospect, no matter how highly rated, needs to develop skills, physical traits and experience necessary to become good NBA players. Every prospect needs coaching. With few exceptions, talent evaluators can’t determine with certainty which players will become good professionals, and which will wash out of the league. So, the best approach to the draft is the simplest: pick the best player available. Skilled players with good coaching can usually find a way to work together. If they can’t, someone can be traded.
So, who’s good in the upcoming draft? The lists below were developed using my draft evaluation machine: YODA. The base formula for YODA can be simplified to: points + .3 x defensive rebounds + .7 x offensive rebounds + steals + .5 x (assists + blocks) - .7 x (field goals missed) - field goals made - turnovers - .5 x (free throw attempts + fouls). Additional steps include accounting for age, level of competition, and physical attributes such as length and athleticism. All inputs for YODA come from publicly available information.
YODA results are listed by tier. The idea of draft tiers is that when players are close in score, teams can/should pick based on positional need. But, that’s ONLY when players are close in overall rating.
- Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke
- DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona
- Mohammed Bamba, C, Texas
- Luka Doncic, F/G, International
- Wendell Carter, C, Duke
- Jaren Jackson Jr., C, Michigan State
- Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma
- Mikal Bridges, SG, Villanova
- Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State
- Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
- Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky
- Gary Trent Jr., SG, Duke
- Robert Williams, F/C, Texas A&M
- Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
- Gary Clark, PF, Cincinnati
- Omari Spellman, PF, Villanova
- Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State
- Donte Divincenzo, G, Villanova
- Troy Brown, SG, Oregon
- Kevin Huerter, G/F, Maryland
- Brandon McCoy, C, UNLV
- Allonzo Trier, SG, Arizona
- Isaac Haas, C, Purdue
- Josh Okogie, SG, Georgia Tech
- Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton
- Jarred Vanderbilt, SF, Kentucky
- Kenrich Williams, SF, Texas Christian
- Malik Newman, SG, Kansas
- Moritz Wagner, F/C, Michigan
- Lonnie Walker, SG, Miami (FL)
- Goga Bitadze, C, International
- Raymond Spalding, PF, Louisville
- Dzanan Musa, SF, International
That’s the complete list of players with a draftable score in YODA this year. Some other names rate a bit lower, and could be candidates for the NBA’s “third round,” which is signing undrafted rookie free agents. Chief among them is Devonte Graham, who was selected as the Big 12 Player of the Year. His YODA score is low, but guys with “player of the year” credentials from a major conference often do well in the NBA.
A few notes on the draft:
- The 2018 class appears to be unusually strong. The top four have YODA scores consistent with being the number one overall selection. The top eight have scores typical of a top-five pick.
- If the mock drafts are a reasonably accurate reflection of front office thinking (and they usually are), the Wizards are likely to have good options with the 15th pick.
- Bates-Diop, Brunson, and Clark rate as mid-first round picks, according to YODA, but are deemed late-first or second rounders in most mock drafts. Not all these guys will work out, but one or two might. If they pulled off a draft night of Zhaire Smith (or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or Gary Trent Jr., or Robert Williams, or Collin Sexton), plus Bates-Diop, Brunson and Clark in the second round, they’d give themselves a potentially significant infusion of young, cheap talent.
- Several players rated as first round picks have “don’t draft” grades in YODA. These include: Grayson Allen, Elie Okobo, Aaron Holiday, and Kevin Knox. Okobo and Holiday have both worked out with the Wizards during the pre-draft process.
- Michael Porter Jr. is considered a top prospect, and has been creeping up the draft board as team medical staffs have been able to examine his back. He’s not included in YODA because he played just three games in college. Other prospects not rated in YODA: Mitchell Robinson and Kostas Antetokounmpo.
- Correction: The article has been updated on July 9, 2018 to add Carter, who the author had ranked on the same tier as Doncic prior to the draft. Thank you to the fan who pointed out the omission.