Handicapping Lillard’s NBA Chances: How Have Prospects From Mid-Majors Fared in the Pros?Posted by EJacoby on June 28th, 2012
Looking at the upcoming NBA Draft’s projected lottery picks, most of the players represent the big boys around the nation – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Florida, Connecticut. But smack in the middle between guys that played in a Final Four is a kid from Weber State. Anybody who follows college hoops or draft scouting surely knows about Damian Lillard, but it’s still surprising to see a player ranked so highly who most fans have never seen play a minute of college basketball. Will Lillard, who is projected to go in the top 10 as the draft’s top point guard, struggle to adapt to the massive increase in competition from the Big Sky Conference to the NBA? We researched lottery picks over the past 15 years from mid-major conferences to judge how successful they were in their transition to the league, grading success based on extended NBA productivity in the form of minutes played and value added. We considered all conferences outside of the top six power leagues as ‘mid-majors,’ so even the Atlantic 10, Conference USA and Mountain West qualify for our criteria.
Taking a look at recent history, names like Jimmer Fredette and Stephen Curry came from smaller schools yet were still some of the most popular collegiate players in the nation. Just because a player hails from a mid-major school doesn’t necessarily mean he was an unheralded prospect. Nonetheless, the point of our analysis is to determine what, if any, crutch comes along with stepping up from such a wide gap in competition for lottery picks. Even though Fredette was a National Player of the Year winner, he still faced relatively weaker competition on a nightly basis at BYU. Is it more difficult to scout and project success for a mid-major prospect? Let’s take a look at how these players have fared historically. You’ll notice a trend that suggests Lillard should have a great chance at NBA success.
Looking back on the beginning of our time scale, the 1997 draft was loaded with mid-majors in the lottery. Antonio Daniels, Keith Van Horn, Adonal Foyle, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad all hailed from smaller schools. While each player had a very different NBA journey, only Abdul-Wahad finished outside of the top 20 in Win Shares from that draft class. Daniels and Van Horn, who each went in the first four picks, had standout careers as excellent performers from that class. Early on, these two players proved that mid-major schools – Bowling Green and Utah, respectively – can produce top-flight NBA players.
Perhaps Daniels and Van Horn set the bar too high, though, as the LA Clippers felt comfortable selecting a player from the West Coast Conference with the #1 overall pick in 1998. Michael Olowokandi, a Pacific University center, became an awful NBA bust that to this day remains one of the very worst selections in league history. Perhaps he was unable to dominate pros like he did WCC players in the paint, and his post play was skewed based on the limited physicality of his competition. Whatever the case may be, his 8.3 career points per game have become fodder for scouts considering a mid-major player with the top selection.
No mid-major players went in the top three in 1999, but four players went in the lottery. This time, all four guys shined in the pros. Shawn Marion, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, and Wally Sczerbiak were all fantastic NBA players; in fact, the former three are all still active contributors in the league today. Marion is the clear top player from the draft class and all four guys produced in the top 13 of Win Shares from that year, essential lottery production. While players like Trajan Langdon and William Avery were lottery busts from Duke that year, the mid-major players shined in the league. Perhaps Olowokandi was just a fluky, bad selection from an historically poor franchise?
Fast-forwarding past a slower period for lottery mid-majors, the 2003 draft gave us Chris Kaman at #6 overall from Central Michigan. The highest center selected from a mid-major since Olowokandi, there were valid concerns about Kaman’s ability to make it in the league. But he’s been a strong NBA player who’s averaged double-figure scoring for the past seven seasons and remains a solid center option in the league today. The next year’s draft produced Rafael Araujo, a center from BYU at #8 overall who finished as the second-worst player of the entire 2004 draft with -0.4 Win Shares.
Though it seems like no trend has been established here, it appears that scouts take far more chances on mid-major big men in the lottery than they do on guards. Size is a valuable commodity in the NBA, and there is some value in taking a risk on an unproven big in case he pans out like a Kaman. More of our research continues to prove this theory true, as Andrew Bogut (Utah), Patrick O’Bryant (Bradley), Jason Thompson (Rider), and Adam Morrison (Gonzaga) were the only mid-major lottery picks from 2005-08, and they all play the forward or center position. Morrison is different, as he was selected as a go-to small forward scorer, but the former three were chosen to protect the rim and score down low. By the way, they’ve all been busts except for Bogut.
It’s simply much more rare for a mid-major player to fall in the lottery if he’s a guard. And when it happens, he usually pans out. Stephen Curry (Davidson) makes our criteria from the 2009 draft, and he’s been an elite NBA player from that class. It seems unfair to count John Calipari’s Memphis players in this discussion, but nonetheless Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose also apply as Conference USA guards who have thrived in the league. We didn’t find a single mid-major point guard lottery pick who turned into an NBA bust from our 15 years of research. Only Jimmer Fredette may qualify, as he struggled in his rookie year for the Kings, but the guy has played just one season and doesn’t have nearly large enough of a sample size to judge properly.
So how will Lillard fare? It’s tough to tell, as our research shows that few mid-major point guards ever wind up as lottery picks. But those who did have done pretty well. Antonio Daniels set the bar high in 1997 with a strong career, and others like Miller, Evans, and Curry have followed. Jameer Nelson was the #20 overall pick in 2004 – outside of the lottery – but he has had a strong career that’s worth considering in the same vein. Mid-major big men are far more likely to get a shot in the lottery due to athletic ‘potential,’ whereas lead guards usually don’t get selected that high unless they’re established floor leaders, with upside stemming from noticeable awareness rather than blind faith in physical traits. Guards from lesser leagues simply don’t go in the lottery unless they’re considered reliable commodities. Damian Lillard from Weber State hopes to follow a similar path as the top point guard to come off the board on Thursday night.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him on Twitter @evanjacoby.