A common observation when browsing NBA draft content is that a lot of the big boards and mock drafts are are very similar and stray from making totally bold projections. Almost as if those publishing them view other’s work beforehand and then make sure their rankings are at least close to their own. Is this critique valid? Let’s take a look based on some draft board samples from 2017 and then see if there are any similar trends in terms of conformity in the draft boards submitted to WinTheDraft to date for 2018. Note: the data will be skewed by sample size since 2017 will only consist of 28 draft boards. For 2018 there are well over 100 draft boards that have been completed, which gives a better overall look at consensus thinking.
We’ll start with the consensus #1 overall ranked player. In 2017, this was Markelle Fultz. Below is the breakdown in terms of how many analysts rated him as the top player:
As you can see, only three different players received a #1 ranking, and one of those was Josh Jackson who only received a single vote. The rest went to Lonzo Ball, and Markelle Fultz, with Fultz dominating with 82% of the #1 rankings. Granted, analyzing the #1 pick in terms of possible groupthink is very dependent on draft class, since there may be one generational prospect that is truly head and shoulders above the rest (such as Anthony Davis in 2012). However, in this in this instance, it does seem possible* people were afraid of straying from the norm. Although Fultz had a very solid case for being the #1 pick, it feels extreme he was favored to that degree, since his profile even at draft time didn’t seem to be at the level of a player like Davis. Unfortunately, a difficult rookie season didn’t help to support the level of confidence the draft community had in him either.
So what about 2018? Is everyone gravitating towards a consensus #1 again?
This time around is similar in that the majority of #1 rankings are held by two players (Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton) just as Fultz and Ball accumulated nearly all the #1 votes in 2017. However, it is much more evenly split with Doncic currently receiving 49% and Ayton 35%. A few other players are receiving #1 votes as well, which is probably reflective of the difference in sample size from 2017. It will be interesting to see if Doncic and Ayton perform better as rookies than the two most highly regarded players (Fultz and Ball) did from 2017.
Clearly there isn’t unanimous agreement on the #1 overall player every draft. But to what amount do people actually disagree? Do some people actually view another person’s top ranked players as not evenly lottery worthy? Or is it more of a gentle disagreement where they just slide said players a slot or two down on their own board? To investigate this I sorted the players by overall consensus rank and calculated the percentage of times they appeared in the top 10 of someone’s draft board in 2017. Below are the results:
Now, an obvious response would be to look at that chart and say “of course the data is downward sloping when you are evaluating a consensus ranking.” And you’d be absolutely correct in saying that. However, if you look at some of the nuances they are glaring. For one, 98% of top 10 votes were spread among just the 13 players listed above; I omitted a few players who received just a single vote to keep the chart more readable. Additionally, the top 6 consensus players appeared within the top 10 of 100% (!) of draft boards in 2017. Dennis Smith was #7, and still appeared in 96%. Following that, the slope increases much more quickly for a few players and then basically falls off a cliff from Lauri Markannen to Zach Collins (the 11th ranked consensus player). What all this means is that there is a lot of conformity in terms of the “tier” of players, but little willingness to buck the trend and move a player outside his typical range.
What is interesting is this same pattern has persisted so far in 2018 if you look at the graph below. The top 7 or so are almost universally thought to be no lower than top 10 players, though not quite to the extreme 100% level that exists in the 2017 data. (This is probably another influence of sample size). Following that, the slope increases drastically in the 9-12 range, indicating people were generally hesitant to move any players outside of “normal” tiers. Now as you move down draft boards, there will generally be less conformity, but that also comes with the convenience of much less risk, since you’re not expecting much of a player if you have him slotted at the back end of the first round or lower.
In conclusion, none of this infers that the thought processes that go into evaluating prospects are way off base. All of the players ranked above have good cases for considering them at the top of draft boards. However, even taking that into account, one has to wonder if there are actually better cases for numerous prospects that are being overlooked. In recent years, consensus draft boards by writers and analysts have been pretty close to how the actual draft transpires, especially at the top of the draft. (For perspective, compare the consensus 2017 draft board to the actual draft order). So the general thinking by the “draft community” is not THAT far off from what actual NBA teams are doing.
The problem with that however, is that historically, draft projections as a whole have not been overly accurate. Every draft has a host of players drafted in the top 10 who did not live up to that lofty status. If anything, people should consider defaulting to their own opinions on players rather than gravitating toward possible groupthink. That doesn’t mean being contrary just for the sake of doing so, but I think it should come with the realization that if you place emphasis on what the herd thinks, your draft performance is likely to keep producing a lot of mixed results.
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