Defense, Risk-Aversion and the NBA Draft: Which Prospects are Overrated and Which Prospects are Underrated?

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The NBA draft is probably the most important event of the year when it comes to building for a franchise’s future. The difference between drafting Derrick Rose vs. drafting Michael Beasley translates into tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars of franchise value (even despite Rose’s recent injury woes). Of course, the NBA draft is nowhere near an exact science – from Evan Turner (2nd overall in 2010) to Manu Ginobili (57th overall in 1999), history illustrates that the draft is filled with uncertainty.

Despite the draft’s inherent variance, public prospect rankings, such as Chad Ford’s rankings at ESPN, are reasonably efficient. In other words, the highly ranked prospects are more likely to perform well in the NBA vs. those below them. This is not necessarily a reflection of the scouting prowess of Ford as it is a reflection of NBA scouts and front office personnel anonymously sharing their opinions and/or leaking inside information on draft prospects to Ford or other mainstream media personalities. Ford even admitted as much in the brief write-up for his latest big board: “Remember, these rankings aren’t based on my opinion. They are based on talking with numerous NBA GMs and scouts. Obviously, each team has its own rankings and they’ll differ from these. However, here’s a consensus of what the NBA as a whole thinks.

While some front offices are more tight-lipped than others – the Spurs stand out as an organization that rarely shares their draft opinions with the media – the reality is that these public rankings, to a large extent, reflect the consensus view among NBA front offices about each class of draft prospects.

With that in mind, year after year, public draft rankings indicate the prevalence of certain biases in front offices that systematically overrate certain prospects and systematically underrate certain prospects. On average, prospects with questionable defensive skills, prospects thought of as “safe,” and prospects lauded for being able to help a team right away have been overrated, with the opposite having been underrated.

Offense vs. Defense

When you watch an NBA game, or any basketball game for that matter, what do you see? If you are like 99% of people, you focus on the ball, and see offensive skill and performance much more clearly than the skill and effort involved on the other side of the ball. The traditional statistics found in the box score only serve to further emphasize offense and deemphasize defense. It’s not surprising then, that defense tends to be under-emphasized and offense over-emphasized in player evaluation. This is especially the case in the draft.

Offense does involve comparatively more skill while defense involves comparatively more effort, communication and ability to stick to principles of a defensive scheme. But overall, x points above average per y possessions on defense is just as valuable as x points above average per y possessions on offense.

If a prospect is undoubtedly skilled and yet puts in so little effort on the defensive end as to let his man blow by him into the paint on every drive or miss every rotation meant to prevent easy layups, unfortunately the negative on the defensive end may overwhelm whatever positive value he is generating on offense. Brandon Jennings stands out as one of the many players who serve as cautionary tales of talented, above average offensive players whose complete lack of effort on the defensive end result in being a net negative relative to league average.

Rajon Rondo’s career can illustrate the effect that effort has on defensive performance. Rondo was, for a number of years, a good defensive player. Length, quickness and Doc Rivers’s well-principled defensive scheme undoubtedly contributed to Rondo’s defensive productivity. But over the last few years, during what should have been the prime of his career, Rondo mysteriously experienced a precipitous defensive decline. While Doc did move to the Clippers, by all accounts Brad Stevens is a very smart coach himself. The bigger issue seemed to stem from Rondo’s 2013 ACL injury. But while part of the decline was undoubtedly physical, a large part of Rondo’s it seemed to stem from his declining willingness to try on the defensive end. After being traded to the Mavericks, Rondo admitted as much himself, as he told reporters that he had not “played defense in a couple of years.”

While defensive effort, or lack thereof, is probably easier to pinpoint than defensive talent, a prospect’s lateral quickness, feel for defensive rotations and overall defensive playmaking ability are also severely underemphasized in the draft. Even if a large portion of Jimmer Fredette’s offensive production at BYU translated to the NBA, most NBA players matched up with Fredette’s lack of lateral quickness will match or exceed that production when the ball is in their hands. The media will always report the player who went off for 40 points in one night. But the players who were guarding the guy who went off are rarely, if ever, mentioned.

It’s easy to pay little attention to defense. After all, that’s what most people have always been doing. An anonymous scout even shared with Grantland that “there are very few players that get drafted because of their defense. That will be Hollis-Jefferson and Willie. The other f—ing 28 guys? It will all be about offense.” But Tim Hardaway Jr., Jimmer Fredette and Austin Rivers are just a few of the players who indicate that the track record of defensive low-effort or low-talent prospects is less-than-stellar at the NBA level. On the other hand, even casual fans by now realize the value of players like Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, who contribute most of their value on the defensive end of the floor.

With that in mind, here are a few prospects in the 2015 class who are likely incorrectly valued due to their outlier defensive ability (or lack thereof) with their ranking on Chad Ford’s most recent big board in parentheses:

Underrated Overrated
Justise Winslow (7) Jahlil Okafor (3)
Willie Cauley-Stein (8) Trey Lyles (12)
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (20)
Christian Wood (30)

Help Right Away and “Safe” vs. Future Value and “High-Risk”

Most people are risk-averse. Due to the short tenures of general managers (and even shorter tenures of head coaches), the tendency of decision-makers to sacrifice the future in favor of the present has been well documented in almost every professional sport. However, without taking into account the fact that you might be fired tomorrow for losing one too many games, the extent of the value left on the table due to this approach in the draft is astounding.

Layne Vashro recently hashed out an excellent argument for taking the best player available in the NBA draft. The crux of the argument revolves around the facts that 1) almost all rookies stink and 2) the majority of a draft pick’s surplus value comes from year 3, year 4 and the tail end of the variance spectrum where the player becomes a superstar and takes a maximum salary deal (at least under the current CBA) which pales in comparison to what he is actually worth.

Valuing prospects in the NBA draft, especially at the top, where the chances of landing a superstar are exponentially greater, should be like valuing call options. Many NBA decision-makers make the mistake of looking for a quick payout from what should be a long-term investment (whether this is their own fault or a result of the lack of job security is a separate issue). The problem is exacerbated by the fact that even the best rookies are worth no more than a few wins – I actually think that the chart in Layne’s article overstates rookie impact, due to the fact that most rookies are terrible defensively, and Win Shares inadequately accounts for defensive production. A 10% chance of landing a superstar and a 90% chance of a complete bust is a better expected value decision than a 100% chance of landing an unspectacular rotation player (at least under the current CBA).

When the bulk of draft pick value comes from the small chance that the player drafted becomes a superstar, acting risk-averse can be a fatal move to a franchise. Dean Demakis, an NBA and NCAA gambler and NBA draft analyst, has written many articles on his website, deanondraft.com, pointing out that it is much worse for a franchise to miss out on a superstar than to draft a bust.

So finally, here are a few players who seem to be incorrectly valued, based on the perception of how “safe” they are and/or how soon they can help a team (ironically, 18 year old Devin Booker is perceived as a “help right away” guy due to his excellent three point shooting):

Underrated Overrated
Myles Turner (13) Devin Booker (9)
Kelly Oubre (16) Sam Dekker (14)
Montrezl Harrell (17)

I believe that right now, under the current CBA, the biggest inefficiencies in the NBA draft revolve around defense and correctly valuing future upside against present safety. After acquiring Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid, KJ McDaniels and Jerami Grant through the draft, it seems that the front office of the Philadelphia 76ers, possibly the NBA’s most analytical team, agrees.

image from http://insider.espn.go.com/nbadraft/results/players/_/id/19989/rondae-hollis-jefferson

Nik Oza
Georgetown Class of 2016

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