Mind the Middle: How to Avoid an NBA Draft Bust

By: Dan Grant

In the weeks leading up to the NBA crapshoot Draft, hope springs eternal. Jay Bilas and Chad Ford seemingly love every prospect under the sun, words like ‘motor’, ‘secondary strength’ and even ‘re-jumpability’ are used wantonly and every NBA fan is hopeful their team will land a stud, find a diamond in the rough or make a franchise altering trade. It’s a fun time of year.

What follows is a whole lot less rosy, more often than not. For all the hype, hope and endless surmising, most NBA draft picks don’t reach their projected ceiling. If they all did, we’d be watching real life NBA Jam, with people bursting into flames and dunking from the three point line. While that might be fun in theory, think of how expensive the insurance would be. The league would be bankrupt in weeks!

Now, since many NBA executives haven’t figured this whole draft thing out, I’m writing them a free guide. This isn’t the guide to landing the next Manu Ginobili, Jimmy Butler or Paul Millsap late in the draft. This isn’t a guide to selecting the proper player at the top of the draft either. This is simply a guide to playing it safe. A guide to the middle. If you follow these rules, you’ll avoid a bust; anything else you get is gravy. Delicious, delicious gravy. Your goal isn’t to win. It’s to avoid uttering the famous Bluth credo:


Let’s start with a couple obvious ones:

Avoid Players With Glaring, Ugly Flaws

If a player can’t do something in college, it’s unlikely that he’s magically going to learn how to do it when he gets to the NBA. Yet every single damn scouting report you read includes an ‘areas for improvement’ section that usually concludes with a wishful ‘If he can do THIS, then he’ll be a star!’ Generally THIS is something that player is not remotely capable of doing and never will be.

Look, I’m not saying players don’t improve at all. Of course they do. A good shooter can increase his range, a play maker can learn a new offense, an able one-on-one defender can become an elite team defender. Those things are all possible, necessary even. Those are natural improvements, which is what team development is based on. They’re actually what championship teams hang their hats on. I’m not talking about those. No, I’m talking about the guy who lacks something essential that he needs to fill his role properly. I’m talking the guard with the busted jumper, the forward who is a lazy defender, the slow footed big man, the across the board head case. These guys just aren’t going to figure it out, as a rule. Are there exceptions? Yes. But find me one exception and I’ll find you twenty rules. Some guys just suck. It’s not your job to fix them! Be more like this guy:


You’ll feel better. Next up?

Never Take Big Men With Serious Pre-Draft Injuries

I mean, this should go without saying. Sam Bowie, Greg Oden (sorry, Blazers fans) and now Joel Embiid are just the most notable examples. Has this ever worked out? Can somebody find me even one example?

It’s almost as obvious as:

Beware the European Lottery Pick

Dirk Nowitzki worked out for the Mavericks. Sixteen years ago, he was drafted ninth by the Bucks and dealt to Dallas. When Pau Gasol hit it big after being picked third overall three years later, it signalled open season on European ‘stars’ and NBA teams have been trying to find the next one ever since. I’m sure that player will eventually exist, but boy has it been ugly so far. Nikola Vucevic is a talented player that went 16th to Philadelphia in 2011 (not technically the lottery). Jonas Valanciunas went fifth to Toronto in the same draft and has improved each season. But they’re not superstars, at least not yet. And for every JV-Nasty (it’s catching on!) and Vucevic, there is a weird European discotheque that (I assume) is frequented by Jan Vesely, Andris Biedrins, Fran Vasquez, Aleksander Radojevic, Nikolosz Tskitishvili and Yaroslav Korolev. Busts only! They are led by their brick laying overlord, Ser Andrea of House Bargnani. His sigil is no longer visible, as it is covered with Primo Pasta and Sauce. Behind him sits the Emperor, Lord Darko of Milicic. Enough said. Avoid the Euros, unless you can get them as a late, low risk value a la Tony Parker and Marc Gasol.

I’m all for the international game, but that’s a damning track record. We need a couple more success stories to swing things back the other way. Porzingis, Hezonja, I’m looking at you.

The next ones? History says no!

The next ones? History says no!

Make Sure the Player Has One Elite Basketball Skill (Or the Bill Simmons Corollary)

Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently wrote: ‘doing everything at a B level is the new NBA skill’. I’d argue that’s incomplete. The comment came on the heels of a conversation about the development of Draymond Green, but that new ‘skill’ only works when you’re surrounded by players who have A level skills, which a player like Green has on the Warriors. He’s surrounded by elite shooting, elite perimeter defense and elite passing. It allows him to take risks and elevate an offensive game that might not hold up when surrounded by lesser talent. When you’re trying not to bust, you can’t go after a Draymond, at least, not for his offense. You draft him where the Warriors did, for his hustle and his defense. In the lottery, you have to go with guys who do specific things at a superior level, if they’re available.

For years Bill Simmons has preached this in columns, mailbags and podcasts. I always thought he beat it into the ground a bit to be honest. And then I started following the draft more closely. It’s full of guys who do a little bit of everything, but nothing all that well. It’s full of guys who look like they should be NBA players, only they can’t play.

You might be saying right now ‘Dan, you must be high, you lovable meth head. Of course they’ll try to do that! These are professional executives drafting professional athletes! The best available! How can they not find a guy with at least one elite skill?’

Do these guys have that one 'skill' that translate to the NBA? (From left: Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay)

Do these guys have at least one elite ‘skill’ that translates to the NBA? (From left: Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay)

I don’t know, jackass. You tell me. You tell me how a professional basketball team with professional scouts and a professional front office team takes Hasheem Thabeet second overall when he can’t play basketball. You tell me how a team drafts a bag of sand like Michael Olowokandi first overall when Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce are on the board. Or Stromile Swift second overall simply because he can jump really high and run really fast. It happens every year. The busts are all around us! Athleticism and physical tools are assets, but they only work when coupled with elite basketball ability. It’s rare that you can teach a professional to play basketball; nor should you have to. This shouldn’t be that hard!

The elite skill game is not a hard one to play. Find a truly great shooter and at worst you’re getting JJ Redick; at best you’re getting Steph Curry. Find an elite passer and at worst you’re getting Steve Blake; at best you’re getting Gary Payton. Rebounding ability and toughness translates at all levels, regardless of size; we’ve seen players like Charles Barkley, Popeye Jones, Draymond Green and even Reggie Evans prove that for years. Ditto for perimeter defense. We can also look to previous busts like Thabeet and Olowokandi to understand that if you’re a big man who’s an average rebounder in college, you’re going to get smashed in the pros; elite shot-blocking ability because of extreme height does not always translate at the next level, unless you can do other things to help your team.

Basically, just don't take this guy and you're good

Basically, just don’t take this guy and you’re good

And that’s pretty much it! Doesn’t seem that hard, does it? All you have to do is draft completely healthy, sane players with no flaws in their game, make sure they’re not born in Europe, and have one elite, otherworldly talent. And then make sure they don’t get hurt, ever, and surround them with unselfish and similarly talented players. It’s easy!

Enjoy the crapshoot draft everybody!

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