Draft Theory: The Past, The Present, The Future

I have been projecting the NBA Draft since 2014. Each year, I update my methodology to try to more accurately predict the draft. However, the base principle remains the same: look at the players who are currently successful and unsuccessful in the NBA, look at how they played in college, then find players who match those molds. This leads into…

The eternal tug of war

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Past results do not predict future performance.

In a nutshell, the best way to learn is to look at history, but just because something happened previously does not mean it will happen again. That is a difficult place to be. Last year, I became so frustrated by the unpredictability of it all that I wrote just a single article asking if there’s any way to predict this or if the draft truly is pure variance.

Now, I’m a big believer that the draft must be approached in the most objective ways possible. One of my biggest issues with most big boards is that they completely lack internal logic. When there are no strong, coherent principles underlying a big board, they become more and more vulnerable to both emotion and fallacy. There is no way to be successful in the long term relying on emotion and biased thinking.

My other big issue is how much consensus there is. The top 15 players from the 2014 draft, as of right now, are Embiid, Gordon, Smart, Randle, Saric, LaVine, Nurkic, Caboclo, Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Anderson, J. Harris, Dinwiddie, Jerami Grant, and Jokic, in some order. Those players were drafted 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 12th, 13th, 16th, 20th, 25th, 27th, 30th, 33rd, 38th, 39th, and 41st. The top 15 players from the 2015 draft, as of right now, are Towns, Russell, Porzingis, Cauley-Stein, Winslow, Turner, Booker, Rozier, Wright, Nance, Looney, Harrell, Richardson, Connaughton, and Powell. Those players were drafted 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 16th, 20th, 27th, 30th, 32nd, 40th, 41st, and 46th.

Now, there have been some injuries (most notably to Jabari Parker), and some players may still improve (especially the very young players drafted in 2015). You may disagree with 2-3 guys. But the point is, when you look at the draft slots, it becomes obvious that NBA teams themselves clearly struggle just as much projecting these guys as the rest of us. And most media big boards tend to roughly reflect the actual draft order. It remains to be seen how 2016 to the present will pan out, but at least in 2016, the three best players so far were drafted 1 (Simmons), 27 (Siakam), and 36 (Brogdon).

Is the system working?

I take a look at past drafts each year, comparing them to my previous big boards. And each year, I have tweaked my system to reflect the lessons that I was learning. Over the past year, I have stepped back and re-evaluated my entire approach to the draft, and I came to one very obvious conclusion: by tweaking my system, I was starting with the assumption that my system was actually working. Sure, it was working for the very top players, but for everybody else, it was no better or worse than the consensus big board or actual draft.

I will never guarantee perfect accuracy. It would be impossible to do so. My goal is always to do better than the actual NBA teams. If we both hit, or we both miss, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s hitting the ones they miss and not missing the ones they hit. In 2014 and 2015, I was better in the top 10 but that was about it. In 2016…the 2016 draft just sucks so far. It’s hard to draw any conclusions from that. 2017 and 2018 are too recent.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who learn the wrong lessons don’t fare any better. That’s where I was at last year – I was learning the wrong lessons. I still think that past drafts and present players significantly help in projecting the future. Nobody will ever be perfect – these are unique human beings who will grow at different rates, who will be shaped in different ways by different teams, and no two will develop the same way. But good draft projection doesn’t need to be perfect.

Past results do not guarantee future performance. This is true. But past results are still a good indicator of future performance. There are certain archetypes of players that are drafted highly consistently and fail consistently. Identifying these players is a good start. Identifying who will actually succeed is a much more difficult challenge.

The Fail Point

In approaching the draft this year, my primary goal was to figure out where the fail point was. And the fail point was essentially twofold. First, I was applying the same standards to all players regardless of how good or bad they were and regardless of what position they played, when doing so clearly wasn’t working. And second, I was making a big list instead of a big board. This point will make more sense when I unveil it.

So this year’s draft series is all about how I have updated the theory behind my big board. Will it lead to a better outcome? Hopefully. When will we know? Oh, about five years from now.

Why don’t we start there? Tomorrow: On Age, Development, and Value.