There’s something to be said for safe investments. It’s a philosophy the best franchises in the NBA — think Golden State and San Antonio — long ago bought into and now teams in the midst of youth-based rebuilding projects such as Milwaukee and Sacramento are following suit.
Young potential superstars with rare abilities are always going to worth a lottery pick. Ben Simmons might be a total bust, but he might also turn into an MVP-caliber guard who leads a team to a championship. The risk is almost always worth the potential reward.
But more and more it’s looking like finding solid players — the kind almost guaranteed to contribute in some way — later in the draft is just as important to building a winner. And more often than not those rookies are proven three and four-year college players.
Look at Kansas’ 2013 recruiting class. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were one-and-done players and top three draft picks. The TImberwolves and 76ers recently locked them down contracts worth nearly $300 million combined. At this point there’s no way of knowing if either player will ever be worth that kind of investment, but the NBA rookie contracts are set up in a way that leaves teams with little choice but to gamble.
But among the other members of that class were Wayne Selden Jr., who stayed at Kansas three years and went undrafted, and Frank Mason III, the 2017 college player of the year as a senior who was a second round pick. Selden is the only one in that group to start an NBA Playoff game thus far and makes about $1.4 million. Mason is set to start the season opener at point guard for Sacramento, which also drafted point guard De’Aaron Fox with the fifth overall pick, and will make less than $1.2 million.
Mason’s odds of ever becoming an all-star are significantly lower than those of Fox, Wiggins or Embiid. But that a player such as Mason can contribute during the life of a his rookie deal is nearly a guarantee.
That’s what is strange about the NBA obsession with drafting young players based on potential. Sure, if Mason is entering the NBA at age 23, his career might be a few years shorter than players who come in at 19. But rookie contracts are for two years with an option to extend after that. Picking a teenager leaves franchises in a position where they either have to pay superstar money to an unproven, possibly immature player or lose him.
When you’ve got a player like Embiid, who if he stays healthy is going to be a generational superstar, the risk is clearly worth it and those are the kinds of players a team is shooting or when it lands a lottery pick.
But why are front offices late in the first round passing on players such as Mason or Malcolm Brogdon, who proved during their college careers they can do things to help a team?
In 2016, Milwaukee took what were the riskiest and safest picks in the entire NBA Draft. The Bucks took a gamble on Thon Maker, who thanks to a weird set of circumstances was entering the draft out of high school and without much experience against top competition. And in the second round, Milwaukee chose Brogdon, the fifth-year Virginia star who was the first player ever to win the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season.
Brogdon is already close to 25 entering his second season, which certainly played a role in his slipping to the second round. And it would have been difficult to predict that he’d wind up having a Rookie of the Year season for the Bucks.
But there was no doubt he was ready to contribute to an NBA team in one way or another. He was the rare rookie to enter the league as a lockdown defender and even if there was concern his scoring ability wouldn’t translate to the pro game, Brogdon has always been smart with the ball and little risk to hurt a team offensively.
In short, he was an ideal piece for building around a freakish talent such as Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Is it any wonder the Warriors and Spurs are seeing the value in college veterans such as Jordan Bell and Derrick White? Or, for that matter, that Golden State drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who all played at least three years in college?
Of course the Warriors also enjoying having the services of one-and-done Kevin Durant, but you can bet all the teams that passed on Green, allowing him to slip to the second round in 2012, might wish they’d attached more value to his four seasons of college success and less to his small size and relatively advanced age.
Don’t be surprised if GMs feel the same way about the likes of Brogdon or Mason in a few years.