Picking eighth or 28th, it really doesn't matter
MINNEAPOLIS – In recent years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have become all too familiar with the curse of No. 2 draft pick. Some years, No. 2 is bantered around with No. 1, falling to second in the draft only because of particular and specific needs. Other years, he is clearly the next-to-best choice, but no matter what, he is hyped beyond all reasonable hype, the game of a 19- or 20-year-old inflated beyond its worth.
In Minnesota, there was Darko Milicic – otherwise known as "manna from heaven" for just a split second – picked second overall by the Pistons in 2003. He spent more than two seasons in Minnesota, doing next to nothing, and is now back in Europe, his NBA career for all intents and purposes finished.
There was Michael Beasley, too, who arrived just after Milicic, for the 2010-11 season. He had been picked three spots before the Timberwolves' star forward Kevin Love in 2008, cast from Miami after two seasons with a tarnished reputation and questionable work ethic. The Timberwolves decided after two more seasons to decline their option on his contract, and he was off to Phoenix, where he's now relegated to the bench on one of the league's less talented teams.
And so when Minnesota was dealt the second pick in the 2011 draft, it might have had cause to be leery. Superstition exists in sports, and in a spot at which fewer than half the players drafted from 1991-2010 have made All-Star or All-NBA teams, there's reason to see it. But Minnesota went ahead and picked, chose Derrick Williams, one of those guys who could easily have gone first overall at the time, a player with raw athleticism and what appeared to be a healthy dose of upside.
Nearly two seasons later, that upside is just starting to peek through, and hardly in a large enough sample size to predict any staying power. Two seasons later, and coach Rick Adelman's words could not ring truer: In many cases, draft order could not matter less.
"I think I learned a long time ago it doesn't matter where the guy was drafted," Adelman said in October. "People look at that second pick in the draft, and that puts a lot of pressure on him. There are some guys who are picked in the second round and are more ready to play. You never know when it's going to happen."
Adelman learned it a long time ago, but the rest of the world has watched draft after draft as some players pan out and others fail to in a completely arbitrary fashion, and many still feel a mix of rage and disappointment when guys like Williams, Hasheem Thabeet, Milicic, Beasley and Emeka Okafor – all No. 2 picks – fail to become superstars or take longer to do it than anyone might have predicted.
And Adelman isn't the only one to think the way he thinks. Plenty of other coaches know the inherent risk in any and all draft picks. They decode the scout- and GM-speak as fast as it's spewed, so many of them former players themselves who have watched for years as players flame out. They see the statistics -- that of the 460 players who appeared on NBA rosters before the All-Star break this season, 290 were first-round picks. Of those 290, just more than half were lottery picks, such that picks 15-30 seem to have just as good a chance to play as 1-14. And then there's the 23 percent of players in the league this season picked in the second round, the 13 percent who went undrafted. Coaches see that 76 percent of active former first-round picks have started at least one game this season but also that 47 percent of undrafted players have gotten at least one night in their team's starting five. They see that odds are good for players picked at the top but also not so bad for those who at one point seemed to have everything working against them. Perhaps coaches' inherent skepticism is a good thing; even No. 1 picks in most systems will have to earn their status upon arriving.
"Potential means nothing," Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. "Being drafted in the first round means nothing. Once you've been in the league, you have to do it and prove it. There's guys that haven't been drafted that are playing. There's guys that have been drafted in the second round that are playing and have been stars."
There's something to be said for the cream of the NBA Draft. If you're a top-five pick, you have a pretty good chance to pan out. A 50-percent chance, actually, during the 20 years of drafts between 1991-2010, when "panning out" is defined as making at least one All-Star or All-NBA team over the course of a career. Picks 6-30 have a far slighter chance to do so – 9.2 percent, to be exact, over the past 20 years – but really, 50 percent isn't quite as high as one might expect. Half succeeds, another half fails – when failing means anything from decent play to mediocre to falling out of the league before 30 – and to look at a high pick and expect guaranteed success, guaranteed transformation of a foundering team, is downright simplistic.
Among picks six through 30 in those 20 drafts, it's interesting most of all to note that success seems almost unrelated to draft order. For instance, only one No. 8 pick over that 20-year period, Vin Baker, made an All-NBA or All-Star team, whereas six of 20 No. 10 picks – Eddie Jones, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Caron Butler, Andrew Bynum and Paul George – did so. Or note that two No. 30 picks, Gilbert Arenas and David Lee, have had successful careers by that definition, while not a single No. 12 pick over that period achieved as much. There's hardly any rhyme or reason to success once you emerge from those top five or so picks, and so much depends on systems, roles and other team-specific environments.
Take the 46 players from picks Nos. 6-30 deemed successes over those 20 drafts. Thirty-one of them, a full 67.4 percent, played either their first NBA season or two of their first three seasons on winning teams. They were in systems that worked, which too many top picks are not, and often that dictates their success.
Look at Eric Bledsoe, who slotted into the Clippers' starting lineup during Chris Paul's injury in January and February and who became a coveted player for some teams at the trade deadline. Bledsoe was picked 18th overall in 2010, hardly one of the year's prized collegiate players, but he has been successful because of the system and the mentorship from veteran players he has been exposed to in the early years of his career with the Clippers.
"I'm in a great position, learning from not only Chris (Paul) but Chauncey (Billups) as well," Bledsoe said. "Like I said, I'm in a great position, and I'm just going to keep learning day by day.
"(My teammates) pretty much got kids my age, so just to go out there and let them show me the ropes and let me lead them, that's just a great feeling."
Same goes for Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko, picked 24th by the Jazz in 1999. Kirilenko joined a team led by John Stockton and Karl Malone, two of the NBA's all-time greats, and he credits that system with making him the player he is.
A team's specific needs also figure into young players' successes. Players thrive when they're wanted, demanded to play well. For someone like Williams, slotted into a backup power forward spot behind Kevin Love with no hope of overtaking the starter, it can be difficult. Look at the Spurs, then, who are known for reaping the most of late first-round and second-round picks. San Antonio has become famous for its system in which, instead of trying to acquire star after star, it has milked the draft and trade market for players like Kawhi Leonard (No. 15, 2011) and Danny Green (No. 46, 2009) to play solid supporting roles based on targeted needs the team has identified.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is complimentary of the top-down effort that goes into acquiring young role players, and he admits freely that the team looks specifically for talent tailored to complementing its nucleus of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Role players won't have success unless the talent is around them, he says, and you're not going to attract talent with a slew of competent role players.
If the Spurs' model preaches anything, it's that forming a team is less a science than an art, built not so much on voraciously scouting the gyms at Duke, Kentucky and other big-name programs. It's instead about looking where others aren't, or at least where fewer might be exploring, and about considering one's team first before one's prospects.
It's also about learning the value of time.
Take Williams, who played just two seasons at Arizona and was drafted just a month after turning 20. There was so small of a sample size for his college play, and though that works out in so many cases – Kyrie Irving, anyone? – it also has its downsides. One Western Conference coach recently pointed to a 2012 late first-round pick on his team and asked whether his quality of life has increased since leaving school early. No, the coach said, answering his own question and indicating that more time in school might have helped. The coach went on to talk about other players he'd coached, former highly touted picks now in the D-League and guys forced by college injuries to stay in school who's draft stock had fallen with time.
But here's the thing. For every Darko Milicic, there's a Kevin Durant, also picked second, in 2007, and after only a season at Texas. For every Kyrie Irving, there's a Michael Olowokandi, a No. 1 pick who played four years of college and came nowhere close to living up to expectations. And in the sea of irrelevance picked 13th, there's Kobe Bryant, who came straight out of high school and became one of the greatest of all time, over whom 12 teams passed in 1996. There's no rhyme or reason to any of this, less and less with each passing pick.
Time has another element, too. Only five top five picks have been traded in the first year of their NBA careers since 1992: Donyell Marshall, Chauncey Billups, Drew Gooden, Derrick Favors and Thomas Robinson, who became the fifth on Wednesday evening when he was dealt from Sacramento to Houston after seeing extremely limited playing time for the Kings. For Robinson, it looks like a plus, being traded from a dysfunctional team in the midst of a sale to one with a good coach in Kevin McHale, a superstar in James Harden and a solid playoff chance. But for the Kings, it looks crazy. Why give up on a talented player so quickly, especially when he has barely been given a fair shake? That's the conventional way to look at it, and there's a certain unspoken law in the NBA when it comes to those things. Don't trade, not so much talent so soon. Sacramento broke it, drawing the ire of the league, or at least its fair share of head-shaking. But maybe it had a hint. Maybe Robinson wasn't what it needed. Or maybe he just wasn't quick enough to get there, and if that's the case, then the Kings cashed out too soon. It's all so fine of a balance.
Of course teams inept enough to be dealt a No. 1 pick are looking for their savior. And of course Popovich and his perennially good, seemingly ageless Spurs are forever searching for perfectly tailored pieces. But that's not to say San Antonio's model can't be broadened, even to the Cavaliers, Bobcats, Hornets and other teams of that ilk. A pick won't transform unless he fits a system, and so there must be a system in place and a clear identity of what it is. If there's anything that leads to success with these young players, it's awareness of what a team needs and what players can be, and if the current system of early entry obscures such awareness, then the risk remains.
There will always be risk, but what there doesn't have to be is that pressure to take a certain player at a certain number, simply because he is better on paper than everyone else. Imagine if the Timberwolves in 2011 had decided to trade their pick, or if, in an even more unorthodox move, they'd simply selected the best wing player available despite the fact that the world said Williams had to go second. There's an inherent pressure to do what convention dictates, what a million draft boards say, and if the body of data over the past 20 years says anything, it's that teams must look more closely at themselves than at the prospects looming.
There will always be risk. It's just a matter of acknowledging it and knowing that the minute a team's newest prized specimen puts on his baseball cap in June, that's when the work begins. Work to mold him to a team and mold a team to him and find a space, rather than force it. That, more than anything, is the key, and the guarantees of an arbitrary draft number are so fleeting.
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