Why there isn’t talent outside of the draft lottery

The draft can be magical or…other

Arturo released the ultimate draft cheat sheet primer recently. A common misconception of the draft is that if you aren’t a bad team, you stand no shot at top talent. Historically though, this hasn’t been the case. Arturo’s models though only identified 16 players that are “Draft Worthy”. Arturo’s criteria is that players be close to average in their rookie contract if you draft them. Sure, it turns out every draft pick is a steal given the terrible rookie pay scale. Regardless, the draft should be used for improving your team, not just ripping off young basketball players. Let’s break things down, shall we?

There is a limited amount of talent in the draft.

Arturo has two models: Yogi and Boo-Boo (I had nothing to do with the naming. When you’re a genius though you get to name stuff whatever you want). Yogi looks at a player’s age, height, college stats and position to determine if you should draft the player. Boo-Boo actually does the same thing. However, Boo-Boo sees height and age as categories (think of them as positions, e.g. point guard vs. center) whereas Yogi treats them as continuous values. Yogi is a bit pickier than Boo-Boo but both have a hit rate of over 40% looking at historical players from 1996 onwards that played 400+ minutes per season. Putting our money where out mouth is, Arturo said Kenneth Faried, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard were the top picks of the last draft before the season started. Moving on.

When we ask Yogi and Boo-Boo what they think of this year’s draft they come up with a total of 17 names combined and only agree 9 of them (so the other 8 are split decisions). For reference here are the names (names in bold are unanimous decisions, the rest are split decision):

  • Anthony Davis,
  • Jae Crowder,
  • Bradley Beal
  • William Mosley
  • Jesse Sanders
  • Damian Lillard
  • Will Barton
  • Ken Horton
  • Marcus Denmom
  • Jared Sullinger
  • Drew Gordon
  • Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
  • Draymond Green
  • Thomas Robinson
  • Scott Machado
  • John Henson
  • Ricardo Ratliffe

With only 17 names in the draft worth considering and only 9 “sure-fire”  (Yes, nothing is sure-fire, we know) the draft looks a lot like we’d expect. You need a top 10 pick to get good talent. At the bare minimum you need a lottery pick, right?

Teams are poor at evaluating talent

Good news first. Teams actually do use stats to evaluate talent in the draft. In fact, in Dave’s prior research he found a statistical model explained over 60% of decision making in drafting college players. And in recent years statistics explain even more in drafting decisions (Dave will be presenting his work at the Western Economics Association this week and we’ll be posting on his work after) The problem is that teams focus on the wrong stats. Things like if the player made the Final Four are considered over things like rebounding. The problem with this is that evaluating players on the wrong stats means you can draft players that are less than good.

Players slip through the cracks

On Arturo’s radar are five players that are currently projected outside of the draft, most made an appearance on James’ Underrated Prospects list.

What’s more, only four players on Arturo’s radar show up on Draft Express’ prospect list as a lottery pick:

It turns out teams aren’t focusing on which players were winning games in college, they are focusing on those that “look the part” of an NBA player. As James’ pointed out, it doesn’t matter if a player runs like a deer, if they’re bad. In fact, focusing on asthetics over skill is how you draft Sam Bowie over Charles Barkley!

Summing up

The reality of the draft is quite interesting. Teams actually have an accurate idea about it. Of course, the problem is that this view assumes all teams are rational. Most of the teams in the draft are there because they played poorly last season. And this tends to be the result of being bad at assessing talent. Of course, the key to the draft is, well, assessing talent! It’s no surprise that bad teams fail at it and good teams game the system. I just figured it would be nice to let some of the worse teams in the league know they’re at least partially right heading into the draft, even though I’m sure many will choose poorly.


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