There are questions surrounding top draft prospect Joel Embiid from Kansas, but the risk appears to be worth the reward for a player who ranked in the top 20 nationally in defensive rebound percentage, rebounding percentage and block percentage.
But what if they are wrong? What’s the downside of drafting a bust in the first five picks and how much does it impact the future of the franchise?
First we need to classify numerically what it looks like to be a bust on draft day. Using the draft info from basketball-reference.com for 2001 to 2010, I calculated the average win shares per 48 minutes for the NBA careers of players at each of the top five draft positions. I used the 2010 cutoff to allow for drafted players in the sample to play out the maximum number of seasons under an NBA rookie’s contract.
On average, a top-five pick generates .106 win shares per 48 minutes of play, with two thirds of the top-five draft picks falling within the 0.051 to 0.162 range. For context, that would be a swing from the Knicks’ Raymond Felton (0.53 win shares per 48 last season) to Miami’s Mario Chalmers (0.106) to Houston’s Dwight Howard (0.161).
So anything below 0.051 win shares per 48 we can consider a bust, giving us four players who fit the bill: Jay Williams, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Shaun Livingston and Adam Morrison.
We can also say a draft pick is a bust if he doesn’t play, setting the threshold at appearing in at least half of the team’s game each season during the four years after they get drafted. Shaun Livingston and Adam Morrison would double qualify as busts and the list would also see Greg Oden, the first overall pick in 2007, added to the list.
Williams played just 75 games for Chicago after the franchise drafted him second overall in 2002 because of a motorcycle accident cutting his career short. The Bulls would rebound and make the playoffs in nine of the following 11 seasons largely in part to the production of first rounders Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.
The Denver Nuggets made the playoffs 10 straight seasons after drafting Tskitishvili, who played just two and a half seasons with the Nuggets before being traded to Golden State.
Livingston started just 60 games for the Clippers during his first four seasons after being drafted fourth overall in 2004. Los Angeles would struggle under coaches Mike Dunleavy and Vinny Del Negro, making the postseason just once over that span, but eventually help arrived in the form of number one overall pick Blake Griffin in 2009.
Morrison was selected third overall in 2006 and would play 122 games for Charlotte, starting just 28 of them, and be out of the league within four years of his selection on draft day. Charlotte would see the postseason just twice since, both first round exits. However, that is more a function of the scouting staff not being able to find impact players in the first round of the draft over the next few seasons.
Oden, of course, is the poster child for cautionary tales at the draft. Selected first overall by Portland in 2007, he played just 82 games over two years and then was out of the league for nearly twice as long until the Miami Heat signed him in 2013.
“I know I’m one of the biggest busts in NBA history and I know that it’ll only get worse as Kevin Durant continues doing big things,” said Oden.
Durant, or course, is everything a team hopes to get in the draft: an impact player in both the regular season and playoffs since his arrival. Embiid could be one of those players.
Embiid has been compared to Olajuwon frequently. That makes some sense. Both started playing the game later than most prospects, Hakeem at 15, Embiid at 16. Both have credited playing other sports while growing up with aiding in the development of basketball skills. For Olajuwon it was soccer while Embiid played volleyball. I’m wary about projecting a college freshman to be on the level of an all-time great. It puts a lot of pressure on the player and sets him up to become a punch line later in life should things not turn out so well. But the statistical comp and the background make the Olajuwon comp a reasonably realistic one. It also drives home the point that Joel Embiid has the potential to become the type of player who can lead his team to multiple titles and win a few MVPs should everything turn out right. That can’t be said of any other prospect in this draft.
Whiffing on a top-five pick doesn’t spell doom for a franchise, mostly because it doesn’t happen all that often. And when a prospect like Embiid is available, it is typically worth the risk.