Imagine being drafted into the NBA as an 19 year old in the first round to the organization of your dreams. You should be really excited, right? You are, in fact, one of the 60 best players from your draft year, and you will get a shot of playing professional basketball on the world’s biggest stage in just a couple months. This pretty picture however, turns ugly extremely quickly when you find out that within 5 years of being drafted into the NBA, more than 50% of players drafted are no longer in the NBA. In fact, within 5 years of being drafted, only 17% of draftees end up holding a starting job in the NBA.
As a fan of the NBA, the lackluster player development in the NBA is extremely concerning, and as it stands now, the NBA’s player development system in its entirety is the worst across the four major sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL). In your rookie season in the NBA, you can expect infrequent bench minutes, often less than 10 per game, and expected to shine or you can bet on finding yourself on another team within a couple months if you are lucky enough to stay in the NBA.
Take for example, the case of Thomas Robinson, who was drafted 5th overall in 2012 by the Kings. In his draft year in college, Robinson was incredible and averaged over 17 points per game, 12 rebounds per game, and was generally regarded as a threat on both sides of the court. Fresh off being drafted 5th overall as a 20 year old, Robinson was 16 minutes per game with the Kings, and after 51 games was traded to the Houston Rockets. I really cannot think of another major sport where a prospect of Robinson’s calibre and age would be given up open so easily and after such a short period of time. The following offseason, Robinson committed to his third team by the age of 21 when he signed with the Blazers. Later on at the 2015 trade deadline he was traded to the Denver Nuggets, mainly as a salary dump, in a package for guard Arron Aflalo. Why is it only in the NBA that a top 5 pick played for four NBA teams within 24 months of being drafted? The Robinson example is one far too familiar in the NBA.
There is the recent example of Tyler Ennis, who was drafted 18th overall in the 2014 NBA draft out of Syracuse University. Ennis was considered a great prospect heading into the draft, and was a finalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year award in February 2014. After being drafted however, his story is far too similar to many young NBA players. He was given only 7 minutes per game to showcase his talent, and was eventually traded 6 months after being drafted to the Milwaukee Bucks.
I am going to compare player development in the NBA to the sport that I know more about than basketball, which is hockey. In the NHL, first round picks are treated in a completely opposite light as that of the NBA. In the NHL, first round picks are very rarely traded, and if so, it is almost always a late pick by a team contending for a championship. It is literally unheard of for a player drafted top five to be given up on within the first year. This brings me to my second question, why are first round picks given out like candy in the NBA?
Looking at the most recent NBA draft, first round drafts picks were traded 19 times before or on draft day, which is the most of any major sport. Furthermore, the draft rights of a multiple first round picks were traded before they even played a game in the NBA, such as the rights to Elfried Payton or Dario Šarić. Adreian Payne is a recent example of an NBA team giving up on a prospect far quickly, a prospect ranked 8th overall in the overall recruit rankings, was traded halfway through his first season while only given 6.3 minutes per game to develop his game.
It is a common notion, however, that generally “big men”, referring to power forwards and centres, take develop at a slower pace, so they generally need more time to reach their potential. So why in the world would the Atlanta Hawks give up on Payne, especially when he was rated as a top prospect, and even more so because he was not given the time to prove he had talent. Furthermore, the return that Payne got was more puzzling: a lottery protected first round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Why not just develop your own homegrown talent? Why not send Payne to the D-League for development, which brings me to my next point.
In the NHL the vast majority of the players drafted in the first round of the NHL draft end up making an impact in the NHL, albeit with more open roster spots. Why is this so? Because the NHL has a terrific development system. Players drafted rarely step right into the big show like the NBA, they go through several years of development in junior hockey.
(Credit: TSN, Travis Yost)
Newly drafted players can be potentially assigned to play for a number of teams in a number of professional and junior hockey leagues to develop their skills in a stable environment where they play key roles for their respective club. We have seen the SEL (Swedish Elite League), OHL (Ontario Hockey League), QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), WHL (Western Hockey League), AHL (American Hockey League) as well as the NCAA collegiate system used as development leagues for young NHL players. Take for example, 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart, who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, given a 9 game stint in the NHL to showcase his skills, then sent right back to the Kootenay Ice of the WHL where he is the captain, first line centre, and face of the franchise. When Reinhart is ready, he will be brought up to the Sabres, given a key role with skilled players, and should blossom into an NHL star. This development system has been used in the NHL for years, and as seen in the graph posted above, close to 80% of first round picks make the NHL. But more than this, players drafted past the first round also have a very good chance to make the big show, as seen in the graph.
The key to this development cycle is patience, location, and commitment to the players. Annually, the best under 18 players represent their country in the World Junior Hockey Championship, where the best young hockey players are given the opportunity to play together for their nation, develop their game, and showcase their skills in front of millions of people watching on TV and in person. Players like Reinhart are put in key leadership positions, and Hockey Canada, for example, put have an extensive commitment to developing its nation’s players, as do the Buffalo Sabres.
What needs to happen is a complete overhaul of the player development process in the NBA. What I suggest is that NBA teams invest more into drafting and developing to produce homegrown talent. How should this be done? The first step is to evaluate your scouting staff and director of scouting to ensure that they are producing the best candidates for selection come draft time. Secondly, and most importantly, when players are drafted, I believe they should be given time to develop, commitment from the organization, and finally the opportunity to succeed. Maybe the best thing for a young players development is to spend their entire first season in the D-League, and given valuable starters minutes there. Sure they will not be facing NBA competition, but at least they will be given more than 7 minutes a night to grow and develop.
In conclusion, as a fan of the NBA I want to see more young talent succeed to take the sport to its next step. I believe that with a strong development system, teams like the Timberwolves, or the Hornets, will not be stuck in eternal mediocrity because maybe the key to developing a championship team is develop and produce homegrown talent. Maybe instead of handing out ridiculous contracts to average players, and becoming stuck in an endless rebuild, resources should be allocated to favor drafting and development as a long term strategy for organizational success. Either way, player development is a strong concern for the NBA, and it needs to be addressed.
February 20th, 2015