The main thing we know about the NBA Draft is that we basically don’t know anything.
Let me run through some examples to explain what I mean:
- In 2013, the Cleveland Cavaliers felt Anthony Bennett (!) was worthy enough to be the number one pick in the draft. Anthony Bennett, who most recently averaged 1.2 points per game in the Turkish Basketball Super League!
- Two years earlier, Jimmer Fredette was drafted directly ahead of Klay Thompson…and four spots in front of Kawhi Leonard.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves, in 2009, selected not one, but two point guards–Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn–with the fifth and sixth overall picks. Rubio has been OK, but Flynn was out of the league in a blink of an eye. Yet which point guard happened to be taken seventh? Steph Curry.
- You can make excuses all day long–if only Oden had stayed healthy! But the fact is: the Portland Trail Blazers passed on Kevin Durant.
- With three potential Hall of Famers–Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade–waiting to be selected near the top of the 2003 Draft, the Detroit Pistons went with…Darko Milicic.
- And perhaps worst of all, here were the players drafted in front of KOBE BRYANT in 1996. Tell me if you’ve heard of any of them: Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles (that’s actually a pretty cool name), Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko. I rest my case…
So there are two possible conclusions from this exercise. One, NBA executives are clueless, which I think is unlikely. Or two, which I think is far more likely, there’s a lot of uncertainty when drafting 18-21 year-old prospects, making it IMPOSSIBLE to declare “winners” and “losers” immediately after the draft. We simply don’t know whether, say, my Celtics made a grave mistake by picking Jayson Tatum instead of Josh Jackson. Or if De’Aron Fox was the can’t-miss prospect in this draft rather than Markelle Fultz.
In fact, of the players drafted with the first five selections in last night’s draft–Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Tatum, Jackson, and Fox–history says that only two or three of them are likely to live up to the hype, as 55 of the last 120 top five picks (46%) have gone on to make at least one All-Star appearance. That, of course, also means that two or three of them are likely to underachieve. Granted, there are years when this is not true, like 2003, when LeBron, ‘Melo, Bosh, and Wade were all drafted in the top five. But there are also years like 2006, when only one top five pick (LaMarcus Aldridge) went on to become successful, and 2013, when no players in the entire first round have yet been selected to an All-Star game.
Unsurprisingly, the odds of grabbing a star improve the higher one selects in the draft. A team has a better than 50% chance of landing an All-Star if their pick falls in the top three (53%, over the past 24 drafts), and a slightly higher chance if it’s in the top two (55%). Conversely, only 27% of all lottery picks in general have gone on to make at least one All-Star trip over this same 24-year sample. So the cold reality is this: a majority of the franchises hoping last night will turn their futures around will ultimately end up empty handed.
But there was one clear winner last night: Minnesota. In short, the Timberwolves were the only team to come away from a rather uncertain event with a certain star. Jimmy Butler is coming off a year in which he set career-highs in points (23.9), rebounds (5.5), and assists (6.2). Plus, he’s only 27-years-old and he was recently named to my highly coveted list of the Top 15 players in the NBA!
Even better news for Minnesota: they didn’t give up too much in return to Chicago. Zack LaVine, at just 22-years-old, is a promising player, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. Meanwhile, their first round pick from last year, Kris Dunn, had a mediocre rookie season in which he struggled to crack their rotation. The main reason why Dunn didn’t receive much playing time, though, was because Ricky Rubio finally came into his own during the second-half of last year, as he averaged close to 16 points per game and over 10 assists after the All-Star break. And as for the seventh overall pick they sacrificed, there’s no guarantee, based on what I explained above, that he evolves into anything more than a serviceable player.
A couple other teams seemed to have nice nights, as well. Philadelphia, in particular, looks like they have their “Big-Three” in place after the selection of Fultz. I bet he turns into a good player, especially since 17 of the last 24 number one picks have evolved into All-Stars. And as for my Celtics, when you factor in how selecting Tatum, a small forward, makes more sense than drafting another guard (which we don’t really need), as well as how we secured another first-round pick by trading down, Boston made another stride, albeit small, toward incrementally improving their current roster, while maintaining an eye on the future.
Yet the only definitive winner of the night, as it stands now, was Minnesota. Placing Butler alongside two emerging stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins clearly makes the Timberwolves a playoff-caliber team. The West is still clearly Golden State’s to lose for the time being, but the Timberwolves now have a championship-caliber nucleus with Towns, Wiggins, and Butler that I think will make noise in the postseason as early as next year.