Picking Up the Pieces: a look at the Past 10 NBA Drafts

There is a disparaging comment that is often used when someone accomplishes an unimpressive victory against a weak opponent: “it’s like winning at the Special Olympics; even though you are in first place you are still a retard.”

Insensitivity aside, is this how someone like Kyrie Irving supposed to feel after being selected first overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, a draft that many are calling the weakest in quite some time (if not the weakest ever)?  But drafting is an inexact science.  Despite scouting and video sessions and interviews and private workouts, the Draft is still hit-and-miss.  Not every player can be LeBron James or Derrick Rose or Nikoloz Tskitishvili.

So, how well have teams selecting in the NBA Draft?  Have previous drafts been so outstanding that it makes this year’s version “weak”?  Or, is it simply the lack of a single dominant player in the draft and there are more question marks rather than exclamation points?  And, to this latter point, is the concept of a “weak draft” simply a construct of the media and the abundance of those question marks, all the while ignoring recent ho-hum drafts?  Let’s take a look.

I looked at the last ten NBA Drafts (2001-2010) and took only lottery picks.  I focused solely on lottery picks because the initial reaction to any draft tends to focus on those top picks (i.e., lottery picks).

Over the last ten years, lottery picks play an average of 27.7 minutes per game, with a 12.3 point per game average (PPG), a 5.17 rebounds per game average (RPG), and 2.37 assists per game average (APG).  Not surprisingly, more recently drafted lottery picks have lower averages than older lottery picks, namely because the longer a player is in the league, the more likely they are gaining more minutes and/or starting games.  For example, 2010 lottery players averaged 8.13 PPG versus 14.9 for those in the 2003 lottery class (the one with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony…oh, and Jarvis Hayes.

However, the differences are not as great as one might think.  The 2003 class had the highest PPG, followed by the 2008 class (14.01).  However, most of the classes are fairly close to the average, with the low being the 2006 class (10.71 PPG).  So, is there a big difference?  What about other measures?

How about accolades?  There are 21 All-Stars among the ten sets of lottery classes, which accounts for about 15 percent of those players.  A little more than 13 percent (18) of the players made the All-NBA team.  Only two — LeBron James (twice) and Derrick Rose — have won the league MVP, which granted is very limited.  And only one (Wade) has an NBA Finals MVP award.  Of these, the All-Star stats are telling as there is an average of 2.1 players (out of 14 lottery players [or 13 between 2001 and 2003]) making it to that level of play.  That is a very small representation that does not deviate too far from the average (five from the 2003 class is the most; 0 from 2010 is the fewest).

~Shelden Williams: second-best basketball player in his marriage!~

What else can I throw at you?  Champions!  Yes, how many of these 137 players (135 if you count only those that have actually played in the NBA) have actually won an NBA title?  Try ten, with a total of 13 rings.  Again, a tiny sampling of these players.  And while some, such as Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade and most recently Tyson Chandler have played a significant role in their respective team’s success, what about players like Adam Morrison and Melvin Ely?  Hell, even the Human Victory Cigar (Darko Milicic) has an NBA ring!  So, of those ten, only three really contributed greatly, making the percentage out of the lottery players even smaller.

Speaking of Morrison, has anyone seen him lately?  That’s right, he was not on an NBA roster last season.  Just like 17 other former lottery players from 2001-2010.  That means that 13.3 percent of lottery players over the last ten years are no longer in the NBA!!!  All 18 of those players were drafted between 2001 and 2006.  This is likely because players drafted since 2007 are still in their rookie contracts; some (2007 and 2008) are in option years while others (2009 and 2010) are in guaranteed years.  With those contracts expiring, one has to wonder how much of a market there is for a player like, say, Brandan Wright.

Therefore, if you take just those 18 players and compare them to their lottery peers from 2001-2006, that percentage jumps up to 22.5 percent!  Furthermore, if you expand it to cover all players drafted between 2001 and 2010, then 161 out 485 players (33.1 percent) are no longer in the league!  Just in the past five years, 51 out of 240 players (21.6 percent) are not on an NBA team.*

Certainly there is a reason that players are no longer in the league.  Of those players no longer in the league, they averaged 17.1 miunutes per game, with 6.37 PPG, 2.93 RPG, and 0.97 APG!  That’ll get you out of the league!  Those that are still active average 28.5 minutes per game (12.73 PPG; 5.33 RPG; 2.47 APG).

Lastly, to be fair not all picks are the same.  A number one pick is expected to eventually perform better than the 11th pick.  So, how has each slot fared in the NBA?  Well…

PICK

Games

Minutes

PPG

RPG

APG

1st

62.09

32.88

17.24

7.96

2.98

2nd

63.72

28.83

12.26

6.84

1.32

3rd

71.33

32.31

16.50

5.48

3.44

4th

66.50

30.12

14.18

5.81

3.43

5th

60.18

30.74

15.23

4.78

3.76

6th

56.27

29.21

10.99

4.90

1.92

7th

65.11

29.85

12.79

4.86

2.76

8th

52.52

21.64

8.39

4.26

1.57

9th

54.71

26.75

12.69

5.36

2.14

10th

56.18

30.08

13.48

4.98

2.59

11th

43.29

20.26

6.64

3.76

1.34

12th

49.36

21.11

7.54

4.43

0.97

13th

52.81

23.87

9.23

3.39

2.04

14th

55.90

20.52

8.43

3.67

1.09

Indeed, not all picks are created equal.  In fact, I’d be nervous if I were Minnesota (and Derrick Williams) as the number two pick tends to far underplay his fellow top five picks.  While players like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge have tried to turn it around for the number two pick, players like Hasheem Thabeet, Jay Williams, and Milicic bring down the slot.  The number eight pick is the next one that takes a hit (watch out Brandon Knight), which is likely a case of teams either reaching or just in a spot with limited choices [or just that players like DeSagana Diop and Rafael Araujo bring it down].  Then, 11 through 14 sees a consistent drop, but an expected one (unlike two and eight).

So, what does all this mean?  Simply put, the draft is still a crapshoot, whether it is perceived to be strong like the 2003 draft or weak like the 2006 draft.  But in both of those cases, there were several players that went against the norm (Milicic, Mike Sweetney, Hayes, and Marcus Banks in 2003; Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay and even Andrea Bargnani in 2006).  The point is that no one knows how the 2011 NBA Draft class will turn out.  Maybe Kawhi Leonard and Jimmer Fredette turn out to be solid players.  Maybe Kyrie Irving turns into a stellar point guard.  Perhaps Kemba Walker makes the other eight teams regret passing him over and rewards the Charlotte Bobcats with numerous All-Star seasons.

Or, maybe not.  Maybe Enes Kanter is out of the league in five years.  Maybe Bismarck Biyombo becomes another in a long line of failed African “projects.”  Maybe Derrick Williams becomes another second pick flop.  Perhaps Klay Thompson following the trend of lottery picks average less than 10 points a game in their career (71 of 135)…or less than 15 (101 of 135).

No one knows.  At least not yet.  So, do me a favor…give them five years before you call the 2011 NBA Draft class the weakest ever.  After all, who in 1998 would have thought that a player named Dirk would be a champion and a Finals MVP?  Yeah, the same guy chosen after Michael Olowokandi!

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