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Disappointing process trumps uninspiring results for Wizards in 2018 NBA Draft

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament - USC vs Oregon Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft was getting underway, Truth About It’s Troy Haliburton addressed the assemblage of Wizards fans, bloggers, writers, and puzzled bystanders at HalfSmoke to ask the question on everyone’s mind: Who are the Wizards going select with their first round pick?

The consensus in the room was Robert Williams, the athletic big man from Texas A&M. In my pre-draft analysis, I figured the Wizards would get a talent infusion by picking one of Williams, Zhaire Smith, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Gary Trent Jr., or Collin Sexton. My answer to Haliburton’s question was this: “Ernie Grunfeld will pick whoever disappoints fans most.”

When the Wizards went on the clock, Gilgeous-Alexander and Sexton had already been selected. So had wildcard Michael Porter Jr., a talented forward who missed most of his freshman year with a back injury. So, I figured the pick would be Smith, Trent or Williams. Except, I figured it wouldn’t be Trent because I’d been hearing he was going to slip to round two (which is pretty bizarre — Portland got some real value with him). That had me thinking Smith or Williams, with a lean toward Williams because the Wizards need an infusion of youth and athleticism in the frontcourt.

But Grunfeld and the Wizards picked an 18-year old guard/forward from Oregon named Troy Brown. While Brown would not have been my pick, there are enough positives to think he could become a good pro. He has the size and athleticism to play guard or forward, and his all-around game is good for someone so young (he doesn’t turn 19 for another month). In his one season at Oregon, he had high per minute numbers in rebounding, assists and steals, all of which are good signs for an NBA prospect. He’s also reputed to be a good and willing defender, though defense is always an area for growth and refinement at the NBA level.

As would be the case for anyone outside the top two or three picks, Brown has some worry points. His three-point percentage was just 29 percent, giving rise to the critique that Brown is a shooting guard who can’t shoot. And his turnover rate is higher than ideal.

Analytically speaking, the “worry points” aren’t major. As I wrote in my draft preview, the sample size on three-point shooting is extremely small. In Brown’s case, seven additional made threes on the entire season — one every fifth game — was the difference between a subpar 29 percent and an adequate 35 percent. Plus, free throw percentage is generally a better indicator of base shooting ability, and Brown’s was a solid 74 percent.

Plus, turnovers from a young prospect are sometimes a good sign because they indicate someone trying to make plays. In Brown’s case this is supported by a high assist rate. His combination of assists, steals and turnovers suggest a player with good vision and awareness, who is developing passing and playmaking skills.

All of this is reflected in his pre-draft grade in my draft analysis, which had him 20th overall despite the poor overall offensive efficiency — just 102 points per 100 possessions (where below 110 is usually a red flag). To rate as high as he does in YODA with offensive efficiency this low reflects the strength of his all-around game.

In many ways, Brown fits the current NBA trend toward versatile wings. He may be able to fit with the Wizards at SG or SF, especially if he’s able to refine his shooting touch. The comps produced by YODA are an interesting mix of NBA-quality wings. The “most similar” player in my draft database is Luol Deng, though Brown was the better NCAA passer. Next on the list is last year’s rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, and then Justise Winslow.

A little further down are names like Harrison Barnes, Malik Monk, Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward, Wesley Johnson, Rodney Hood, Khris Middleton, and Ronnie Brewer. Most of these are guys who have had at least some level of NBA success.

Of course, given his youth, inexperience, and need for physical development (Brown needs to get stronger), it’s probably going to be a couple years before he’s ready to contribute. Still, while I think better prospects were available at 15, there’s a chance the Wizards will be happy with Brown in a few years.

The same is unlikely to be said about the team’s second round pick, Issuf Sanon. While I’d predicted Grunfeld would pick whoever disappoints fans most in the first round, my analysis suggests Grunfeld may have been saving up for the second round. Under his leadership, the Wizards had established an annual tradition of selling or giving away their second round pick. Picking Sanon was tantamount to forfeiting the selection.

Sanon is an 18-year old combo guard from Ukraine. He plays professionally overseas, and scouting reports say he has good size and athleticism. Those traits did not translate into on-court production, however. His usage rate was low, but he was shockingly inefficient — a rare and worrisome combination.

His offensive stat line was a toxic stew of bad shooting (25 percent from three; 47 percent from the free throw line), elevated turnovers (he had a 21 percent turnover rate), and low assist numbers, even for a combo guard playing overseas where assists are awarded less frequently.

He generates steals and blocks, which indicate good effort, but he also had an extremely high foul rate for a guard.

His high two-point field goal percentage and steals support the idea that he’s athletic enough to play in the NBA. The poor shooting, relatively low assists, elevated turnovers, and high foul rate suggest a player who will need years to develop the level of skill needed to contribute. And, this season, he started just eight of his team’s 45 games and played just 15 minutes per game.

Now, there are no guarantees in pre-draft analysis. I’m often amused by the comps spit out by YODA. This year, one prospect had statistical comps of Trey Burke and Russell Westbrook. The two posted similar numbers in college: one turned into an MVP, and the other was a bust. Or take the case of Michael Beasley and Kevin Love — similar college production, and similar physical traits (despite Beasley’s reputed superior athleticism). Love became a five-time All-Star while Beasley washed out of the league and then came back as a meh gunner for the Knicks. So, it’s good to avoid speaking in absolutes when it comes to the draft: we’re probably wrong.

As Ben Falk has argued at Cleaning the Glass, the best way to think about draft prospects is in terms of probability. What’s the prospect’s ceiling? What’s his floor? How likely is he to reach the ceiling or floor, or something in between?

Brown, though he is a project, seems a fairly safe pick. He’s unlikely to become an All-Star, but he’s also unlikely to be an abject bust. Players like him typically become contributors in a team’s rotation. His poor shooting probably sets his floor a bit lower because if he doesn’t improve in that area, he’s probably unplayable unless he becomes an elite defender like Andre Roberson.

Sanon could learn to shoot, pass, avoid turnovers and stop fouling so much. But the odds of him developing all those skills at an NBA level are low. Players like him tend to wash out quickly, or not make the league at all. His highest quality comp in YODA is Josh Selby, who played 38 games over two seasons in Memphis before bouncing out of the league. Odds are, Sanon will be at the end of the bench, or he’ll never play in the league.

Meanwhile, the Wizards bypassed Keita Bates-Diop, a wing from Ohio State with legitimate power forward length and the athleticism to play either forward spot. He was efficient on offense with solid shooting from the floor (both two-point and three-point range), and above average free throw shooting. He rebounded well, and defended effectively without fouling. What he did was impressive, even for a senior.

Bates-Diop’s floor is high. Players like him tended to be at least decent in the NBA: Josh Howard, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter, Mike Dunleavy, Caron Butler, Bobby Portis. He probably won’t become an All-Star, but the odds of him being a useful rotation player are good. And, for some reason, Grunfeld and the Wizards passed on him to take someone who will probably never play in the NBA.

As my podcast partner, Ben Becker, put it this morning, the Wizards’ draft reflects a distinct lack of urgency. From the outside, it seems the team needs an infusion of inexpensive talent, youth and athleticism to keep up with other contenders. They had multiple opportunities to address that need, but instead chose a long-term project, and then an even longer-term project.

This would seem to indicate poor strategic thinking within the Wizards’ front office. Either they believe they’re close to being a contender now, so infusing youth into the lineup isn’t their chief concern, or they believe their window to contend will be open for a number of years, so they can afford to be patient. Both of these misguided approaches make it likely we’re in store for more disappointment, even if these picks pan out better than expected.