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.