Director of Research and Analysis for Babcock Hoops, Jeremy Berman, breaks down the varied priorities NBA teams value when deciding what a draft pick is worth.
When talking about the Chicago Cubs’ draft strategy, President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, said this:
“The key to building a winning culture started in the draft room. That’s the one time all year where you decide proactively, affirmatively what type of person, what kind of human being you want to bring into your organization. The entire universe is out there and you choose one of them. Whether you admit it or not, you’re kind of saying, ‘This is what I want my organization to be. This is what I want my organization to be about. This is a Cub.’ Every time you pick, especially in the first round, that’s what you’re saying.”
As we know, production on the basketball court is not the only ingredient required for a prospect to enjoy a successful career. In fact, there are many ingredients that go in to “successful NBA career” soup. If the soup is missing an ingredient, it just doesn’t taste quite as good. A prospect’s upbringing, inner circle, work ethic, and character are all important factors to consider. Many of these ingredients are hard to grasp fully before a player enters the NBA, but gathering as much intel as possible on a prospect is extremely important. Even so, once the player joins the team, there are even more ingredients to account for. Sufficient adjustment to professional life, on-court player development, healthy relationships with teammates, and proper nutrition/strength training habits are crucial ingredients that can lead to a great career. Each franchise has a different tolerance for weighing on-court talent and off-court values.
While I was with the San Antonio Spurs, I witnessed an organization that prioritizes the character of a player over anything else. Coach Pop believes that, in a journey towards a collective goal, the best success comes when you are working with people you enjoy. With that in mind, the very first question in player research for the Spurs is - “Will we enjoy having this player in our program?” We’ve seen San Antonio have unrivaled success proactively and affirmatively deciding the type of person they want to join their organization through the draft.
The NBA draft is one of the most speculated events in the sports world. Prospects and their projected career arc are constantly debated within NBA organizations, on Twitter, and in coffee shops, offices, and bars all over the world. Teams obviously look to draft the best player possible every year, and a good player has come from almost every pick, although the odds of success decrease as you get later in the draft. Steph Curry was picked 7th. Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo - both 15th. Rudy Gobert - 27th. In the second round, Draymond Green was the 35th pick, Nikola Jokic the 41st pick, and Manu Ginobili the 57th pick. There has never been a draft in which the career or talent of every player taken matches their draft slot. If that were the case, the speculation surrounding the draft every year would be much less fun, and tanking would be incentivized even more. Thankfully, the draft is an inexact science, and imperfect humans are responsible for drafting. The constant difference of opinion from fans, coaches, front offices and media makes all this enjoyable and competitive.
Depending on the life cycle of a team, a general manager may decide to stockpile picks to increase his odds of drafting a good player, while other front offices who believe they are a piece or two away from truly contending may trade picks for veteran contributors. The transactional mindset of many NBA teams contributes to an added amount of uncertainty when we finally do arrive at draft day.
Front offices are constantly looking to find value in a contributor via draft picks, but other scenarios often arise when a team must utilize draft picks in a broader, strategy-oriented way. Many NBA organizations and media outlets try to assign a number value to draft slots in order to value them and decide when to “buy” and when to “sell” picks. Teams often use the strategy of stockpiling picks in order to obtain increased flexibility to move up in the draft. There is rarely ever an NBA draft that consists of the original layout with 30 teams each having two picks in their specified draft slot. In 2016, the Celtics made 6 selections in a single draft: Jaylen Brown, Guerschon Yabusele, and Ante Zizic in the first round; Demetrius Jackson, Ben Bentil, and Abdel Nader in the second round.
This past year, we saw more picks moved around draft time than ever before. The Atlanta Hawks went into late June with 6 picks in their toolbelt, but felt that selecting all 6 themselves would be unwise (they agreed in principle to acquire #17 from Brooklyn in a Taurean Prince trade). Consequently, Atlanta engaged with other teams to find out the value of those picks on the market, and after more movement, only ended up selecting 3 players themselves.
The 2019 #4 Pick’s United States Tour
One of those picks was Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, whom Atlanta took at #4. That #4 pick had a wild ride and changed hands multiple times, demonstrating the differing values of a draft pick based on the life cycle of a team. Let’s take a look at the roller coaster the #4 pick rode this summer.
May 14, 2019 - The Chicago Bulls were projected to get the #4 pick. However, the Los Angeles Lakers moved up 7 spots in the lottery to claim the #4 slot.
June 15, 2019 - The Lakers agreed to trade the #4 pick in 2019, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, 2 future firsts and a future first round pick swap to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis.
June 20, 2019 - The Pelicans traded #4, sending the pick along with a future second and Solomon Hill to Atlanta in exchange for #8, #17, and #35 in the 2019 draft.
Same Pick, Different Values
The travels of the #4 pick illustrate the value of a draft pick to different teams. The Lakers were and are still in contending mode, and had planned all along to pursue another star to pair with LeBron as he entered his age-34 season. Therefore, the Lakers could enter the upper echelon of the Western Conference as soon as possible.
New Orleans, on the other hand, was ready to rebuild. Early first round picks and young, talented players are the major draws for rebuilding teams, making the #4 pick a more than logical asset for them.
Finally, when two teams have their eyes set on different prospects that are projected to go in different ranges of the draft, a pick swap is a very likely scenario. To move up, the team with the lower pick will need to attach a “sweetener” to make up the difference between the two picks and return equal value. In this instance, the Hawks wanted to guarantee they could select De’Andre Hunter, while New Orleans felt comfortable that Jaxson Hayes would be available at #8, and were happy to offload Solomon Hill’s bad salary while also gaining more potential young contributors in Nickeil Alexander-Walker at #17 and Didi Louzada Silva at #35.
We’ve seen high-profile early first round swaps in the two drafts before this one as well. In 2017, the 76ers sent a future first to the Celtics to move from #3 to #1 and select Markelle Fultz. In 2018, the Mavericks sent a future first to the Hawks along with #5 to select Luka Doncic at #3. The further up the board the acquired pick is, the more “expensive” the move-up will be. Later in the first round, it’s likely that a pick swap will not include a future first as a sweetener, but more likely feature second rounders and/or cash. After plenty of negotiation, front offices on either side of these transactions ultimately felt that the trade returned fair value and moved them closer to their goals.
The draft has the potential to jump-start a franchise, but a miss in a high draft slot can set a franchise back years. Not only because of the player, but also because of the young man that enters the organization. Theo Epstein explained the importance of selecting the right person to represent what you want your organization to be about, and we’ve seen teams spend months, if not years in advance of the draft trying to position themselves to select the right player. Who’s going to be the next team to move up for a Kawhi Leonard or Luka Doncic? Which prospects in the upcoming draft will teams throw the kitchen sink at to change their culture? Only time will tell.