The extra-tall cattle call that is the NBA draft takes place Thursday, and after the expected first two picks — Duke guard Kyrie Irving and Arizona forward Derrick Williams — it’s widely considered to be one of the weakest herds of talent in recent memory. This may come as disconcerting news to the Wizards, who currently hold the sixth and 18th picks, as well as a second-round pick, the 34th overall.
But it’s not just the uninspiring class of ’11 which leads one to think that the guy Washington lands at No. 6 might be no better than what’s available at 18. After a look at the history of those two draft spots, it is possible to argue that the latter position is more likely to yield a contributor.
Let’s go back to 1985, the very first year of the NBA’s draft lottery, which delivered Georgetown hero Patrick Ewing to the Knicks at No. 1. Immediately, one notices that the 18th pick that year, Joe Dumars , turned out to be far superior than the sixth pick, Joe Kleine . In fact, Dumars, he of the two NBA titles, a Finals MVP award, six all-star game appearances and spot in the Hall of Fame, clearly had the best career of anyone picked at either position over the past 26 years.
And Dumars isn’t the only one making the case for his draft slot. Want proof? Without any further ado, here are The Good, The Bad and The Rookies:
1987: Kenny Smith — 10 seasons, 12.8 points per game, 14.9 player efficiency rating
1988: Hersey Hawkins — 13 seasons, 14.7 PPG, 1 all-star appearance, 16.3 PER
1992: Tom Gugliotta — 13 seasons, 13.0 PPG, 1 AS, 15.9 PER
1996: Antoine Walker Kentucky — 12 seasons, 17.5 PPG, 3 AS, 16.0 PER
1997: Ron Mercer — 8 seasons, 13.6 PPG, 12.5 PER
1999: Wally Szczerbiak — 10 seasons, 14.1 PPG, 1 AS, 16.0 PER
2001: Shane Battier — 10 seasons, 9.6 PPG, 13.2 PER
2003: Chris Kaman — 8 seasons, 11.8 PPG, 1 AS, 14.4 PER
2004: Josh Childress — 5 seasons, 10.1 PPG, 15.9 PER
2006: Brandon Roy — 5 seasons, 19.0 PPG, 3 AS, 20.1 PER
2008: Danilo Gallinari — 3 seasons, 13.8 PPG, 15.1 PER
1985: Joe Kleine — 15 seasons, 4.8 PPG, 10.5 PER
1986: William Bedford — 6 seasons, 4.1 PPG, 9.7 PER
1989: Stacey King — 8 seasons, 6.4 PPG, 11.9 PER
1990: Felton Spencer — 12 seasons, 5.2 PPG, 10.8 PER
1991: Doug Smith — 5 seasons, 8.0 PPG, 11.7 PER
1993: Calbert Cheaney — 13 seasons, 9.5 PPG, 11.0 PER
1994: Sharone Wright — 4 seasons, 9.7 PPG, 12.8 PER
1995: Bryant Reeves — 6 seasons, 12.5 PPG, 13.8 PER
1998: Robert Traylor — 7 seasons, 4.8 PPG, 14.5 PER
2000: DerMarr Johnson — 7 seasons, 6.2 PPG, 11.0 PER
2002: Dajuan Wagner — 4 seasons, 9.4 PPG, 9.9 PER
2005: Martell Webster — 6 seasons, 8.6 PPG, 11.7 PER
2007: Yi Jianlian — 4 seasons, 8.5 PPG, 11.2 PER
2009: Jonny Flynn — 2 seasons, 10.2 PPG, 11.3 PER
2010: Ekpe Udoh — 1 season, 4.1 PPG, 9.7 PER
1985: Joe Dumars — 14 seasons, 16.1 PPG, 6 AS, 15. 3 PER
1987: Mark Jackson — 17 seasons, 9.6 PPG, 1 all-star, 16.0 PER
1988: Ricky Berry — 1 season, 11.0 PPG, 13.1 PER
1989: B.J. Armstrong — 11 seasons, 9.8 PPG, 1 AS, 14.5 PER
1992: Tracy Murray — 12 seasons, 9.0 PPG, 14.6 PER
1995: Theo Ratliff — 16 seasons, 7.2 PPG, 1 AS, 14.3 PER
1996: John Wallace — 7 seasons, 7.6 PPG, 14.0 PER
1999: James Posey — 12 seasons, 8.6 PPG, 12.4 PER
2000: Quentin Richardson — 11 seasons, 10.6 PPG, 13.1 PER
2003: David West — 8 seasons, 16.4 PPG, 2 AS, 19.0 PER
2004: J.R. Smith — 7 seasons, 12.5 PPG, 15.2 PER
2008: JaVale McGee — 3 seasons, 7.8 PPG, 17.2 PER
2009: Ty Lawson — 2 seasons, 10.2 PPG, 17.4 PER
1986: Mark Alarie — 5 seasons, 7.5 PPG, 13.0 PER
1990: Duane Causwell — 11 seasons, 4.9 PPG, 11.7 PER
1991: Kevin Brooks — 3 seasons, 3.3 PPG, 8.3 PER
1993: Luther Wright — 1 season, 1.3 PPG, -0.4 PER
1994: Eric Mobley — 3 seasons, 3.9 PPG, 10.6 PER
1997:Chris Anstey — 3 seasons, 5.2 PPG, 13.2 PER
1998: Mirsad Turkcan — 1 season, 1.9 PPG, 11.1 PER
2001: Jason Collins — 10 seasons, 3.9 PPG, 7.3 PER
2002: Curtis Borchardt — 2 seasons, 3.1 PPG, 9.0
2005: Gerald Green — 4 seasons, 7.5 PPG, 11.7
2006: Oleksiy Pecherov — 3 seasons, 3.9, 11.9 PER
2007: Marco Belinelli — 4 seasons, 8.0 PPG, 11.9 PER
2010: Eric Bledsoe — 1 season, 6.7 PPG, 10.8 PER
Note that the Rookies are the 2010 picks, whose bodies of work are too brief to merit judgement. Also note that were one to pass judgement, one could make the case the case that Bledsoe had a better rookie season than Udoh.
But on to the meat of the exercise, from which one can draw a few conclusions:
l There have been more Good players at No. 18 (13 in all) than at No. 6 (11).
And that’s while putting Alarie in the Bad column, deciding that his short tenure and low per-game scoring average are more meaningful than his fairly respectable player efficiency rating. (It’s worth pausing here to explain PER to the uninitiated. Basically, it is a statistic, devised by ESPN sabermetrician John Hollinger but gleaned for this article from the Web site Basketball-Reference.com, which attempts to calibrate a player’s overall contributions per minute. It’s not perfect, but it does allow for some comparisons between players with different skills and roles.)
Of course, that’s also while putting Berry in the Good column, with the logic that in his one season in the NBA, he appeared to be on his way to a good career for the Kings, a career that was cut tragically short when Berry committed suicide.
Meantime, who in the No. 6 crew merits a move from Bad to Good? Hard to think of many Wizards fans nominating Cheaney for that honor, even though he lasted 13 seasons and averaged nearly 10 points a game. King was a contributor to three championship teams in Chicago, but his eight-year career marks of 6.4 points per game and an 11.9 PER suggest that he was a Jordanaire not-so-extraordinaire. Reeves spent a total of six years in the league, the first three of which were effective, the last three not so much.
It could be said, though, that “Tractor” Traylor was actually a brilliant selection by the Mavericks, in the sense that they were able to immediately trade him to the Bucks for Pat Garrity and Milwaukee's pick at No. 9 -- Dirk Nowitzki.
l The best of the No. 18 picks stack up very well against the cream of the No. 6 crop.
Out of the Good lists, a few really stand out: At No. 6, one finds Walker and, especially, Roy. Walker was a three-time all-star who helped Miami win a title — and never stabbed a rust-belt city in the heart while attempting to do so — and notched a fine PER of 16.0. Roy is probably the most talented player of anyone mentioned here, with the highest PER and three all-star nods in only five seasons so far. However, the injury concerns which caused him to fall to the sixth spot in the 2006 draft have largely come to pass; Roy is still capable of exceptional performances, like his 18-point fourth quarter against the eventual champion Mavericks in the recent playoffs, but six knee surgeries thus far indicate a shrinking window for continued brilliance.
At No. 18, on the other hand, we find a trio of players for whom sustaining a high level of performance for a long time wasn’t or hasn't so far been a problem. Dumars’s 14 seasons in the NBA are trumped by Jackson’s 17, at the end of which the St. John's product had accumulated the third-most assists of all time. And 2003 pick West has been a model of consistency in his past six seasons, attaining PERs between 18.9 and 20.4 while twice receiving all-star acclaim.
l If the best-case scenarios at No. 18 are as good as those at No. 6, the worst-case scenarios are much, much worse.
Bedford gets the nod here as sickliest of the sixth picks, never showing much inclination to do, well, anything (besides add to the depressing legend of Memphis State’s 1985 Final Four squad, that is). Wagner, an undersize player who once scored 100 points in high school, looked like he might struggle with the aspects of NBA guard play that don't involve shameless gunning, but injuries meant the world would never find out, and we’ll give a pass to someone who had his entire colon removed and still tried to mount a comeback.
Either way, Bedford and Wagner account for the lowest PERs among the Bad No. 6 picks, 9.7 and 9.9, respectively. Numbers which look positively Ruthian compared to the worst-case scenario for the 18th (or pretty much any other) pick. That would be Wright, who played in 15 total games for the Jazz, scored a total of 19 points and racked up a mind-bogglingly bad PER of -0.4. Minus-0.4! To put that into context, the next-lowest PER among the Baddies belongs to fellow 18er Collins, whose own 7.3 — including nothing above 5.5 since 2005 — raises the question, “What in the name of Luther Wright is Jason Collins still doing in the NBA?”
l Perhaps, if the Wizards stand pat, we should be less interested in who they use their lottery pick on than who they nab a little later.
After all, this is a team that should know how fruitful the 18th selection can be, having used it on JaVale McGee, the star of the 2011 NBA dunk contest (unless you’re a sucker for automotively enhanced alley-oops), in 2008. Sure, McGee is a project, but he’s also an obviously talented big man with so much value that Washington is rumored to be balking at including him in a trade that would net this year’s No. 2 pick. Probably a good idea — the NBA draft’s second overall slot accounts for its own sizable list of Bad picks.