Headed into the season, most pre-draft talk revolved around Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad, the two highest-rated players in the freshman class. However, neither has quite lived up to the hype so far and their teams (Kentucky and UCLA) have slipped out of the Top 25. Their struggles have created a wide-open race for the No. 1 overall pick, a stark contrast to this time last year, when lottery-bound teams were already daydreaming about Anthony Davis.
As a result, there isn’t much enthusiasm surrounding the 2013 draft, especially in comparison to 2014, which could feature Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. But while the No. 1 pick in 2013 may not be as valuable as in 2012 or 2014, there are still 29 other picks in the first round. Barring a work stoppage that keeps most of the NCAA’s top prospects in school, there are excellent players available every year, even in a “weak draft” like 2013.
Any draft class will look weak in comparison to 2003, which featured eight future All-Stars, including four who were taken in the top five picks. Nevertheless, from 1999-2008, every draft has had at least three future All-Stars. In all ten, there was at least one All-Star taken outside of the lottery. Even 2000, widely considered the weakest draft in modern memory, still had Kenyon Martin, Michael Redd, Jamaal Magloire, Jamal Crawford and Hedo Turkoglu.
Basketball is a young man’s game: the prospects of today are the stars of tomorrow, often faster than we imagine. In 2011, the average age of the top 112 players in the NBA was a little over 26. The best teams tend to be slightly older not because experience is inherently more valuable, but because only the best players last long enough to gain that experience. The average NBA career lasts only 4.5 seasons; the league’s veterans are, by definition, above-average talents.
At the same time, the pool of talent worldwide is as deep as it has ever been. There are more people watching the sport, more teenagers playing it competitively and more money pouring into it than at any time in history. Swimmers and sprinters get bigger, faster and more athletic every four years; basketball isn’t immune to these trends. The international teams in the London Olympics were better than the ones in Beijing and Barcelona; they will be even better in Rio de Janeiro.
The distribution of generational talents will always be somewhat random, but there is a steady flow of top 100 players coming into the NBA on an annual basis. The 2011 draft, where many of the top American prospects elected not to make themselves eligible due to fear of an impending lockout, is the exception that proves the rule. While that class is still only in their second year in the NBA, No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving is the only one whose emerged from the pack so far.
In contrast, 2009 produced Blake Griffin, James Harden, Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry and Jrue Holiday. The 2010 class -- John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors and Greg Monroe -- may be one of the more polarizing in recent memory, but there was clearly plenty of talent available when both Avery Bradley and Eric Bledsoe went outside the top 15. The newest batch of rookies have barely even gotten their feet wet and Davis, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist already look like cornerstone-type players. All three classes, at one point during the pre-draft process, were derided as “weak”.
One of the weirder aspects of NBA draft coverage is the groupthink mentality that quickly emerges. Last year, for example, everyone decided that Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal and Thomas Robinson formed the “Tier 2” of available players after Davis. Yet Drummond had a higher ceiling than Robinson and Terrence Ross’ numbers were every bit as good as Beal’s. There’s just no internal consistency in the logic behind the conventional wisdom. The entire crux of the Austin Rivers boomlet seemed to be a famous father and a buzzer beater he hit on national TV.
If anything, downplaying the quality of a draft class seems to be a pastime for many “NBA insiders.” The Nets took this cynical strategy to its logical conclusion in 2012, badmouthing the draft in order to justify putting only a top-3 protection on the pick they dealt for Gerald Wallace. They had apparently weighed the entirety of the 2012 draft class and come to the conclusion that only Davis, Robinson and Kidd-Gilchrist would be much help to them in 2013. Bear in mind, this was a team giving Kris Humphries 35 minutes a night.
Far too often, teams deal away first round picks thinking the guaranteed contract that comes with it is a burden rather than an asset. Players who make less than they are worth in the NBA’s economic system, either superstars whose salaries are capped or young players on rookie deals, are more valuable than ever thanks to new luxury tax penalties which harshly punish overspending. And with “roster flexibility” the new buzzword, teams will end up regretting the vast majority of contracts given to veteran free agents in the decline phase of their careers.
To paraphrase Bill Simmons, would you rather have Wallace at four years and $40 million or Harrison Barnes at five years and $20? Landry Fields at three years and $20 million or Jeffery Taylor at three years and $3 million? Royce White was a gamble that may not work out for the Rockets, but at most, he will cost them $3 million over two years. The Celtics, on the other hand, committed four years and $36 million to Jeff Green, a guy coming off heart surgery whose never had a PER over 15. Every player coming out of college is a risk on some level, but the risks in free agency are much, much higher.
There will certainly be risks involved in selecting either Noel or Muhammad, although both have improved in recent weeks. But now that the high school class of 2012 has a semester of college under their belts, expect a number of future stars to emerge in conference play. Whether it’s Isaiah Austin, Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore or Anthony Bennett, there are plenty of high-upside young players out there whom the average NBA fan hasn’t heard much about yet. In general, there are no bad drafts in the NBA, just bad drafters.