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NBA Draft Talk: The Notion of 'Pre-Drafting'

Auburn's JT Thor. Credit: Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics

In the latest edition of 'P.I. Pulse,' Pro Insight contributor PD Web explores the idea of 'pre-drafting,' an NBA draft strategy that would allow potential lottery/first-round talents to be acquired in a later draft slot, not known historically for producing as successful of outcomes.

(this piece is an adapted version of a piece that ran on PD’s Patreon, which can be read in full here)

Every year there are players ranked in the 50-80 range that return to school to a refrain “they could be a lottery pick next year” or “we project them in the 20s for the next year’s draft.” Many players aren’t fundamentally different players with a year of additional development in college. Most aren’t in drastically different circumstances — there is just a higher comfort level with what the player is and more data on their resume. I’ve struggled to understand why this made sense for teams to let these players return. If a front office believed a player could/would bloom into a lottery prospect in 365 and all it takes is a pick in the 20s or 30s or 40s, a contract and the promise to invest in them organizationally as though they were a lottery prospect — the front office should do everything possible to get that player now. Even if the player doesn’t produce immediately, the team will have spent a year developing a prospect with NBA resources in an NBA system under NBA rules, resulting in potentially higher development pathway and value outstripping the proposition the player would have had by returning to college. We are calling this idea “pre-drafting” a player, which is to say, drafting a player a year before their breakout season to get a player more talented than what the historical outcomes of a draft slot indicate. It would allow for lottery talents to be selected later, in exchange for accepting additional risks of potential busts.

I’ve thought about the NBA through this lens: there are 1000 NBA players and 450 NBA roster spots. The talent/fit matrix runs from the bottom where there are players who work in only a few perfectly aligned situations and then on the other end, we have someone like LeBron, who works in every possible situation. Trying to find players higher up the matrix later in the draft is possible; Jokic, Khris, etc., but it’s sort of luck of the draw that the player falls. Let’s look at someone like James Bouknight in the 2020 draft.

Bouknight entered his name and withdrew early from the 2020 process. Bouknight put up 20/6/2 p40 on 50/35/82 as a freshman to pair with his standout athleticism. Bouknight was returning to a UCONN team that was going to rebuild better with Bouknight as the primary star. There aren’t enough bouncy 2s who can fill it up efficiently —- and if Bouknight even simply repeated his freshman season for a better team, his stock was going to rise. Had a team promised him in the mid 20s, where 2020 got wonky, would he have stayed in the draft? Maybe. What is it going to cost in terms of draft capital to get Bouknight in 2021, now that he took another predictable step forward? A pick in the lottery. Is Bouknight a foundationally better player than he was one year ago? He has improved but he is not a different archetype of prospect — so knowing that he was an explosive offensive player, one who is capable of getting and staying hot and was going to be one year older in a level of competition that rewards older players on a team that was going to be strikes me as a very safe assumption that Bouknight could rise so much that the delta of the risk was less than the delta of the value. Bones Hyland is another case of a player having an obvious and ultra-valuable skill set and using his sophomore NCAA year to get stronger and get a FTr (a thing that seems pretty inevitable considering his handle) and now he is a much higher-regarded prospect, despite developing in a foreseeable linear path. Romeo Weems in 2020 is another good name for the inverse reason; a player with a lot of interesting tools, in a difficult developmental context that needs a different developmental model. He returned to school and saw his stock fall further as his development stalled in a sub-optimal team context, playing outside of his NBA role. Scottie Lewis, Aaron Henry and David Johnson similarly had challenging return seasons that tempered excitement.

Pre-drafting is the practice of targeting volatile value propositions within valuable archetypes, be it with a great season ahead or a specific developmental need, for what is essentially the American version of draft-and-stash. The usual idea is that college is a catch-all for risk and has a mutually beneficial relationship that keeps NBA teams’ risk level lower in exchange for having players at all. This idea inverts that — having teams draft prospects whose stocks can drastically spike or fall flat in the interceding year of college.

Some names to consider for 2021

JT Thor 6’10" Forward, Auburn

Thor might be cheating to have on this list.

I think he is one of the most interesting players in the 2021 draft, partially due to how strange a year Auburn had, partially due to how talented of a forward Thor is. To put a point to it — for the 2020-2021 Auburn Tigers, Thor and Powell played 10 games together and Thor and Cooper played 12 games, but Auburn played zero games with their three best players together. Taking a closer look at the splits, there is some noise that brings down the general shooting profile. Thor’s best month was January (the only full month Sharife played) shooting 54/37/76 in the 9 games. In the starting (no Cooper, yes Powell) and final month of the season (no Cooper, no Powell): 2/16 from 3, 9/18 from the field, 14/19 from ft , 7.6 ppg, 1 apg, 3.6 TO in 5 games.

The rest: 20/58 from 3, 53/98 from the field, 49/66 from ft, 9.7 ppg, .8 apg, 1.3 TO in 22 games.

This month-by-month breakdown shows what Thor skeptics say ‘Thor may not be a primary, and being asked to bear a little too much offensive burden was a bit of a struggle’ but when put in a secondary role, Thor’s talent was crystal clear. At 6-10, Thor checks so many boxes. He can play within multiple archetypes at the next level: an enticing mix of FT rate (.445), 3pt volume (.387) and steal rate (2%) with length and movement skills aplenty. Thor could be an offensive 4 and a small-ball 5, defensively. Thor could be a straight wing. Thor could be a combo wing. That’s the appeal, the NBA 'moldability' and the college production. I think Thor isn’t just draftable, I would be comfortable drafting him in the forward glut of the 20s, just because there is so much to like. The 3-point shooting percentages had a swoon over the last two months of the season, but the form is compact and repeatable. Thor only took a handful of off the dribble 3s — with some small tweaks to speed up his gather and tightening his handle, it’s not hard to forecast an improvement in volume and percentage in his next season. Thor suffers from his context. I don't think it's controversial to say that if JT Thor and Sharife Cooper played together for the full season rather than the partial season, Thor would be a lock to be in this draft as a high ceiling forward bet.

Should Thor return to Auburn for his sophomore season, it seems very likely to me that Thor will rise regardless of how he plays, on a stacked Auburn team next year that features Jabari Smith, Wendell Green, Walker Kessler and Allen Flanigan. The way I see it, Thor is an intersection of shooting, tools and positionality that had a bit too weird of a year to enter outright and that allows a team to promise later than is indicative of his talent level. As a reward, the team that does promise him gets to dictate his development: ensuring optimal positionality, usage and scaling up the three-point volume even more — something that might get funky for the oversized 21-22 Auburn Tigers.

Players taller than 6’8 with seasons of a block percentage over 5, steal percentage over 1, with 70 3Pa, 70 FTa,& 20+ dunks, per Barttorvik:

Jalen Smith (FR & SO)

Terrence Jones (FR)

Jonathan Isaac

Tyler Lydon (FR)

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Chris Singleton (SO)

Omari Spellman (FR)

Chuma Okeke (SO)