One of the central conceits of this year’s NBA season is the idea that the 2014 NBA draft class is going to be full of great prospects and thus that 2014 lottery picks are unusually valuable.
There’s obviously something to this, but general managers would do well to consider the fact that it’s somewhat more complicated than that. A No. 1 draft pick, after all, doesn’t entitle you to the best player in the draft. What it does is entitle you to the first choice of draft pick. So in a draft where one player is far superior to the others and there is wide consensus on who that player is (LeBron James’$2 2003 draft, say), then there is an enormous value in being able to draft first rather than not. But the mere presence of lots of talented players doesn’t necessarily make high picks valuable if you’re facing choice under circumstances of a lot of uncertainty. The best player in the 2007 draft went second, the player who went first ended up having his career derailed by injuries; Marc Gasol went way down at 48th, teams passed on Joakim Noah (ninth) to draft Yi Jianlian, Corey Brewer, and Brandan Wright.
Which is all to say that to the extent that there are a lot of quality players in a draft, that means your odds of getting someone good without a top pick go up. The value of a high pick—as opposed to any old pick—depends both on the quality of the talent available and also on the obviousness of the choice. And especially as it’s become extremely rare for top talent to play multiple seasons of college basketball, it seems to me that the obviousness factor is almost always quite low.
Evaluating 19-year-old basketball players is just really hard. ESPN’s Chad Ford says that “All five players at the top of this draft are viable No. 1 picks,” which he means in the spirit of hype, but which signals to me a high level of uncertainty that makes draft position not so important.