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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)

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

Jabari Walker 6’8" forward, Colorado

Here's a fun one. Walker, son of Samaki Walker, has fantastic per40 and advanced numbers, but played less than 30% of the available minutes on an upperclassmen-laden and talented Colorado team. The per game numbers are not impressive on their own, but looking at the TS% (64), BPM (7.6) OR% (11.6), FTr (34) show a player on the brink of breaking out. Walker is still developing physically, in terms of movement skills and frame, but he certainly knows how to play with a high feel and good flashes of what could be around the corner. Basically, when Jabari Walker was on the floor very good things happened. The reason he wasn’t on the floor? Fouls and turnovers, freshman things that coaches generally don’t like. I find both to be good indicators of aggressiveness and understanding. There are both good fouls and good turnovers on the developmental path towards not fouling and not turning the ball over. There are still big areas for improvement: the midrange shooting (3 for 19) and 3pt volume are both low hanging fruit, as is simply being on the floor for more time. Walker shot 52.3 from 3 (unsustainable) on 44 attempts (7 attempts per 100 possessions) and I would be very curious to see how Walker would shoot in pre-draft workouts.

Some teams will balk at drafting a player who played about a quarter of possible minutes as an unheralded freshman, even with a later pick. I am of the belief that development for NBA players happens best in the NBA, and for this reason, I think it’s essential that Walker be drafted this year. Colorado was a senior laden team with a small support role carved out Walker — given a larger usage and minutes load — I expect Walker to really ascend in evaluators eyes during the 2021-2022 season. here is just so much low hanging fruit here and getting in one year before a stock shoots to the moon is the goal, here. It certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented for a player on low volume to spike in production the next year, for example:

Player seasons playing less than half of available minutes, with a FTr above 25, with 10+ dunks, who were drafted:

Bruce Brown (SO)

Donovan Mitchell (FR)

Melvin Frazier (FR)

Kevin Porter Jr.

OG Anunoby (SO)

KJ McDaniels (FR)

This looks like a list of interesting energy guys (and super tanks KPJ and OG) who all bloomed later in their college careers. Granted, most had shooting issues, which is not Jabari’s issue, which would’ve changed the stock of most of these players. Walker could be described as the same archetype of bet as OG, except Prospect OG was longer (Walker’s WS is around 7ft vs OG’s 7’2), stockier and a better athlete — that being said, buying early on an OG-like prospect seems like an easy pathway to value and a player almost every NBA team is hunting for.

Colorado's Jabari Walker. Credit: Colorado Athletics

Kadary Richmond 6'5" guard, Seton Hall

Kadary Richmond, represents two types of pre-draft bets:

1) betting on NBA development structures

2) looking ahead a draft

The second idea is one we will talk about more with Jaden Ivey, so let’s look at the first in-depth right now. To me, it is simple, NBA teams have historically proven to be skilled at developing shooters. It may be the easiest skill to add later on in a career and teams have shown that they can teach at the very least spot up shooting. If Richmond takes jumpers at a reasonable volume next year, he is a surefire first-rounder and if he makes them he is going to go even higher. Why should a team then not promise him a selection, spend a year developing his jumper and get a first round/lotto value in 2022 in 2021? Richmond isn’t an outright bad shooter, (7/21 from 3, 22/64 on non-rim 2s, 13-31 on all shots off the dribble) but a guy who doesn’t shoot at a real volume to know what level of shooter he is currently. The two biggest concerns are the jumper and the amount of playing time — and one would think that his transfer to Seton Hall fixes the latter. Richmond is fascinating, an extremely shifty self-creating (11% assisted at the rim is wild) guard/wing with great defensive havoc metrics (even for Cuse). Richmond has multiple pathways to rising in the draft, as a havoc defender, as a creator and as a secondary wing should the shooting improve. The more pathways to value, the more essential it should be for an NBA team to take a risk and pre-draft a prospect.

College basketball values do not align with prospect development 1:1, especially if that development is clunky or interferes with winning. Richmond may be best suited to be placed in environments, be they GL or NBA, where the jumper can be rebuilt and repped in games, with a long-term vision in mind. I believe NBA teams are better at shooting development than basically any other institution, and getting developing shooters to the NBA as quickly as possible is in the team's best interest. The challenge then becomes balancing where to pre-draft a player who could rocket up draft boards with a good season, I would certainly use a late first here.

Anchoring bias of RSCI can influence how draft evaluators look at early entrants and as a knock-on effect — when players aren’t as highly regarded as recruits, there is a longer delay with their draft hype, as there is a less of a buy-in of their early numbers being “real.” Ja, Melton, etc. point to this. Basically, if there is a second year of great stats, there is a strong chance of skyrocketing up the draft board.

Seasons of 6’5 or taller players drafted in the top 45 with a steal 3+%, 60+% at the rim and assist 25+%:

Evan Turner (JR)

Delon Wright (JR, SR)

Tyrese Haliburton (SO)

Ty Jerome (JR)

Ben Simmons

Iman Shumpert (JR)

Kyle Anderson (SO)

There are multiple wing sized ++advantage creators in the NBA on this list and I barely had to tinker with the terms to get a mixture of outcomes (any query with all hits is usually too narrow) Additionally, if you expand it to this year, you also get Scottie Barnes, which is information I have no idea what to do with, but I am very enthusiastic about. Kadary is clearly an NBA talent and I really believe in the NBA shooting development on the whole. Easy pre-draft candidate.

Kadary Richmond. Credit: Syracuse Athletics

Ben Mathurin 6’5.5" guard/wing, Arizona

Another slightly cheating name:

1) Mathurin is not an American

2) I have a much different 2021 grade on Mathurin than the scouting institution does

Wing size players who flirt with 50-40-90 on good volume, have any kind of self-creation pathway and athleticism are first-rounders and should probably be lottery picks. There is so much that is interesting in Mathurin’s profile that I had to make sure I’m not bugged out for thinking he is one of the best value bets for this class, not even in the context of 2022 pre-drafts. I really liked his handle and creation ability when I first saw him, and it took me three or four games to understand the level of shooter that he was, the handle is slinky and Mathurin has the bungees to touch the sky.

The delta between his 2021 ranks and 2022 ranks is prime pre-draft. It doesn’t make sense to have a guy in the 70s one year and the teens or twenties the next year, the evaluation process shouldn’t function that way and a smart franchise should see the difference between the two as a great value long term. The biggest demerits on Mathurin are that he shot barely any off the dribble 3s (9a on the season) despite having a 3Par near .5. There isn’t anything really wrong with his form that suggests this disparity, and I think this may be the lowest hanging fruit in the draft — getting the 50/40/90 guy to take game breaking shots at a higher rate seems like a great bet. I think most of the critique is centered around his consistency and making a moment by moment impact, which is perfect for this category, because if he returns to school and adds more to the creation bag or reaches a new level with shooting versatility, Mathurin will go very high in 2022.

6’6+ freshman seasons, picked in the top 45, 38+% free throw rate, 60 3Pa:

Michael Beasley

Gordon Hayward

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Justise Winslow

Lauri Markkanen

Anthony Bennett

Austin Daye

Keldon Johnson

Luke Babbitt

A thing to consider is that basically everyone on this list is a tweener of some kind and how the game was at that moment probably is reflected how their tweenerdom was received - some got bumps like Justise or JJJ, others harmed. Daye and Babbitt came into the modern game too early for their sensibilities, Beasley is one of the best freshman ever, Hayward is from the old epoch where guys wanted to stay in school (there is zero chance he doesn’t get drafted insanely high after this freshman year if he were a prospect today) and then the Lauri/Bennett duo who were overdrafted. This is a pretty special group for a prospect who may not even test the waters in 2021.

Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin. Credit: Arizona Athletics

Johnny Davis 6'5" guard/wing, Wisconsin

This may be a deep sleeper and too far away from being proven for many NBA teams — but that also is why there is such extreme value in Davis’s projected improvement. There are a few causes of Davis reality paucity of 2022 draft hype, he was an underrated recruit who plays a bit of a throwback game — but against major opponents in high school, like at MAIT or vs Minnehaha, Davis certainly left an impression. Fast forward to now, we are looking at a prospect who has a bunch of fantastic indicators: powerfully built with big strides, the ability to self-create shots, aggressive downhill guard, a good PNR operator with big steal and block numbers (2.5+ block & steal%! ) and great midrange touch. Davis’ biggest issue is that he is more of a shot-maker than an actual shooter at this point and takes a lot of midrange jumpers and very few 3s.

The shooting numbers aren’t bad per se (45/39/72, 50.5 TS%), but misaligned. Davis falls into a similar category of shooter as Jaden Springer, where the percentages justify taking a much higher volume of 3s than the attempt rate supports. Basically, the logic goes, good shooters need to take as many good 3s as the offense allows, so anytime that there are good low volume shooters, there must either be a misaligned belief, or small sample size theatre. Wisconsin has historically pooled its shooting volume into two or three players every year, players who take 8+ 3s per 100 with the best of the shooters getting above 10a/100. Wisconsin may play slow, but it’s offensive motives clearly have a modern understanding of shot selection and shot value and just adding that modality to Davis’ game will increase his efficiency.

Davis sort of presents the ideas as a Richmond — here is a player a little off the radar who has a consortium of skills the NBA really covets and is missing the sense-making piece (shooting) that will really elevate his stock. Without the shooting he is an interesting name to potentially be one of college basketball’s most improved players; with it, Davis may catapult into the first round or higher. Does it make sense, as an NBA team, to shape that growth and get him in the second round before everyone catches onto his potential?

Wisconsin's Johnny Davis. Credit: Wisconsin Athletics

Jaden Ivey, 6'4" Guard, Purdue

The dynamics of pre-drafting are interesting because there are players for whom it makes more sense to wait for their draft. Different factors matter for different people obviously, but Ivey is a player who may be best served waiting. Currently mocked in the early teens of 2022, and given the historical volatility of five-star guard prospects — there is a great chance that Ivey can rise in terms of guard rank and lottery spots with a mix of his play and others’ relative disappointment. Teams obviously have to balance possible player outcomes when promising them for pre-draft purposes, and there may not be a spot that makes sense for where Ivey is/will be, considering the amount of institutional investment inferred to lottery picks (I think this system would instill more into the guys it selects than the traditional draft slot infers, but that is theoretical unto proven so).

The “looking ahead” category of pre-drafting is predicated on teams understanding the talent distribution of multiple drafts ahead, as well as their current and future roster plans. Say a team didn’t have a top pick next year, due to future pick obligations, and is in need of a guard for their roster going forward. Next year’s draft is thin on sure-fire impact guards and is going to have a creep of guards in a way similar to how 2020 had a wing dearth and a corresponding wing creep. Ivey would present a solution to that problem. Ivey is the perfect breakout candidate — big 3PAr with a form that suggests the 3p% is noise not signal, great first step and reactive athleticism (3.8 block % at 6-4!), good ballhandler and decision maker when he creates separation. Ivey is the textbook example of the pre-draft idea — so much so he may not be pre-draftable. There are so many development pathways, so many value propositions that his stock can rise 50, 60, 70 spots from one draft to the next — If Ivey shoots a 3-point percentage more reflective of his shooting indicators, if the usage and creation volume rise into a true primary archetype, if he grows or gets stronger to add positional defensive versatility. There isn’t a ceiling on his value within the guard class of 2022.

A list of underclassmen seasons under 6’5 with 2.5+ block %, 1+ steal %, 15+ assist% and drafted in the top 45 :

Markelle Fultz

Josh Okogie (SO)

Tyrese Haliburton (FR)

Isaiah Whitehead (FR)

Jahmi’us Ramsey

Bruce Brown (SO)

Glen Rice (FR)

(Kadary Richmond is also on this list if you remove the drafted component. A small note)

Purdue's Jaden Ivey. Credit: Purdue Athletics


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