“You mean a couple of college kids coming to the NBA that can’t play? I’m really excited about it” – Charles Barkley in response to a question about the draft.
Aside from anything Charles Barkley might say, anyone who considers themselves any kind of basketball aficionado knows the draft is a kind of a big deal. All year, fans discuss the current college and international NBA prospects as they make their way up and down mock draft boards. This year’s NBA Draft is heralded to be one of the deepest in recent history. Anyone in at least the top-8 is projected to have the potential to be a star in the NBA. But as with every year, there will be players that drop off and will not live up to their lofty expectations.
The NBA draft is a prime opportunity for struggling teams to draft a potential superstar and change their franchises past misfortunes into fortunes. However, some teams will make the wrong selection and the drafted player doesn’t make an impact. As a result, critics are often quick to call the player a bust if they don’t live up to their lofty expectations.
Now I’m not a fan of when people use the term bust to label a player. This is because, as much as the definition of a bust may differ amongst different people, I feel that the meaning of the term is often skewed. You just can’t call a player a bust if injuries derailed the majority of their career. Nor can you call a player a bust in their first season, or if they’re picked outside the lottery. I can absolutely guarantee there will be people on the internet calling draftees busts before they’ve even set foot on an NBA court.
Owning a high draft pick is in no way a guarantee that the team will obtain a franchise-altering star. For NBA teams the cards are definitely in their favor, but there is always a chance that not everything goes to plan.
To put this into context, per basketball reference, of the 160 players drafted 1-10 since 2000, only 29 players have averages of over 18 points per game for their career. Of all the All-Stars from the last 17 seasons drafted since 2000, 37 out of 71 were drafted in the top 10. That means statistically that a team is almost just as likely to draft a potential All-Star outside the top 10 than they are within it.
Not everyone can be a star in an already satiated NBA. There will always be players who drop off no matter how good they may have been in college or elsewhere. What to remember before you spark off on a player for being a bust, is that context matters.
If you're picking in the top-8, the likelihood of drafting an All-Star (based on 35-year data from 80-2015) is 33.1%. Exclude pick 1, 24.2%.
— Oliver Maroney (@OMaroneyNBA) June 7, 2017
Often the real reasons a player does not live up to his potential and is therefore named a bust can include (but are not limited to): a career-altering injury, bad fit on a new team or they were just taken at the wrong slot in the Draft. Although there are many cases in which a player taken with a high draft pick did not come anywhere near to what was expected of him, short of a coke addiction or a motorcycle accident, it’s not always their fault.
Who’s really at fault are the GM’s, the scouts, the media guys and everyone else who has an opinion that just plain and simply got it wrong. Essentially, we are blaming the player for another party’s miscalculations.
Anthony Bennett is a prime example. Bennett, who was drafted with the number one pick in 2013 is now playing in Turkey after averaging 4.4 points in his three-year NBA career and is already considered one of the worst draft busts ever. In what was already a pretty weak draft, the consensus number one pick was Nerlens Noel, up until he went down with an injury that took away any chance of him playing his rookie season. Bennett was not even considered in the top 5 in many mock drafts and had suffered numerous injuries in high school, as well as coming into the 2013 draft with an injured shoulder that meant he couldn’t play the entirety of the 2013 offseason. All the signs were there, but for some reason, the Cavs still took him with the first pick. I’ll agree that Bennett is most likely the worst number one pick in recent history, but he is also the most undeserving of the number one pick. I just can’t help but think that we would not be talking about Bennett in the same way if he was drafted around the 7-10 range; where he theoretically should’ve been picked.
Injuries can disrupt the careers of even some of the best players in the NBA. Greg Oden is another widely labeled draft bust after his number 1 selection in 2007 by the Trail Blazers who struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. If you look past Oden’s numbers he actually showed flashes of greatness in his career, but knee injuries plagued him and as a result, he only played 82 games in 5 years for the Trail Blazers.
Joel Embiid is a player whose trajectory is looking a little too similar to Oden’s. Now if you were to watch one of Embiids games from last season you could see that he is by no ways a scrub. However, as much as I hate to be a defeatist, it might be just as likely that his knees affect him for the rest of his career and keep him off the court. If and when that happens would you call Embiid a bust? I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would.
Another favorite scapegoat of self-proclaimed thought leaders in the world of draft busts is the great Darko Milicic. Darko was famously taken with the number 2 pick in the highly-revered 2003 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, ahead of future All-Stars: Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. If you pair Darko’s career with the stars that were drafted just a few picks later, his career numbers of 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds seem pretty dismal in comparison.
It still remains a wonder why the Pistons even took Darko in the first place. Pistons GM, Joe Dumars actually admitted they drafted him, despite not knowing all that much on him as a prospect. On top of this, Darko was drafted on to a team that had made the Eastern Conference Finals the previous year and would play under coach Larry Brown who famously wasn’t keen on playing rookies. On an already proven roster, there was no space in the rotation for Darko, and as a result he would not produce anything near the numbers of his draft peers.
An argument you could make is that Darko’s career may have had a different storyline had he been drafted by another team. This is a very interesting hypothetical, as I believe that part of the reason Milicic did not live up to expectations was that he played a measly 5.7 minutes a game in his three seasons in Detroit. Had he been drafted to another team in 2003 and gone into a role where he had a lot of room to improve, there’s no guarantee he would have been a star, but he may not have been considered the draft bust he is today. In essence, Darko wasn’t given the chance to make mistakes in Detroit, therefore phenomenally stunting any potential growth he may have had.
Players are often drafted based on their high upside and therefore come with a lot of risks. There’s a chance that player will not mature gracefully, or may never develop an effective shot at the next level and therefore deem them not worthy of any meaningful minutes on the floor. We see this a lot lately as teams seek out players with 3-and-D potential. In referring to their potential, this usually means that the player has the athletic tools to guard multiple positions and be effective defensively, but what they don’t quite excel in yet is shooting. The idea is that gradually the player will develop offensively and therefore turn out to be an effective contributor in the league. Unfortunately, however, too often this does not pan out. Basically, for every Kawhi Leonard, there are plenty of Wesley Johnsons. If you want to read more about the 3-and-D archetype, Kevin O’Connor wrote an excellent piece on 3-and-D prospects, which you can find here.
This year’s draft features one of the best fields of elite point guards that we have seen in recent years. In today’s era of elite point guards, opportunities for new guards coming into the league are few and far between and therefore, a young PG’s development will be absolutely contingent on their playing situation. Sometimes, new players are not used to coming into play limited minutes behind a more established floor general, and as a result, their play goes in a downward spiral as they’re playing in a role in which they’re not comfortable.
Playing time will play a big factor in just how good some of the young point guards in this draft will become, and as a result, it is likely at least one of them drops off, despite their lofty expectations. Per basketball reference, of the 32 players listed as a point guard, drafted 1-10 since 2000, only 17 have career averages of 30 minutes per game and have been legitimate starters for the majority of their time in the NBA.
NBA team’s search for the next (enter relevant NBA star who plays similarly here) means that many players are either skipped on or taken way too early on the draft board. Players that emulate a certain player may look good in college, but their game may never translate to the NBA level. I see this in the Orlando Magic’s selection of Aaron Gordon with the fourth pick in 2014. All through Aaron Gordon’s lone year at Arizona, his play screamed “Blake Griffin” to many scouts, reporters and GM’s, so it’s understandable when Orlando thought they were getting a duplication of a player who had just come off his best statistical season and was getting nods in MVP conversations.
Unfortunately, Aaron Gordon is not Blake Griffin. This is mainly because aside from his highlight reel dunks, he struggles to create his own offense and partly because the Orlando Magic don’t play him like he’s Blake Griffin. Gordon may actually have the talent to be a more productive player in the league, but he is trapped in a situation
Dragan Bender – who was taken by the Suns with the fourth pick in 2016 – is another player in which a lot of people saw a lot of Kristaps Porzingis; a player who’d had a standout rookie season the season prior and fits the idyllic model of what a stretch-4 should look like. Bender has not made the same impact that Porzingis made in his rookie season and remains a project for the Suns. Whether he was deserved of a number 4 pick in the draft will remain to be seen.
For NBA teams, using a lottery pick on a project is a high-risk move but the rewards can be greatly impactful to a team’s development. Giannis Antetokounmpo stands as currently the best example of a project who was drafted as a young and incredibly raw prospect who flourished into the centerpiece of the Milwaukee Bucks after a few years. Teams looking to draft a project need to have the tools and people in place to make sure that player matures as gracefully as possible and is not rushed into a role in which they are doomed to fail.
Teams have established scouts and evaluators who will have often been watching these prospects since they were in high school. But even years of preparation cannot ultimately protect a team from the unpredictability of the draft. There is no one tool that can predict the trajectory of a draft prospects career and as a result, with any pick an NBA franchise makes in the draft, they are taking a gamble.
Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
That just the NBA draft for you.