Basketball die-hards had followed the 2017 draft’s top trio of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum since before these prospects were old enough to watch Die Hard. As the build up to the draft reached its boiling point, those three names began to become the consensus top-trio. Fultz, a 6-6 wing out of Washington, looked every bit like the James-Harden/Dwayne Wade crossbreed comparisons that he was drawing. Scouts raved about his potential, team insiders gushed over his ability. Every draft-board had him pegged as the number-one overall pick.
When the Boston Celtics drew the chance to pick him at the draft lottery in New York on Wednesday May 9th, it seemed written in the stars. Fultz would go to Boston to bolster an already-hardened backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. He would join fellow Washington alumni and mentor Thomas and start a dynasty with them. Everything was falling into place. The Lakers secured the number-two overall pick, with General Manager Magic Johnson licking his lips at the prospect of stealing home-town star Lonzo Ball. The 76ers rounded out the trio with the third overall selection.
The draft was due to take place on Wednesday May 16th, one week after the Celtics had secured the top spot. On Saturday the 12th of May, the unthinkable happened.
‘The Boston Celtics and 76ers are in advanced talks to send the number 1 pick to Philadelphia,’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the voice of Yahoo Basketball tweeted. 76ers fans erupted with glee. Celtics fans grimaced. This was the first time the Celtics had won the draft lottery. This was meant to be the transcendent talent that elevated them from middle-of-the-pack to contender status. Fultz was the guy. And then he was gone. The Celtics received the third-overall pick from Philadelphia along with the Lakers 2018 pick (as-long as it landed between 2 and 5) which the 76ers also owned. Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge was bombarded with tweets and questions from reporters. When the 76ers drafted Fultz, the Lakers snagged Ball and the Celtics ended up with Tatum, Ainge calmly explained his reasoning: “We would have taken [Tatum] first overall. We believe he was the best player in the draft.”
Then, a shift began. There were questions about Fultz’ attitude. There were questions about his jump shot. There were questions about whether or not he could perform at this level. Lacklustre summer league performances fuelled these worries and three games into this young season, they continue. Fultz is averaging seven points, two rebounds and one assist. A lowly stat-line compared to his contemporaries. Ball is averaging thirteen points, nine rebounds and almost nine assists while Tatum has averaged twelve points, nine rebounds, two assists and a block.
Was the trade worth it? Is Tatum better than Fultz? Is Lonzo better than than both of them? It’s far too early to tell. We likely won’t know for a couple of years at the very least. What we can look at though is the history of the draft. Historically, do you have a better chance of getting an all-star calibre player with the third pick than with the first pick? Is the second pick likely to be better than the third pick? How likely is it that the first pick becomes an all-star?
Many in-the-know, including Reggie Miller and Bill Simmons, likened last June’s draft to the 2003 draft that saw perennial all stars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade selected. Like every year, fans of lottery-bound teams prayed that the ping-pong balls would fall in their favour and that they would get the opportunity to select a franchise player. LeBron turned out to be one of the greatest ever, Carmelo turned out to be Carmelo (lacklustre, ringless, although still a quality player) and D-Wade went on to win three rings for a franchise that had never won the Larry O’Brien trophy before.
Not every draft will have a Lebron- ‘Melo- Wade top-three. The 2003 draft didn’t have a Lebron-Melo-Wade top three. Many forget that Wade was the fifth pick (one pick after Chris Bosh who went on to storm the league with ‘The Heatles’ to the tune of two championships) and sandwiched in between Lebron at picks #1 and #3 was Darko Milicic. The seven-foot Serbian spent nine years in the league, averaging just six points and four rebounds per game and bowed out in 2012 as one of the biggest ‘busts’ in the history of the draft. He returned to Serbia to become a farmer, leaving behind a red-flag on all prospective European big men who flashed lottery-potential.
Milicic isn’t alone. A top-three pick is one of the most coveted assets in the NBA – with the presumption that it will bring your franchise an all-star calibre player that will eventually bolster your side into contention. Unfortunately, this notion that a top pick will bring you a franchise altering player isn’t true. Since 1991, only five NBA Drafts have had their top three picks become All Stars (1991,1992, 1993, 1994, 1999). There have been seven drafts in that 25 year span that have produced two All-Stars from the top three picks and eight drafts that have produced only one All Star from the first three selections. Only the 1998 draft and the 2013, 2014, and 2015 drafts have not produced any All-Stars from the top three picks, with the latter two being likely to provide multiple all-stars over the coming years as players like Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns mature. Exceptions must too be made for late bloomers like Bradley Beal who will surely bolster the 2012 draft class’s accolades as he continues to improve.
So what does this tell us about the NBA draft? Does getting the number one pick give you a better chance at landing at an All-Star calibre player than the number two or number three selection? What pick historically gives you the best chance at landing a perennial All-Star? Over the past 25 years, the first pick gives you the best chance to land an All-Star, with 16 (64%) of the 25 number one selections making at least one All-Star team. Surprisingly, the third pick is statistically more likely to provide All-Star talent, with 12 (48%) of the 25 selections since 1991 making at least one All Star team. The second pick is far less likely to become an All-Star, with only 8 (32%) of the past 25 selections making an All-Star team. Adding to that, players picked using the first and third picks such as Andrew Bogut, Oj Mayo, Andre Bargani and Ben Gordon often become serviceable role players while the list of busts at the number two picks is lengthy, with guys like Milicic, Marvin Williams, Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams topping the bill.
The first and third pick also seem to more frequently provide players with multiple All-Star level talent. Since 1991, the number one picks have 102 All Star appearances between them headlined by Shaq (15) and Lebron (13). The number three picks have significantly less All-Star accolades between them with 57 since 1991. The number two pick again has significantly less chance of becoming a multi-time All Star with just 36 appearances over that 25-year span.
That’s an average of 4.08 All Star appearances for the number one pick, 2.28 appearances for the number three pick and just 1.44 for the number two pick. As can be seen from the table, some of these results are skewed by outliers. Jason Kidd and Kevin Durant, the second choices of the 1993 and 2007 draft classes, combine for half of the All-Star appearances (18) in total for second picks since 1991. First picks of the 1994 and 2003 draft classes respectively, Shaq and Lebron, combine for 28 All-Star appearances, over a quarter of all appearances over the 25 year span. These figures, especially those relative to the second pick, bolster the average All-Star appearances.
A truer reflection in the search for a perennial All-Star is actually looking at the figures. Fifteen of the first picks have played in All-Star games. Just five second picks since 1991 have become multiple time All Stars while 10 third picks since 1991 have a multitude of All-Star appearances. This too rings true with the data that the first and third picks are more likely to become franchise-changing players while the second pick seems to be more of a toss-up.
There hasn’t yet been an All-Star in the past three drafts. Fultz, Ball and Tatum have played a total of three games. The road to becoming an All-Star is a long one, and it will take much more than a poor Summer League showing or a dodgy introduction to the league to decide Fultz’s fate. History gives every indication that he will rise above this slump and that he is more likely to dominate than his fellow draft class-mates, and at just nineteen years of age, both time and history are on his side.
By Andrew Barnes