NBA draft week is a time of infinite hope, even in a year when the prospects are considered relatively weak Fans begin to speculate on whom would fill that hole in the rotation, how that piece is out there if their GM is just savvy enough to obtain him. For teams ready to compete sooner rather than later, there is deep consideration given to the more NBA ready player, sometimes code for those college seniors who have refined their game. But infused in much of this talk, is the belief that, at least by the players second year certainly, he will begin to meaningfully contribute to the teams success.
I do not write to praise these dreams, but to bury them.
Below are the findings of an analysis of two-year outcomes of the 117 players drafted in the first round from 1980 to 1984 versus the 143 players drafted in the first round from 2000 to 2004. The college senior was a draft expectation, not exception, in the early 80s, and the emergence of the international player was very much in its nascent stage. Thus, the early 80s provides a good comparative context to this decades trends.
Some of the primary questions to be addressed are:
What, in this era, can reasonably be expected in the short run (i.e. over the first 2 seasons) from draft picks?
Does the uncertainty of making high picks on such young players, make late first round picks more valuable?
Does drafting a college senior increase your odds of getting a player who can help you immediately?
Is the inclusion of high school and international players completely to blame for the potential lack of production over the first two years in the league?
Do some positions have more of an immediate impact in the league than others?
Greater detail on the methodology of how player position and outcome (in that article over the first 5 years, here the first two) was determined can be found here.
Finding I: If you want immediate help from the draft, go back and draft in the early 80s. A third (33%) of the players drafted in the first round from 1980-84 were at least solid NBA starters by their second season compared with only 15% of those drafted from 2000-04 (Figure 1). Over a third (35%) of the players drafted from 2000-04 were sitting at the end of benches (or out of the league) in their second year. If you wanted an immediate star in this decade you could not dawdle: five of the six players drafted from 2000-04 (at least in this rating system) who were stars by their second season (Yao Ming, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade) were drafted among the top 5 picks (only Amare Stoudemire [9th] defied the odds).
As most star players are found at the top of the draft, perhaps limiting ourselves to this portion of the draft would be provide a different outlook; however, it is just as pronounced a difference. Over half (53%) of the players drafted in the top half of the first round from 1980 to 1984 were at least solid starters by their second season (Figure 2). However from 2000 to 2004, only a quarter (25%) of top-half picks were solid NBA starters by their second seasons.
Finding II: The bottom half of the first round is faring no better than it did in the early 80s; in fact, it does slightly worse. Late first round picks have rarely been players of much immediate impact: they have the dual barriers of not being generally as talented as those drafted above them and playing for better teams who have set rotations, thus providing less opportunity for young players. But, some have still wondered: with so many highly talented but speculative young layers drafted early, maybe there are some good deals late in the round? As Figure 3 illustrates, there are precious few immediate impact players to be garnered. Only 5 of the 73 players (7%) drafted in the bottom half of the first round of the 2000-04 drafts had become solid starters by their second seasons (Tony Parker, Tayshaun Prince, Josh Howard, Jameer Nelson, and Delonte West). Even in the early 80s, significant success was rare for late first round picks (9 of 60 at least solid starters [15%]). There are not, and have never been, many instant pearls found late in the first round.
Finding III: The rates of second year player being at least solid starters are virtually identical for point/combo guards (15%), wings (17%), and centers (14%). Wing players (55%) are slightly more likely to make it as marginal starters or rotational bench players than are point guards (44%) or big men (47%) within the first two years.
One of the most difficult experiences in life is the uprooting of passionate, yet unrealistic, expectations. So many high school, college, and international players look like potential NBA stars to fans, from what they see and read. A few will have immediate success, but for most, even those who will become good players eventually, the modern era of basketball demands patience and level-headedness from its fans. The NBA draft is a long-term investment, not a quick fix. Most teams who want immediate help from draft picks should probably trade them for NBA veterans who have proven value. Otherwise, settle in and watch your investment grow, slowly.