The NBA Draft is an exercise in pure imagination

One of the most interesting chapters in Stumbling on Wins is the chapter on the NBA Draft

I’m not going to go into detail, but here are some of the authors findings:

According to Professor Berri and Professor Martin Schmidt (SoW, Pp 96) statistically significant criteria that lead to a better draft position are:

1. Age (if you are older you are penalized, so I presume being younger leads to a better position EDIT:  hold on, that’s shitty conditional reasoning on my part!  If you are penalized for being older, it does not follow that being younger bolsters your position.  But lets just say being older is a penalty);

2. Height relative to position;

3. Scoring Average

4. Shooting Efficiency;

5.  Appearance in a Final Four the year the player drafted;

That’s just a partial list, but the one factor I wanted to emphasize was the last one.  Why in the world would that last point matter?  And it gets even more bizarre.  The authors found that this “Final Four” effect disappears if the player plays further seasons in college but does not reach the Final Four in his drafting season.  In other words, the Final Four Premium is somehow perishable. 

It gets weirder.  The authors also found what we’ve always suspected:  players are penalized for playing in college.   The longer their college career, the more their draft status diminishes.  Apparently,in the NBA, experienced workers need not apply.  Strange.

How do you explain such counterintuitive thinking?  The authors hypothesize that the odd drafting strategies employed by NBA management are an example of the human mind attempting to process too much data when making critical decisions.  That’s a strong theory, but I have one of my own.

I believe, and this is pure speculation, but I believe that for the majority of NBA GMs, the NBA Draft, after all is said and done, is an exercise in pure imagination.  Or, if you want to give the practice a positive spin, it’s an exercise in analytical reasoning by loose analogy.

What do I mean?  Well, take a look at any NFL Draft site, then take a look at, or any other NBA draft site.  Notice something? 

At NBA draft sites almost always provide some sort of player comparison for the prospect, NFL sites almost never do.  (NBA sites will say this or that player’s “Best Case” is ‘Carlos Boozer” and his “Worst Case” is “Shelden Williams”.  But I have yet to see one analogous “Best/Worst” comparison to, say, QB Jimmy Clausen).

My theory would explain the bizarre “Perishable Final Four Appearance Premium” (my description) to a tee. 

In the GMs minds the summer after the FF appearance, the player can be imagined a winner, a success.  The next season, when the player didn’t make the FF, the “success” image is destroyed — “I saw him fail” so he’s not necessarily a winner.

I have to wrap this up fast, but consider also:  players are devalued for playing longer in college.  This fits.  The less a player plays, the more imaginative the GMs can be about the players potential.  In other words, they can “fill in the gaps”.  But when a player like Ty Lawson is seen too often, those gaps diminish.  He is what he is. 

Finally, consider the following.  For the past decade, every unknown tall outside shooting prospect from Europe was who?  Dirk Nowitzki.  Imagineering.  Every lanky African-American high school player was who?  Kevin Garnett.  You see where I’m going?  DeJuan Blair was devalued because he was comparable to whom?  Tractor Traylor.  Kevin Love was an “iffy” prospect because he looked like whom?  Big Country Reeves.

 You get where I’m going?  That’s how I believe players are ultimately evaluated in the NBA.  By loose analogy, or as I call it “imagineering”. 

I’ll go further with this in a subsequent post.

6 Responses to “The NBA Draft is an exercise in pure imagination”

  1. brgulker Says:

    This “pure speculation” actually makes a whole lot of sense.

    I wonder if Joe Dumars “imagined” what Ben Gordon could be after watching last year’s playoff series against Boston.

    Too bad he didn’t imagine what DaJuan Blair could be in relation to McDyess — both guys with bum knees, one resurrects his career in Detroit, the other finds his way into a role with one of the most successful franchises of my lifetime.

    Anecdotal evidence, sure, but still interesting to think about.

  2. tywill33 Says:

    The reason I believe in it is because I often practice it. Brandon Jennings? How did I analyze him? He’s Tiny Archibald.

    And you notice we never do that in other sports. I wasn’t asking “Who is Clay Matthews comparable to?” I asked, “Can he do the job? Has he done it in the past?”

    Those are the proper questions, but oddly we don’t ask them in Basketball. We always look for analogies.

  3. Colin Says:

    Its funny, awhile back, I was reading some internet forum speculation of UW’s Jon Leuer leaving for the NBA this summer. Most people seemed to agree that he wouldn’t have a chance to get drafted, even in the 2nd round. What I found interesting is that Leuer’s stats this season were almost identical to Charlie Villanueva’s numbers with UConn the year before he came out. Villanueva (IIRC) went 7th overall. They’re both close to the same age on draft day, both played against high quality competition, so…what’s the difference?

    Apparently 1 inch and a national championship is the difference between a lottery pick and an undrafted free agent.

    • tywill33 Says:


      I’m going to use an annoying radio cliche, but “you stole my thunder”.

      You’re missing the one key element that prevents an analogy between Leuer and Villanueva: Race.

      It annoys the fuck out of me, but the media and I assume the establishment will NEVER analogize between players of different race.

      Instead, they will strain to find a racially correct analogy.

      Example: Kevin Love’s style of play is very reminiscent of Wes Unseld. However, Unseld is black. Therefore Love had to be compared to the closest looking white guy: Big Country Reeves.

      This despite the fact that the two were not comparable in any way. Not in any way… other than race.

  4. Abe Says:

    I think that age should be considered, but in a very close context. If you have two players, one a senior, the other a freshman, all other things being equal, you take the freshman. I don’t see the harm in that.

    I think that the NFL doesn’t do that because the NFL has changed so much over the years in terms of how the game is played. Yes, the NBA has had transformations in pace and things like that, but not since the shot-clock, and I could hear an argument for the 3 point line, has the game and the ways its statistics are evaluated been completely transformed. Look at the NFL, from a teeth-gnashing league under Lombardi to now the Polian-provoked era of QBs.

  5. robbieomalley Says:

    This was a really interesting idea. It really makes a lot of sense. I also think it’s weird how much two players are compared purely by their physical similarities rather than how they play the game. Many people said oh Ty Lawson is just Ray Felton 2.0 because their both 5’11 point guards from North Carolina. No one can see that their production, statistically isn’t all that similar. The point with Love and Reeves is the same thing.

    I wrote a blog last year basically talking about imagineering without using the term. I compared DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. My main point was that DeMar DeRozan is not nearly as good as Harden but is held in high esteem because he has so many more blank areas that “could” improve while Harden already does all those things DeRozan might some day learn to do. If you would like to read it the link is…

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