Monday, April 21, 2008

Potential Over Production? No Thanks


It’s the reason Kwame Brown and Michael Olowakandi were the first overall picks in their respective NBA Drafts.

It’s the reason Saer Sene, a player who averaged four points per game in Belgium and had only played basketball for two years, was drafted No. 10 in the 2006 NBA Draft.

It’s the reason Marvin Williams, a sixth man in college, was drafted ahead of sure-fire NBA stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft.

And, finally, it’s the reason there are so many foreign players drafted in the first-round of most drafts, despite the fact that one out of every five or six actually pan out.

Even though taking a player based on potential comes with a high risk and it works out less often than it does, teams and general managers continue to do it at an alarming rate. And it looks like the trend is going to continue this year. Just take a look at mock drafts from different media outlets.

DeAndre Jordan averaged less than eight points per game in his lone season with the Texas A&M, and played a combined 29 minutes – scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds – in his last four college games. However, the seven-footer is projected by both and to get picked tenth in the Draft.

Similarly, Nevada power forward JaVale McGee and Florida center Marreese Speights are projected to be chosen in the top-15 picks by most mock drafts – but neither player even averaged more than ten minutes per game two seasons ago. Sure, they played fairly well this past season, but neither has improved enough to be even considered for selection that early.

Now, look at the flipside.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, a 6-7 wing from Memphis, was an All-American this past season and helped lead the Tigers to the National Championship game. Of course, he’s only projected to be picked in the late-teens to early 20s – and behind all three of the aforementioned players, as well as LSU’s Anthony Randolph, a 6-10 freshman small forward who made 46 percent of his field-goal attempts and 10 percent of his three-point shots.

Why does this keep happening? One word: potential.

It seems that most scouts would rather salivate over a mysterious 6-10 swingman from Italy (say, Danilo Gallinari) than a proven college player who averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds in the Pac-10 Conference (say, Ryan Anderson).

But, hey, if not many people have seen the guy play but he looks good on paper, he has to be better, right?

It boils down to potential over production. Teams would rather take a chance on a supremely talented foreign player or an inexperienced but skilled college player than someone who has consistently produced but might have a lower “ceiling” than the other two.

But at what risk are these players being drafted with? Reflecting back at last year’s draft, I took a look at each foreign player and college freshman that was chosen in the first 20 picks. For some absurd reason, there were nine of these types of players selected, and just five of them had what I consider a decent season (averaging at least five points or rebounds, or three assists). On the other hand, of the other 11 players selected in the first 20 picks, eight fit the “decent” profile.

Of course, this is just one small sampling from one year’s draft class – and a rather arbitrary definition of “decent” – but it shows that these players drafted based on potential are not performing better than the players who actually proved themselves on the college level.

It happens year after year, and I don’t understand it. The teams drafting in the lottery (first 14 picks) need to get players who will make immediate impacts. However, these are the teams drafting based on potential. It doesn’t make sense to wait around for a player to develop while the successful teams are grabbing more proven players.

Oh, wait, but these developing players have potential – how could a team think about passing that up?


  1. Just out of curiosity, how did NCAA production work out for Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick?

  2. Slightly better than potential worked out for Thabo Sefolosha and Oleksiy Pecherov.

  3. Also, I'm pretty sure Morrison averaged about 12 points per game his rookie season -- not many rookies can say that. I guess the fact that he was good in college made him tear his ACL.

    As for Redick, during his rookie year, he shot 39% from three-point range and averaged 6 points per game. Not great, but it would have fit into my "decent" category.

  4. Good points. Sefolosha still might be something. The NBA draft is a big crap shoot and you can hardly fault NBA GM's for trying to roll the dice on the next Dirk or Pau Gasol. Neither Morrison nor Redick look like they will be productive pros, but there is still plenty of time.

    You sounded a lot like Dick Vitale with your argument.

  5. Also, no one knew Paul and Williams were sure fire all-stars in 2005. They were both excellent prospects, but neither were clear cut picks over Marvin Williams. For whatever reason, Williams was pegged as a guy who had great potential, but had the bad luck to be drafted to a team that already had five small forwards. It's all too easy to look back and point out errors, but you have to mention that hindsight is 20:20.

  6. The Hawks clearly needed a point guard in that draft, not another small forward.

    And I didn't know why Marvin Williams was drafted before Paul and Williams then, and I still don't.

    But how do I sound like Dick Vitale with my argument? Because I said Adam Morrison had a good rookie season? Sorry about that, I'll try to sound like Stephen A. Smith from now on, and just not make sense.

  7. Sorry, that Dick Vitale comparison was both unjust and unfair. The past few years at the NBA draft, Vitale has tried to position himself as the Mel Kiper of basketball. He turns things down a notch (no, Awesome, Baby!'s) and basically shills for NCAA players, especially upperclassmen, instead of these foreigners with their weird names.

    As for the Hawks, they drafted small forwards like they were going out of style. It never made sense, but Billy Knight was convinced that Marvin Williams was going to be a super-duper-star. I remember the Bucks were trying to decide between Williams and Bogut and I actually wanted them to take Williams because I bought the hype. Never again.

    Stephen A. Smith? Is he still around? Did you ever see his talkshow? It was not good.

  8. Oh, don't get me wrong -- I'm not hyping up NCAA players just because I love college basketball or anything. Believe me, I like pure talent and potential as much as the next guy, but I'm not a fan of how often NBA teams choose unproven guys so early in the draft.

    As for Mel Kiper, I like Todd McShay better -- Kiper just seems way too arrogant nowadays.

    And, unfortunately, Stephen A. is still around -- and he just got a column in ESPN the Magazine and more NBA responsibilities at ESPN, so I guess you'll get more of him. Great news...

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