Not Just a Number: The Correlation between NBA Draft Order and Drafted Player’s Longevity in the NBA

A study that looks at how a player’s draft order relates to the seasons they played in the NBA (and on which team).

Well, at least the NBA season has finally come to a merciful close (albeit with yet another LeBron vs. Warriors conclusion). Unless you’re a fan of the Warriors, LeBron James, or horrible officiating, you’ve been looking forward to the upcoming draft for a while now. Some teams view the draft as a chance at picking the next franchise cornerstone or key role player (see the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart), while others value high picks as trade assets for established stars (again, see the Boston Celtics acquiring Kyrie Irving). While the value of a first-round draft pick is ballooning every year, it seems like, for every Donovan Mitchell or Joel Embiid, there are multiples more players that never make their mark in the NBA, or never even reach the NBA. As a Clippers fan (yes, we still exist), I’ve seen too many draft picks (particularly those who are already playing professionally overseas) never make it to the NBA or waste away at the end of the bench.

This report looks at how the draft pick order correlates with NBA longevity (within both the NBA and specifically with the originally drafted team). First, a couple of data notes:

– Players from five consecutive draft classes were included in this report (2009-2013).

– For players traded before their first season began (or whose draft rights were traded), I considered the acquiring team as their original team.

– For data consistency, I only looked at each draft classes’ first five potential NBA seasons because players drafted in 2009 could have amassed 9 seasons of NBA play when 2013 draftees could only play up to 5 seasons.

– Player & team stats were used from NBA Stuffer and player draft information is from Data.World.

 

% of Drafted Players that Play at Least 1 NBA Game

Players that make it to the NBA - By Draft Order

Along the x-axis, this chart looks at NBA draft picks (grouped in sets of 5). The y-axis shows the percentage of players picked in those draft picks that play at least 1 regular season NBA game.

As you can see, each draft’s top 15 picks all played at least 1 NBA game. However, after 15, the percentages start to gradually dip. Only 80% of early 2nd round picks (picks 31-40) made it to the NBA. This ratio plummeted as the second round progressed, with less than 40% of players picked in the 46-60 range, which is in the second half of the second round, ever making it to the NBA at all.

Now let’s look at if draft pick order correlates with how long the player is the league.

NBA Draft Order vs Seasons played in NBA

While we’re only looking at 5 draft classes, it does come as a surprise that the first and second overall picks did not average 5 seasons per player. This was due to full-season injuries (Blake Griffin) and some downright busts (Hasheem Thabeet and Anthony Bennett). During the years analyzed, players picked 3rd, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 15th all played in their first five seasons in the NBA. While there are some surprises here and there (39th picks averaged 4 out of 5 potential NBA seasons), the trend is nearly linear: with each successive pick, the player averages less and less time in the NBA. The expected value of late second round picks remains low, with no draft pick group from 45 on average more than 2 years in the NBA (within their first 5 seasons).

For the final visualization for today’s NBA Draft-centric report, let’s see how many games teams got out of each draft pick (within each player’s first five potential seasons).

Seasons per Draft Pick

Draft Pick Games Played for Original Team

Even with players taken in the top 15 overall, lottery teams have only seen played these highly coveted draft picks for a total of 227 games in their first five seasons. Within their first five seasons, these top picks are spending 25% of their games with teams that did not originally draft them (or trade for them before their rookie season). The ratio of games played for the player’s original team declines. Late first round picks spend only 2/3 of their games (in their first five potential seasons) with the team that drafted them, while early 2nd round picks spend 40% of games with teams that they didn’t originally sign with. Players selected in the latter half of the second round only managed 27 games with their original team.

This concludes my first NBA Draft-related post (more to come). The bottom line is that while there’s always outliers and overperformers taken late in drafts (such as second-rounders Deandre Jordan, Draymond Green, and Isiah Thomas), the data strongly suggests that teams see diminishing returns for each pick.

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