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Andy Larsen: This rookie class shows how NBA GMs can outsmart themselves

Many league execs swing for the fences with their picks, passing up obvious NBA-ready prospects who are right in front of them

Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane (22) shoots the ball in front of Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges, left, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Without a doubt, NBA front offices use more time on preparing for the NBA draft than any other aspect of their jobs.

So why are they missing the easy picks?

Take a look at the top of this year’s Rookie of the Year race as it stands. According to Vegas, there’s a clear 1A and 1B: LaMelo Ball, the No. 3 pick in the draft, and Tyrese Haliburton, the No. 12 pick in the draft.

Both players fell in the NBA draft. Before the lottery, many expected Ball to go No. 1, thanks to his size, shooting, and playmaking ability that he showed off against full-time adult pros in the Australian league.

Haliburton was slated to go in the top seven, before inexplicably falling out of the top 10 on draft day. He was a phenomenal college player at Iowa State. As Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo wrote, “Haliburton is seen as one of the safest bets in the draft to return value, with the type of preternatural feel and passing ability that should keep him in the NBA for a long time, and an unusual degree of selflessness to his game. It’s extremely hard to see him falling out of the top seven, as things stand.”

Well, he did. And yet, Haliburton has been wildly impressive for Sacramento this year. He’s scoring, passing, defending, and doing all of the little things right for the Kings, a team that tends to suck life out of its young players. He’ll be starting ahead of Buddy Hield before you know it. How did he fall?

GMs weren’t happy with the easy 9 out of 10 in front of them — they wanted to swing for the fences.

They wanted Anthony Edwards, who famously said he’s “not really into” basketball, at No. 1. The athletic James Wiseman, who played three games for the Memphis Tigers last year, at 2. The toolsy Patrick Williams, who never started at Florida State, at No. 4. The “shooting versatility” of Jalen Smith at No. 10. GMs reached for players because they were enamored with what they might become, not what they showed today.

The Jazz had their own version of this mistake all the way down at No. 27. TCU’s Desmond Bane could not have been a more obvious pick — he was a terrific shooter, defender, and passer at TCU, with impressive basketball IQ and an NBA body. He fit the team perfectly, with an obvious way to fill a situational role now and bigger roles later. He was the best player available. When fans were asked who they would take with the Jazz’s selection, they said Bane.

Utah instead took Udoka Azubuike, who was considered to be a second rounder by draft watchers and other NBA teams alike. After doing so, they cited internal analytics that ranked him as the No. 2 player in the draft, and scouting reports that ranked him in the top 10.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) shoots over Phoenix Suns forward, Johnathan Motley (12), in preseason NBA action between Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns at Vivint SmartHome Area, on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

You readers know me — I love analytics. If your analytics say Azubuike is the second best player in the draft, it’s not a good sign. It means your analytics have a problem.

Bane now is leading the NBA in 3-point percentage, shooting over 50% from 3 as part of a terrific start to his rookie season. Azubuike has been assigned to the G League.

To be sure, it’s so early in these guys’ careers. There’s still time for Azubuike to improve; Rudy Gobert did with the No. 27 pick. Bane could still fail. But unquestionably, Bane is the better bet right now — just as Haliburton is a top-2 prospect up in the lottery.

It’s not an accident, by the way, that Bane ended up with the Memphis Grizzlies. No team in the past few years has been more committed at taking the college players who just make their teams better — the ones who fall down draft day boards for no real reason. Last year, Brandon Clarke fell all the way to 21 before the Grizzlies snapped him up — he was one of the best rookies in the league. They did it again this year with Xavier Tillman, who slipped to No. 35. Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, all are players with great college careers who slipped due to upside concerns.

As of this writing, Memphis leads the Southwest Division.

Two more examples from past drafts: Look at the success of Malcolm Brogdon. A four-year college player who fell to the 36th pick in 2016 due to concerns about his athleticism, he now averages 22.4 points per game for the Indiana Pacers, with great efficiency too. Does he have jaw-dropping athleticism? No. He just knows how to play basketball really well, and that’s been clear all along.

And for an example nearer the top of the draft, look at Luka Doncic, the EuroLeague MVP as a 19-year-old, against the players selected above him: DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. Both toolsy players drafted above Doncic are, well, let’s just be nice: They’re not top-5 MVP candidates like Doncic is.

Yes, it’s fun to dream about length and athleticism, and what it might turn out to be. But if you look at what’s actually working in the draft, skills and basketball know-how are the tools that drive the picks that outperform expectations. GMs are overconcerned with the former, and underrate the latter.

And the result is a lesson everyone should have learned repeatedly by now: When a team reaches, the draft teaches.

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