Sorry, Your NBA Team’s Lottery Pick Won’t Be a Star

With the 2017 NBA Finals in the rearview mirror, our attention as basketball fans now focuses squarely upon the upcoming draft.

This year’s class is being heralded as a uniquely talented crop, particularly at the point guard position. Markelle Fultz has been compared to James Harden. Lonzo Ball to Jason Kidd. And Dennis Smith to Steve Francis.

These best-case scenarios, though, stand in contrast to what the history of the draft has shown: Stars are hard to come by. It’s possible one of the aforementioned draft-eligible players (or any other coming into the league) will build a franchise in his image, but stardom is far from guaranteed, even for players selected in the top three.

It’s time to set aside the mixtapes and lifestyle brands and take a sober look at the following question: What value should a team and its fans expect from its draft position?

The following mock draft will tackle that question, providing a middle-of-the-road estimate for each of the 14 lottery slots. To find that middle-of-the-road estimate, I’ve dug into the TPA data for every player drafted between No. 1 and No. 14 from 1984 to 2008. This gives us 25 years of modern draft history to assess, from which we can find what a reasonable expectation for a given team’s pick should be.

I’ve dubbed this exercise the “Expected Value Draft,” and each of the players “drafted” below represents the median TPA score among the 25 players taken at the draft slot in question during our period of analysis (i.e. 12 players have had better careers, and 12 have had worse).

With no further ado, let’s turn the podium over to Commissioner Adam Silver.

With the 1st Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select…Andrew Bogut, 1020 TPA

Bogut? Really? Yes. Over the 25-year period of analysis, 12 men drafted first overall have produced higher career TPA numbers and 12 have produced lower. For every Tim Duncan (5908.75 TPA), the No. 1 pick has also yielded a Michael Olowakandi (minus-1145.48); for every Hakeem Olajuwon (5167.04), a Kwame Brown (minus-556.61).

If you’re surprised by the modest return that awaits the team with the coveted top spot, just wait until you see what’s in store further down this list. The Los Angeles Lakers are now on the clock.

With the 2nd Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select…Sam Bowie, 5.48 TPA

That’s right, the man widely considered the single worst pick in NBA Draft history actually produced a very typical career for a player taken second overall. Teams with the second pick have nabbed Hall of Famers like Jason Kidd (4586.62) and Kevin Durant (3090.62), but they’ve also missed the mark frequently by taking players like Stromile Swift (minus-404.17), Michael Beasley (minus-847.08) and, of course, Darko Milicic (minus-274.94). The Boston Celtics are now on the clock.

With the 3rd Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Boston Celtics select…Sean Elliot, 381.96 TPA

While Sean Elliot was a solid NBA player, a pro’s pro and a champion, his name does not connote the brilliant talent fans covet and expect from such a lofty pick. Just be glad your team didn’t get stuck with Adam Morrison (minus-346.98). The Phoenix Suns are now on the clock.

With the 4th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Phoenix Suns select...Reggie Williams, 180.25 TPA

I’m going to be honest: Had I not followed coverage of Georgetown’s dismissal of John Thompson III earlier this year, I wouldn’t be familiar with Reggie Williams. But as a result of his commentary on the matter, I now have some awareness of his legacy. Other noteworthy disappointments in the four hole include Marcus Fizer (minus-528.9), Tyrus Thomas (minus-173.51) and—perhaps through no fault of his own [do not watch this video]—Shaun Livingston (minus-447.35). The Sacramento Kings are now on the clock.

With the 5th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Sacramento Kings select…Kendall Gill, 168.97 TPA

Kendall Gill was a smooth operator and, for a time, appeared to be a potential foil for His Airness (7924.63) as an up-and-coming Eastern Conference shooting guard. I’ll always remember him best, however, for his cameo in the first episode of one of my favorite Nickelodeon shows growing up: My Brother & Me. The show, not unlike Kendall Gill, underachieved and was cancelled after just 13 episodes.

The fifth has perhaps the most decorated history of any pick—save the first—with Hall-of-Fame locks Kevin Garnett (5581.63), Charles Barkley (6563.92), Ray Allen (2996.17), Scottie Pippen (4558.48), Vince Carter (2663.43) and Dwyane Wade (3704.09) all being taken at the spot. The Orlando Magic are now on the clock.

With the 6th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Orlando Magic select…Melvin Turpin, minus-210.92 TPA

Shockingly, just six picks into the lottery, positive value all but evaporates. The median example here is Melvin Turpin. For whatever reason, the No. 6 pick bore a curse of sorts for the 25-year period under examination. The best player to emerge from the sixth slot in terms of TPA was role-player-extraordinaire Shane Battier (1754.37), while the next best was Missouri Valley legend Hersey Hawkins (1700.74), who far outstrips Battier in win shares.

The sixth was so consistently underwhelming that not only does our middle-of-the-road case log negative TPA, but the mean TPA for the pick was minus-29 due to the lack of firepower at the top of the heap. To provide a bit more context, Mike Penberthy tallied a career TPA of minus-30. Scratching your head? You’re not alone. Andrew Bailey and I didn’t know who he was earlier this year, either. The Minnesota Timberwolves are now on the clock.

With the 7th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select…Eric Gordon, minus-204.48 TPA

Until seeing that negative TPA number, you were probably relieved to find someone you’ve heard of. The TPA database is rife with volume shooters who aren’t quite big enough or athletic enough to defend on the wing—Eric Gordon typifies this class of player, having added 487.81 points offensively over his career while costing his teams 692.29 on the less-glamorous side of the ball. Similar to the sixth pick, the seventh has never seen a player finish his career with a TPA over 2000. It has yielded fewer stark negatives, though, and its mean comes out to a narrowly positive 68. The New York Knicks are now on the clock.

With the 8th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the New York Knicks select…Shawn Respert, minus-159.79 TPA

We’re beginning to see a trend. Sixth, seventh, and eighth picks have been net negatives more often than net positives. Some of the negatives to come out of the eighth spot: Olden Polynice (minus-776.68), Rafael Araujo (minus-196.57), and Jamal Crawford (minus-658.39). The Dallas Mavericks are now on the clock.

With the 9th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Dallas Mavericks select…Stacey Augmon, minus-115.21 TPA

On the bright side, the ninth pick in the draft has resulted in a disproportionate number of true studs: Dirk Nowitzki (3585.71), Tracy McGrady (2845.1), and Shawn Marion (2684.78), to name a few.

Peculiarly, teams in the period under scrutiny have twice selected players with surnames featuring the Irish O-prefix with the ninth pick: Ed O’Bannon (minus-149.05) and Patrick O’Bryant (minus-32.05). No players with similar surnames appear on NBADraft.net’s big board this year, but the Mavs should probably play it safe and avoid OG Anunoby just in case. The Sacramento Kings are now on the clock.

With the 10th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Sacramento Kings select…Bison Dele, minus-41.4 TPA

This sad exploration has perhaps reached its nadir. Dele had two productive years on middling Pistons teams in the late ‘90s, retired before the age of 30 and died under dubious circumstances just a couple of years later. The Charlotte Hornets are now on the clock.

With the 11th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Charlotte Hornets select…Keith Lee, minus-118.59 TPA

No surprise here. Negative TPA scores have become the norm for draftees on this side of the lottery. Due to the exploits of Hall of Famer Reggie Miller (3394.95), however, the mean for the eleventh pick is a respectable 133, akin to a player like Bonzi Wells. Other notable No. 11 picks include Robert Horry (2012.1) and Kevin Willis, who holds the dual distinctions of being one of only three men to play in and win a Finals game over the age of 40 and having the widest discrepancy I’ve yet encountered between a win share total (81.8) and a TPA score(minus-1370.42). The Detroit Pistons are now on the clock.

With the 12th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Detroit Pistons select…Khalid Reeves, minus-181.64 TPA

Though Reeves was not as strongly negative as a couple of the median cases above, the No. 12 pick as a whole can make a claim for being the least valuable slot in the lottery with a mean TPA of minus-116. The lottery has been littered with cautionary tales and perhaps none is more harrowing—save Len Bias—than that of Robert Swift, whose story was documented in great detail by Sports Illustrated last fall. Swift is an archetype in many ways—too much money, too little structure—but like Bowie, his on-court production is stunningly close to average for a player taken at his draft position. Swift’s career TPA came in at minus-118.37, just over two points off the mean. The Denver Nuggets are now on the clock.

With the 13th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Denver Nuggets select…Jalen Rose, minus-114.24 TPA

Finally, some good news. The No. 13 pick has been the draft’s home of hidden gems, including generation-defining stars Karl Malone (6236.51) and—dont @ me—Kobe Bryant (4361.47). Finding two players who rank among the top-20 on the all-time TPA list so deep in the lottery is both refreshing and thought-provoking—can we get some statisticians to look into the odds here? The Miami Heat are now on the clock.

With the 14th Pick in the Expected Value Draft, the Miami Heat select…Anthony Randolph, minus-168.36 TPA

I was unreasonably high on Randolph coming out of LSU and truly believed he would be what Giannis Antetokounmpo has become. Though his career didn’t take the trajectory I forecasted, it’s great to see Randolph is still making mind-bending plays over in Europe.

And that does it—our Expected Value Draft is complete. I began this exercise with the hunch that our hopes were generally too high, but I had no idea just how bleak the numbers would really be. Based on the median return from the 25 years analyzed, not only should most lottery teams not expect a star, they should merely hope for a player who can grow into a net positive. Among the picks in the lottery—and surely all of those thereafter, as well—only the first five have produced more net positives than net negatives.

The lesson to keep with you as you sit down to watch the annual ceremony is clear: Temper your expectations and cherish the moment, because the TPA score of the player your team drafts will probably never climb as high as it is on draft night for the rest of his career.

 

Follow Jordan on Twitter @jordanmcgillis.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com.

Comments 2

  • Wouldn’t it make more sense to use some sort of average TPA so that recent draft picks (which tends to have a lower TPA compare to someone who played in the league in 10 + years assuming the player played a decent amount of time of course) will be considered as the “best” player of the pick? For the 6th pick, the “best” player here is Shane Battier but if an average is use I think it will probably be Damian Lillard or even, flops aside, Marcus Smart.

  • Ehh, I get what you are saying but this doesn’t really take into account the strength of a draft class. Last year’s draft’s only “sure thing” was Simmons (although some believed and still believe Ingram was the better prospect). This year’s draft may not have a sure thing but it has several potential All-Stars. You are probably right and I am probably wrong but I expect the following to achieve some level of stardom: Dennis Smith Jr. (I am very bullish on him), Fox, Tatum (Carmelo Anthony 0.75), Fultz (mini-Paul Pierce), Josh Jackson (should offer a million dollars to Greg Popovich to work with Chip Englander during the offseason). I am uncomfortable evaluating Lonzo Ball; I think he has the greatest distance between his floor and ceiling (I also don’t have an opinion on Isaac). I know nothing about Ntilikina. The following will likely have some great peak seasons: Monk, Markkannen, Adebayo (his shooting mechanics have improved so much). Outside the lottery – not the focus of this article – Terrence Ferguson despite his Aussie numbers has a near perfect jump shot, is somewhere between 6’5″ and 6’7, is a willing defender, and can jump out of the gym (I have great hope for him). Harry Giles is not Leon Powe. Harry Giles is not Leon Powe. Harry… maybe if I keep saying it will become true. Frank Jackson’s floor is Jared Bayless with a consistent stroke from everywhere. Jordan Bell has been discussed ad nauseum. BTW, I would have picked (and stand by it) Skal in the lottery last year.

    Dennis Smith has average wingspan – so does Kyrie (it’s possible to be good and not have long arms). Right now he’s an okay shooter but he has very natural footwork for hesitation pull-ups and side-step and step-back three-pointers. As you can see, I have an unnatural love for Dennis Smith Jr….’s game. I realize this isn’t my diary and no one cares what I think but sometimes you gotta get your opinion written down for posterity’s sake. Trevon Duval 2018!!!!