The Value of a Draft Pick

The offseason of any sport is essentially spent entirely in anticipation of the next season. Certainly, some attention is given to the just-finished campaign, paying respects to the victors, and attempting to identify where the losers went wrong, but by and large, fans face forward. Whether it’s projecting the best fantasy performers, prognosticating championship contenders, or predicting who will be picked first in the draft, and what those rookies will do for the team, the NBA summer is a time for guesses. Today, I’m taking a look at the past to try to shed some light on the future — specifically, How have past draft picks performed, on average?

Certainly, an average is a very blunt instrument to use — Greg Oden is not Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, or even Hakeem Olajuwon, and there is definitely something to be said for using a more qualitative, analogical, approach (e.g. “Oden is very similar to player X, so will likely produce like player X”). But even this sort of approach, though more specific, is guesswork. My hope is that a look at modern NBA draft picks will give at least a range of reasonable expectations to have for this season’s rookie class.

To measure performance, I have chosen to use Weighted Winshares (wtdwn), which are like the previously discussed winshares, except adjusted for an 82-game season, which reduces the impact of injuries on player-to-player comparisons. Thus, wtdwn can be read as, “Based on this players’ and his teams’ performance over his career, he would produce an average of X wins for his team over a hypothetical healthy 82-game season.” Thus, on the plot below, the point at which the mean first pick produced is the expected value of any future first pick. These expected value points are noted in light pink, and dark pink denotes one standard deviation above and below the mean for each pick. The green value scale reflects playing time, which is just another way of measuring the usefulness of a player to his team.

Value of a draft pick

It is interesting enough, to me, to note how various players compare to one another. The 10+ career wtdwn crew is very elite, and even the 5+ echelon consists mainly of all-stars. Secondly, it is interesting to see which players vastly outperformed their draft number. These are the surprises that the expected value can do nothing to predict (“Black Swans“), and are invaluable because they help the more successful teams (those with low draft picks) stay successful. Stockton and Malone, Parker, and Gilbert Arenas exemplify this group. Just as remarkable are the busts, on whom high draft picks were spent for little return in production: Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, and Chris Washburn, to name a few.

Additionally, one may cautiously attempt to draw conclusions about the relative value of draft picks from the trends depicted in the chart. I say cautiously because 27 years of data is a very small sample on which to base any conclusions. The standard deviation points indicate that “68% of players picked at this spot produced between this upper and this lower mark,” but in reality, the nature of basketball and our sample cannot possibly be that exact. However, it is interesting to speculate: is the sixth pick really cursed? Is pick 24 really as good as it looks? The numerologists among us might notice a cycle of approximately every four picks (1, 5, 9, 13, 18, 24, 28) that peer out above the rest. Is it possible to learn any drafting strategies from such patterns, or ought we merely be satisfied with the historical facts as depicted cleanly and clearly in this plot?


One response to “The Value of a Draft Pick

  1. This is an interesting analysis. It can be used to weigh the value of a pick in a trade. What can a team expect from a draft pick? This is the average over time. There is no guarrantee, as you mention, but here is a ballpark value.
    The Sultan on Sports

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