When it comes to NBA Draft scouting, there are three types of prospects:
- high-upside guys who are also ready to contribute at a high level today;
- guys who are ready to contribute at a high level today but have limited growth potential; and
- guys who are likely not ready to contribute at a high level now but have seemingly infinite room for growth.
Group 1 consists of athletes who are no-brainer draft selections—think LeBron James and his Magic Johnson-esque dynamism & NFL tight end frame in 2003 or Andrew Wiggins and his pure scoring ability & 44-inch vertical leap in 2014. These are players who generally possess a versatile array of NBA skill sets coupled with almost unrealistic athleticism measurements that just reek of future superstardom. There is virtually no debate surrounding taking this type of player in the Draft.
Group 2 is made up of basketball players who might not wow you physically and likely don’t display very many obvious correctable weaknesses, but who still possess a demonstrated NBA skill set regardless of any potential for future growth. Low upside but NBA-ready players include guys like Kyle Korver and his questionable at best horizontal quickness but refined three point stroke in the 2003 NBA Draft or Jabari Parker and his portly frame but obvious 20+ points per game potential in 2014. Like Group 1, there is little debate with regard to drafting members of Group 2; who cares about high-upside when the player selected is able to contribute immediately?
That leaves Group 3—the high-upside guys, perhaps the most controversial players selected in any given NBA draft. Whether it is worth it to draft individuals clearly needing to develop as skilled players will almost assuredly remain an annual debate. In 2013, “the Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo was the chosen media anointed subject of this debate. In 2o12, it was Jennette McCurdy’s ex-boyfriend Andre Drummond. In 2011, it was the underwhelming [in revisionist history] Bismack Biyombo—who might be as young as 21 or as old as Dikembe Mutombo, depending on who you ask.
This year, these hotly-debated high-upside guys include:
- players who have all the talent and athleticism in the world but just haven’t learned how to shoot yet (e.g. Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, & Marcus Smart);
- a player who has been playing basketball for less than five-years (Joel Embiid);
- a player who has shocking hops and shooting ability but who only managed 9,2,& 1 at UCLA (Zach LaVine); and
- players with unbelievable athleticism but questionable basketball abilities (e.g. Jerami Grant, Clint Capela, Damien Inglis, & Thanasis Antetokounmpo).
So, is drafting these high-upside players indeed worth the risk? After all, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction pursuant to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook there is a Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. As with most contested questions, the answer unfortunately is, “it depends.”
Back in February, I wrote about the NBA’s so-called “Double Tanking Problem.” To paraphrase:
In professional basketball, the concept of tanking is nothing more than savvy NBA front offices tactically placing their respective franchises in positions to perform at suboptimal levels in order to ensure the greatest likelihood of securing a top draft pick. An investor would equate this to holding onto a particular stock through a temporary rough patch knowing that profits are on the imminent horizon. Similarly, a corporation could compare tanking with a corporate social responsibility investment in a more sustainable product—sure, the costs of manufacturing the product might increase, but the prospect of more consumers purchasing the product now than ever before make the decision fiscally responsible. In any event, tanking is supposed to serve as a short term sacrifice to bring about a long term gain.
The problem with tanking, however, is that sometimes the strategy becomes a long term sacrifice to bring about a long term gain. If you’re a general manager pulling the proverbial strings to make his team more likely to lose, it would be almost impossible to question such a decision when a player like Tim Duncan is in the draft pool. Sacrificing a season for a franchise-changing talent who could immediately turn a team into a winner for almost two decades is literally a no brainer. But what if there is no Tim Duncan available? What if the best player in the draft averages just 10 points and 7 rebounds per game in college? What if the best player in the draft is a project who has only been playing basketball for slightly less than three years? What if the best player in the draft could realistically have the same career as either Hakeem Olajuwon or DeSagana Diop? What if the best player in the draft was Joel Embiid?
If you are an NBA franchise picking in the draft lottery, the 14th pick Phoenix Suns aside, your team suffered through a fairly abysmal previous campaign. And if you just finished up a losing season, typically the fans and the ownership alike will be in a hurry to win and win now. If you are a general manager of a team with pressure to improve drastically immediately after the draft, then you quite simply cannot afford to select a Category 3 high-upside prospect—so long as another player is on the board who can contribute immediately. Taking a project with ridiculous upside could dramatically help your team in three years, but you probably won’t be around to see it happen, as you will be fired for failing to improve the team the following season.
If, however, you are a general manager like Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers, and you work for a progressive owner like Josh Harris who will give you the freedom to partake in “double tanking,” a de facto multi-year rebuilding project through accumulating assets via the draft and free agency, then you can and absolutely should invest in high-upside players through the NBA Draft.
High-upside draft picks function in the form of an advantageous cross-purpose: they allow a team to eventually get good but immediately remain bad—thereby letting the team accumulate even more assets for the future in the following year’s NBA Draft lottery.
Until Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA radically reform the very logic of the NBA Draft process, losing is perhaps the easiest way to win in the National Basketball Association. And one of the easiest ways to lose is through the drafting of high-upside players.