How Well Does NBA Draft Order Predict Player Careers?

The Los Angeles Lakers have two first-overall NBA draft picks on their roster—LeBron James (2003) and Anthony Davis (2012)—who have so far had careers that make LeBron an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame and quite possibly make Davis one should the Lakers win the title even if Davis suffers a career-ending injury during the offseason and never plays another game.

Meanwhile, the “curse of the No. 2 pick” haunts guys like Sam Bowie (1984), Darko Milicic (2003), Hasheem Thabeet (2009), and Lonzo Ball (2017), while the No. 3 pick in those drafts?

How about Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum? Think the teams that picked No. 2 in those four drafts wouldn’t mind a do-over?

Of course, this is not a perfect correlation—one need look no further than Portland making two epic screw-ups by the same franchise involving a big man when they took Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007—but it does leave open the question of whether there’s a strong correlation—or any correlation at all—between when a guy gets drafted and what kind of career he ultimately goes on to have in the NBA.

Complicating matters further? Well, how about mid-first-round steals? Guys like John Stockton (16th overall in that 1984 draft), Karl Malone (13th in 1985), Reggie Miller (11th in 1987), and more recently Kawhi Leonard (15th, 2011) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th again, in 2013.) They’re going to monkeywrench some averages themselves.

Let’s go back to 1977—the first year after the NBA-ABA merger, so we don’t get stuck trying to compare NBA drafts when they were competing with the other league—and run through 2016, so we’ve got an even 40-year sample size (the jury’s still out on everyone drafted later than that, but anyone drafted in 2016 has had four full seasons to prove himself and everyone from that draft class has by now entered restricted free agency.)

We’ll go by draft slot, take an average of everyone drafted in that slot by total Win Shares, and just for fun point out the best and worst players at each of the top 22 draft positions (there were 22 teams in the NBA in 1977, so that’s making sure everyone in this sample was a first-rounder).

Ready? Go!

First Pick

Average Win Shares: 73.9
Best: 236.4 (LeBron James, 2003)
Worst: 0.5 (Anthony Bennett, 2013)

Of course the first overall pick has the best overall result. The big question everyone probably wants to know the answer to is coming momentarily…

Second Pick

Average Win Shares: 49.7
Best: 145.5 (Gary Payton, 1990)
Worst: 0.0 (Len Bias, 1986) or, if only living players count, 0.8 (Jay Williams, 2002)

One dead player, one player got in a motorcycle crash right after his rookie year…if you throw them both out, Thabeet inherits the “worst player picked second overall who actually just stunk” award here.

And that 49.7 average? Well, one piece of conventional wisdom is about to be proven true.

Third Pick

Average Win Shares: 60.9
Best: 214.0 (Michael Jordan, 1984)
Worst: -1.4 (Adam Morrison, 2006)

Almost every spot below the second pick has at least one guy who posted fewer win shares in the NBA than a guy who died on draft night. Fewer, in fact, than I and most sportswriters who cover this league have in our nonexistent NBA careers.

Adam Morrison isn’t the only complete stinker at the No. 3 pick; if the Celtics had picked Chris Washburn instead of Bias in ’86, they’d have gotten a guy who had a worse career than Bias did (minus-0.6 WS.)

Of course, on the other hand, guys like His Airness, Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins, Chauncey Billups, Pau Gasol, and James Harden have gone with the third pick, one reason why the pick has a better overall track record than the one ahead of it.

Throw in Jaylen Brown (taken behind Brandon Ingram in 2016) and Jayson Tatum (behind Lonzo Ball in 2017) and ask the Celtics how the third pick works out for them. Well, except Billups, who can thank Rick Pitino shipping him out of town as a rookie for his ability to blossom under other, better coaches.

Anyway, onward:

Fourth Pick

Average Win Shares: 49.4
Best: 180.3 (Chris Paul, 2005)
Worst: 0.5 (Dragan Bender, 2016)

Bender doesn’t look like he’s going to pull his career out of the fire any time soon, but if he can at least get to 2.7, the worst-ever career by a fourth-overall pick will go back to Marcus Fizer.

Unless Josh Jackson (-1.8 WS, 2017) manages to take it from both of them.

CP3 is the big winner in a draft slot that produces a comparable average to the second pick, joined in the 100 Win Share club by Rasheed Wallace (105.1, 1995), Dikembe Mutombo (117.0, 1991), and Sam Perkins (105.4, 1984).

But we’re about to see another reason why if you’ve got the second pick, you might want to trade down, as…

Fifth Pick

Average Win Shares: 53.0
Best: 191.4 (Kevin Garnett, 1995)
Worst: -1.6 (Nikoloz Tskitishvili, 2002)

Beware the Curse of the Foreign Big Man. The Rockets got Yao Ming in 2002. The Nuggets got Nikoloz I-Had-To-Check-Basketball-Reference-To-Spell-His-Name-vili.

Although one pick below Skittish, the Cavs took Dajuan Wagner, who had zero Win Shares in 2,202 career minutes across four seasons, so…

The power of the fifth pick is bolstered not just by KG but by Dwyane Wade (120.7 WS, 2003), Ray Allen (145.1, ’96, and curiously enough KG’s teammate on the title team in Boston), Scottie Pippen (125.1, ’87), and Charles Barkley (177.2, ’84.)

Funny how that ’84 draft looks like the ’03 draft: Hall of Famer (Olajuwon, James), Bust (Bowie, Milicic), Hall of Famer (Jordan, Carmelo Anthony), Perennial Solid Player (Perkins, Bosh), Hall of Famer (Barkley, Wade).

We are about to enter the Crapshoot Portion of the Program with…

Sixth Pick

Average Win Shares: 28.0
Best: 145.8 (Larry Bird, 1978)
Worst: -1.1 (Jonny Flynn, 2009)

Minnesota infamously passed not once but twice on Stephen Curry, and history will forever (or until a bigger draft bust than Flynn comes along, whichever comes first) bear mark of their shame.

Bird is the only sixth pick in NBA history to record 100 or more career Win Shares. In fact, the sixth pick is itself so cursed that the next time you find an average Win Shares number this low is all the way down at the 12th pick. Even the 13th pick is more valuable historically (thanks in part to a guy the Jazz picked in 1985, more on him later) than the sixth.

This is another pick that if you have it, you might want to trade out of it.

Seventh Pick

Average Win Shares: 36.9
Best: 103.2 (Stephen Curry, 2009)
Worst: -1.2 (Bobby Hurley, 1993)

What is it with Duke and draft busts, especially in the ’90s?

Hurley played over 4,000 minutes in the league, almost all of them with the Kings, before he finally was given his walking papers after the ’98 season. He finished with negative Win Shares and some truly atrocious other advanced stats (the .443 True Shooting is impressive by itself.)

In fact, that TS% is so low that it’s seventh-worst of all players since 1979 with 4,000 or more career minutes.

And he played six years in the league. Yikes.

Still, the seventh pick is worth more than the sixth, and that’s borne out in the large volume of players who were good but not necessarily great over the years, or who had great but injury-shortened careers. Kevin Johnson went seventh overall in 1987, Chris Mullin was the No. 7 pick in ’85, Bernard King went seventh in 1977, and Luol Deng went seventh in 2004.

That’s the kind of player you can shoot for with this pick.

Eighth Pick

Average Win Shares: 31.8
Best: 112.5 (Jack Sikma, 1977)
Worst: -2.7 (Lancaster Gordon, 1984)

The Clippers picked Gordon one pick ahead of Otis Thorpe. Ouch.

Sikma was instrumental in the Sonics’ only NBA title in 1979, and joining him in the 100-WS Club at the No. 8 spot are Detlef Schrempf (speaking of great Sonics, drafted by the Mavericks in ’85) and Andre Miller (’99.)

The most interesting thing about the eighth pick, however, is the number of “they picked so-and-so here, one spot ahead of…”

Ninth Pick

Average Win Shares: 46.0

Best: 206.3 (Dirk Nowitzki, 1998)

Worst: 0.5 (Patrick O’Bryant, 2006)

You’ve got almost as good an outlook for the average career track of a guy you take with the 9th pick as you do picking second overall.

Besides Dirk (who went immediately behind Larry Hughes), there’s Shawn Marion (’99, one pick behind Andre Miller), Reggie Theus (’78, right behind Freeman Williams), Thorpe (’84, as mentioned above behind Lancaster Gordon), Tracy McGrady (’97, right after Adonal Foyle), Amar’e Stoudemire (’02, following Chris Wilcox), Andre Iguodala (’04, right after Rafael Araujo), Joakim Noah (’07, right after Brandon Wright), DeMar DeRozan (’09, after Knicks fans got done booing Jordan Hill), Kemba Walker (’11, after Brandon Knight), and Andre Drummond (’12, followed Terrence Ross.)

Then again, sometimes you think you duck a .308 bullet when the team ahead of you picks eighth only to walk straight into the path of a .50 caliber big boy that hits you right in the face—just look at Collin Sexton and Kevin Knox, respectively, in 2018. Jury’s still out on them but at least Sexton played like an actual NBA player this season after his putrid rookie campaign.

Tenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 35.0
Best: 150.0 (Paul Pierce, 1998)
Worst: -0.4 (Roy Hamilton, 1979)

Two straight picks that lay claim to the best players at their spot in NBA history. The ’98 Draft was a sight to behold, especially since the first overall pick (Michael Olowokandi) was until 2013 the biggest whiff on a first overall pick in league history.

Paul Pierce is headed to the Hall of Fame. Roy Hamilton played 73 games in two seasons; the Pistons gave him 72 games of run his rookie year, the Blazers gave him one game, and then he was gone.

On the bright side, the draft pick that became Hamilton was just the prize for getting Marvin “Bad News” Barnes out of their hair, a guy who once admitted he snorted coke while on the bench during an actual game.

The 10th pick would pay dividends not just for Boston in 1998, but for the Hawks a year later, as they took Jason Terry and his eventual 102 career Win Shares. Other 10th picks in the 100-WS Club include Eddie Jones (’94) and Horace Grant (’87).

Speaking of the ’87 Draft and a Hall of Famer going one pick behind a solid guy…

Eleventh Pick

Average Win Shares: 32.3
Best: 174.4 (Reggie Miller, 1987)
Worst: -0.2 (Terrence Williams, 2009)

Williams was sandwiched between Brandon Jennings and Gerald Henderson with Tyler Hansbrough going 13th that year, so it’s not like the pickings were rich at the 10 spot. Indeed, after DeRozan went, the rest of the draft board was all guys with potential but also huge downsides. Even the best of them (Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Darren Collison if you rank by total WS, Danny Green if you want longevity to go with your mediocrity) are guys about whom you’d say “yeah, he was OK, I guess, not great but decent.”

How much of a crystal ball do you want?

Meanwhile, Miller is an icon. The NBA is weird.

The 11th pick is where you really start to see the good-but-not-truly-great emerge on the scene. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis in 2015 and ’16 respectively. Klay Thompson in 2011. Andris Biedrins in 2004 (before he forgot how to play basketball, he put up 30.7 WS for his career.) Bonzi Wells, who was unlucky enough to have to follow Nowitzki and Pierce off the board in ’98.

But the craziest run of talent at the No. 11 spot ever? Try a five-year run between 1989 and ’93 of Nick Anderson, Tyrone Hill, Terrell Brandon, Robert Horry, and Allan Houston.

Moral of the story? If you’re picking 11th, pick a solid role player and then hope like hell he turns into Reggie Miller. But set your expectations. This is the pick that fourth-options and sixth men are made of.

Twelfth Pick

Average Win Shares: 23.4
Best: 78.5 (Cedric Maxwell, 1977)
Worst: -0.4 (Aleksandar Radojevic, 1999)

This is the pick with the lowest ceiling in the first 21 spots in the draft; it won’t be until we get to No. 22, at the very end of this article, that we find a lower maximum Win Shares for a career by a guy taken 12th.

There are no Hall of Famers; Maxwell, Mookie Blaylock (’89), and Thaddeus Young (’07) are the three best No. 12 picks by total Win Shares.

There is only pain and forlorn hope as the true realization that your franchise is in Mediocrity Hell hits you, because the 12th pick goes to those teams that don’t miss the playoffs by much (San Antonio, the third-best non-playoff team in 2020, will pick 12th this year) and don’t luck into the lottery (how Orlando moved from 11th to the top spot in 1993 to ultimately pair Anfernee Hardaway with Shaquille O’Neal.)

If you’re picking 12th, maybe trade the pick along with your franchise player to a contender and go into full Rebuilding Mode because there is no hope for you here.

Thirteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 31.7
Best: 234.6 (Karl Malone, 1985)
Worst: 0.3 (Tate Armstrong, 1977)

How bad was Armstrong? The 13th pick in 2016, Georgios “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” Papagiannis, put up 0.4 Win Shares in his 39-game, 477-minute misadventure in American pro basketball.

The 13th pick was a lucky number not only for Utah in ’85, who got the second leading-scorer in NBA history until LeBron passes him either next season (the margin’s about 2,000 points) or in early 2021-22, but for the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, who drafted Kobe Bryant…and promptly traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Ouch.

And it wasn’t a draft night trade either, the kind where a team drafts a guy for someone else. Kobe was drafted on June 26. He was traded on July 11.

Talk about your what-if scenarios.

Other solid 13th picks include Dale Davis (’91), Corey Maggette (’99), and Richard Jefferson (’01.) Jefferson, Zach Randolph, and Tony Parker were all available for Boston at the 11 spot that year, where they picked…Kedrick Brown. What is it with the Celtics and either hitting a home run or spinning around and falling over like an uncoordinated Little League kid on draft night?

Welcome again to the NBA crapshoot as we round out the lottery (2020 version)…

Fourteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 24.4
Best: 135.6 (Clyde Drexler, 1983)
Worst: -0.9 (William Avery, 1999)

Avery was part of a back-to-back run of negative Win Shares busts with the 14th pick; he’d be followed into suckage and obscurity by Mateen Cleaves (-0.8 career WS) a year later. This is the spot where you really start hitting a high risk of drafting total stinkers; besides Avery and Cleaves, Yinka Dare (-0.7 WS) went 14th in 1994 and Alfredick Hughes (-0.5) went to Seattle right after Karl Malone in ’85.

On the other hand, there’s Clyde the Glide, a Hall of Famer, joined by some pretty solid talent: Tree Rollins (63.9 WS, ’77), Michael Cage (74.4, ’84), Dan Majerle (78.5, ’88), Tim Hardaway (85.0, ’89), and Peja Stojakovic (82.6, ’96) all went 14th.

More recently, there’s been some decent talent available at 14 with T.J. Warren going in that spot in 2014.

Fifteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 23.1
Best: 129.7 (Steve Nash, 1996)
Worst: -0.6 (Adreian Payne, 2014 and Reece Gaines, 2003)

Man, that ’96 draft. Kobe, Peja, and Nash went consecutively…at 13, 14, and 15. Jermaine O’Neal and Derek Fisher were still on the board. Even Zydrunas Ilgauskas went on to have a decent career (66.3 WS, which is more than O’Neal or Fisher ended up with.)

The 13th and 15th picks had better careers than the guy (Allen Iverson) who went No. 1.

On the other hand, this is the slot where Frederic Weis went in 1999, to the Knicks. Weis never played an NBA game; he is best known for getting a face full of Vince Carter‘s crotch while defending Vinsanity’s epic dunk in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

On the other hand, there’s Adreian Payne and Reece Gaines, two guys just begging for a buddy cop film titled “No Payne, No Gaines”. Sorry (not sorry) for the pun.

Oh, and 15th is also where Kawhi Leonard (74.5 Win Shares) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (64.4) went in 2011 and ’13, respectively. It’s also where Robin Lopez, Destroyer of Mascots, went in 2008 and Brent Barry went in 1995.

The moral of the story is don’t worry about not finding talent if you barely made the playoffs and got swept out of the first round. You get to pick 15th. Don’t screw it up.

Sixteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 21.4
Best: 207.7 (John Stockton, 1984)
Worst: -0.5 (Kirk Haston, 2001)

Barely made the playoffs and now you’re worried you won’t get anyone good on draft night?

Never fear! Just pick an undersized white dude from Gonzaga 16th overall and you might get one of the greatest point guards of all time!

Or, y’know, get closer to that 21.4 WS career average, where you might get someone like Darnell Valentine (22.1 WS, 1981) or Tony Delk (19.5 WS, 1996, right after Kobe, Stills, and Nash went off the board.)

Again, sorry not sorry for the pun.

Really, though, with the exception of Stockton, this isn’t exactly a fertile field in which to farm talent; if it weren’t for him, the leading 16th pick by Win Shares post-merger is Hedo Turkoglu (2000) at 63.3, followed by whatever Ron Artest (1999) is calling himself these days, with 61.1 WS.

Now we are seeing pain for franchises not good enough to contend for titles but not bad enough to pick in or trade down from the top 5.

Oh, and yes, I’m aware I used that image twice. It was deliberate. You can’t have Stockton without Malone in any discussion of NBA history. They go together like waffles and syrup.

But anyway, come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of hope defenestrations. Toss your future out the window for…

Seventeenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 16.6
Best: 89.5 (Shawn Kemp, 1989)
Worst: -0.6 (Rashad Vaughn, 2015)

The 2015 draft had a pair of complete stinkers. One was Emmanuel Mudiay at the 7 spot (minus-0.2 WS) and the other was Vaughn, who hasn’t been seen or heard from since the Bucks realized that picking up their team option on his third year was a bad idea and traded him in 2017, after which season he disappeared off the league map.

At least Moody has a chance to pull his career WS into positive territory before teams finally realize he can’t play for beans.

Shawn Kemp is the lone bright spot here. His 89.5 career WS props up an average that finally seals the fate of playoff teams in the draft. There’s one last hurrah coming in a minute (more on that…well, stay tuned), but the three next-best guys after him at 17 are Jermaine O’Neal (66.0, and how many times do I have to repeat that 1996 was the best draft ever?), Doug Christie (55.7, 1992), and Danny Granger (48.5, 2005). Jrue Holiday (43.0, 2009) is still active, though, so there’s a chance he may at least pass O’Neal even if he never threatens Kemp’s mark for 17th overall picks.

But welcome to the last bastion of reliable talent in the first round:

Eighteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 24.7
Best: 91.8 (Mark Jackson, 1987)
Worst: -0.1 (Kevin Brooks, 1991, and Luther Wright, 1993)

The worst you can do here is “barely negative and didn’t really hook on.”

And while the best isn’t exactly legendary, you don’t get an average better than the 12th pick by populating the list with slouches.

Behind Jackson, there’s guys like Ricky Pierce (72.2 WS, 1982), Joe Dumars (86.2, ’85), David West (85.9, ’03), Vern Fleming (52.0, ’84), and James Posey (51.6, ’99.)

And again, the low point is minus-0.1. That’s putrid by any measure, but it’s the fifth-highest floor in the top 22 picks, and the four slots that are in positive territory for the ceiling are all in the top 9 picks.

If you thought we were entering a hopeful safe harbor, think again…

Nineteenth Pick

Average Win Shares: 15.6
Best: 85.8 (Rod Strickland, 1988)
Worst: -0.8 (John Duren, 1980)

Here’s the list of guys who posted better than 50 Win Shares after being drafted 19th: Strickland, Zach Randolph (81.1, 2001), and Jeff Teague (50.8, 2009.) Tobias Harris (45.7, 2011) is still active; Gary Harris (17.9, 2014) is already above the average career mark for this draft slot.

That’s it. 19 is otherwise a graveyard.

From here out, guys with 100 career WS are outliers, diamonds in the rough, winning Powerball tickets, call them whatever you will, but we see the last of them on this particular list with…

Twentieth Pick

Average Win Shares: 15.9
Best: 109.6 (Larry Nance, 1981)
Worst: -0.7 (B.J. Tyler, 1994)

The last time a 20th pick had even 25 career WS was 2004 (Jameer Nelson, 48.3.) The only other guys over 40 WS besides Nance and Nelson are Ilgauskas (66.3 in the Midas draft of ’96) and 43.8 (when Brendan Haywood was Cleveland’s consolation prize for missing out on Z-Bo in 2001.)

That’s it. That’s the list. Maybe Tony Snell (16.1 WS, 2013) or Delon Wright (14.9, 2015) will have great careers, but don’t bet your life on it. Caris LeVert (7.3, 2016) hasn’t been able to stay on the floor, and recent 20th picks haven’t exactly set the world on fire since 2016. This is a dead zone.

Twenty-first Pick

Average Win Shares: 18.7
Best: 85.2 (Michael Finley, 1995)
Worst: -0.8 (Nolan Smith, 2011)

There have been some decent NBA players taken 21st overall, fringe starters and role-player bench guys along with Finley, who had a legitimately good career putting the “shooting” in shooting guard (Finley’s 17,306 points are second only to KG in that ’95 draft class.)

Think Jeff Foster (47.5 WS, 1999), Boris Diaw (51.6, 2003), Rajon Rondo (59.8, ’06), Ryan Anderson (46.7, ’08), and Darren Collison (49.9, ’09). Of course, if teams thought there was an infinite wellspring of talent at 21 after three good picks in four years, the next two years of Craig Brackins (-0.2 WS) and worst-ever 21st pick Smith should have disabused them of that notion.

Then again, Gorgui Dieng has had a surprisingly decent career (27.4 WS) for a 21st pick, where he went in 2013. Too bad the next three guys (Mitch McGary, Justin Anderson, and DeAndre’ Bembry) all stunk out the joint. Bembry is still active, in a sense, but putting up .013 WS/48 in four seasons to start your career won’t exactly get you a big contract after your rookie deal’s done. Expect the Hawks to cut ties with Bembry rather than try to re-sign him; his lack of an extension is telling.

We have but one slot remaining, so…

Twenty-second Pick

Average Win Shares: 13.1
Best: 47.6 (Norm Nixon, 1977)
Worst: -0.5 (Chad Kinch, 1980)

Kinch was drafted by the Cavaliers with the 22nd pick in 1980; if that’s what they were getting when they made their own picks, maybe Ted Stepien was on to something trading all those picks away and getting a rule named after him.

You wouldn’t think that a sample that’s hardly skewed at all by its maximum would still have a half-decent average for total Win Shares, and if you’re wondering why?

There is an absolute slew of guys between 30 and 43 Win Shares on this list. In chronological order:

Kyle Macy (36.0, ’79), Scott Skiles (30.4, ’86), Reggie Lewis (38.9, ’87), Chris Mills (37.7, ’93), Kenny Thomas (31.2, ’99), Jarrett Jack (36.8, ’05), Jared Dudley (42.9, ’07), Courtney Lee (39.3, ’08), Kenneth Faried (38.8, ’11), Mason Plumlee (34.3, ’13.)

Those last four guys are all still active except for Faried, and with Plumlee playing steady backup minutes and posting decent WS totals, he’s got a good chance of passing Lakers role-player Nixon on the career list.

But really, except for the what-if involving Reggie Lewis, there’s nothing to be found here. Just guys who, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some decent production out of but not much more than that.

So Is There Anything Here Statistically?

It’s certainly not a straight line from the first pick on down, but for the most part, the later you pick in the draft, the worse the talent level gets.

The correlation is meaningful (r²=.797 to three decimal places) but by no means definitive to say “later pick = worse WS every time”, and the data’s kind of all over the place (huge standard deviations at every pick level), so you can’t even get a good bead on how many Win Shares to expect from a pick position when drafting the consensus (if there is a consensus) guy at that spot.

Put another way, from first (“for every LeBron James, there’s an Anthony Bennett”) to 22nd (“for every Norm Nixon, there’s a Chad Kinch”), there are exceptions and there are exceptions to the exceptions when trying to predict the result of a pick.

That said, do the data produce some intriguing results?

Certainly! For one thing, the old maxim about the second pick being cursed is generally true, and the exception—if there are questions about the first pick and far fewer questions about the second pick in a given mock draft, go with your gut and pick Kevin Durant over Greg Oden or LaMarcus Aldridge over Andrea Bargnani or Mike Bibby over Mike Olowokandi, just for three historical examples, all of which looked like smarter decisions even at the time—even makes sense.

But other than that, if you’re picking second, sixth, or twelfth, trade the pick. That’s all I’m sure of.