Written by John McCool (@Desertrose28)
The NBA draft offers a fresh start for struggling NBA teams short on prospects or skilled veterans. In particular, players drafted in lottery slots can make an instant impact in the league at a cheap price. History, however, suggests that even players picked in the lottery round are not guaranteed to find success at the NBA level.
For franchises like the Philadelphia 76ers or the Los Angeles Lakers, the reward for finishing in the basement last season was the chance to select a highly talented, potential future all-star in the lottery. As of early April last season, both teams had over a 19% chance of selecting Ben Simmons as the first overall pick. With a steady supply of talented draft picks and free agent signings, most franchises are sometimes faced with the difficult decision of either rebuilding or attempting a playoff run. NBA front offices ideally want to stockpile draft picks while maintaining a competitive team. On one hand, signing free agents and making trades for a short term championship run is exciting for both the franchise and the fans. On the other, it is difficult to compete with NBA powerhouses like Cleveland, Golden State, and San Antonio without a star-studded lineup.
We looked at the value of draft picks from 2003 to 2015 based on factors such as minutes per game, points, and win shares for six different draft classes. Players selected in the first ten picks were assigned to the first draft class whereas the 11th through 20th picks were placed into the second draft class, and so on.
Valuing NBA Draft Classes
The first draft class (selections 1-10) is a machine for turning draft picks into stars. Since 2003, picks in the first draft class have averaged 25 win shares or .095 wins shares per 48 minutes (WS/48). On average, players in this class play more minutes and score more points than the five other draft classes. By comparison, teams drafting in the 11-20 slots averaged just 12.06 win shares from their picks.
There is little difference in the production of the second (picks 11-20) and third (picks 21-30) draft classes. Both classes averaged a little over 12 win shares. While players drafted in the third draft class were 3.6% less likely to play in the NBA, they also had a greater probability of finishing with an above average WS/48 (63.4%) than their counterparts. The 11th through 20th picks played at least 25 minutes per game more than 6.3% more than the third draft class.
Since 2010, NBA front offices have been far more likely to extract value from first round picks. Over 85% of all draft picks with at least 15 WS were selected in the first round.
Players drafted in the fourth draft class (31-40) averaged just 6.72 win shares and had a 51.2% probability of becoming a league average player (based on WS/48). They also had respectively 25.9% and 11.5% less probability of averaging at least 15 minutes and 10 points per game than players in the third draft class. Interestingly, draft picks from the 41-50 slots (fifth draft class) averaged 7.48 win shares (0.76 more than fourth tier selections) but had just a 67.1% probability of making it into the NBA.
Making a good pick in the last 10 picks (51-60) is almost like flipping a coin. Since 2003, this draft class has proven to be a wasteland. Only 43.3% of players drafted have made it into the NBA. Teams that are lucky enough to draft a viable NBA player in this draft slot have a 44.8% probability of getting an above average player (in terms of WS/48) and a 7.5% chance that the player plays 15 more minutes per game. At the moment, Kyle Korver, Marcin Gortat, and Amir Johnson are among the few final round picks that have had quality NBA careers. However, even Gortat and Johnson did not find consistent playing time until about three and five years after entering the league respectively.
Where to Buy in the First Round?
History suggests that it doesn’t take an NBA guru to draft a high quality player in the first five picks. The first five selections averaged 33.7 wins shares against 14 win shares from picks 6-30. The seventh and ninth picks generated an average 25.4 and 22.81 win shares respectively.
Outside of these selections, however, there is no strong guarantee of drafting an above average to star quality player. Since 2003, the 18th, 26th, 21st, 15th, and 30th picks were the most valuable aside from the seven lottery picks (mentioned above). Teams that had the 8th overall selection managed just 13.3 win shares on average, falling to 20th overall in this category in the first round.
Players drafted 26th, 30th, and 18th overall had the highest average 5.33 wins shares/million value based on the three-year 2016 dollar value of rookie contracts. These figures should be interpreted loosely because the majority a draft pick’s win shares occur outside of team control after the player reaches free agency.
As noted, not all lottery picks are guaranteed to have long-lived careers. A constant cycling of college and international talent with high expectations have consistently struggled in the NBA. This occurs because drafted players either cannot make adjustments or suffer a string of injuries that force them into long D-League stints, reduced playing time, or an early retirement (e.g. Greg Oden).
Since 2006, the Mavericks have had very little success finding the right player in the draft. Over 80% of the team’s selected players are no longer playing the in the NBA including Solomon Alabi, Darius Johnson-Odom, and Satnam Singh. To be fair, the Mavericks also selected Kelly Olynyk (now with the Celtics) and Justin Anderson, who has posted 1.3 win shares since the start of the 2015 season. The Spurs and Nets’ have also recently selected a high number players that are out of the NBA as well.
By volume and percentage, the Bucks have had much better luck in the draft selecting 33.3% or 7 current NBA starters since 2006. This includes John Henson, Jabari Parker, and GIannis Antetokounmpo, who are key contributors to the Buck’s 2016-17 squad. The Pistons and Thunder have also drafted a combined 15 players now starting in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers have also been one of better teams in spotting and drafting NBA talent averaging 13.5 win shares from their selections since 2010. Paul George has been perhaps their most valuable draft asset logging over 12,000 minutes and 37.4 win shares (before 2016-17 season) all the while surviving a severe lower right leg injury in the summer of 2014. The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors front offices also combined for 11.3 win shares from their recent picks during the same timeframe.
Early Success and Setbacks in the NBA
Some draft picks are able to make an instant impact in the NBA. Players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, drafted in the 2015 lottery, have been forces in the interior and are likely the future faces of the game. Other players, however, take longer a little longer to blossom into viable starters. There is no reason to expect that all high draft picks will tear up the league during their first or even second seasons. In particular, lottery picks that walk into starting jobs sometimes cannot adjust to the pace of the game and see parts of their shooting, passing, and defense slip.
Five Thirty Eight details this point to a greater extent with Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 7 draft in 2015, illustrating his struggles so far in the NBA. After skipping college to play international ball in China, Mudiay finished dead last in eFG% and true shooting percentage (TS%) last season among qualified players. Similarly, D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the same draft, posted poor shooting numbers and racked up the worst assist to turnover ratio (1.36) among all point guards in his debut season. Despite their early career shortfalls, Mudiay and Russell have the talent to drive Denver and Los Angeles to future playoff appearances. In case you are curious, Five Thirty Eight projects Mudiay’s value above replacement (VORP) at -0.3 and Russell at a more bullish 2.7 VORP this season.
The Beginning of a New Dynasty
The draft can be highly variable, but selecting the right player can instantly accelerate a team’s chances of winning a championship. With just five players on the court at any given moment, a lottery pick that rises into a superstar has the potential to create the next mini dynasty if surrounded with the right supporting cast. While this is extremely unlikely, front offices can at least retool their rosters with young talent and start strategizing for a deep playoff run in the near future.
The NBA is a star driven league, typically requiring a delicate balance of elite talent, veteran leadership, and a young supporting cast for deep playoff runs. There is no better place to start building a franchise than through the draft, particularly in the first 30 picks where there is a much greater chance of finding a viable starter. Teams in turn should be agressive in moving up in the draft order especially if they are selecting in the late second round.
At the moment, the average age in the NBA is just 26.8 years, leading to a high turnover rate of players coming from college and overseas every new season. Teams that hold onto their draft picks and focus on scouting and analytics position themselves to remain competitive in the dynamic and fast paced NBA game making a lottery or even late first round pick all the more valuable.
Correction: The article previously stated that Derrick Favors and Tobias Harris were 2nd round draft selections; Favors and Harris were both selected in the 1st round of their respective drafts.
 The average WS/48 was .061 for players that made it into the NBA from 2003 through last season.
 37 players have accumulated at least 15 win shares since the 2010 draft.
 The trio has combined for 154.9 win shares over their careers.
 These picks have averaged 18.1 win shares between the 2003 through 2015 drafts.