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2018 NBA Draft - What to Expect From a 17th Overall Draft Pick

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Looking at the history of the mid-round selection to predict a realistic future.

2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It is fitting the cover photo for this article features last year’s number 17 pick merely posing, given how little game action he saw last year. The 17th pick is a mixed bag, just far enough from the lottery that any players dropping might already be snatched, but just early enough to think you could find a solid contributor at the spot. Milwaukee is no stranger to this selection; this year marks their third time in this slot over the past four years. Milwaukee is also no stranger to the tribulations of the 17th pick. Few fans need rehashing over the zilch’s they’ve drafted in Rashad Vaughn and D.J. Wilson in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

Greg laid out some of the rationale behind those choices in his argument the Bucks should aim for a from-the-jump contributor with the pick. Vaughn seemed like a young gunner with the chance to add shooting to a squad that, at the time, was woefully deficient in the sniping department. Obviously, his flash in the pan workout wound up turning into a grease fire on the court. Wilson remains impossible to judge, albeit the fact he couldn’t even snag garbage time minutes points to an incredible lack of necessary NBA skills. In the pantheon of number 17 picks, Milwaukee happens to have wound up with two of the least productive selections in league history. At a time when it’s easy to fall in love with the individual attributes of a player, it’s instructive to look at how players fared in the aggregate after being chosen at 17. I compiled the full list of players chosen at 17 since 1973, when Basketball Reference’s database first pulled complete stats for these selections.

The dataset includes 45 different players (with usable statistics) over that span. Below is how many players from Basketball Reference’s different positional designations were chosen with the 17th pick, along with one exemplar of that position.

Positional History of the 17th Pick

Position Center Center-Forward Forward Forward-Center Forward-Guard Guard Guard-Forward
Position Center Center-Forward Forward Forward-Center Forward-Guard Guard Guard-Forward
# of Players 4 3 13 7 4 11 3
Example Roy Hibbert Sean Williams Josh Smith Jermaine O'Neal Sonny Parker Rashad Vaughn Doug Christie

The fact there have been so few big men drafted at that position seems reflective of the fact teams tend to snag size before it gets too late in the process. That appears likely to play out this year too, with a top-heavy collection of centers giving way to a glut of combo guards in the latter stages of the first round and early second. Robert Williams seems like the only big man who might viably be available to Milwaukee, and even that could be a stretch given hubbub over his rising stock. Predicting a position chosen is a fools errand without context though. Not factoring in team needs and understanding the strength of each draft, these numbers are far less meaningful than considering potential production and longevity. So let’s dive into it.

Production

First, let’s sort out some baselines for what is realistic to expect from a 17th overall selection. We’ll start with this one from Nate Silver back in 2014 where he correlates pick selection to net profit the team could expect from them, albeit only factoring in their first five seasons.

This chart illustrates that there’s not a significant difference between having the 15th pick and the 20th in terms of potential value. The 18th selection outperforming the predicted win shares is probably like an anomaly, but the 17th pick falls almost entirely in line with what Silver’s model shows. In other words, Milwaukee shouldn’t expect their selection to get near the production associated with top-ten picks, but they have about as good a chance to snag a player who adds as much value at 17 as teams within the 15-24 range.


Another breakdown comes courtesy of 82games.com, where their 20-year analysis (1988-2008) gives a detailed breakdown of player’s production and potential. Their rating is entirely dependent on points, rebounds and assists per game and provides the percentage of chance they slot into different roles on a team from star all the way down to did not play based on the results of their rating. The 17th pick shows the following:

Average Outcomes for 17th Pick (82games.com)

Gms Min Pts Reb Ast Rtg Star Solid Role Player Deep Bench
Gms Min Pts Reb Ast Rtg Star Solid Role Player Deep Bench
397 20.3 8.1 3.9 1.4 13.4 20% 15% 20% 45%

The most curious part of this dataset is the fact that there isn’t even a percentage chance for a player to be a “bust,” whereas all other selections from 14-21 have at least a 10% chance and oftentimes even more. Amazingly, it appears several of the most recent years would’ve provided the correction this data needed. There are a number of players who, while still early in some of their careers, appear headed for a bust career. Here are those last five choices:

  • 2017: D.J. Wilson (yay...)
  • 2016: Wade Baldwin
  • 2015: Rashad Vaughn (yay...)
  • 2014: James Young
  • 2013: Dennis Schroder

Among those five, I would say only Schroder qualifies for anything better than a bust and he probably slots more into the solid slot for this model given his prolific counting stats. Of course, his advanced metrics certainly seem more in line with what I would consider a role player. Some might even say that’s generous.


Lastly, let’s examine another method from Kevin Pelton that’s a bit more rigorous, given it extends through to a player’s ninth year in an attempt to see if the gap between top picks and later selections changes as a career goes on. He determined that was the case and adjusted his draft value chart as needed, resulting in the following. We’ll use this mostly to determine the validity of potentially trading out of this slot and what kind of return would make it worth it for Milwaukee.

This gives us a relatively straightforward chart by which to judge the value of each pick. As one can see, the difference between picks in the lottery is much greater than the difference between selections as you wade further into the first round. By that logic, it makes sense that trading a high pick would require a team willing to part with significant value for their selection (duh). Conversely, even if Milwaukee moved back in the draft to acquire a second rounder this year or some other sweetener, they’d be sacrificing a decent amount of value in the process. Theoretically, moving just five spots back in a trade with the Bulls would require a pick in the top-ten of the second round to barely recoup Milwaukee’s original value at 17. In that vein, Milwaukee may be best off by just pulling the trigger at 17 and seeing what comes of it.


Finally, let’s dip back into the original pool of draft picks since 1973 per Basketball Reference’s database and see what type of player and production Milwaukee could expect over that span. A more meaningful way to measure value is likely BR’s win share metric, whose exact calculations can be found here. For those that don’t know, its purpose is to try and derive credit for team wins and assign them to an individual player. In concrete terms, the win shares of all players on a team will roughly add up to that team’s win total for a season. Michael Jordan measures out first overall in total win shares over a career.

There is an option to go by Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), but that figure can often be incredibly noisy if someone played minimal minutes on a relatively successful team (evidenced by the fact D.J. Wilson has an average rating among all 17th picks ever). This is helpful in one instance, in that BR rates a league average player as having roughly 0.100 WS/48. Only 10 out of 45 players selected 17th have ever achieved a career mark above that level. Again, win shares isn’t a perfect statistic - Tyler Zeller grades out with a better WS/48 (0.112) than Jrue Holiday or Josh Smith (0.084) - but it’s a decent tool to measure relative value.

Instead, we’re going to utilize total win shares for players, even though that’s often dependent by how long a player lasts in the league. Shawn Kemp, for example, is first among all 17th picks at 89.5 through his 14 years in the league. Still, given Jon Horst’s comments yesterday about a “home run” pick being someone who could contribute now and continue to improve and help Milwaukee for many years, it seems valuable to factor in impact and longevity in this case. The average win shares for 17th picks is 15.4 with the average player at this spot lasting roughly seven years in the league. The 17th overall pick who most closely resembles that win share figure is Tom Boswell, whom I have no idea about. Some other players selected at 17 that are near that range include Iman Shumpert (11.5 over 7 seasons), which is likely more instructive for readers.

After going through all of these selections at 17 though, one player seems oddly fitting of where Bucks fans may want to set their expectations for this year. That familiar name is Tyler Zeller. Zeller’s accrued 16.8 win shares over his six NBA seasons, including a 0.112 WS/48 mark that places him lightly above league average. Some of that is buoyed by years with Boston and one with Toronto, but he also started his career in woeful, pre-Lebron Cleveland and had last year’s stint in Brooklyn.

Following all that discussion, breakdown and analysis, it’s almost uncanny how closely Zeller’s production to this point resembles the average lifespan of the 17th pick in both raw stats and win shares.

Tyler Zeller - The 17th Pick Personified

Years in League Total Games M/GM PTS/GM RB/GM AST/GM STL/GM BLK/GM
Years in League Total Games M/GM PTS/GM RB/GM AST/GM STL/GM BLK/GM
6.9 366.5 17.3 6.7 3.1 1.5 0.58 0.5
6 406 17.6 7 4.4 0.9 0.3 0.6

Now, Zeller still has some time left in the league to move beyond this point, but if you take his career in totality to this point, that’s something Bucks fans could be thrilled with given recent history! So, as you sit there on draft night drooling over a player’s sleek shooting, ample athleticism or gritty defense, just remember what a successful career for him would look like. Namely, this:

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images