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How Do We Value Late First Round Picks?

Nobody wants to trade even late first rounders. Why is that? And does it make sense?

Toronto Raptors v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With the trade deadline upon us, I’ve been thinking about one of the Wolves chief assets: The first round pick they hold from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

There has been a lot of talk about that pick, and as far as I can tell, most fans are very leery of moving it in most circumstances. This is understandable for several reasons: Nobody wants to trade it for a rental player who has an expiring contract, because the Wolves would struggle to re-sign someone truly valuable with the cap situation they are in and looking at going forward. (Though with the lack of cap space available this summer around the league, free agents may be looking at severely reduced deals.) Good players with multiple years left on their contracts are few and far between on the available trade market, especially those with reasonable salaries for future seasons.

Furthermore, the Wolves starting lineup seems relatively set over the short term, and the way Tom Thibodeau uses players, trading an asset for someone unlikely to play more than, say, 20 minutes a night in the best case seems like a losing proposition.

The Wolves apparently agree, if this from Zach Lowe is to be believed:

The Wolves have been cautious even discussing the 2018 first-round pick they own via the Thunder, sources have said. (Minnesota owes its own pick to the Hawks.) The Wolves know they will need cheap rookie-scale guys as Andrew Wiggins and then Karl-Anthony Towns age into max deals.

It’s a common refrain around the league: Picks ensure a steady supply of inexpensive talent for teams (more or less the entire league) that are capped out. It’s something I hear from fans and analysts alike, and it’s what I am going to explore below.

I am, frankly, somewhat dubious about this argument, at least as it relates to how we value these picks. Here’s why: There is a large pool of more or less freely available players who, I believe, are likely to produce similarly if not better than a random late first round, straight from college draft pick over the next four year period. Here is a list of players who: a) went undrafted, b) are 28 or younger, and c) have played at least 100 minutes in the NBA this season.

It doesn’t look like a really impressive list in some ways, but these are undrafted guys. Guys who weren’t given all the opportunities. Just the fact that there are 51 of them in the league this season is impressive, and many of them are helping their teams.

On that list is Marcus Georges-Hunt of the Timberwolves. I chose the image for this article because it includes both an undrafted player and a player the Wolves chose later in the first round. But Gorgui Dieng is a bit of an outlier for a 21st draft pick, outperforming expectations by a significant margin.

Finding inexpensive talent to fill in the roster around multiple max contract players is a function of scouting, development, and opportunities, which is about the front office and coaching, not about any given late first rounder. The Wolves did a terrific job in getting the 16th pick from the Bulls in the Jimmy Butler trade to off-set the loss of the seventh pick, but Justin Patton is not going to provide any on-court value to the Wolves this season.

That isn’t a jab at Patton, he was hurt, and of course the Wolves are stocked in the front court and have no room for him in the rotation, so he’s getting minutes in the G-League with the Iowa Wolves. He might very well emerge as a contributor over the next three seasons. Or he might not, we have little way of knowing at this point. Like any other player, drafted or not, it will depend on his development and the opportunities he gets. But here’s what we can say definitively: One of his “inexpensive” seasons will be gone with no on-court return.

The question I’m asking is this: How much better is the production you can expect from, say, the 22nd pick (where the Thunder pick currently sits), over the next four seasons (factoring in the use of a roster spot to that specific player) versus mining other sources for inexpensive players? If the answer is: Not that much better with a real commitment to finding that talent, then entertaining trades for the pick in a league that overvalues such assets makes sense.

The answer is not obvious. The expected value of a player over their first five seasons (when the drafting team is guaranteed to keep the player if they so choose) drafted between 20th and 25th is somewhere between five and ten Win Shares.

In other words, somewhere between one and two Win Shares per season is what we might expect from a player drafted in this range. Over the last ten years, there have been 135 player seasons between one and two Win Shares from undrafted players. Here’s the list. Finding players to provide that kind of output is not impossible.

This is largely why the “Cheap players to fill in” argument in favor of draft picks doesn’t resonate. There are plenty of guys who can be had for the league minimum, many of whom are capable of producing at the same level of the average late first rounder.

There is, however, another piece to this, which I believe is the real reason many are hesitant to move picks, even ones with limited expected values. That reason is variance.

There is value in the even small chance you wind up with a star out of that pick, something much less likely to happen from G-League or overseas veterans who might provide you with the aforementioned average production. Hitting on a Rudy Gobert, or even a Jimmy Butler is rare but not, obviously, unheard of.

And that’s the issue. How valuable is that chance? How do we include that when considering possible trades? If a team can, with diligence and willingness to work outside the box, find similar production elsewhere, what’s it worth to also have a shot at a player who far exceeds those expected values?

I don’t have an answer for that, but I think whatever the chance teams have of getting a real difference maker late in the draft is what keeps them from trading such picks.

Ultimately, I tend to fall on the side of getting good talent you can count on over the small chance of hitting big on a late pick, but I’m not sure I’m right about that. I would certainly explore the market for the pick, and if I could get someone I know can help over the next two to three years, I’d be inclined in that direction.

But as always, I could be wrong.