NBA Draft

NBA Teams Need to Change How They Make Their Draft Boards

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There seems to be a consensus among league executives that swinging for the fences or prioritizing perceived upside is the best strategy when evaluating talent in the NBA draft.

As a result, there’s been plenty of very reliable upperclassmen or older prospects slide further than they should on draft night. Take the 2020 NBA Draft for example, where there wasn’t one upperclassmen taken in the first 25 picks. A borderline All-Star, Desmond Bane, who had just completed his senior year at TCU and was 23 years old on draft night, ended up going with the 30th pick.

Meanwhile, in 2021, productive college players such as Virginia’s Sam Hauser, Oklahoma’s Austin Reaves, and ACC Player of the Year, Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado all went undrafted as college seniors. Fast forward three years later, and all three of those players are playing rotation minutes for teams with playoff aspirations.

The first college upperclassman taken in the 2023 NBA Draft was UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez at 18th overall. There’s also some Portsmouth Invitational invitees such as the 52nd pick in the draft, Portland Trail Blazers forward, Toumani Camara from Dayton, and undrafted free agent, Craig Porter Jr. from Wichita State.

Think of any wildly success second-round pick that came out of college. In 2012, Draymond Green and Khris Middleton both went as picks 35 and 39, respectfully. In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon was the 36th pick while Alex Caruso and Fred VanVleet went undrafted. In 2017, NBA fans saw Kyle Kuzma go 27th, Derrick White go 29th, and Josh Hart go 30th in the draft. Finally, in 2018, NCAA Men’s National Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson fell to the 33rd pick in the draft. All of these guys had one thing in common: they were upperclassmen. Time and time again, NBA executives see players they passed on during their draft year thrive in their current environment but they opted not to draft them because they wanted a perceived sexier pick. It’s time to stop that trend.

Finding Contributors

John Hollinger, a former executive for the Memphis Grizzlies and current contributor for The Athletic, creates a Big Board of twenty players annually because typically that’s the average amount of players in a draft class who become contributors to an NBA team.

Additionally, over the last four NBA drafts, there have been 100 first-round picks that came out of college. In total, a whopping 78 of those players have been underclassmen. This article is not arguing against taking a swing on potential, but what it is arguing is to make sure you can get one of those “Hollinger 20”.

As demonstrated — more often than not — when an undrafted player, or a late first rounder or a second-round pick has major success in the NBA, they always seem to be a college upperclassman. NBA fans have seen players such as Chris Duarte or Ochai Agbaji be drafted in the lottery after their senior years,  so maybe the trend is slowly catching on.

This tweet from Sam Vecenie talking about Kentucky freshman, Reed Sheppard, perfectly illustrates a newfound draft philosophy:

Despite this tweet referring to a freshman, the sentiment of the tweet holds true: being good at basketball should matter when evaluating these draft prospects. Upperclassmen across the country have been underrated in NBA draft circles due to being older and having less perceived upside. When a player has such a high floor outcome and they’re prepared to be an NBA rotation player from day one, however, that should matter a great deal when evaluating a college player.

The New Draft Philosophy

Under the new CBA, the value of a role player has increased a great deal, especially a role player on a rookie contract.

The Denver Nuggets are a prime example of this. After coming off a championship this past offseason, Nuggets GM Calvin Booth essentially traded a 2029 first-round pick and pick No. 40 in the NBA draft and turned those picks into pick Nos. 29, 32 and 37 in the draft. Not only did the Nuggets make all three selections, but they used all three of those picks on upperclassmen— Julian Strawther from Gonzaga (29), Jalen Pickett from Penn State (32), and Hunter Tyson from Clemson (37).

From Denver’s perspective, it is valuable to have high-level role players that are also cheap production. Otherwise, Denver is likely going to be paying the luxury tax for years to come and would be limited on being able to acquire talent through alternative means.

Ultimately, this article shouldn’t dissuade talent evaluators to flood the top of their big boards with older players, but it may be time to move those productive seniors that typically would go mid-second round into first-round territory. At the very least, this should at least persuade those evaluators to err towards drafting that senior they’ve loved for years with that second-round pick rather than taking a project that could end up spending half their rookie contract developing in the G League.

This isn’t meant to disparage younger prospects but instead, it’s meant to reiterate the importance of impactful role players on such valuable contracts. It’s possible last year’s Nuggets draft could be a blueprint for future draft philosophies of NBA front offices, but as Sam Vecenie said, sometimes being good at basketball should matter when evaluating prospects.

About Steven Bagell

I'm a self-proclaimed NBA Front Office and Salary Cap Expert and I'm host of Bird Rights Podcast and One & Done: A College Basketball Podcast.

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