Why Top NBA Draft Picks So Often Disappoint

Managers seem to think that youth, points scored, and Final Four experience predict college players' pro performance. History tells a different story.
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Evan Turner, one of the top draft picks of this century, was a below-average performer four years into his NBA career. ( Flickr/Philadelphia 76ers )

Ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft, fans of the Philadelphia 76ers have been invited to attend the “world’s largest draft party” at 76 different locations in the Delaware Valley. Sixers diehards haven’t had much reason to party lately.  This past season, only the Milwaukee Bucks finished with more losses. And when we look at point differential, we see that the Sixers mark of -10.45 was the ninth worst in the past 40 years of NBA history.

Before the season started, though, some observers thought that the Sixers should try to be bad. NBA rules make it so that losing as much as possible in 2013-14 would increase the chances of a plum spot in the 2014 draft, which conventional wisdom would say would let the team grab new, special talent. Whether or not this was the plan, the Sixers’s poor performance has been rewarded with the third choice in the 2014 lottery.

But is this reason for the fans of this team to party? As others and I have observed before, if we look back at the history of what the top three picks in the NBA draft have actually done, there’s not much reason for optimism. Data shows that the players drafted early often fizzle out once they start playing in the NBA.

The likely reason for this history of failure: Teams use the wrong metrics when selecting new members.

Consider the following 10 names: Evan Turner, Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Adam Morrison, Andrea Bargnani, Marvin Williams, Ben Gordon, Darko Milicic, and Kwame Brown.  Each of these players were selected with a top-three pick in this century. And each was a below-average performer after four years in to his career (the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement gives lottery teams the rights to a player for four years if all options are exercised). In the case of Adam Morrison, he was so unproductive that he never even played four seasons. 

And if we back into the 20th century we see names like Michael Olowokandi, Keith Van Horn, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Danny Ferry, Dennis Hopson, and Chris Washburn.  On draft night these players were certainly considered “good.” But their performance in the NBA failed to match this expectation.

Certainly this list suggests that finding a “good” player isn’t a sure thing. But exactly how often does “good” happen? Let’s say a player is “good” if his career production of wins per 48 minutes (calculation explained here) is simply above average after four seasons in the league.  This is not a difficult threshold to overcome (by this definition, about half of all NBA rotation players are “good”).

But even with this minimum threshold, “good” doesn’t happen as often as the fans at the draft parties might think.  Since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, only 54.3% of players selected with the top three picks were above average four years into their career. Or more than 45% of top three selections were not above average. That suggests that landing a “good” player with one of the top three choices is little better than a coin flip.

And the story gets worse if we ask the following: How often are all the top three choices in a single draft “good” players? Since 1976 this has happened exactly twice.  In 1999 the top three choices were Elton Brand, Steve Francis, and Baron Davis.  These players are not likely to be in the Hall of Fame. But they were above average (at least early in their respective careers). And then back in 1984, the top three choices were Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, and Michael Jordan. Two of these players are in the Hall of Fame. Bowie—whose career was severely impacted by injury—was not quite as successful as Olajuwon or Jordan.  But Bowie was above average early in his career.  And relative to many other players selected with the top three choices in the draft, Bowie was actually a “good” player.

Of course, fans of the Sixers might think this years is going to be different.  Until it was revealed Joel Embiid has a stress fracture in his foot, most mock drafts argued that Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Embiid would be the first three choices in the 2014 draft. Although no one can agree on the order these three will be selected, it appears that at least one of these players will be available when the Sixers are on the clock. 

Chad Ford—ESPN.com’s NBA draft expert—recently said that these three players rank among the top 12 draft prospects in the past 15 years.  So that suggests the Sixers are definitely going to land a “star.” Party time?

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David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins, and serves on the editorial board of both the Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.

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