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Basketball philosophy

Why I believe bad draft picks happen

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at the end of the Yao Foundation charity baske...

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Just about everyone knows that the NBA Draft is inprecise. Every year seems to have 1 or 2 *complete* busts picked top 10, as in players who aren’t getting minutes in the NBA within a few years. For example in the last few days 4 lottery picks from the 2009 draft were given up on a team for the 2nd time in their careers – Hasheem Thabeet (#2), Jonny Flynn (#6), Jordan Hill (#8), Terrence Williams (#11) were Rockets a few days ago and now, not so much. A 5th lottery pick Earl Clark (#14) is also essentially a hopeless, epic bust. From the 2010 draft Wesley Johnson (#4), Ekpe Udoh (#6), Al-Farouq Aminu (#8), Cole Aldrich (#11), Xavier Henry (#12) and Ed Davis (#13) also look like “Um… could we have a mulligan on that one?” picks.

What made these busts? In many cases, predictable mistakes. Thabeet, Udoh and Hill had very little feel for the game offensively and terrible hands, making them hard players to fit into a lineup – they were also very old for prospects. Flynn, Williams and Aminu had physical advantages in college that no longer existed in the NBA, leaving only their lack of skill. Johnson and Henry are good examples of how a 40% NCAA 3pt line shooter is not a guaranteed to be a sniper in the NBA, as the quantity of players who can shoot at that rate is much much higher with the shortened line in college. And so on.

What I’ve toyed with for some time is how much to blame scouts. I don’t want to insult scouts, partly because I have little knowledge of the decisions they’ve made individually, and because it just seems inherently logical that the people paid to do this for a living and who thus spend full time jobs looking at these prospects, should be better at this than anyone.

So how do they miss the Thabeet and Udoh situations that it seems like everyone else can see them from a mile away? Maybe it’s because the scouts aren’t making the decision. A big smoking gun that led me to this is just how much the prestige of a player’s school seems to lend itself to “draft rankings”. The stage of the big programs like Kentucky, North Carolina, Conneticut, etc. always seems to give an advantage to prospects, while players at small schools or in smaller conferences end up understated. A good example this year is comparing Kendall Marshall at UNC to Scott Machado at Iona who have a lot in common. They are both outstanding passers with a nearly 10 assist per game average, and are identically average in size and athletic tools. Machado is a much better outside shooter. Yet Marshall is ranked much higher and top 25 even with the caveat that “He’d be a lottery pick if he had a hittable outside shot”, while Machado, who has that shot, is projected as a 2nd rounder. I have 0 doubt in my mind that if you reversed their schools with Machado as the floor general at high profile North Carolina, their spots in the draft would reverse. Another good example is how Thomas Robinson at Kansas is almost a perfect match statistically with Arnett Moultrie at Mississipi State in scoring and rebounds, Moultrie is just as gifted athletically, and they are similar ages, and yet Robinson is in the mix for top 3 in the draft while Moultrie will struggle to make top 15. Again I just don’t see how this can’t have everything to do with the high profile of playing on the Kansas Jayhawks vs the Mississipi State Bulldogs.

But here’s the thing. From the perspective of professional scouts, this doesn’t make sense. These guys get paid specifically to see MORE games and teams than everyone else. These are the guys who not only see the Iona and Mississipi games, but have front row seats to them, multiple times. They have all year to watch hour after hour of clips on players whom to the mass public, are completley under the radar. So how could they do that and justify the gap between a Marshall and Machado? Likewise, a lot of the underrated college players have been so because they don’t put up the same statistics that their present (not future) skillset should allow them to. Jrue Holliday was a good basketball player already by his freshman year, but played in such a weird situation that he didn’t put up NBA caliber stats. Greg Monroe was one of the most skilled college big men in a generation, yet put up underwhelming college numbers because his teammates didn’t pass him the ball. Again, scouts should see this – easily. They have the clips, they have the time to not look at a boxscore alone to see how someone played.

And for this reason I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt with my theory of how these mistakes keep happening. I believe there are teams where the scouting makes the decision, and then there’s the teams where the Final say comes from the owner or GM, who are far far more preoccupied with other jobs and issues throughout the year to truly concentrate on their pick. These guys don’t have the time to watch hours of Scott Machado and Arnett Moultrie footage. But they might turn on a North Carolina vs Duke battle for the ACC title. Now this is where I could see the mistakes mentioned in the previous paragraph happening. Biases from seeing the biggest college teams the most often. Relying on boxscore statistics and not seeing the grey area underneath them. With less time and energy spent making the pick, I would guess these mistakes are more capable of happening.

And why would the owner or GM have the Final say? For the owner, perhaps just pleasure or power, perhaps because he has much more going on in his entrepreneurial life it can be a luxury of sorts and a no biggie if he fails, compared to the scout who’d had his job and liklihood when deciding whether Hasheem Thabeet was a good 2nd overall pick. For the GM, his job is likely completley on the line with a top 5-7 pick of a rebuilding team and it can completley define his tenure, clearly he has to be involved. This is why I believe bad draft picks happen. It’s not the scout who’s spent 6 months preparing for the draft and exploring every nook and cranny of it. It’s the Michael Jordan seeing Sean May and Adam Morrison on the big stage and going with his heart. It’ s the Michael Heisley stepping in after the cloudiness of Ricky Rubio’s buyout and saying “Eff it, that big African guy from Uconn looks like a good player”.  It’s David Kahn riding on a white horse to save the Minnesota Timberwolves and  seeing a handful of Wes Johnson games where he looks like NCAA Shawn Marion, but not any Paul George ones. No disrespect to Jordan, Heisley or Kahn, they all are succesful for a reason in other endevours, just not necessarily scouting.

Now one could say “But a lot of busts are regarded as consensually agreed upon at that ranking”. After all, Wes Johnson and Jonny Flynn were consensus top 10 picks. However the question is where do these rankings come from. Who calls Chad Ford to tell them where the team is standing? I’m guessing the GMs are likely to, or at least the players high on the board are already influenced by GMs enough by that point.

Generally I would suspect that owners and GMs making draft decisions is more prone to failure, for the same reason socialist/communist governments have less success than capitalist ones. When you’re a single entity at the top making decisions, it’s just too big of a job and  you aren’t personally on the line for it. You’re too disconnected from every individual factor to see them all.

Of course this could be completley off base and perhaps bad draft picks are a matter of either the impossibility of the NBA Draft, or scouts who are simply awful at their job and retain them for reasons outside their performance, like age and reputation. However I believe it’s likely that this need for draft picks to come from the top of the franchise, has something to do with it, since a lot of NBA scouting mistakes make little sense without it.

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Written by jr.

March 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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