As the season winds down and teams jockey for position at both the top and the bottom of the rankings, it’s become clear that the Mavericks may not be destined for a top-five pick. And while some of us find that upsetting, a counter-narrative has emerged that says high draft picks are overrated and talent can be found everywhere in the draft.
It’s the ultimate question this time of year: should a team try to win and count on their ability to find talent anywhere in the draft, or should a team strategically lose and angle for a top-five pick?
There’s no single definitive metric that tells us whether a player was worth their draft selection, but one fun measuring stick is All-NBA team selections. To that end, I decided to look at every All-NBA team selection beginning with the 2000-01 season and note where each player was drafted.
You can see below the number of No. 1 picks, No. 2 picks, etc though No. 15 picks who have made at least one All-NBA appearance over the last 17 seasons:
The top is still tops
You can easily see that yes, talent is hiding in every nook and cranny of the NBA draft. Even in the early 2000s, when players like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson (all top-five picks) were mainstays on the All-NBA 1st team, there were still players like Steve Nash (the No. 15 pick in 1996), Jermaine O’Neal (No. 17 that same year) and even Ben Wallace (undrafted) making regular All-NBA team appearances.
But the reality is that far more players who were picked in the top five went on to make All-NBA appearances than players who were picked later. Since 2001, 45 players who were either undrafted or picked outside the top five have earned All-NBA honors. In that same span, 43 top-five draft picks have done the same. It’s a pretty compelling argument that the odds of landing an All-NBA caliber player are higher in the upper echelon of draft picks.
The same thing is true if you look at available All-NBA slots rather than individual players. Over the last 17 seasons, 57 percent of All-NBA team slots are awarded to top-five draft picks. And of the 85 first-team slots filled since 2000, 69 percent of them were filled with top-five picks.
Of course there are misses, but the best players are overwhelmingly likely to be taken at the top of the draft.
What about later lottery picks?
So what about the range where the Mavericks picked Dennis Smith Jr. and where the team seems destined to pick again this season?
Since 2000, only 14 players drafted in the sixth through 10th spots have made All-NBA teams (compared to 43 players from the top five). There’s certainly talent in this range; it includes Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire and Paul Pierce. And over time, players like Steph Curry, Paul George and Damian Lillard may very well help make the case against prioritizing very high picks. But it still seems likely that teams hoping for all-NBA level talent in this range have to do their homework and get a little lucky.
And the draft has been less kind to teams selecting in the 11th through 14th slots. Other than Kobe Bryant (drafted 13th overall in 1996), teams have been hard pressed to find All-NBA level talent at the end of the lottery. In fact, Bryant owns 13 of the 17 All-NBA team selections awarded to players drafted in that range since 2000. The others belong to Karl Malone, Peja Stojokavic and Klay Thompson. Basically, draft a generational talent or a sharp shooter or move on.
I mentioned this briefly above, but things do look a bit different if you focus on more recent data. In both 2016 and 2017, there were only six top-five drafted players named to the All-NBA teams, the only years since 2000 that the top of the draft has been so sparsely represented. Last season’s All-NBA teams featured SEVEN players drafted outside of the lottery (out of a total of 24 since 2000).
There could be a few reasons for this. Perhaps with improved analytics, some teams have been better able to identify talented players like Draymond Green (who went in the second round) outside of well-known elite draft prospects. Or perhaps those same improved analytics allow us to better appreciate the contributions of a broader group of players, leading to more diverse All-NBA selections. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Either way, we’ll be watching this year’s All-NBA selections carefully.
It seems clear that premium talent lurks throughout the draft. However, teams should consider the likelihood of where those players are found. There’s nothing sure-fire about the draft, but the top-five picks are the most promising place to start.
(Editors note: This post was originally published with a number of relevant players omitted due to a spreadsheet error. We apologize and have updated the post to reflect the corrected numbers.)