At the NBA trade deadline this season, late first-round picks were at a premium.

The Houston Rockets dealt Jordan Hill, an athletic 6’10, 245, 24-year-old big man with a 15.4 PER, for a first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, assuming the cost of buying out Derek Fisher’s $3.4 million player option next season in the process.

The Cleveland Cavaliers dealt Ramon Sessions, a legit NBA starter who is only 25-years-old, for the Lakers’ other first-round pick, assuming the cost of Luke Walton’s $6.1 million salary in 2013

The most eyebrow-raising move of all was the Golden State Warriors essentially paying $11.4 million dollars for the San Antonio Spurs' first-round pick. Stephen Jackson’s contract expires after 2013 while Richard Jefferson will almost certainly pick up his player option for the 2013-14 season.

In a league that typically scoffs at the value of these picks, which have usually been available for $3 million in cash, it’s fair to wonder what these teams are thinking. However, two things, both the result of the lockout, are different in 2012: the heightened luxury tax penalties in the new CBA have increased the value of first-rounders’ cost-controlled salaries while the uncertainty surrounding the 2011-12 season helped keep many of college basketball’s top players in school an extra season.

Kentucky and North Carolina, the two favorites in the NCAA Tournament, have at least five players who would have been first-round picks last year: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. At least five more collegiate players -- Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Jeremy Lamb (UConn), Perry Jones III (Baylor), Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli (Vanderbilt) -- would have been first-round picks in 2011, one of the weakest drafts in recent memory.

Combine these returning players with an extremely talented freshman class and the 2012 draft should be as strong as 2008 (Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook) if not the famed 2003 class. There’s obviously not many more LeBron James types coming down the pipeline, but part of what made 2003 so special was the number of excellent contributors teams found at the end of the first-round: David West (#18), Boris Diaw (#21), Kendrick Perkins (#27), Leandro Barbosa (#28) and Josh Howard (#29).

History tells us that the odds are against late first-round picks ever becoming effective NBA contributors, but sometimes the most important part of gathering data is knowing when to ignore it. By their actions at the trade deadline, NBA teams seem to think 2012 first-round picks are three times as valuable as in previous years, and if you look at Draft Express’ current mock draft, that seems about right.

While I expect several of these players to return to school in an effort to be boost their stock for 2013, the level of talent possibly available at picks #20-30 is jaw-dropping. From top to bottom, with the exception of the Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas, I’d take the late first-round of 2012 over picks #4-14 in 2011.

The 6’9, 240 Patric Young (Florida) and 6’11, 220 Arnett Moultrie (Mississippi State), two athletic but offensively limited power forwards, are fairly similar to Tristan Thompson, while Tony Mitchell (North Texas) has a much higher ceiling. Ezeli, an athletic 6’10, 250 big man with a 7’6 wingspan, should be an effective two-way center, one of the rarest commodities in the sport. Dion Waiters (Syracuse) is a lottery talent being hidden on a deep Syracuse team while Tony Wroten Jr. (Washington) is a Tyreke Evans clone.

There is certainly no comparing Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas), currently projected to go #30, with Cory Joseph, the Spurs choice at No. 29 last year. Taylor is a 6’3, 180 combo guard with the skill and athleticism to play both backcourt positions at the next level who is averaging 17.1 points and 4.7 assists on 49% shooting; Joseph isn’t nearly as athletic and averaged only 10.4 points and 3.3 assists on 42% shooting at Texas last year.

There’s clearly more certainty in picking up NBA veterans over projecting college players to the next level, but teams like the Lakers are paying a heavy price for it. Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill will cost the Lakers at least $9.5 million next season; in contrast, the Lakers could have had Moultrie and Taylor for as little as $3 million if they had kept their picks.

The end of the first-round is one of the easiest ways for teams to gain a lot of surplus value (what a player is contributing to a team versus how much he is being paid) on their roster. If they draft correctly, the hefty investments the Cavaliers, Rockets and Warriors made at the deadline will seem very wise in a few years.