If you think you could do a better job drafting players than most NBA general managers, you might be right.
For several college basketball fanatics like myself, there are at least a handful of NBA Draft picks every year that leave us scratching our heads.
How could a player who hardly looked competent at the college level be a lottery pick? The answer to that question is usually an intangible like athleticism, wingspan, speed, or age.
If I were a GM, though, I would absolutely take my chances on a player who was productive in college rather than gambling on potential. Losing my job because I drafted a 22-year-old All-American who didn’t pan out instead of the second guy off the bench from an NIT high-major is something I could live with at the end of the day.
This brings us to what I will call the “Brandon Clarke Rule.”
Last year, Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke put together one of the strongest individual college basketball seasons in recent memory. The former San Jose State transfer finished the season averaging 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.2 blocks per game. Clarke led the nation in field-goal percentage, blocks, block percentage, offensive rating, defensive rating and win shares. He was named WCC defensive player of the year, all-WCC first team, Wooden Award finalist, all-WCC tournament team and NCAA Tournament all-region team.
Three things we know about Brandon Clarke:
- He was absolutely dominant the season before he entered the NBA Draft.
- A total of 20 players were picked before Clarke in the 2019 NBA Draft.
- He had more win shares his rookie year than each of the 20 players who were selected before him.
Go figure. Brandon Clarke was easily one of the five best players in college basketball last season, wasn’t a lottery pick in the 2019 draft, and, based on win shares, had the best ’19-20 NBA season of any rookie.
The idea of the Brandon Clarke Rule is simple: Draft the most productive college player and live with whatever happens.
Will it work out every time? Absolutely not. Is it theoretically smarter to draft the more productive college basketball player than the less productive one? I don’t think anyone can argue otherwise.
Let’s take the Phoenix Suns, for example. The Suns have been the worst franchise in the NBA over the past five years, winning 17 fewer games than any other team. Phoenix hasn’t been entirely awful in the past five drafts, thanks to franchise cornerstones Devin Booker (No. 13 pick in 2015) and Deandre Ayton (No. 1 pick in 2018).
What if the Suns had simply taken the best available college player instead of who they actually drafted, though?
The results may surprise you.
Here’s how the process worked: I created a “big board” of 100 college players based on win shares and then sorted by box plus/minus (BPM), which is an estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed vs. a league-average player. A BPM of 1.0, for example, means a player is one-point-per-100-possessions better than the league-average player.
For each draft pick, I will be forced to select the college prospect who recorded the highest BPM.
Pretty simple, right? I’m choosing the most productive draft-eligible player still on the board.
Here’s how it played out:
Going with the more productive college player proved to be the better strategy. The 15 players that I selected based on BPM netted a total of 70.4 win shares while the Suns’ actual draft picks recorded 31.7 win shares. The best picks came from drafting Malcolm Brogdon instead of Skal Labissiere, T.J. McConnell instead of Andrew Harrison, Jordan Bell instead of Davon Reed, and Brandon Clarke instead of Jarrett Culver.
This method could have saved various franchises from laughable busts in recent years.
- Instead of Anthony Bennett (0.5 career win shares) at No. 1 for the Cavaliers in 2013, our model would have chosen two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo (24.3 career win shares).
- Instead of Thomas Robinson (4.6 career win shares) at No. 5 for the Kings in 2012, our model would have chosen four-time double-digit scorer Jae Crowder (31.9 career win shares).
- Instead of Derrick Williams (14.1 career win shares) at No. 2 for the Timberwolves in 2011, our model would have chosen four-time All-Star Kemba Walker (54.0 career win shares).
The model absolutely isn’t perfect, and that’s what comes with something as simple as using one metric to choose a draft pick. What this does show, though, is selecting a productive college prospect can absolutely prove to be a better strategy than heavily investing into the intangibles that general managers salivate over.
If I’m an NBA GM, I’m going with the Brandon Clarke-esque prospect every single time.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.