Good Draft/Bad Draft, High Upside/Low Upside – The strange presence of certainty statements in a sea of assumed uncertainty in the NBA Draft
Since following the NBA draft, I’ve noticed a strange dichotomy between accepted uncertainty and certainty. By that I mean on one hand, you’ll often hear the draft is a “crapshoot”, or Jerry West’s quote that hitting 50% of the time in the draft is a huge success. This uncertainty principle serves to let teams off the hook for bad picks under the guise of “Hey, being wrong is just part of the draft, it’s an unscientific process”
Yet at the same time there’s statements spoken with certainty. By that I mean two labels. One is the “good draft/bad draft” label. More times than not, a draft gets called terrible or hopeless and one where teams and fans should expect any stars, or should be happy just to make it out alive with a role player. Every once in a while, there’s a draft widely accepted as a standout, as well.
The other label is “high upside/low upside”, or statements about a player’s ceiling or floor. Players are often separated into groups including “He doesn’t have a high upside, but he’s a safe bet to be a solid contributer”, or “He might be a bust, but the upside he’ll be a star”.
Of course, neither of these labels have a success rate much above West’s 50%, if they do at all. I remember the 2009 draft was called one of the worst of all time and how if teams didn’t get Blake Griffin, they had no other chance at a blue chippers. Years later it’s produced not just a star in Griffin, but an MVP candidate in James Harden and 3 other established star PGs in Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday, as well as other intriguing players like Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, Demar Derozan, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, etc. The flipside is 2010, called a great draft because of two surefire stars in John Wall and Evan Turner, along two other draft stars in Derrick Favors and Demarcus Cousins. None of Wall, Turner, or Favors are stars and Cousins, while productive, is a headache. While players like Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Larry Sanders have stood out, unless the top 5 turns it around, 2010 will likely go down as a weak draft.
Likewise, the “high upside/low upside” labels are often proven very wrong. Half the stars in the NBA, weren’t expected to be stars when they entered the NBA. For every Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, or Blake Griffin, there’s a Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Joakim Noah, Brook Lopez, etc., players who supposedly didn’t have “star upside” at the time of their draft. Not to mention stars picked outside of the lottery entirely such as Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Lawson, etc. Likewise, there are “safe” prospects who are the biggest busts. Wes Johnson in 2010 was a definitive “No star upside, but safe!” player who busted for Minnesota. Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill and Turner are also recent examples of “safe” prospects who weren’t – as was Thomas Robinson labeled safe, but now appears to have high bust potential with his early play and Sacramento dumping him.
The reason the NBA isn’t great at evaluating safe and high upside prospects, is they do it based on a few traits. The incredibly athletic, but raw players are called high risk, high upside. Mediocre athletes with a high skill level and feel for the game are called low upside. Players who are good in college are deemed to be safe, while players who are projects in it are deemed to be risks.
Naturally there’s a lot of problems with this approach. As stars like Love, Curry, Marc Gasol, etc. have shown, elite athleticism is not a requirement for stardom, if the player’s skill and feel is high enough. Yet all players who are not athletically dominant in college, especially the white ones, are deemed to have limited upsides. Then there’s the raw athletes, where it’s ignoring that skill and instincts are innate talents, which makes it erroneous to assume their upsides are unlimited. A lot of the “high upside, high risk” players, such as Derrick Favors or Demar Derozan, end up neither – instead being players with flawed skill games, who are physically gifted enough to land in the middle class of the NBA. Finally, the idea that college stars are safe bets is a problem. College is a place where less talented players can dominate, especially if they’re older and physically superior to their peers. A weak talent who plays above his head in college because of age and physical advantages that won’t be there in the NBA, is exactly how a player busts.
What’s ironic about the “high upside/high risk” labels in particular, is that they claim the player’s range between how good or how bad his career could be with massive, and thus totally uncertain – But this claim itself is usually spoken with utter certainty.
If the draft as a whole is widely considered uncertain and riddled with misevaluations after years after hindsight – Why are people so convinced when they say a draft is good/bad, or which prospects have the highest ceilings and highest floors? In reality, the history of mistakes in the draft process makes it more logical to say it’s just as uncertain how strong the draft will be, and just as uncertain which players have the high ceilings and high floors. To recognize which drafts are good or which prospects have a high upside, would require effectiveness and efficiency ranking the prospects in that draft – it goes hand in hand. Since we know teams are inefficient evaluating prospects, there’s no way anyone should trust their claims about how strong the draft is or what a prospect’s ceiling is. To claim “This process is a sea of uncertainness, but we KNOW this” is illogical and contradictory.