It’s Never Too Early to Start Thinking About The NBA Draft

Before I get into what I think about the NBA Finals beginning on Tuesday, I want to take this post to deal with another basketball-related topic that I’m intensely interested in — the NBA Draft.

If you’re new to the site or don’t know me personally, you don’t know how involved I get with drafts, but I love them. This whole blog was really just a way for me to get a platform to do my own mock drafts for the NFL and NBA. The other 50 weeks of the year it’s mostly just goofy pseudo-sports filler.

To get ready for this year’s NBA draft, I’ve been doing a pretty absurd amount of studying. I read mock drafts and player profiles, watch highlights, study pro rosters and player/team salary structures, and this year I even watched the NBA combine on tv. It’s fun for me.

I’m not trying to say that I’m some sort of draft expert or anything — a lot of the draft is guesswork and one or two early picks that no one predicted change the entire draft every year — but I think this is one of the few areas (the others are Saved By the Bell, bocce, and late ‘90s/early 2000’s one-hit-wonders) in which I have an inhuman amount of knowledge.

Kyrie Irving has been practicing for draft night photos

Most of the actual real experts are declaring this year’s NBA draft to be one of the weakest in recent memory, and originally, I thought so too. Since the draft lottery, there has been a lot of focus on Kyrie Irving being the expected first overall pick (to the Cavs) and probably Derrick Williams going second to Minnesota or any of the teams that are interested in pursuing a trade with the ‘Wolves.

According to most draft analysts, there is a gigantic dropoff after these two. People who know what they’re talking about say that the draft is incredibly weak. Groundbreakingly, historically weak. But I don’t get it.

I do understand that there are some question marks around Enes Kanter and Kawhi Leonard (both projected to go somewhere in the 3-8 range), but I feel like there are at least two busts this range every single year. Do you remember Al-Farouq Amino going eighth to the Clippers last year? How about Ekpe Udoh sixth to the Warriors? Hasheem Thabeet went second in 2009, and Ricky Rubio (fifth) hasn’t even played in America yet. How about Joe Alexander the year before? I’m done giving examples, but I hope you get the idea — there are huge busts every year, and trying to predict them now is useless.

A quick look at the expected order of this year’s draft might show a little bit of weakness at the top. I’ll certainly admit that the projected lottery guys probably have a ceiling of mediocre. But before you declare this draft a bust, take a look at the rest of the draft.

To start, please understand that I can’t predict the future of these guys in the NBA. Neither can you, so just take everything for what it is.

Below is a list of players I love that are expected to go in the first round of the NBA draft. Each player is listed with a range of where I’m seeing him go in most mocks.

Tristan Thompson might not make the lottery and this draft is weak? I don't know about that.

Brandon Knight (4-5)
Kemba Walker (5-8)
Alec Burks (8-12)
Tristan Thompson (11-15)
Kenneth Faried (13-17)
Jordan Hamilton (14-18)
Chris Singleton (16-22)
Klay Thompson (16-20)
Darius Morris (20-24)
Nolan Smith, JaJuan Johnson, Trey Thompkins, Nikola Vecevic (late first, early-to-mid second)

I look at these guys and wonder how a draft that has JaJuan Johnson going in the late 20s at the earliest could be considered weak. And Chris Singleton outside the lottery? It’s like no one has ever seen him play.

What I’m trying to say is that I think the post-lottery picks in this year’s draft will be as good as any other draft’s players. While the lottery might be weak, the rest of the draft is full of players that I think can contribute immediately. Compared to other drafts, I don’t see how the middle and end of this draft are any weaker.

Still, the top is weak. But why? Let me give my theory about why the lottery players in this draft are expected to be so bad: the 2011 draft will have more foreign players in the lottery than ever before and no one knows how to evaluate them appropriately.

I did a little bit of research on the foreign players getting drafted in the lottery, and put together a list for you, starting in 1995 when the draft had a similar number of teams and the draft rules were about the same.

1995– none
1996– none
1997– none
1998– 9. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany)
1999– none
2000– none
2001– 12. Vladimir Radmonavic (Yugoslavia)
2002– 1. Yao Ming (China), 5. Nikoloz Tskitishvili, (Italy), 7. Nene Hilariio (Brazil),
2003– 2. Darko Milicic (Serbia), 11. Mickael Pietrus (France),
2004– 11. Andris Bedrins (Latvia)
2005– 11. Fran Vaszquez (Spain), 12. Yaroslav Korolev (Russia)
2006– 1. Andrea Bargnani (Italy), 10. Saer Sene (Senegal), 13. Thabo Sefolosha (Switzerland)
2007– 6. Yi Jianlian (China)
2008– 6. Danilo Gallinari (Italy)
2009– 5. Ricky Rubio (Spain)
2010– none

A look at the first players taken shows that the first wave of foreign players have had quite a bit of success, but recent foreign lottery players have tailed off in terms of production. The cutoff looks like Darko in 2003. Tskitishvili was a bust before him and Gallinari has been decent after him, but in general terms, the foreign players taken in the lottery before 2003 were noticeably better than those taken in ’03 or later. Lately, the foreign lottery players are almost a guaranteed bust.

Why does this matter to this year’s draft? Because most draft predictions have Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania), Bismack Biyombo (Spain), Jan Vesely (Belgrade) and Donatas Motiejunas (Lithuania) all potentially going in the lottery this year. You could even count Enes Kanter in there if you wanted. That’s a lot of players not from America. And we don’t really know that much about them because there’s not a good way to estimate how foreign players will fit into the NBA style of play. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be bad, it just means that we don’t know.

This year’s draft isn’t bad. The top might be. The rest of it isn’t. I’m not saying that Jonas Valanciunas is going to be the next Michael Jordan (although Scottie Pippen might), I’m just saying that we shouldn’t write off these foreign guys because the other recent ones are terrible. And let’s not forget that the draft doesn’t end after the lottery. In fact, I’m a Pacers fan, so this year the draft doesn’t even start until after the lottery.