Hitting on draft picks has always been of utmost importance in the NBA.
As it stands, draft picks are the foundational cornerstones of team building, due, in part, to the exceptional value they can bring contractually through the rookie scale salary system. Top overall pick Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns will make just $6.8 million this year as the highest paid player in his class, ultimately peanuts compared to what he is expected to produce. Rookie contract players are cheap, normally productive at some point during their first four years, and, if particularly exceptional, can be something of a free agency lure for veterans.
In the year the NBA decides to allow early entry for high school seniors – which will be happening in the near future – success with draft picks will be even more crucial than in years past. Be it in 2021 or 2022 – currently most likely to be 2022, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com – the first draft that allows high school players to enter the player pool will be incredibly deep. There will not just be the high school class of that year, but also much of the one from the year before, players who will have just completed their first season of college or their first professional season, having gone overseas for a year to get ready for the NBA.
As such, for teams with picks in the mid-to-late area in the first round, there will soon be an unique opportunity that year to pick up considerable talent that could keep the windows of these playoff teams open longer, or tip the scale enough to turn them into championship contenders.
Much like cap space, having a quality draft pick isn’t an annual tradition unless a franchise is inherently bad at both drafting and signing good players, in which case their troubles lie somewhere else. Also very much like having cap space, timing is crucial. Having a high lottery pick in a weak draft class is similar to clearing out max cap space slots in a season where only second or third tier players are available – It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
With this in mind, in some respects, the high school/college-hybrid draft class will have some similarities to the salary cap spike of 2016. Suddenly armed with an abundance of extra money after the TV contract with ESPN and Turner came into effect, NBA teams began throwing money at role players, believing the Evan Turners and Ian Mahinmis of the world would become assets for their franchises. Instead of being cautious and patient, several teams rolled out the red carpet for what ended up being marginal contributors that are now viewed as albatross contracts.
That summer, many teams simply overestimated how much money would be available in the years that followed 2016, believing these contracts to look more palatable as they went on and the cap continued to increase significantly, which it has not done. Teams overspent on marginal players, knowing they had to either use the cap space or lose it. And there was a lot more money to spend than there was quality to spend it on.
In 2016, only Kevin Durant was a big fish, as although LeBron James was also a free agent, he had made no noise about leaving Cleveland. Only one team could walk away with Durant, meaning a myriad of teams would be left empty-handed, and thus forced to dig deeper in that free agent class. Teams could have gone the route of signing players to shorter deals to plan ahead for stronger free agent classes, but a large group of them decided to lock up fourth or fifth tier players for the full four years, effectively preventing them from having the necessary means to get stars in the years after.
The Double Draft will be a similar one-off deal replete with talent that teams will again only get one shot at. Having two draft classes in one suggests the talent pool in the draft the following year will be limited, maybe even downright weak. The NCAA will likely see the weakest freshman class of all time the season after whenever this double draft comes around, meaning NBA franchises would have to rely on high school juniors to make a considerable leap in the 12 months that follows to get value out of the draft, a big ask for 17-year-olds. The next draft or two after the double draft should be weakened by the rule change.
Teams looking to reload via the draft, then, may feel urgency to strike in that year, just as teams with cap space in 2016. This time, they will need to hit.
Unlike free agency in 2016, there won’t be any long-term negative financial consequences in a wasted draft pick, as the team control of a rookie scale contract allows any organisation to cut bait on a player after just two years if he doesn’t live up to expectations. Even if the player struggles initially, the investment remains cheap for the duration for the rookie contract, suggesting most teams would stick with that player for the time being anyway. But there is risk involved from a talent perspective. A team drafting high in a weak class might benefit more from trading the pick for a veteran player who is more likely to remain productive, than having to roll the dice on a player with limited potential.
As such, caution and having a proper game plan for the hybrid-class will be very much needed. Teams hoping to pick up a good talent late in the draft that year might only have one shot at it before the quality of prospects decreases for a year or two, thus potentially closing that team’s window if they whiff on the pick with no ways to make up for it. Getting the pick right, or, as stated above, trading it if the team feels uncertain about their evaluation of the class, is of essential importance.
Some teams, especially ones drafting late, would certainly entertain the idea of making a trade. First-round picks, even late ones, carry enormous value these days, and that value will only increase in a loaded draft class that could see starting-calibre players go as far as into the mid-20s. If a team feels they’re one established piece away from contention, that might be the one summer they can get that piece simply by having an asset of such value. Rebuilding franchises will pay through the nose to acquire multiple picks in a deep draft to jump start their development process, often dangling productive veterans, which should play well with squads looking for immediate help.
Rookies are never a sure-fire thing unless they are the likes of LeBron James or Anthony Davis, and that too will hold true in the hybrid-class. But that’s not really all that important, as NBA teams will look at these picks pre-selection as valuable assets. Much like buying a new car, a pick loses value after it’s been spent on a player, and some organisations will use that knowledge to extract as big a return as possible in possible trades prior the actual draft.
The first year or two that follows the hybrid-class, however, will be very much like the 2016 free agency summer in terms of value. There will once again be 30 first-round picks, but given that it likely will be a weaker class, there should be no expectation of finding stars scattered about.
To put it bluntly: Much like the cap spike, the hybrid-class is a one-off. For the teams that have at least one first-round pick in the hybrid-year, they will have a juiced-up asset to spend in whatever way they want to. It’s a silver bullet shot that, if missed, they won’t get again.