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How Valuable is an NBA Second-Round Pick?

The second-round pick is probably the most commonly traded commodity in the NBA. Usually the picks are throw-ins for bigger trades, or used to meet the requirements of a salary dump. Some teams have been acquiring a lot of second-rounders in the hopes that they can get the next Marc Gasol or Manu Ginobili. Everyone’s aware that these picks are long shots, but even a lottery ticket has value. The real question is how valuable that lottery ticket is.

How likely is a second-round pick to turn into a good player, and how likely is it that the pick will be used on a player that will never see meaningful NBA minutes?

To figure this out, I’ve looked at the second rounds of every draft between 2006 and 2012. I chose 2006 since that was the first draft in which the current age limit restricting high school players from entering the draft was established. I chose 2012 because I wanted the largest sample size possible, but didn’t feel comfortable preemptively evaluating players who still might need time to develop. Players from the 2012 draft have had three seasons to prove themselves as NBA players, and while plenty of players blossom later in their career, I felt that three years was the right amount of time to give a second-rounder to develop before moving on.

So let’s break down the numbers and come up with the probabilities of each possible outcome a team could receive with a second-round pick.

Our total sample has seven drafts with 30 players in each draft’s respective second round, meaning we have 210 players making up our total sample. Of those 210 players, 61 have never set foot on an NBA court; that’s 29 percent of all players drafted in this period who’ve never played in the NBA. If we assume that future drafts will follow the same patterns as these drafts, that means there is a 29 percent chance that a second-round pick will amount to literally nothing for a team. It’s a big assumption to make, but by looking at how the draft picks have performed, we can predict how they will perform in the future and get a better idea of what teams can expect to get from a second-round pick.

Let’s start by breaking down the players who did play into categories based on their performance and assign probabilities to each result. What better place to begin than with the best-case scenarios for our second-rounders? Four players in our sample have made All-Star Games or All-NBA Teams at some point in their career. These players make up two percent of the total sample, so teams could expect to have a two percent chance of drafting an all-star or all-NBA player with a second-round pick. These players are the Marc Gasols and DeAndre Jordans of the world.

NBA: JAN 05 Hawks at Clippers

Second-round picks like DeAndre Jordan, but how common are they? Not very.

Not every pick is boom or bust though. Most teams would be more than happy to pick up a consistent starter in the second round, and of the players from these drafts I can identify 13 players picked in the second round who have started on a consistent basis for a team, giving teams roughly a six percent chance of acquiring a solid starter with a second-round pick. Some players from this category include Nikola Pekovic and Mario Chalmers.

Most commonly though, teams aren’t expecting starters or stars to come from the second round, the more reasonable expectation is to get bench players and rotation guys. Of the remaining players, I identified 26 players as rotation and bench players who logged significant minutes for teams. Giving teams a 12 percent chance of adding solid rotation talent with a second-rounder. Some guys on this list are Glen Davis, Ramon Sessions and Carl Landry.

We’ve covered a total of 104 players, the remaining 106 players are guys who played in the league for a short period of time or have been on the bench for the majority of their career. There’s no reason to spend any sort of capital on this type of player as they’re easily replaced on the free agent market. These players make up 51 percent of the league’s second-round picks in this sample.

When we add all of the percentages up, we see a lot of what we already knew. A second-round pick has an 80 percent chance of being worth nothing or very close to nothing, a 12 percent chance of getting a contributor, a six percent chance of getting a starter, and a two percent chance of getting a star. I you’re getting these chances for free you might as well take them, but I wouldn’t be looking to trade away real assets for something that’s 80 percent empty.

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