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Estimating Value in the NBA Draft – An Analytical Approach

{This detailed article was written by NOLA Analytics Guest Author. Be sure to follow them @NolaAnalytics!}

FROM NBA draft With only two weeks left, I wanted to share some thoughts on the draft, first, in terms of analytics, and second, what it means for the New Orleans Pelicans. Contrary to popular belief, analytics doesn’t necessarily focus on identifying the best leads (although they can certainly help). Rather, analytics can best help shape the overall philosophy of a project.

There are countless draft insights, but this article will focus on four key ones.

MVP candidates are worth exponentially more than superstars who are worth exponentially more than stars who are worth exponentially…

This is part A to the first point. Before we get to the draft itself, it’s important to establish this point. This is an analytical article, so let’s get a little bored for a second. If we were to rate players as in 2K, we should not consider the difference in ratings to be linear (e.g. a player with an overall rating of 88 is between 95 and 81). Instead, we should consider it as an x² graph.

Let me explain: as we just showed earlier, a line player with an overall score of 88 is 7 points better than 81 and 7 points worse than 95. But let’s square each of these numbers. So, a player with an overall rating of 88 is 1183 points better than a player with 81st, but 1281 points worse than a player with 95th. we look at the players, we care the most about top level guys.

And that’s true if we think about the NBA logically: It doesn’t really matter what the Suns try to add, there’s practically nothing they can do to get the Bucks to trade Giannis for Booker. And in the same sense, there’s little the Bucks can do to convince the Suns to trade Booker for Middleton.

So that’s the first draft rule: we value MVP equity by far the most, followed by All-NBA equity, then All-Star equity, etc. Shamit Dua wrote about it in 2020 about how teams are too careful in drafting and just trying to get into singles when home runs and grand slams are the best way to draft.

All other things being equal, we would prefer a guy with a median score of 75 and 90 in the 80th percentile over a guy with a median score of 78 and a score of 80th percentile. 20% of simulations are so valuable that we have to take advantage and hope for the best.

In terms of pure asset play, it is, in fact, always more profitable to trade down rather than up.

This is especially true in NFL Draftbut this applies to all sports. In general, if two teams trade picks in the NBA draft, the team moving up will have to pay an additional asset premium for it. This does not mean that it is not always “worth it”. Remember Rule 1: If you’re trading for a guy with superstar potential, it can more than reduce the draft premium you’ll have to pay.

It’s like the NFL: trading for a regular player is almost never worth it, but trading for a QB who will be in the same place is actually a positive value, because the benefits of hitting the QB are huge. But for the most part, especially when we get out of the top few, you’re better off trading down rather than up.

There is no such thing as a “safe” pick or a guy we know “will be a first year contestant”.

These are two phrases that are spoken by the tons every year during the dry season, although there is actually no evidence to support either of these theories. Guys who contribute as freshmen or sophomores aren’t necessarily high schoolers, foreign boys, or guys who played big minutes and produced in college. It is easier: guys who bring fruit early tend to be the best picks in the draft..

Pelicans fans should be especially aware of this: The Pelicans chose Buddy Heald over Jamal Murray because they needed a rookie who could come in and immediately contribute along with Anthony Davis. Instead, Murray quickly caught and passed Hield simply because he was the best player in the NBA.

So don’t fall for the guys that you think can contribute in 22-23 because they are older or more developed because the guys who end up contributing will most likely just be better players. in your class. Focus on searching those guys.

Positions/roles matter across the spectrum

This may fall under the first point, but you should consider that if a player reaches their 80th percentile, how valuable it actually is, and size/position/role matters a lot. Boston Celtics under Danny Ainge, essentially developed their entire drafting philosophy: “We’re going to pick the best wing available that can shoot and defend,” knowing that big wings that can shoot, create, and defend are by far the most valuable and most scarce players NBA.

On the other hand, centers have the highest substitution value in basketball. Willy Hernangomez averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds as a starting center in 2020-21 under a minimum contract. With these two points in mind, a 6’8 SF who claims to be a middle starting wing is probably more valuable than a big man who claims to be in the top ten center forwards.

How can we apply these rules to this year’s draft and to the Pelicans?

First, obviously, we’re focused on seeing which players have the best chance of becoming All-NBA or MVP level candidates. By picking 8th place, most of the guys with that ability in the 80th-90th percentile results are not on the board. But you can still focus on maximizing your chances of getting an All-Star player rather than finding a reliable starting player.

For example, it’s easy to imagine a shooter like A.J. Griffin sliding alongside Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he is the player with the maximum contract. On the other hand, a guy like Usman Dieng may not have any special trait as enticing as Griffin’s three-point shot, but his all-round play could lead to better 80th percentile results, because if he develops long-range shot (and maybe working with the best shooting coach in the NBA would help), otherwise his game falls short of a guy like Griffin.

Second, if the Pelicans aren’t enamored with anyone as a potential All-NBA player with his 80th-90th percentile, they should probably explore the possibility of a multi-position trade. The Thunder stand out in particular as a team with such a wealth of assets sitting in 12th that they may be willing to pay a little more to consolidate those assets into a top 8th player. The drop as a player will be small, the player will have a slightly cheaper contract, and the Pelicans should be well compensated for the move.

Also, depending on how you feel about certain players, you have to be careful about wanting the Pelicans to trade. Personally, I consider a guy like 80th percentile Jayden Ivey to be slightly better than the best Oladipo. So I don’t want to trade negative expected value assets instead of taking guys like Dyson Daniels, Benedict Maturin, etc. Alternatively, if you consider Ivey’s 80th percentile result as a guy like Ja Morant, then this can nullify the negative game of the asset.

Next, be wary of guys whose key stats describe him as a “safe” choice, and resist the urge to try and focus on guys who can contribute as a rookie. Often you are even more deluded by doing this.

This year in the draft, I’m slightly behind Johnny Davis and Ochai Agbaji, two guys who are being called potential day one picks. Alternatively, I’m slightly taller than Jeremy Sochan and Usman Dieng, two guys who are considered potentially “slower developers” and who “need more work”. Not only do they each have higher growth potential (in my opinion), but I don’t care as much about the guys that scouts think need a few years as I do about the prospects. Chances are, if they become good players, they will contribute just as early if not earlier than guys like Davis and Agbaji.

Finally, understand how the value of a player’s role/position emphasizes or limits their growth potential. It may not matter that Chet Holmgren claims to be a big man who can only play 4 or 5 if he hits his 80th percentile, but for a guy like Jalen Düren, even if he turns into an All NBA frontier Center, how valuable it is. compared to if Keegan Murray becomes “merely” a Siakam level player? Especially in the NBA draft, where nothing is guaranteed, a team like the Pelicans should be leaning towards the wing rather than the center or small back if your prospect ratings are similar.

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