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The Value of an NBA Draft Pick: Part II

Posted by Justin Kubatko on June 23, 2009

On Monday I assigned expected values to the top 60 picks in the NBA draft, both in terms of career value and value in their first four seasons. Today I would like to use that information to look at some of the worst draft picks since the merger.

In some sense the worst picks are the ones that never make it to the NBA, but for this exercise I am going to restrict my attention to players who played in the NBA. I will compare a player's actual Win Shares (WS) to his expected Win Shares (EV) based on the model I introduced yesterday. Based on the career value chart, here are the ten worst draft picks since 1977 (active players are excluded because their careers are, to this point, incomplete):

+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+
| Player               | Year | Team | Pick | WS   | EV   | Diff  |
+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+
| Michael Olowokandi   | 1998 | LAC  |    1 |  2.4 | 76.9 | -74.5 | 
| Jay Williams         | 2002 | CHI  |    2 |  0.8 | 63.9 | -63.1 | 
| Chris Washburn       | 1986 | GSW  |    3 | -0.6 | 56.2 | -56.8 | 
| Ralph Sampson        | 1983 | HOU  |    1 | 20.5 | 76.9 | -56.4 | 
| Pervis Ellison       | 1989 | SAC  |    1 | 22.1 | 76.9 | -54.8 | 
| Dennis Hopson        | 1987 | NJN  |    3 |  7.2 | 56.2 | -49.0 | 
| Nikoloz Tskitishvili | 2002 | DEN  |    5 | -1.6 | 46.6 | -48.2 | 
| Marcus Fizer         | 2000 | CHI  |    4 |  2.8 | 50.8 | -48.0 | 
| James Ray            | 1980 | DEN  |    5 | -0.3 | 46.6 | -46.9 | 
| Dajuan Wagner        | 2002 | CLE  |    6 |  0.0 | 43.2 | -43.2 | 
+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+

According to our model, the biggest bust in terms of career value has been Michael Olowokandi. On average we would expect the first overall pick to produce 76.9 career WS, but the Kandi Man finished with just 2.4 WS in 500 games played. To put that number into perspective, this past season a total of 196 players finished with more WS than Olowokandi had in his entire career. Let's take a closer look at some of the other players on this list:

  • Jay Williams, the 2001-02 NCAA AP Player of the Year from Duke, struggled in his rookie campaign but showed some promise and was named to the All-Rookie Second Team. However, in the off-season after his rookie year Williams was involved in a horrible motorcycle accident that almost claimed his life. After a long and painful recovery, Williams attempted a comeback in 2006 with the New Jersey Nets, but he was cut before the start of the season. After a brief stint in the D-League, Williams announced that he was putting his basketball career on hold to pursue other opportunities.
  • Chris Washburn shows up on most lists of the biggest draft busts in NBA history, and rightfully so. Despite numerous red flags (poor grades, questionable work ethic, a run-in with the law), the Golden State Warriors selected Washburn with the third overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. It didn't take long for Washburn to run into trouble, and by January of his rookie season he was being treated for an addiction to cocaine. Washburn was never able to get his drug habit under control, and in June 1989 -- after his third positive drug test in three years -- he received a lifetime ban from the NBA.
  • Ralph Sampson was another player whose career was cut short by injury. Sampson was highly acclaimed coming out of Virginia, where he was a three-time Naismith Award winner. Sampson was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1983-84 and built on that by being named All-NBA Second Team in 1984-85. In 1985-86, thanks to the addition of another Rookie of the Year winner, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets made it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Celtics in six games. Unfortunately that was the high point of Sampson's career, as knee and injury problems slowly took their toll. Sampson was traded to the Warriors in 1987, to the Kings in 1989, and was signed by the Bullets in 1991, but before tuning 32 Sampson had played his last game in the NBA.

Now that we've looked at some of the busts in terms of career value, let's look at the biggest busts after four seasons. In this case I'll include active players if they have spent at least four years in the NBA.

+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+
| Player               | Year | Team | Pick | WS   | EV   | Diff  |
+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+
| Michael Olowokandi   | 1998 | LAC  |    1 |  0.1 | 26.5 | -26.4 | 
| Jay Williams         | 2002 | CHI  |    2 |  0.8 | 22.1 | -21.3 | 
| Chris Washburn       | 1986 | GSW  |    3 | -0.6 | 19.6 | -20.2 | 
| Darko Milicic        | 2003 | DET  |    2 |  4.0 | 22.1 | -18.1 | 
| Nikoloz Tskitishvili | 2002 | DEN  |    5 | -1.6 | 16.4 | -18.0 | 
| Kwame Brown          | 2001 | WAS  |    1 |  8.9 | 26.5 | -17.6 | 
| James Ray            | 1980 | DEN  |    5 | -0.3 | 16.4 | -16.7 | 
| Lancaster Gordon     | 1984 | LAC  |    8 | -2.7 | 13.4 | -16.1 | 
| Marcus Fizer         | 2000 | CHI  |    4 |  2.3 | 17.8 | -15.5 | 
| Dajuan Wagner        | 2002 | CLE  |    6 |  0.0 | 15.2 | -15.2 | 
+----------------------+------+------+------+------+------+-------+

Well, this isn't particularly exciting. Seven of the names are exactly the same as the career list and two others -- Darko Milicic and Kwame Brown -- will probably end up on the career list once their careers have come to end. Speaking of Milicic, looking back at the top five selections in the 2003 NBA Draft reminds me of the Sesame Street song "One of These Things (Is Not Like The Others)":

+------+------+-----------------+
| Pick | Team | Player          |
+------+------+-----------------+
|    1 | CLE  | LeBron James    | 
|    2 | DET  | Darko Milicic   | 
|    3 | DEN  | Carmelo Anthony | 
|    4 | TOR  | Chris Bosh      | 
|    5 | MIA  | Dwyane Wade     | 
+------+------+-----------------+

Wow, do you think Detroit would like to have a mulligan on that one?

That's our look at some of the worst draft picks in NBA history. Tomorrow we'll take a look at some of the best picks. Stay tuned...

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4 Responses to “The Value of an NBA Draft Pick: Part II”

  1. Gabe Says:

    I've never even heard of Lancaster Gordon or James Ray.

  2. Jordan Says:

    I understand that the OG Kandiman was a horrific number one draft pick. He couldn't do anything right and despite being 7 feet tall, was a career 43 percent shooter, worse than most shooting guards. I understand that his net career WS is 2.4. But how can playing nine seasons, no matter how inefficiently, be of less value than playing only one season for a franchise? I don't get that.

    I mean, the OG Kandiman made an appearance in National Lampoon's Van Wilder (Always remember to take a pregame dump), so that's at least worth an extra winshare somewhere right? And, just for kicks, it's interesting to note how the Clips at one time had both Kandiman, and the Candy man. All they need to do is hire Tony Todd as a color commentator or something and call it a day.

  3. Mike G Says:

    How about including the strength of a given year's draft class in the calculation?

    Marcus Fizer was taken 4th in 2000, which was a very weak class: Kenyon, Stromile, Miles, Fizer, Mike Miller (ROY), Dermarr, Mihm, ... Almost everyone in this draft was a 'bad pick', relative to the average draft. Relative to what was available, Fizer might be about par.

    In 1984 the 4th pick was Sam Perkins. Definitely solid in most years, he was a 'bust' relative to later picks of that year.

    Knowing career WS for each draft class, how hard would it be to rank picks relative to their class?

    The b-r.com Draft Search doesn't give players' Win Shares. It does give Allstar appearances and All-NBA 1st Team totals for different drafts, which I've summarized here:
    http://sonicscentral.com/apbrmetrics/viewtopic.php?t=2244

  4. Kiran Rasaretnam Says:

    A Great post, especially with the upcoming draft. I also look forward to your next post - the "best" picks. I have a similar set of posts for the NFL, and only for quarterbacks on my blog. I actually started with a "biggest surprises" list - those who exceeded expectations. The harder one to do is the "busts", which I am currently working on. I hadn't thought of a "best" list, but I will now - good idea. I also like commenter Mike G's observation re: assessing the draft pick relative to the other players in the draft....

    Keep up the excellent work.

    Cheers,
    Kiran