With the NBA Draft tonight, it looks like UNC’s men’s basketball program is set to not have a player drafted for just the third time since 2009 — 2010 was a rebuilding year, and 2018 was the culmination of several years’ worth of recruiting good college players who just weren’t the NBA’s type. This year’s team analogs pretty closely with that of 2008, a team with a lot of talent that went to the Final 4 and probably could have had some players go pro, but who all decided to run it back for a chance at a championship. The NBA prospects of the analogous players on the 2022 team probably weren’t quite as bright as they were for guys like Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Hansbrough (more on that tomorrow), but similarly, the reason for this year’s likely lack of draftees isn’t that the team is untalented so much as the talent chose to stay. And all respect to Brady Manek, of course, but he’s just not an NBA player, though he’ll probably get a shot at the G-League.
But that’s enough thinking about the past. With a much calmer draft season than we’ve usually had as UNC fans, I wanted to take some time and put down some thoughts and guidelines about what the NBA Draft looks like these days, amidst all the chatter — a lot of it misguided — I see in UNC fan communities around the internet where a lot of the loudest voices don’t really care to learn about the NBA and consequently spread a fair amount of half-truth and misinformation about what the league is looking for. I am, of course, not an expert: I have never been inside an NBA decision-making room and I'm not that informed a scout, either. I'm just someone who notices trends sometimes and watches more of the NBA, probably, than the average UNC fan. So, here are my tips for watching this and future NBA drafts with the right kind of information for yourself and for your UNC fandom going forward.
- Stop telling yourself, or believing, that “the NBA drafts on potential.” Devoid of context, it’s not a completely untrue thing to say, but nothing’s ever devoid of context — and so you’re probably going to be better served not thinking this than thinking it. Like, is there projection involved? Always. Does the NBA value drafting youth more than most American professional sports leagues seem to? Definitely, because young players have more room to grow. What that doesn’t mean is that the league will draft a player just because they’re young with some traits, which is what a fair number of people seem to think. Take a look back at the 2021 Draft — of the 14 freshmen picked, only about two weren’t at least very good in college. The NBA isn’t out here drafting bad college players because they underwhelmed high expectations; just look at the feedback Caleb Love got after his freshman year, or how Nassir Little fell to the mid-20’s in his year after a frustrating season. The NBA, like any professional league, drafts good players. “Potential” is something that comes up after that bar is cleared.
- Shooting is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a “modern NBA big,” assuming that by “big” you mean “center.” NBA teams are pretty much exclusively 4-out these days, so yes, if you’ve got a power forward prospect, they should be able to stretch the floor. For centers, though, while it’s a useful skill, it’s far from a required one. That’s not to say that the game hasn’t changed the role of big men dramatically; it definitely has. Bigs need to be much, much better passers than they used to and be comfortable getting in a stance and defending on the perimeter so they aren’t relentlessly targeted in pick-and-roll situations and all the other actions that can force them into defending a guard. They need some face-up moves, because posting up on another big is the least efficient shot in basketball. Doing those things, they have legitimate NBA value right now playing inside the arc. Nikola Jokic is a center and he’s the reigning MVP twice over because he’s an incredible passer and gets to the basket in creative ways; the shooting is a bonus.
- The NBA does value athletes. Unlike the NFL Combine, which creates ridiculous risers and stars every year just from what people do in their underwear, the NBA’s event serves much more as a weed-out process. If your vertical disappoints, you’re losing a lot of money. If you test way higher than your peers in body fat, you’re probably losing a lot of money. And so on. You’re rarely going to see a player, regardless of how good they are in college, be highly valued by the NBA if they can’t get above the rim regularly in the run of play — it just makes finishing what should be easy possessions so much harder. Also, transition opportunities are pretty rare in the NBA and are treated as more or less automatic — if you can’t get down the court fast enough to beat a defense when you’re given the opportunity, that’s going to be debilitating.
Ultimately, the NBA Draft is only two rounds long, meaning that teams are extremely selective. The NBA’s significantly smarter about drafting than the NFL is, which is most people’s primary point of comparison, and that makes understanding it quite a bit harder for people without context. As you’re watching this year’s event comparatively stress-free thanks to the lack of Heels, maybe this will help you get some of that baseline understanding for the near future, when we’re all biting our nails again for players we’ve grown to love.