How to Spot an NBA Draft Bust

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterSeptember 2, 2020

2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.
2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.Associated Press

Most teams can't afford to miss on an early first-round pick in the NBA draft.

A bust could set them back years, and front offices must figure out what to look for and avoid them. Scouting isn't an exact science, and there are exceptions to every trend.

Teams will spend time gathering intel to learn more about a prospect's work ethic, professionalism and personality. But aside from identifying certain character traits, there are five basketball-related developments worth considering for high draft picks.

        

22-Year-Old Cutoff for Lottery Picks

History warns against using a lottery pick on players who've turned 22 years old.

Watching Jamal Murray cook in the playoffs brings back memories of the New Orleans Pelicans passing on the 19-year-old 2-guard for another shooting guard in Buddy Hield, a four-year college player who's now 27 and coming off the bench.

Before the Minnesota Timberwolves took Cameron Johnson in 2019—who looks like he'll be a useful rotation piece but maybe a questionable choice over Tyler Herro and PJ Washington—the previous lottery picks since 2004 drafted at 22 or older included Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Taurean Prince, Denzel Valentine, Frank Kaminsky, Doug McDermott, Kelly Olynyk, Jimmer Fredette, Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, Hasheem Thabeet, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandon Rush, Joakim Noah, Acie Law, Al Thornton, Shelden Williams, Randy Foye, JJ Redick, Thabo Sefolosha, Channing Frye, Fran Vazquez, Babby Araujo and Luke Jackson.

Jimmer Fredette at BYU.
Jimmer Fredette at BYU.Ed Andrieski/Associated Press/Associated Press
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Noah and Redick stand out as obvious exceptions. Otherwise, it's mostly a group of players who've caused a lot of regrets.

The question about whether to avoid older players in the lottery becomes relevant again this October. Obi Toppin, college basketball's National Player of the Year, already turned 22 and is expected to draw top-five interest.

On one hand, there is a perception that he's one of the safest options based on his physical profile and production. On the other, it's worth asking whether Toppin dominated college players because he was older and more physically developed. And then, does he still have the same window to improve? After all, he'll be starting his pro career later and closer to his ceiling.

        

The Late Riser

Beware of the late draft riser. Recency bias and magnified NCAA tournament performances when stakes are higher have clouded NBA scouting lenses in the past.

While it's impossible to prove whether a single game or workout sold a team (unless they were to admit it), there are a number of prospects we can safely assume moved up boards from March to June.

RJ Hunter, Mitch McGary, DeAndre' Bembry, Malachi Richardson, Shabazz Napier, DJ Wilson and Sam Dekker potentially earned guaranteed contracts based on a few standout postseason games. They weren't as highly regarded before.

Anytime we typically start hearing about a prospect rising late in the process, there is a decent chance they're rising for the wrong reasons. In 2018, Jerome Robinson came out of nowhere late to climb ahead of Michael Porter Jr., while Kevin Knox may have sold the New York Knicks in a workout.

With more time than usual before the 2020 draft, some teams gave their scouting staff vacation to prevent any overthinking or unnecessary late changes.

       

Low-Assist Wings

Assists are typically expected from point guards, but wings who don't record them may be worth thinking twice about with a high pick.

There are always exceptions since college players don't have as much freedom and their creativity can get masked. But for the most part, a low assist percentage can indicate limitations as a creator, and wings/forwards who aren't creators have a smaller margin for error as scorers and shooters.

From the five drafts between 2013 and 2017, notable wings who had predraft assist rates below 15 percent and have underperformed relative to their draft slot include Shabazz Muhammad, Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, James Young, Mario Hezonja, Stanley Johnson, Rashad Vaughn, Sergey Karasev, Jordan Adams, Justise Winslow, Sam Dekker, Justin Anderson, Malachi Richardson, Terrance Ferguson and Malik Monk

       

Low-Block Bigs

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Shot blocking isn't always an accurate indicator of good or bad defense, but I tend to question power forward and center prospects with low block rates, particularly if they've been in college for more than a year.

It can be a reflection of how quickly a big man reacts and to what degree he's physically capable of making a play on the ball fast enough, which may also be tied to other areas outside of just defense.

The cut-off mark seems to be around a 6.0 block percentage. From the five drafts between 2013 and 2017, notable bigs who finished with lower predraft block rates than 6 percent include Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh, Marquese Chriss, Jahlil Okafor, Frank Kaminsky, Henry Ellenson, Brice Johnson, TJ Leaf, Tyler Lydon, Caleb Swanigan and Justin Patton.

Bigs who recorded block percentages higher than 6 percent include Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, Pascal Siakam and Jonathan Isaac.

High steal rates can be promising indicators, but too many players have low ones to use them as reasons to avoid a player.

          

No Bankable Skill

Stanley Johnson at Arizona.
Stanley Johnson at Arizona.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

Versatility is a key selling point in today's NBA, but teams have to be careful about chasing it and reaching for players who check boxes without checking any in bold.

While players who can do a little of everything are attractive, those who don't have a specialty strength to lean on are vulnerable. Today's league is a skilled league; athleticism isn't enough.

Recent first-round disappointments (relative to where they were picked) who originally stood out for their physical tools and potential versatility include Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Bennett, Dante Exum, Mario Hezonja, Trey Lyles, Stanley Johnson, Dragan Bender, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Josh Jackson and DJ Wilson.

They didn't have one bankable skill.

The "master of none" prospects in the 2020 draft to worry about include potential lottery picks Deni Avdija, Isaac Okoro, Precious Achiuwa, Patrick Williams and RJ Hampton.

        

Stats courtesy of Sports Reference and RealGM