Assessing Value in the NBA Draft – An Analytical Approach

{This in-depth article was written by guest contributor NOLA Analytics. Please be sure to follow them. @NolaAnalytics!}

With two weeks until the NBA draft, I wanted to share some thoughts on the draft, first from an analytical standpoint and then what it means for the New Orleans Pelicans. Contrary to popular belief, analytics aren’t necessarily focused on identifying the best prospects (although they can certainly help). On the contrary, the analysis can better help shape your overall project philosophy.

There are countless analytical preliminary findings, but this article will focus on four main ones.

MVP candidates are worth exponentially more than superstars who are worth exponentially more than stars who are worth exponentially…

This is part A of the first point. Before we even get into the project itself, it is important that we establish this point. This is an analysis article, so let’s be a little corny for a second. If we were rating players like in 2K, we shouldn’t consider the rating differences to be linear (e.g. a player with 88 overall also falls between a 95 and an 81). Instead, we should see it as the x² graph.

Let me explain: as we just showed, linearly, a player with an 88 overall is 7 points better than an 81 and 7 points worse than a 95. But let’s square each of those numbers. Now an 88 overall player is 1,183 points better than an 81 but 1,281 points worse than a 95. That’s not a perfect comparison (squaring the numbers probably isn’t enough to show the difference), but the overall point is that as we look at players, we mostly care about the top levels of guys.

And that remains true if we think logically about the NBA: no matter what the Suns tried to add, there’s basically nothing they can do in which the Bucks would trade Giannis for Booker. And along the same lines, there’s essentially nothing the Bucks can do to convince the Suns to trade Booker for Middleton.

So that’s the first rule of the draft: we value MVP equity by far the most followed by All-NBA equity followed by All-Star equity, etc. Shamit Dua wrote about this in 2020 about how teams are way too cautious in the draft and just try to hit singles when the best way to draft is home runs and Grand Slams.

All things being equal, we would prefer the guy who is a 75 in his median score and a 90 in his 80th percentile over the guy whose median score is a 78 whose 80th percentile score is an 85. Even so, on average we get the worst player, the advantage of those top 20% sims is so valuable that we should draft for the advantage and hope for the best.

From a pure asset gambling perspective, it is essentially always better to trade down than to trade up.

This is especially true in the NFL Draft, but it applies to all sports. Generally, if two teams trade picks in the NBA draft, the team that moves up will have to pay an additional asset premium to do so. That’s not to say it’s not “always worth it”. Remember Rule 1: If you’re trading for a guy with a superstar advantage, it can more than mitigate the draft bonus you’ll have to pay.

It’s similar to the NFL in that sense: trading for a regular player is almost never worth it, but trading for a QB that would go to the same spot is actually a positive value because the benefits of hitting a QB are so huge. But for the most part, especially once we get out of the top few picks, it’s better to trade down than up.

There is no “safe” choice or a guy that we know will “be a Year 1 contributor”.

Those are two phrases that get thrown around a ton every year during draft season, even though there’s essentially no evidence to support either theory. The guys who contribute as rookies or sophomores aren’t necessarily upper-class men, guys from overseas, or guys who played big minutes and produced in college. It’s simpler than that: the guys who produce early tend to be the guys who end up being the best players in the draft.

Pelicans fans in particular should be well aware of this: The Pelicans drafted Buddy Hield against Jamal Murray because they wanted a rookie who could come in and contribute immediately alongside Anthony Davis. Instead, Murray quickly caught up and passed Hield simply because he was a better NBA player.

So don’t fall for the guys you think can contribute to the 22-23 season because they’re older or more developed, because the guys who end up contributing will most likely just be the best players in the class. Focus on research those guys.

Positions/Roles Matter in All Areas

This could fall under the first point, but you have to consider that if a player hits their 80th percentile, their actual value and size/position/role are very important. The Boston Celtics under Danny Ainge basically did their whole draft philosophy, “we’re going to draft the best wing available that has the ability to shoot and defend” knowing that big wings that can shoot, create and defend are by far the players the most valuable and rarest in the NBA.

On the other end, centers have one of the highest replacement values ​​in basketball. Willy Hernangomez as a starting center in 2020-21 on a minimum contract is averaging 12 points and 11 rebounds. With those two points in mind, a 6’8 SF who projects to be an average starting wing is probably more valuable than the big man who projects as a top 10 center.

How do you apply those rules to the draft this year and to the Pelicans?

First, obviously, we’re focusing on the players who have the best chance of turning into All-NBA or MVP-level candidates. By picking 8th, most of those guys with those possibilities in their 80th-90th percentile results are out of the picture. But you can always focus on maximizing your chances of catching an All-Star level player rather than going for a solid starter.

For example, while it’s easy to imagine a shooter like AJ Griffin slipping past Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’s a max-contract player. On the other end, a guy like Ousmane Dieng may not possess any particular trait as tempting as Griffin’s 3-point shot, but his all-around game could lead to better 80th percentile results because if he develops an outside shot (and maybe working with the best shooting coach in the NBA could help), the rest of his game goes around a guy like Griffin.

Second, if the Pelicans aren’t in love with anyone as a potential All-NBA player at his 80th-90th percentile result, it would likely fall on them to explore a few spots. The Thunder in particular stand out as a team with such a treasure trove of assets sitting at No. 12 that they might be willing to pay a little more to consolidate those assets into a better player at No. 8. the quality of the player will be low, the player will have a slightly cheaper contract and the Pelicans should be well compensated for making the move.

Also, depending on how you view certain players, you have to be careful when you want the Pelicans to trade. Personally, I consider a guy like Jaden Ivey’s 80th percentile to be a slightly better Oladipo. Therefore, I’m not willing to do a negative expected value asset swap for him instead of taking a guy like Dyson Daniels, Bennedict Mathurin, etc. Alternatively, if you look at Ivey’s 80th percentile result as a guy like Ja Morant, then that may negate the negative asset game.

Next, be wary of guys whose key attributes describe him as a “safe” pick and resist the urge to try to focus on guys who can contribute as a rookie. Often you will go further astray by doing this.

In this year’s draft, I’m a little lower on Johnny Davis and Ochai Agbaji, two guys who have been described as potential Day 1 contributors. Alternatively, I’m a little higher on Jeremy Sochan and Ousmane Dieng, two guys who are considered potentially “slower devs” and “need more work”. Not only does each have higher perks (in my opinion), but I’m not as worried about the guys who scouts say need a few years as prospects. Chances are if they end up being good players, they’ll contribute as soon, if not sooner, than guys like Davis and Agbaji.

Finally, understand how a player’s role/position value enhances or limits their earning potential. It doesn’t matter that Chet Holmgren projects himself as a big man who can only play 4 or 5 if he hits his 80th percentile, but for a guy like Jalen Duren, even if he turns into a borderline All NBA Center, how valuable is that compared to if Keegan Murray “just” became a Siakam-level player? Especially in the NBA draft where nothing is guaranteed, it would behoove a team like the Pelicans to lean to the wings over centers or small guards if your prospect ratings are similar.