2021 Draft Theory: The March Madness Theory of Player Projection

Big boards look far, far, far too much alike, with way too much consensus from top to bottom. In NFL Draft circles, it’s not uncommon for differences of opinions spanning multiple rounds. That is what would be expected – projecting the career paths of young players who have never played professional sports is extremely inexact.

The NBA Draft is unpredictable. How unpredictable? You can measure that in a number of ways.

First, let’s look at the top 10 in BPM in 2021. This isn’t a perfect list of the 10 best players, but it’s illustrative enough for this purpose:

Nikola Jokic41stJoel Embiid3rd
Giannis Antetokounmpo15thJames Harden3rd
Stephen Curry7thLuka Doncic3rd
Jimmy Butler30thKawhi Leonard15th
LeBron James1stDamien Lillard6th

If you keep going down the list, you’ll continue getting a mix that looks like this – the next tier includes a number of 1st overall players, a number of mid-late lottery players, and a handful of later picks. In short, players drafted at the top tend to have better outcomes than players drafted later, but it’s far from a guarantee, and not at a level of certainty that would warrant the level of consensus seen on draft boards.

Second, let’s look at recent NBA Champions, looking at players who played 50+ MP in the Finals:

TeamTop 56-14 (Lottery)15-30 (First Round)
2017 Warriors231
2018 Warriors221
2019 Raptors004
2020 Lakers322
2021 Bucks014

Much like the BPM method, this isn’t perfect. It counts low minute role players like 2017-18 Shaun Livingston and 2020 Dwight Howard as Top 5 picks, but it’s illustrative of the overall point. Championships are always won by elite players, elite players are not always drafted highly. The 2021 Bucks’ lone lottery pick was Brook Lopez. The 2019 Raptors didn’t have a single lottery pick on their roster and only one player drafted in the top 20. The 2020 Lakers had 3 #1 overall picks.

No matter how you slice it, the fact is that the best players, while typically weighted towards the top, are found throughout the draft. Draft projection should reflect that: while there should be some consensus among top prospects, there should be far, far less than there currently is. The fact that there isn’t is a good indication that draft projection is poor, and the results we see on the court confirms that.

And so I present “The March Madness Theory of Player Projection”.

60 NBA players are drafted each year, there are 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament each year. Every year, people try to predict every game. Every year, nobody gets everything correct, and most years, nobody is even close. You enter a bracket pool, and while there are definitely strong consensus picks, even the best teams have their doubters and even the worst have their believers. The 1 seeds (the top 4 picks) generally produce the winner (5 of the last 7), but which of those top 4 is going to be the actual best is much harder to predict. Most years, the Final Four (four best players) are a mix of a 1 seed (top player), two other 1-3 seeds (lottery picks), and a lower seed (post-lottery player).

The key is that, before the tournament? It’s really hard to predict which of those teams are actually going to be the successful ones. The top seeds/prospects are more likely to hit and likely are at least functional, but they don’t hit their expected potential nearly as often as their consensus would indicate. The next set of seeds/prospects are less likely than the previous set but there’s still a pretty good chance that one hits. There’s also another large group of seeds/prospects that are likely to produce surprises, but it’s harder to find them.

If you look back on my big boards, I have always sought to balance the chance of hitting a middle outcome with the ability to hit the high end outcome. Like in the NCAA Tournament, we know that some lower consensus-ranked prospects will become better players than higher ones. And yet anybody who dares to do the equivalent of saying “I think a 12 will beat a 5” or “a 7 seed or lower will make the Final Four”, things which happen practically every year, are considered wild or unreliable (or worse).

So when you head into this draft, or any other draft, remember: it’s the NCAA Tournament. There will be upsets. There will be surprises. There will be busts. There will be prospects who come on strong, and prospects who fade against better competition. None of this should be surprising, because it is normal. The consensus is easy enough to find. Anybody can parrot it and make minor changes. What makes a draft forecaster good is being able to project which players will be those surprises, which will be those busts, which will be the Cinderellas.

Like the NCAA Tournament, nobody will ever be perfect, and only in a very chalk year will ever really be anywhere close. Don’t focus on individual hits and misses – everybody, including NBA teams, professional scouts, journalists, and fans, misses far more than they hit. Finding the projectors who hit just a little more than everybody else, finding the ones who miss just a little less, is really what draft projection is all about.