The Top Pick vs. The Top Pick

Posted on July 27, 2007 by


Today I am going to briefly address two questions.

1. How often is the number one pick in the draft the most productive NBA player?

2. Who is the most productive NBA player from each draft class (since 1991)?

To answer the first question we first need to consider the career productivity of each player drafted (and I begin with the 1991 draft). Each player in each draft class is then ranked in terms of career Wins Produced and then we look to see how often the number one pick leads that class. The results are reported in Table One, where because of different career lengths, the players are ranked in terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48].

Table One: The Career Performance of the Number One Picks (1991-2006)

As one can see, the number one pick has only led his class five times – in 16 seasons — in career Wins Produced. The five top picks who really were top picks include Shaquille O’Neal (1992), Chris Webber (1993), Tim Duncan (1997), LeBron James (2003), and Dwight Howard (2004). Elton Brand (1999) and Yao Ming (2002) both finished second while Andrew Bogut (2005) is currently ranked third in his draft class.

After these eight, though, the top picks fall quite a bit short. Andrea Bargnani (2006) has only played one season, so it’s quite possible that he will improve dramatically. And his draft class looks very weak (the current leader in wins is Rajon Rando) so it’s conceivable that Bargnani will close the gap. Of course, it’s also conceivable that he won’t, a point I will elaborate upon next week.

The other players at the bottom of the list will likely never prove worthy of being the number one pick. Glenn Robinson and Larry Johnson have both stopped playing, while Kenyon Martin, Joe Smith, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi have stopped playing much (or never played much to begin with). And then there is Allen Iverson who we have discussed in much detail in this forum. Let me just say this about Iverson. The top player from the 1996 draft is Kobe Bryant. You may love “the Answer” but I am pretty sure few people would take Iverson over Kobe.

In all, seven number one picks currently have a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] that is below average (including Iverson). So apparently there have been a few misses over the year.

Okay, let’s think about the other question. Who was the most productive player in each draft class?

Table Two: The Most Productive in Each Draft Class (1991-2006)

Table Two lists the top players from each draft class. The players are ranked in terms of career WP48, and topping the list is Kevin Garnett, Duncan, and Shaq. These three have been the dominant players in the NBA over the past few years, although the quality of KG’s teammates has kept his value a relative secret.

What stands out in this table is that eleven of the sixteen players were chosen with one of the first five choices. This suggests that a team doesn’t have to win the lottery to secure the top talent in the draft. But a team does have to be bad enough to land in the top five.

Of course a team also has to figure out who the top talent is going to be. It does look like teams make “mistakes.” But are these mistakes systematic? Should teams have suspected that Boozer was going to be very good (short answer – “YES”). But that story is going to need to wait for another day.

– DJ