Wednesday, 29 September 2021 09:45 Written by Eric Stelle
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How They Do It, Part 1:  The Draft


2030-Emmert-01
The #1 overall pick in the 2022 OBWL Rookie Draft, Snipers superstar Lynwood Emmert is the kind of franchise player that OBWL GMs covet on draft day.

The question comes up frequently, "How do successful teams stay successful?" Teams looking to improve in the standings wonder what the pitfalls are that cause teams not to be successful. There is a LOT to unpack there so this is the first of a multipart series on the aspects of team building in the OBWL. One could probably break the classifications down into tiny subsections as there is so much detail to get into; however, so as to not create a 27 page magnum opus (it's already long enough) on each topic, some of the detail will be abandoned in favor of broader strokes.

The first topic to look at is what every GM loves... the draft. It's a shocking revelation that the league has an infatuation with young players that Vladimir Nabokov would be proud of. The psychological reasons for that are varied. A GM might want to be the sole author of the player's legacy. They might not want other player's baggage. They might love how easy it is... potential always sells, youth sells, and in the OBWL, you don't really have to do much but sit back and let the seasons roll by while waiting for something to happen (if it does... read on). Try to trade a drafted player for a draft pick of a similar position the next season and you'll know that the attachment GMs have to drafted players. This year's pick simply cannot buy a player from the same position in the last draft which can often be fair... no two drafts are alike but more often is a result of that afterglow a drafted player generates. That dopamine rush creates instant attachment.

What you rarely hear is the more gritty truth of drafted players... they can be a mixed bag. That wrapped package on draft day that has a GM glowing like a kid on Christmas morning could have diamonds inside - every GM wants that - but nobody ever thinks that it could have coal. Worse still, it could be a box full of hangry ferrets.

GM's envision every first rounder becoming a starter and GMs in the lottery think they're agonizing picking the next all-star player but the reality is that most of the time, lottery players aren't all stars. Those non lottery picks? They're more likely bench contributors and the second rounders folks furiously trade for? More often than not are tomorrow's grocery baggers.

Every draft pick (even the most sure fire ones) requires support from their GM. Evaluating a player is the result of alchemy over time. As with any chemical reaction, there are tons of things that can happen for good or ill along the way. "Can't miss" picks fall off. Dark horses rise and many GMs will tell you it's just luck so why even try?

Yet, despite that sentiment, there is an undeniable valuation of the draft pick. To get at this, I asked some questions of winning GMs and prolific drafters to get their opinion on the topic.


 

Q: As one of the most prolific winners in the league, you've never picked higher than 10th since most of your own picks are toward the end of the first round. You have an average draft position of 35 out of 21 picks in 10 seasons. What are your thoughts on the value of drafted players?

BEN JOHNSON: "In the OBWL there are three ways to acquire players: free agency, trade, and the draft. Personally, I think all three are equally important. Each of those methods has its pros and cons. In the case of draft picks, one of the biggest advantages is that a drafted rookie is as close as you can come to a 'free' player. Even the #1 overall draft pick is signed to a contract that is less than the league average salary -- a.k.a the MLE -- and most draft picks are just a small fraction of that amount.

Adding a rookie means adding talent to your team for up to four seasons at an extremely affordable price. Compare that to free agency, where market forces inevitably drive up salaries, often to the point of overpaying for talent. Even with trades you have to give up assets to acquire an asset in return, whereas with the draft the cost is 'only' money.

Depending on the player, a rookie scale contract can be one of the most cost-effective salaries in the league. While the draft is clearly the least expensive way to add players to your roster, the downside is that the draft has the most unpredictable "return on investment" ratio of the three methods of team building. The draft, even at the top of the 1st round, is always a gamble. There are a lot of variables that can impact how valuable a drafted player is -- their current ability, future potential, the 'boom or bust' possibilities of player development, coaching, roster fit... the list goes on and on.

Trading for established veterans or signing them as free agents is more expensive, but it comes with more certainty because you have a player's track record to help you evaluate your return on investment. Rookies come into the league as unknown quantities and there are a lot of factors outside a team's control that can determine whether or not they become viable players."

Q: Drafting high seems to be one of the most prized things in the league, why do you think that is?

BEN JOHNSON: "Basketball is a team game, but there are without a doubt some special players that on any given night can put a team on their shoulders -- whether it's taking over a game with scoring or coming up with a defensive play that turns a game at a crucial point -- and turn losses into wins. Those kinds of players can make the difference between being a champion and being an also-ran.

The most direct route to getting one of these star players is to get them as soon as they first enter the league -- also known as the draft. Stars do not easily change teams. They are seldom available in trade, and even when they are the cost can often mean completely gutting your roster just to get your guy. Free agency is extremely competitive; there are usually several teams eager and willing to pay top dollar for a star player each free agency. Combine that with the fact that the salary cap rules heavily favor a team re-signing a star player (assuming they have the will to do so) and the odds of your team beating the field and signing a prize free agent are relatively low.

So it makes sense that drafting high is prized among general managers. It's a shot at adding a player who can potentially alter your team's fortunes... the key word being "potentially." As I mentioned earlier, the draft is always a gamble, even if you have the #1 pick. Draft classes can vary in quality, a guy who is a #1 pick in any given year may not even become an All Star, let alone a Hall of Famer. There's no way to be sure a talented prospect won't become a bust, or that a less well regarded guy might blossom into something unexpectedly good. A lottery pick is literally that -- a gamble that may or may not pay off.

So I understand the value of having a high pick, but I don't think it should be the only strategy a team pursues when team building. The draft should be a equal partner in a toolbox that also includes free agency and trades."


 

Q: As one of the most prolific drafters in the league with a pick position below the league average, what are your thoughts on the value of drafted players?

JAY AMADO: "I think that my thoughts on the value of drafted players have shifted over time. At one time, I viewed them as gold: a prize to be hoarded and accumulated with reckless abandon, because at worse you're getting a potential future role player. But now, I've kinda shifted. If you look at the long-term contribution you get out of most guys outside the top picks, it's usually on par with what you can get from guys playing around the league minimum. So I'm all-in on using the top picks, but don't have a lot of use for the other ones.

Q: Drafting high seems to be one of the most prized things in the league, why do you think that is?

JAY AMADO: "As I said, outside of the top draft picks, there's not a lot of difference between the player you get at the end of the lottery versus mid-to-late second rounders. Unless you're getting a blue chipper, whoever you're getting likely isn't going to help you turn things around. We've got to get excited about the potential of the top guys, as they're the only real potentially-impactful players to come out, most years.

Q: It's said that the skill component of player development is very low (i.e. camps don't really help/hinder/guide much). If that is the case, why draft so many players (26 in 10 seasons)?

JAY AMADO: Those two things don't necessarily go together. But that isn't to say that there's NO development. The bottom line is that if a guy is a good prospect he's a good prospect. If he's going to bust, he's going to bust. Our camp settings don't change much of that. But I'm still going to try to mine those good prospects.


 

Q: As one of the most prolific winners in the league, you've never picked higher than 10th since most of your own picks are toward the end of the first round. You have an average draft position of 35 out of 21 picks in 10 seasons. What are your thoughts on the value of drafted players?

TOM LACHER: "I think the value of drafted players varies based upon the phase a franchise is in. For an organization that is in rebuild mode, drafted players represent hope for the future and improvement so their value is high. For a team that is in win-now mode, drafted players may not be as important to meet the immediate goal but can be important when/if used as a chip to help improve the team via trade.

Drafted player and picks are valuable and important in my humble opinion. It just depends on what lens you are looking thru as you determine the way they are important."

Q: Drafting high seems to be one of the most prized things in the league, why do you think that is?

TOM LACHER: "I think GM's value their own draft picks highly and others draft picks, unless a sure-fire lottery pick, not highly at all. I think that is a HUGE mistake. It is a crapshoot for a rookie to develop no matter where he is drafted.

With that being said, I have used my 1st round picks as trade chips to help my franchise stay competitive. The Tritons window is closing quickly with this core group so my strategy is changing. I think very valuable players can be drafted mid to late 1st round and even in the 2nd round.

It is my personal belief that you have to know exactly the type of player you are looking for in the late 1st round and that you can draft players that can be valuable contributors to your team sooner rather than later.

I am looking forward to drafting the new Tritons over the next few seasons."


 

So, as you can see, the takes on the draft vary but, in an age where data is king, let's look at the data in this instance. How viable is a draft heavy approach?

To look at this, I'll take the teams who have had the most picks in the lottery:

Chicago Blaze 11 picks (average pick position 5) ... average record 32-49
Portland Lumberjacks 11 picks (average pick position 7) ... average record 33-47
Quebec Coyotes 10 picks (average pick position 7) ... average record 32-48
Honolulu Inferno 8 picks (average pick position 8) ... average record 40-40
San Diego Storm 8 picks (average pick position 6) ... average record 27-53
Anaheim Archers 7 picks (average pick position 7) ... average record 49-31
Detroit Muscle 7 picks (average pick position 8) ... average record 31-49
Fort Worth Dragoons 7 picks (average pick position 6) ... average record 33-47
Denver Demons 7 picks (average pick position 6) ... average record 36-44

Naturally, it's expected that a team who does not win much to have the higher picks. Theoretically, the influx of talent from top picks should lend itself to an improvement in position of those teams over time. These teams are often strapped for cash as budget expansion comes with winning; however, these players are on arguably on very affordable contracts. Within the span of that rookie contract, with consistent picks, it's reasonable to think that a team should improve their standings. So why, in the league's 12 seasons have the teams with the most lottery picks not managed to evolve a drafted superteam?

In this writer's opinion, it's because young players are chaos personified.

In many instances, teams pick for potential (vs. picking to fill a positional need). Potential may or may not pan out during the span of the rookie contract and a lot will depend on the environment those rookies are placed in. A top shelf coaching staff can help to bring a player along and a top shelf scouting staff can spot the players who have the best shot at becoming forces in the league... but having a staff at that level costs resources many lottery teams might not have. There is also a sentiment among GMs that playing time at the professional level is also a factor though data about that end may just be circumstantial.

Then, should your rookie thrive, if they do not extend, they are subject to the free agent market and teams habitually in the lottery typically have a hard time holding on to multiple top level talents due to budgetary constraints even though they have the bird right advantage. Especially prized rookies can have the effect of leading a GM to want to pay extra ensure their prize rookie stays away from other teams. Over time, those maximum contracts add up to the point where a team simply cannot sustain the salary exposure and lacks the funds to retain their talent.

Recently, the 2029 Portland Lumberjacks were an example of this. With maximum contracts issued to Kendall Melanson and Roger Desfontaines on top of multiple seasons of losing records and budgetary deflation, the Lumberjacks had no choice but to let David Sage (now producing 19 points and 9 rebounds for Detroit) and Marcel Bradley (now a bench contributor producing 8 points and 5 rebounds in Denver) go to higher bids. The Lumberjacks are a cautionary tale for sure but they are also not the first one when it comes to the woes of overpaying just to retain a young player.

Then are the "can't miss" players who are expected to turn into the world breakers who just... don't. The most recent example of this is Erasmo Dryden. A total stud in the draft, Dryden struggled at the pro level with consistency in his shot and, despite being given a long run, is now producing bench minutes as a former number one overall pick in the 2024 draft. Other examples of this would be the American's Garrett Bennett (#2 overall), Yevgeny Ilgauskas (#5 overall), and Julius Atherton (#2 overall). These players, when drafted, had their GMs brimming with excitement over what they could become. Many are still able to contribute but the shine is off and their star has fallen. Granted, there are an abundance of very good lottery players but the lack of surety is the point here.

Finally, you get to the dream. Lesser draft picks who make good. Who doesn't want a Trevor Roberts, Abel Vick, Ike Reed, or Darwin Sabin to come from nowhere and be a player capable of productive minutes or even starting ability? For every one of these, there are 10 "no longer in the league" players taken within +/- 5 spots of where those players were taken. However, the investment to obtain low picks and second rounders is minimal so many a GM takes a "why not" approach. If the player sticks with a team, great. If not, it's nothing to cut them loose.

Even an update to the league wide protocols that govern how teams are allowed to conduct training camps (which happened in 2028), many a wise GM expect - no, plan for variance. So how is a team to use the draft to help them win? Here are a few thoughts to consider when making selections:

1.) Do I need production now?

Many teams overlook a capable player who seems at his limits for one with less ability now but more "upside." This can be viable but also carries the "will they/won't they" risk and, as the seasons wear on, owners tend not to fund losing endeavors. Sometimes, a struggling franchise can get a boost of energy from a pick like Rusty Villatoro or Kelvin Penrod who might not have had the most potential on draft day 1 but came in, worked hard, and are now producing the things that will help their teams win for pennies on the dollar in seasons to come.

2.) Do I have defecit or surplus at a position?

The "best player available" versus "position of need" consideration is an important one. Many times, the fall off between a player at a redundant position and the next best player can be noticeable leading a GM to "just take the best person." However, once you draft that player, they depreciate and it becomes progressively harder and harder to move that player - especially if there's a league wide surplus at that position. The drafted player may take over for the incumbent in time but then you still have the issue of moving the older player for appreciable value. In a league with higher valuation on youth, that can be difficult. Because of this, simply picking the best available is reason to stop and think if am GM is looking to draft a redundant player. You saw this with Edmund Harley in Detroit when they already had Van Lefevre and Cleveland Schneider. It happened with selection of Mark Dixon and William Azevedo when the Archers already had Lauren Sullivan and Ray Weston. Sure, these players can be great backups but if they all come along, it's a complication to sort out - though too many good players to choose from is a good problem to have. When that happens, the challenge then turns to retention of both (if possible) or acquiring value to replace the redundancy which is difficult for even the most experienced GMs.

3.) Can the rookie's talents lend them to being repositioned?

Often times, you might have a great center but the best player to draft is a center. Along with the deficit/surplus question, another question is can the player can contribute at other positions. It's pretty apparent that some players just struggle when played out of position. A power forward might get their points at small forward but their Defensive Efficency struggles over the long term. Many GMs will look at a tall point guard with a side eye at the shooting guard position. Same goes for the interchangeability of the small forward and shooting guard positions though, positionally, they occupy very different places on the floor. A shooting guard rookie with great passing skills might be able to play some point guard if your starting SG is not yet ready for pasture.

4.) Is my team's staff in a position to get the most from a draft strategy?

Often, a team's staff needs maintenance due to contract end, retirement, resignation, or simply not having a very good assistant or head coach. When making a big splash in the draft, consider if your staff is ready for it. Team priorities shift and it's entirely possible that staff has taken a back seat to other needs. Teams will get the most out of players when their staff is in place and it can be very unpredictable to try to purge/hire a complete staff in the same offseason with market competition for the best services being fierce. Teams planning to make a big draft splash should spend the seasons prior acquiring the best staff they can in preparation for this to maximize the returns on their drafted players.

5.) How trainable is the player with your staff?

Staff resources in training camp are limited. There's only so much time that can be spent. When looking over the rookie, consider how many areas of need they have and how much of your staff time in training camp can be appropriated to fill those needs. For example, a player who needs improvement in all Shooting, Ball Skills, Defense, and Conditioning areas may simply spread your staff too thin to see maximum improvement in your rookie. However, if all they need is some polish on their post defense and inside game, your staff can heavily invest time because their focus is not spread out.

There is a lot more nuance that could be gone into such as "how to spot talent at a position" but that is the deep waters. That is where "eye tests" and "feel" for how your staff rates the player come into action. Experience is the best salve here but an enterprising GM can also help evolve those less scientific notions by doing comparisons. What does this player look like (maybe an "X but with less rebounding" for example) he can do? To develop that, you'll have to do your own leg work and puzzle it out.

Next installment, we will cover free agency. Thanks for reading!

 

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