D-League Players vs. Late First Round Picks: A Surprising Result

Posted on July 25, 2010 by


Andres Perezchica grew up in California and was at UC Berkeley during the Warriors’ We Believe era. He then studied a master’s program in Finance in Monterrey, Mexico, where he became intrigued by the growing field of Sports Economics. He is currently living back in California.

During the 2009-10 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors tied a league record for call-ups from the NBA D-League with five. These five players combined to produce 0.81 wins (numbers taken from the Wins Produced site of Andres Alvarez). Over the course of their time on the team, they earned a combined $1.164 million.

However, last year the Warriors employed three other players that had gone undrafted and got their start in the D-League. These eight players produced 9.6 wins and were paid $6.07 million. This comes out to 1.58 wins per million dollars.

This Warriors team is a very good example of how useful the D-League can be to an NBA team.  One wonders, can this possibly be a cheaper alternative to drafting players late in the first round, where their contracts are guaranteed?

In Table 1, the Warriors are split between players drafted late in the first round and players who started in the D-League. Each player’s Wins Produced [WP], WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and WP per million are also shown.  Devean George was the only Warrior on the team last season that was drafted late in the first round (outside of the lottery). George produced 1.36 wins and earned a salary of $1.6 (for a WP/mill mark of 0.85).

Although this is a very small sample, I wanted to see if it was an indication of a trend that spanned the NBA. If this is a trend and not an aberration, it would lead one to wonder if an organization would be better off employing players from the D-League rather than drafting a player late in the first round. Using Andres Alvarez’s data on Wins Produced, I looked at each player that went undrafted and was called up to the NBA from the D-League.  This group of players was then compared to each player that went drafted from picks fifteen through thirty of the first round.  The results of this analysis are reported in Table 2.

Just to review the table…. over the last five years, 77 different players were called up from to the NBA from the D-League. These players combined to play 40,619 minutes in the NBA. In these minutes, they combined to produce 77.9 wins. Their average wp48 comes out to 0.092, a mark that is essentially average. Combined, these players earned a salary of $42.029 million over this time.  So this group of D-Leaguers produced 1.853 wins per million.  Meanwhile, there have been 80 players that were drafted with picks 15-30 of the first round across the last five years. These 80 players combined for 237,812 minutes of playing time and produced 359.36 wins. This translates into a WP48 mark of 0.070, which is slightly below average.  These late-first round picks were paid $293.521 million; and given the Wins Produced for these players, produced 1.224 wins per million dollars spent. 

While there are roughly the same number of players that are called up from the D-League as players that are drafted in the latter half of the first round, the drafted players played almost six times the minutes given to the D-Leaguers. This may be largely due to the guaranteed three-year contract all first-round picks receive (editor’s note: published research – as noted in Stumbling on Wins – argues that there is a link between draft position and minutes played in the NBA). It is likely that teams play their first-round picks more minutes because of this, even if the players prove to be ineffective.

For further evidence of this is bias, of the 77 players called up from the D-League over the last five years, 27 never played in the NBA or were out of the league after their first season. In contrast, there are only five players who were drafted in the latter half of the first round who never played in the NBA.

In the minutes they have been given, though, the D-League call-ups have produced slightly more than the late-first round selections.  They have a higher wp48 mark, posting a number that is just a shade below average. And the D-leaguers have also produced 0.629 more wins for every million dollars they were paid.

While the D-Leaguers out-produced the latter first rounders in these respects, it is a small sample size and it is unknown whether these players would maintain their level of production if their minutes increased to match the draft picks’ minutes.  That being said… if the production of the D-Leaguers remained stable with an increase in minutes, it appears that an NBA organization may be wiser to trade away draft picks in the latter first round and search the D-League for players to fill out their roster. In this case, the team would be able to follow a player’s development without being forced into a three-year contract. In addition to potentially seeing more on-court production, an average salary earned by a D-Leaguer is under $0.5 million, while a player drafted from picks 15-30 earned an average of just under $1.5 million. 

In sum — and this surprising result bears repeating  — avoiding drafting a player outside of the lottery in the first round could potentially save an organization about one million dollars for each employee.  And again, this savings may come with an even higher level of on-court production.

– Andres Perezchica