Facing Reality: Assessing the Draft Using Historical Probabilities of Success

An image that has been going around on Twitter recently is this one, looking at historical probabilities of draft picks becoming busts, rotation players, good rotations players, or stars.CGgfsfQUAAACMDx.jpg-large
The chart was made by Nylon Calculus’s Seth Partnow for a post he did last year, but obviously it can be applied to any draft. Partnow arbitrarily determined which players qualified as bust/rotation/star, but it is safe to trust his overall judgment on NBA players. I thought it would be interesting to assess this year’s draft using this chart, with the underlying assumption that this year’s draft will follow a similar pattern to historical drafts. So, using the DraftExpress Mock Draft from June 21st (not their top-100), I’m going to pick out which players will become bust/rotation/star players based on historical outcomes. Obviously the percentages do not project to exact whole numbers of players, so I rounded up or down when a percentage was close to the middle depending on what I thought was more fair, and tried not to be too optimistic. Also, while these decisions fall heavily in line with my big board, they do not always correlate exactly because a player’s chance of falling in one of these buckets is not linear with their rank on my big board. In many ways, the point of this exercise is to realize just how many players will fail, and that optimism around draft time is almost always way too high.

To be clear, these are not my predictions for what will happen to each guy, but instead what I decide if I have to fall in line with historical percentages for each group.

Top 5 – Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis, Willie Cauley-Stein

Star (32.28%): Historically, one or two of these guys will end up as “stars”. I view this as a draft with three high-end prospects, but unfortunately only two of them can be stars here. Towns is the most obvious choice, and even though I like him for his safety more than his upside, star is different from superstar, and Towns is the most likely star to me. Next, Russell and Okafor are awfully close. Okafor is a riskier pick which is why I have him lower on my overall board, but their chances of being stars are pretty darn close in my mind. I still give a slight edge to Russell, but percentage wise Russell and Okafor strike me as almost equally likely to become stars. Karl Towns and D’Angelo Russell

Good Rotation (22.78%): While I do see Okafor as the riskier prospect compared to Russell and Towns, his risk compared to the general field, and guys like Porzingis and Cauley-Stein, is not too threatening. Okafor is so talented offensively that it is hard to not seeing him being at least a good rotation player. Even if he is close to Enes Kanter bad on the defensive end, it’s hard to not see his post scoring translating to him being at least a good rotation player. Jahlil Okafor

Rotation (24.05%): Porzingis and Cauley-Stein are similar level prospects in my mind, and both are relatively risky picks for high lottery guys. This decision wasn’t as much about who I most envisioned being a rotation player, but instead who was most likely to be a bust. In that case, the answer is Porzingis, and not just because he is a tall Euro. Looking at the “bust” scenario for a prospect you’re assuming everything goes wrong, and that even their perceived “strengths” don’t work out in the NBA. Cauley-Stein’s biggest strength is his defensive versatility while Porzingis’s is his shooting. In other areas, they both have some disturbing basketball IQ flags so it is easy to see them busting, but in terms of their core skills, shooting is much more variable than defensive ability. All signs point to Porzingis being a good shooter in the NBA, but shooting is essentially the hardest NBA skill to predict, so there’s a bigger risk of Porzingis not being a very good shooter in the league than there is of Cauley-Stein not being at least a solid defender due to his athleticism and versatility. Willie Cauley-Stein

Bust (20.89%): Obviously, the answer is Porzingis. Porzingis isn’t likely to be a bust in the NBA, but the chances of his shooting disappearing and the rest of his game failing to translate are very real. In terms of becoming merely rotation players, both Porzingis and Cauley-Stein could very realistically settle in as only okay rotation guys. If Cauley-Stein never picks up high-level NBA defensive stuff and continues to struggle doing anything other than dunking on offense he will probably settle in as a rotation guy. If Porzingis shoots the ball well, but doesn’t create anything else on offense and is a below-average defender due to poor awareness and strength he could easily be a rotation stretch big. Kristaps Porzingis

Players 6-10: Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Stanley Johnson

Star (11.88%): 11.88% of guys picked 6-10 end up becoming stars, meaning I could round up to one star or leave this group with zero stars. Other than Booker, there is a decent chance all of them could end up as stars; Winslow if he develops his ball-handling and his NCAA shooting is for real, Hezonja if he can play more consistent defense and more consistently get to the rim, Mudiay if he can improve his shot and play above-average defense at the next level, and Johnson if he learns how to finish inside and sharpens up on the defensive end. If I had to go with one, it’s probably Winslow, his defense looks well on the way to becoming star level, and his development on the offensive end isn’t difficult to picture. Still, none of these guys are particularly likely to become stars, and I’ve already written that after the top-3 I like this draft for its good rotation guys, not its stars.  None

Good Rotation (19.38%): This question is really tough, because I do think the most likely outcome for Hezonja, Mudiay, Winslow, and Johnson is good rotation player, but historically, if none of this group become stars, at most two of these guys will be good rotation players. The easiest choice for me is Mudiay since I did already write about how I don’t think he will be a star, but that he is one of the safest players in the draft. Deciding between Hezonja, Winslow, and Johnson is really tough, but even though he’s lower than Winslow on my board, I’m ultimately going with Hezonja. Hezonja’s shooting and offensive skill level combined with his athleticism make it really easy to see him being a good rotation player, average on defense and very good on offense. Johnson isn’t good enough at one thing to be more likely in my mind, and Winslow carries too much risk of his shot going away to put him ahead of Hezonja in this respect. Emmanuel Mudiay and Mario Hezonja

Rotation (30.0%): Since I went with two good rotation guys, it means we need to settle for just one “rotation” guy. Unfortunately for Winslow and Booker, Johnson is the clear choice here. Johnson is one of the most well-rounded players in the draft, and his lack of one glaring flaw makes him really safe, meaning his chances of busting are really low. Winslow’s college play has no glaring flaws, but the chances of his three-point shot being below 33% in the NBA are greater than Johnson’s due to free throw shooting and 2-point jumper shooting, so Winslow is the slightly riskier prospect. Booker is nowhere near as well rounded as Johnson, and clearly more likely to bust. Stanley Johnson

Bust (38.75%): Booker was always the most likely to fall into this category for me, seeing as he sits just outside the top-20 on my big board. If you’re wondering how someone who’s as good a shooter as Booker could bust, you’d be surprised. John Jenkins is another sweet shooting SEC guard who was a first-round pick, but because he can’t do anything other than shoot has never panned out in the NBA. Booker might play good enough D to be an Anthony Morrow type rotation guy or even add enough on both ends to be a good rotation guy, but the chances of him busting are very real. Winslow falling into the bust category is much more surprising, seeing as he is 4th on my big board, highest of this whole group. If I had to pick one star I’d pick Winslow, and if I had to pick one more good rotation guy I’d pick Winslow, but his potentially shaky shooting ultimately makes him slightly likelier to bust than Johnson or Hezonja. If he is a complete non-shooter in the NBA, doesn’t create off the bounce, and only provides good, not great, defense he very well could end up as a bust. That being said the gap between Hezonja and Winslow turning into good rotation guys is infinitesimal to me, and I was very close to ending up with Mario as the bust instead. Devin Booker and Justise Winslow

Players 11-20: Myles Turner, Frank Kaminsky, Trey Lyles, Cameron Payne, Kelly Oubre, Sam Dekker, Bobby Portis, Tyus Jones, Jerian Grant, Kevon Looney

Star (7.19%): There is actually a better chance of a star appearing from this group, than there is from the 6-10 section, as we would expect .719 stars in this section while only .594 from 6-10. .719 is high enough that I think I have to choose a star, even if none of these guys individually are likely to be stars. To me, the two most likely are Myles Turner and, believe it or not, Tyus Jones. If Turner becomes an elite NBA rim protector, figures out how to be a true stretch 5, and is a really good rebounder who can score in the post a bit it is realistic he could be a Serge Ibaka type of low-level star. I already wrote about how Tyus Jones has unaccounted for upside, and I stand by it. His chances of busting are higher to me than many of the guys in this group, but if he can become a true master of the pick and roll in the NBA who passes, pulls-up, and gets to the line at elite levels, while using his instincts to be okay on defense, he really could be a star. In fact, I’d say he’s ever so slightly more likely than Turner, his basketball instincts could be the best one skill that anyone in this whole group possesses. Tyus Jones

Good Rotation (12.81%): We can only expect one good rotation player, and to me the clear answer is Frank Kaminsky. You could even make an argument for him being a star similar to the one for Jones, but I see Frank’s skill set as safer with a better median outcome, but a slightly smaller chance at being a star due to not having one outlier skill at the same level as Jones. As a good rotation player Kaminsky would be a great stretch 4/5 who can attack closeouts, post up smaller guys, and use his awareness to make good decisions with the ball and turn himself into a solid defender. Kaminsky has solid chances of busting or being only a rotation guy, but I actually think good rotation piece is his most likely outcome. Frank Kaminsky

Rotation (28.75%): Here, as always, I’m not looking for who is most likely to be a rotation guy, but instead who is least likely to bust. I have big defensive questions with Grant, Payne, and Lyles, giving them all higher chances of busting. Oubre runs high risk of never figuring out the NBA game, also putting him in the bust category. Finally, Sam Dekker’s shot wasn’t quite consistent enough to believe he won’t just be below average at everything in the NBA, which would turn him into a bust. That leaves us with Turner, Portis, and Looney. Looney’s conditioning problems and Turner’s running gait might give them higher chances of busting than I expect, but I don’t see any of them having one huge flaw that will cause them to bust. Looney and Portis are both well rounded making them safe while Turner’s rim protection is good enough combined with decent offensive skill to make it hard to see him really busting. Myles Turner, Bobby Portis, and Kevon Looney

Bust (51.25%): That leaves us with Oubre, Dekker, Grant, Payne, and Lyles all as busts. At this stage in the draft process I find it hard to believe that all of those guys would bust, and maybe this draft is superior in this middle area to most drafts, but historically the smart bet would be on at least five of these guys busting, and these are the five I’ve settled on. Tyus Jones would definitely fall in this category if it were not for him having been chosen as the star, and he might even be the likeliest of this whole group. All of these guys have enough questions in one area that I could see them busting, but I wouldn’t bet on any of them individually to bust, other than maybe Lyles. Kelly Oubre, Sam Dekker, Jerian Grant, Cameron Payne, and Trey Lyles

Players 21-30: R.J. Hunter, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Rashad Vaughn, Montrezl Harrell, Justin Anderson, Anthony Brown, Delon Wright, Chris McCullough, Terry Rozier, Jonathan Holmes

Star (2.25%): We would expect .225 stars on average from this slot, slightly less than one every four years. If I had to go with one, I’d bet on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson somehow turning himself into a good shooter, but I’m going to play it safe here and say no one makes it to star level. None

Good Rotation (7.40%): There is one obvious answer for me here, and that is Delon Wright. He’s 13th on my board, highest of this group, and I think he has a very good chance of either being a rotation or a good rotation player. He’s got the chance to be a very good defender for the point guard position who also is an average passer, attacker, and shooter on offense, making him a good rotation player overall. The average shooting is the biggest obstacle for him, but his college FT% and senior year 3P% should give him a good chance at turning himself into one. Delon Wright

Rotation (25.08%): I can go with two or three guys here, and if Christian Wood or Robert Upshaw were mocked as first rounders I might go with three, but instead I’ll settle for rounding down to two guys. For me, those two guys are Hollis-Jefferson and Justin Anderson, the two best players left on my board of this group. Hollis-Jefferson has a pretty high chance of busting if he can’t be a great defender due to defenses completely ignoring him on offense, but if he can just do a good job contributing in other ways on offense his defense should be enough to turn him into a rotation player. Anderson is an easy second choice as someone who could be a slightly above average shooter and defender with below average creation ability, making him a rotation piece. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Justin Anderson

Bust (65.27%): R.J. Hunter and Rashad Vaughn are the two highest guys on my board left, but both of them have enough chance of stinking on defense and being only shooters on offense that it is not hard to see them busting. Among the rest of the group, Harrell could be a minus on both ends, Brown might be only a shooter, McCullough is incredibly raw, Rozier might be an awful offensive point guard, and Holmes might not be good at any one NBA skill, so they’re all probably likely to bust. McCullough, Harrell, Hunter, and Vaughn are all tight on my board, and maybe one of them will turn into an NBA player. R.J. Hunter, Rashad Vaughn, Montrezl Harrell, Anthony Brown, Chris McCullough, Terry Rozier, and Jonathan Holmes

Second Round – Only players DX lists as drafted, so many of the guys on my board are not eligible here.

Star (~0.39%): Robert Upshaw and Christian Wood are both talented enough to make this a possibility, but historically it’s hugely unlikely and neither of them are so good as to sway things. None

Good Rotation (~2.33%): The historical numbers would suggest .816 good rotation players per second round if there is no star, and for me this comes down to Robert Upshaw and Christian Wood. Wood’s combination of athleticism, college production, and skill set made for the modern NBA would be an absolute steal in the second round, even factoring in his off the court concerns. Upshaw is also intriguing, but Wood was a better college player and prospect to me, and has slightly less worrisome off the court concerns. Looking at the 21-30 probabilities makes me realize how ridiculous it is that Wood and Upshaw have dropped so much. The guys in that range are more than likely to bust anyway, so you might as well take a risk on someone like Wood or Upshaw who’s concerns are more off the court because even if they do bust it’s not as if you got anything different than expected, and if they do hit, the returns are much greater for guys as talented as Wood and Upshaw. Christian Wood

Rotation (8.39%): Usually you will have 2.5 rotation players from the second round, so I can round up to three or go with just two here, and since I consider this a weak second round, I’m going with just two. The one choice I’m “confident” in is Upshaw, since he is clearly the best talent of this group to me. After that, Arturas Gudaitis and Cliff Alexander are the two highest guys on my board, and most of the guys right after them are also available as options here. Ultimately, Gudaitis is the highest on my board, and it’s not because of upside, but instead because at this point I’m just looking for who has the best chance of being a rotation guy. I don’t think any one of these guys will succeed, but it is easy to imagine how Gudaitis could have a role on an NBA team as a rim protector and pick and roll diver. Robert Upshaw and Arturas Gudaitis

Bust (88.89%): That’s right, literally every other guy in the second round will be a bust. It’s sobering to think I spent hours thinking over and writing about the second rounders since 90% of them won’t matter, but for an NBA team, finding that one valuable second rounder can alter their next couple years of roster building (cough Draymond Green cough). Everyone Else

Overall I’ve got 3 stars (5%), 6 good rotation players (10%), 9 rotation players (15%), and 42 busts (70%) which matches up pretty well with the historical percentages of 5.57%, 8.14%, 17.84%, and 68.45% respectively. This is a fun exercise, but ultimately a depressing one, as more than anything else it illuminates just how many of these players we think so much about won’t amount to much, if anything, in the NBA. Still, get excited about the ~18 new faces the NBA will come to know and love in the future.

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