The NBA Draft and Player Expectations

It’s NBA draft combine season and die-hard fans are anxious to see their team acquire the best guy at their draft position. Some guys stand out. Others, don’t. But why is it that some late first round picks, or even second round picks, turn in to All-Star players, while earlier picks fall out?

If there’s a general rule about scouting, it is, “You can’t scout the brain.” I mean, can you? It’s one thing to learn to tie your shoes. It’s another thing to turn a 52 percent free throw shooter into a 78% free throw shooter, but Blake Griffin has already done that. The fact that he turned himself from a non-3-point shooter to a guy that shoots over 34 percent behind the arc on high volume is nothing short of a miracle, or is it?

When I’m watching the NBA playoffs, I look at the key guys on the floor: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, James Harden and many others. When they came out of the draft, expectations were moderate but achievable. But, if you asked a scout back then for each of their respective drafts if they’d reach All-Star status or even MVP status, the resounding answer will be, “No.”

If they did think that, they would have been drafted far higher in the draft. It’s not the guys from Houston or Golden State either. Did scouts really think that Al Horford would develop a 3-point shot or that Tatum would have this kind of efficiency on offense this early? I’m guessing no.

Relative expectations for each player are tough to come up with, and that’s fair. There’s only so much that can be perceived as achievable by what the player has already shown at a competitive level. But, a critical part of reaching expectations, or exceeding them, is player development at the NBA level.

If the Lakers drafted Tatum, is he still this effective a player in a different system? What if Steve Nash didn’t leave Dallas for Phoenix and play under Mike D’Antoni? There’s definitely an element of fit, not just by position so that a player can get a lot of playing time, but also the system, culture, and even the relationships developed within the franchise.

The common theme with successful players meeting or going beyond these expectations are character and work ethic. That’s it. Some guys completely transform themselves.

I mean, did anyone foresee Andre Drummond become a passer this year? He nearly tripled his assist average in one season.

Was Nikola Jokic really perceived as one of the best centers in the league out of his draft?

Did anyone foresee Marc Gasol earning Defensive Player of the Year just a few years ago?

Who really saw Kawhi Leonard as a Finals MVP player and 25 point-per-game scorer?

There’s arguably at least one guy on each NBA roster beating these expectations now. Teams with well-rooted cultures, easily have more than that.

After observing the draft for many years, I’ve come to this simple conclusion. Every player has unlimited upside.

Every. Single. One.

I cringe when people project an upside of X-player meeting Y-ceiling. I don’t mind it when people say a guy plays like another player. It’s just a frame of reference. But, far too many players exceed those ceilings, and they should definitely get credit for the blood, sweat, and tears they put into it.

After all, you were probably told as a child that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. Those NBA players, are proving it.

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