The lessons learned from other leagues

Making a big board is hard. I have started looking outside the NBA Draft sphere for wisdom in other sports. After all, a draft is a draft, a team sport is a team sport, put it all together, and there’s some useful nuggets to be found.

NFL

Not all positions are valued equally in the NFL draft. QBs are valued significantly higher due to their extreme importance to the offense and to the team. Pass-rushing defensive ends have been valued higher due to their extreme importance to the defense. RBs are valued significantly lower due to their reliance on the offensive line and their low hit rate out of the draft and are typically drafted for team fit. And so on and so forth.

What does this have to do with the NBA draft? Not all positions have equal value, and I believe a big board should reflect this.

Last year, I wrote an overly complicated position manifesto. It…is just too complicated. This year, I have separated prospects into 6 categories: Primary, Secondary, Wing, Stretch, Rim, and ???. Primary is your typical point guard role. Secondary is 3-and-D combo guards and wings who have the ability to handle and pass a bit and have the ability to develop into either a point guard or a strong complement to a point guard. Wing is your typical 3-and-D run around screens and shoot players. Stretch is forwards who can shoot the 3. Rim is centers who can protect the rim. ??? is players who don’t neatly fit into any of those other categories – mainly guards and forwards who can’t shoot and centers who can’t protect the rim. Primary players get bumped up a tier, as they are the most valuable (the QBs, so to speak). Secondary players get bumped up half a tier – if they are close to the tier above, they will be pushed into it. Stretch and Rim players are roughly equal and do not get a tier adjustment. Wing players are the proverbial RBs – they have low upside, a low hit rate, and are filling out a roster. They are dropped a tier. ??? players are dropped 2 or more tiers, as no matter how good they are, if they don’t fit, their impact is severely dampened.

Without these adjustments, two players of equal talent but unequal value get ranked equally. But if they have different value, why should they be ranked equally? The NFL has shown that failing to adjust for value and simply taking the best talent does not lead to good results. The NBA has really shown the same. Adjustments should be made.

MLB

The MLB draft is very different than the NBA and NFL drafts. Why? Because MLB teams understand that kids need to mature into adults before they’re ready for the big leagues, and that most prospects simply are never going to be good enough to play at the top level.

MLB prospects can be drafted in roughly the same age range as NBA prospects. Almost every MLB prospect spends at least some time in the minor leagues. In fact, only one player has gone straight from the draft to the Majors in the past 20 years. Not just players drafted out of high school. Of all players drafted, only one player has gone straight to the majors inĀ 20 years. Why? Because even the best, most ready prospects benefit from an adjustment period to get used to a higher level of competition, a harder schedule, and all of the other challenges that come with becoming a pro. Even Mike Trout, who is on his way to becoming one of the top players of all time, spent over two years in the minors.

Of course, Mike Trout was drafted 25th overall. He was ranked the #85 prospect in baseball the offseason after he was drafted. At no time was he ranked the #1 prospect in baseball. In fact, until he reached the majors, he didn’t show nearly all the skills he showed after he got there and continued growing.

This is a typical story. Baseball fans are conditioned for this. Players drafted high bust. Players drafted low hit. Players develop skills as they get older. Of the top 5 domestic hitters in WAR this season, two attended college after being late draft picks out of high school. They were drafted out of college in the late 1st round and the 8th round. Of the top 5 domestic pitchers in WAR this season, two were drafted in the mid-rounds out of high school and then were drafted in the early-mid-first out of college, one was drafted in the 5th round out of high school, one was drafted 7th overall out of high school, and one was drafted 1st overall out of college after not even getting drafted at all out of high school.

What does this have to do with basketball? One of the challenges of prospect evaluation is that some players just never get an opportunity. But it goes further than that. In basketball, players who are older are treated as “no longer good prospects” and are significantly downgraded for nothing more than developing later. It would be nice if every player and prospect developed at exactly the same rate, but that’s just not the way it works. Guys develop in jumps and bumps, not a smooth curve. Some jump a lot. Some jump a little. Some jump a year before others. Baseball teams understand this and evaluates every prospect on their own merits. Basketball teams tend to overvalue young players and undervalue older players. They also do not have a proper minor league system, and thus players who may not deserve it but were drafted highly get many opportunities, while players who may deserve a look but were not drafted just hope they get a chance. It’s just a really inefficient system at every level right now.

Prospects are also never a guarantee. Ever. Baseball fans are conditioned for this. Most don’t pay attention to the draft or to prospects until they become elite prospects in higher levels. It is expected that most prospects, even top prospects, will bust or fall well short of elite. Basketball teams and fans would do well to adopt this mindset, accepting that prospects need time to develop and that some will surprise and some will disappoint, and that the more who are given chances, the better it will be for everybody.

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