The NBA Draft is over, and fans are ripe with optimism. Every team seems to think it got a foundational piece in the first round, and (with the exception of Knicks fans at the draft and Stephen A. Smith), every group of fans can talk themselves into the player they selected being a starter for years to come.
But just how realistic is that? Obviously, some players will be out of the league in a couple of years, and some will stick around for over a decade. But how can you tell how likely a pick is to be a long-term starter?
To answer this question, I charted the preferred starting lineup for every team last season based on the players’ draft years and positions. Then, I grouped every draft together based on how many top five picks from that draft were starting last season, how many top 15 picks were starting, and how many first and second-round picks were starting.
Before I get into my observations, I’d like to point out how I defined each team’s preferred starting lineup. For most teams, I used the player at each position that started the most games, but I did change this for injured and traded players. Paul George may have not started a game last year, but it benefits the exercise to list him as a preferred starter on the Pacers, because he would’ve started every game had he been healthy.
Obviously, starters aren’t always the best players in the league, as anyone who watched the Knicks or 76ers last year will attest. There are bench players on good teams who are much better than these team’s starters. But generally speaking, most players who start in the league are more significant contributors than players who come off the bench.
With that, let’s get to predictions for this season’s draft based on the data.
At least one, and most likely two, of the top five picks won’t be long-term starters
This is the most startling revelation of the data. Only one draft at any point in time featured all five players selected in the top five starting during the 2014-15 season.
That lone exception to the rule was the 2010 draft, and even that draft included two names (Evan Turner and Wesley Johnson) that don’t exactly inspire confidence. Johnson will likely not start next season, and that’ll mean no draft has all top five picks starting.
Every team in the top five will claim to have received a future All-Star, but unless this draft bucks a significant trend, one of these players will be a bust. In fact, of the last 10 drafts, only two feature four or more of the top five picks currently starting in the league.
Fortunately, the probability of busts stop there. Seven of the last 10 drafts feature 3 of the top five picks starting, meaning only one has less than half still starting in the league.
What does all this mean? It means, in all likelihood, two of the top five picks last night won’t be long-term starters and three will. And you can bet on one of these players not being a starter in a couple of years.
At least one second-round pick will be a long-term starter, but there likely won’t be many more than that
Second-round picks often seem like throwaways, but they can bring in largely valuable contracts if the player turns out to be good. How often does that happen?
Well, the data says at least one player who heard his name called in the second round will turn into a diamond in the rough. With the exception of 2013, every draft since 2002 featured a player selected in the second round that started in the 2014-15 season.
There likely won’t be a ton of players from the second round starting, however. Only two drafts featured more than two second-rounders as starters last year. In what’s probably a fluke, those two drafts (2005 and 2008) each featured five players from the second round as starters.
That isn’t likely to happen this year, but there will almost surely be one or two players chosen after the 30th pick that end up as long-term starters.
Around half of the top 15 picks will be starters, but most will not last more than eight years
This is where the value of the top five pick comes in, as those players turn in longer careers (and obviously have a higher likelihood of superstardom).
60 of the 120 players selected in the top 15 in the past eight years were still starters last season, which is a pretty good return on investment.
After that, though, there’s a significant drop off. While each of the past eight drafts feature at least six starters, no draft before that has more than four starters. And most of the players who lasted more than eight years as a starter have come from the top five picks.
Of all the drafts before 2006, only 11 players chosen between six and 15 were starting last season. This makes sense, as several of the players taken with those picks turn into role players who get replaced as they get older.
So, if your team chose a player in the top half of the draft, there’s about a 50 percent chance that player is a starter for several years to come. But if he was selected outside of the top five, there’s a very good chance he’ll be in a diminished role within eight years in the league.
Less than one in three of the picks 16-30 will be long-term starters, and likely about one in five will be
Picks in the second half of the first round don’t have near the success rate that picks in the first half do, but there are still always a few starters that emerge from this part of the draft.
No draft had more than a third of these players starting, and the average over the last 10 drafts was one in five. This means that if your team picked in this range, that player likely has about a one in five chance of turning into a perennial starter.