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Value in the NBA: Looking Back At the Bucks' Drafts

In part six of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we look to answer this question: How well have the Bucks turned the NBA Draft into on-court value?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

(If you're not up to speed, check out the series introduction here.)

There are very few universal truths in the NBA, but one of them is this: a player on a rookie scale contract is one of the most valuable things a team can ever have. The player doesn't even have to necessarily be good, as long as they're cheap!

Now, these are human beings we're talking about, with dreams and feelings and whatnot. I would love nothing more than for every player to reach his or her ceiling and be the best them that they could ever be. But this is the NBA, and there's no room for all that when the Larry O'Brien trophy is up for grabs!

Back to our focus: the 2011 CBA established the current rookie scale contract, which goes back to the post-Big Dog '90s and binds all first round draft picks to a specific level of NBA salary. Second rounders are not beholden to this rule, but often sign deals that are near the minimum salary and commensurate with where they got drafted. So because salary is strictly controlled for up to four years for the first 30 picks (five if the player takes the Qualifying Offer), but the player's production is not, every team wants to find that overachiever in the draft, making draft picks feel like incredibly valuable commodities.

But the other side of that coin is this: young NBA players are generally pretty bad NBA players, and rookies are generally the worst of all. For every Karl Anthony-Towns, there's a dozen Anthony Bennetts, Thomas Robinsons, and yes, Rashad Vaughns. Any player selected in the draft needs to be viewed as an investment in the future, banking on natural progression and the player's work ethic to improve to league average and beyond. Even considering this trend, rookie scale salaries are so low that young players who struggle are still generally considered good values for the team!

In researching the recent history of the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA draft, I organized the data in a way that's consistent with this exercise. First, I'm setting the bar for the expected Win Share value of each draft slot that the Bucks entered the draft with (remembering the "one important caveat" we've established when projecting the WS value of draft picks). As an example, the Bucks ended up trading down during the draft (from #10 to #19) back in 2011, but the expected value of that asset is still calculated at the level of the 10th overall pick.

Secondly, while using aforementioned placeholder data for the "expected" WS value of each draft pick, I did calculate the "actual" WS value that was returned by either the player himself or by the player(s) that were acquired in return for the Bucks' send out the pick. For example, Ricky Ledo was technically the Bucks' selection at 43, but the Bucks ended up with Nate Wolters instead: as a result, the results of the pick reflect the production of Wolters, not Ledo. Lastly, the WS Differential is simply how much higher (or lower) the actual WS value was from the expected value of that draft slot.

Clarification: the values in this table are meant to convey the difference between the expected production of the draft pick (in WS Value) and the actual production of the player picked OR the player(s) received in a trade involving that pick. The "WS Differential value" displays how much higher or lower (usually lower) the actual production was compared to the expected production for a player at a given draft slot.

Year Overall Player Outcome WS Differential (Y1) WS Differential (Y2) WS Differential (Y3) WS Differential (Y4) WS Differential (Y5)
10 Jimmer Fredette Traded (pre-Y0) -$3,664,803 -$282,417 -$401,739 -$457,337 -$566,266
40 Jon Leuer Traded (pre-Y2) -$58,810 -$1,433,545 -$5,341,788 -$1,027,196 -
14 John Henson Retained -$301,397 -$147,472 -$219,883 -$840,452 -
42 Doron Lamb Traded (mid-Y1) -$345,414 -$960,229 - - -
15 Giannis Antetokounmpo Retained -$846,666 $120,524 $51,369 - -
43 Ricky Ledo Traded (pre-Y0) $1,152,212 - - - -
2 Jabari Parker Retained -$2,494,697 -$583,449 - - -
31 Damien Inglis Cut (post-Y2) -$1,354,299 -$433,690 - - -
36 Johnny O'Bryant III Cut (post-Y2) -$728,247 -$2,439,890 - - -
48 Lamar Patterson Traded (pre-Y0) -$832,109 -$866,266 - - -
17 Rashad Vaughn Retained -$2,451,706 - - - -
46 Norman Powell Traded (pre-Y0) -$23,030,047 - - - -
10 Thon Maker Retained - - - - -
36 Malcolm Brogdon Retained - - - - -
38 Patrick McCaw Traded (pre-Y0) - - - - -

In a word: yikes. Besides Nate Wolters exceeding the projected value of his draft slot (by a fair amount, too! I forgot how good Nate's first season was...), no other Bucks rookie even came close to breaking even in terms of WS Value. This isn't the most surprising result, when you consider how many times the Bucks have opted to draft younger players more often than not (Tobias Harris [as a result of the Jimmer trade], Giannis, Jabari, Inglis, Vaughn, and Maker were all nineteen years old or younger when they were drafted). I suppose it speaks to that universal NBA truth: rookies are generally very bad NBA players.

Of the players that have stuck around, the data is about what you'd expect. Giannis became a big contributor in Year 2 and even bigger in Year 3, whereas Jabari made a big jump from his injury-shortened rookie season to last year's return to the court...but was still not a net-positive (yet). Johnny O'Bryant and Damien Inglis were bad (but cheap!), Rashad Vaughn was worse (but cheap!), and John Henson has annually underperformed based on the value of his deal, adding to the frustration some Bucks fans feel towards his development.

When it comes to players that the Bucks traded, GM John Hammond's propensity for dealing young prospects or selling off draft picks might help the team in some ways, but also hurts the Bucks' on-court value (through the narrow lens of this exercise). Once a player leaves the team, their WS contribution becomes a flat zero, which obviously will fall short of what the "tiered average" would have expected. While it's sometimes necessary to sweeten a deal with a young prospect, the downside of losing out on the cost-controlled production of a rookie-scale player is considerable.

For example, when Tobias Harris went to Orlando, none of Shaun Livingston, Beno Udrih, or Stephen Jackson (all of whom had been brought in with the deal that made Harris a Buck originally) were still around. Therefore, compared to what the Bucks could have projected the value of what the 10th overall pick would have gotten them (on average), they were getting exactly nothing from that asset after only 2 seasons, which might be somehow worse than an underwhelming young player who never reaches their ceiling. This is further exacerbated when you consider that none of J.J. Redick, Ish Smith, or Gustavo Ayon stuck around with the team for more than another season, further stretching out the amount of value (or lack thereof) they were able to get from that 2011 draft-day trade with Sacramento and Charlotte. Turning something into nothing might be an impressive magic trick (or illusion!), but it can leave a lasting scar on a team struggling to rebuild.

Some other observations:

  • Less than half (6 out of 15) of the Bucks' draft picks since 2011 are still with the team, and of the players (or picks) that were acquired via trade, none of the players who the Bucks acquired are still around either.
  • Milwaukee has gotten very little out of the second round of the NBA draft; Malcolm Brogdon is the only current Buck who was drafted in the second round by the team.
  • The Bucks have traded away five draft picks before those players ever set foot in Milwaukee, and of those five, two players are already out of the league (Jimmer Fredette, Ricky Ledo).
  • When they do actually select a player between picks 31-60, that player rarely sticks around. They end up either being traded very early in their career (Jon Leuer, Doron Lamb) or eventually not brought back to the team (Damien Inglis, Johnny O'Bryant).
  • I will forever defend the team's decision to trade two draft picks for Greivis Vasquez, based on the information at the time...but goodness that WS Value is as ugly as can be.

That's the gist of what I could find when considering what type of value the Bucks have leveraged out of the NBA draft. What sorts of things do you see? Are you happy with the Bucks' draft history, or is there something you think would have been more valuable?