2021 NBA Draft: A Novel Approach to Evaluation

By Max Feldman

Each prospect slotted on the Big Board receives a classification of either a SWING, STABILITY or HYBRID. While there are infinite big boards thrown around that rank the same group of 50-60 prospects, the primary variance for evaluators is the read on how each prospect develops over their career. The breakdown of each prospect using this classification is based on the see-saw balance of their upside versus their potential for imminent production. Each and every prospect has hints of both a swing, or high upside, as well as stability, traits that can translate immediately and are already shading towards their high end value, but their classification leans on which tern makes up the bulk of their stock based on my evaluation. At maximum, 10 prospects of the 50 listed are classified as a hybrid , where they bring forward a safe floor that can translate quickly, but their youth and tools provide sneaky, but strong upside. It is limited to just 20% of the complete board because every prospect has an argument for both, thus how this model can be applicable to for all evaluators based on their perception. In turn, it puts a classification on the type of selection that each prospect is and how they may fit the direction of their organization.

Moving into the Big Board, it becomes an illustration of how I value their stock as a swing – high upside but near equivalent downside – versus their stability – a scale of how strong their floor is and how close they already are to what their ceiling is. At an absolute maximum, each draft class produces 4 “Superstars” or generational talents. On average, it is closer 2 prominent stars per class. Thus, swinging for the fences by vaulting every high upside, or young prospect with enticing tools, towards the top of the board is relatively erroneous. Entering the 2021 NBA Draft for an example, how many organizations are in a complete rebuild? Being generous, I will say 5, in the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Each have 1-2 young players already showing hints of being a cornerstone, but fair to say each is seeking more spark for the future. Following the top 5 picks, or the picks of these 5 teams, the value of a stable prospect, or one who carries a high floor as a high impact role player, should be equally or more valuable than a big swing. As a case study, the value of inserting Franz Wagner into a New Orleans Pelicans roster stronger than a high upside prospect like Jalen Johnson. Franz Wagner, classified as a stability pick, may not have a path to utter stardom, but he provides winning production from day one and projects, for me, to be high impact, long term role player on championship levels rosters. In simple, Franz Wagner lands 6th overall on my board, not because I am arguing he’s a future multi-time All-Star and has elite upside, but rather because I believe very strongly in his return and the investment in a high level role player in this range due to the sparse quantity of All-Star talent in each draft. In nearly every draft, the first 3 picks are nearly always swings, as those teams landed in the lottery for due reason – they lack direction. Swings come in different shapes and sizes, where their deviation from upside to downside do not necessarily mimic each other. Swing picks can dictate an incredibly positive direction, like Trae Young was for the Atlanta Hawks, Devin Booker was for the Suns or Donovan Mitchell for the Jazz. Yet, they are considered swing prospects because of players like Emmanuel Mudiay, Mario Hezonja, or Dante Exum, where their downside. On the other hand, prospects like Mikal Bridges, DeAndre Hunter, PJ Washington, Marcus Smart and even a guy like Cody Zeller fall into the category of stability picks, but return strong value compared to their draft slot and the rest of the field. Neither denomination carries a negative connotation, but more so a deeper dive into the context of my evaluation.

In no manner am I attempting to over-simplify a very complicated topic, evaluation as a whole. Each category has a plethora of nuances. With swing prospects, no “swing” is the exact same. As a non-obvious case study, I would compare Josh Primo to Keon Johnson. Both are rather similar physically and project to slot into a similar off-guard role, but when imagining Keon Johnson’s stock a see-saw, it is much more volatile. I currently have Johnson slotted higher, but his low-end is more severe in my eye than a Josh Primo. Consequently, Primo’s high-end is not as strong as a Keon Johnson. Both fall into the category of a swing, but their shape and size varies.

The vast amount of nuances correlate with hybrid prospects. As previously mentioned, every prospect in the field has a valid argument to slot in as a hybrid. While some defer the idea of utilizing “floors” and “ceilings” in evaluation, I believe there is legitimate, strong value in conceptualizing specific hinge points of future development. Frankly, many prospects are just much closer to their final product than others. Identifying these traits leads to a clearer sense of floor and ceiling. In terms of hybrid prospects, there are shades of both ends of the spectrum. As a case study, I compared Isaiah Jackson and Cam Thomas. For many, both would fall into the swing category. Jackson and Thomas are precise examples of a hybrid because each has displayed clear-cut signs of early impact NBA players, with Jackson’s rim protection and Thomas’ shot creation. On the other end, they both have concrete facets of necessary development. In Jackson’s case, it is the development of his feel for the game and processing speed. Becoming a floor spacer carries mass value, something I believe Jackson is somewhat capable of, but I do not feel comfortable projecting that with confidence, holding him back from multi-time All-Star territory, or a swing, for me. With Thomas, smoothing out his flaws as a team defender serve early priority. Flashes of a high-level on-ball defense would slide Thomas into the swing category, but his low moments of being lulled to sleep off-ball and getting back cut along with being beat off the dribble constantly make me more hesitant. In essence, hybrids are the middle ground – flashes of tools both long-term and short-term but limitations regarding traits they have yet to show sustained functionality of.

The concept can lend a hand to organizations to initially target a category – swing, stabilizer, or hybrid.

Teams opting for a SWING selection may fall in the following categories.

  • Seeking to rebuild due to a lack of direction and cornerstone players.
  • Well-structured with depth and minimal cap space, planning for the future beyond their cornerstones.

2021 Primary Examples

  • Houston Rockets
  • OKC Thunder
  • Detroit Pistons
  • Utah Jazz

Teams opting for a STABILIZER selection may fall in the following categories.

  • Contesting franchises looking to add instant impact production between and around their solidified stars.
  • Restructuring franchises comprised of a high percentage of youth, swing prospects still in development phases.

2021 Primary Examples

  • New Orleans Pelicans
  • Boston Celtics
  • Atlanta Hawks
  • Orlando Magic

Teams opting for a HYBRID selection may fall in the following categories.

  • Teams in a gloomy area – not necessarily competing but their high level players are near or in their peak, making it difficult to enter a rebuild.

2021 Primary Examples

  • Toronto Raptors
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Indiana Pacers
  • San Antonio Spurs

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