Dissecting the draft: What’s a draft pick worth?

by Andrew Mooney and Alex Koenig

This post can also be seen on Boston.com here

The Celtics are in an interesting position heading into Thursday’s NBA draft. It’s arguable that it is time for the team to rebuild; three of their top five players in minutes were over 34 years old, and two of those had contracts that just expired. Going young wouldn’t mean a descent into the depths of Lottery-dom, either. The Celtics have talent on the right side of 30: a star in Rajon Rondo, a potentially elite defender in Avery Bradley, and a solid power forward in Brandon Bass, not to mention promising projects like Greg Stiemsma, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson. Pending the return of Jeff Green and Bass, the Celtics can no longer be considered the elder statesmen of the East.

On the other hand, those old guys are pretty good themselves, leading the team to within one game of the NBA Finals while still playing at a high level. The most likely scenario right now seems to have Garnett returning on a two-year deal and Ray Allen taking his talents to South Beach, and if that’s the case, the Celtics will put off rebuilding for a few years.

Or will they? Here’s the intriguing part: the Celtics have two first-round picks on Thursday. They can trade them for help in the present, or they can stockpile future talent, as they did with Johnson and Moore. Players that the Celtics take in this draft likely won’t yield much return on investment during the remainder of Garnett and Pierce’s tenure in Boston, but they might ease the transition into the Rondo/Bradley era.

Of course, late first-round choices are far from a sure thing, and the Celtics are firmly in the shallow end of the talent pool at 21st and 22nd overall. We decided to investigate exactly how much these picks are worth.

Using the complete draft records from basketball-reference.com for 1985-2006, we calculated the median and mean Win Shares for the NBA careers of players at each draft position, from 1 to 30.

(For additional information on Win Shares, click here. We chose it as an easy and readily available way to compare players across positions. Also, we used 2006 as the cutoff in order to allow for all drafted players in the sample to play out enough seasons to correspond to an average NBA career length, which is just under five seasons.)


Don’t be deceived by the spike at 21 and the sudden plummet at 22—those are simply artifacts of the data set. It’s much more informative to look at those two numbers in conjunction with the two or three levels above and below 21 and 22 to get a better idea of what to expect from those picks—around 12 or 13 Win Shares.

(As a point of reference, here’s a brief list of players and their corresponding career Win Shares: Kevin Garnett, 181.6; Paul Pierce, 131.2; Jermaine O’Neal, 61.3; Rajon Rondo, 40.7; Marquis Daniels, 16.0; Sasha Pavlovic, 6.9.)

To get a more traditional look at performance, we also examined the career average points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game from the players at each draft position.


On average, it looks like one can expect picks 21 and 22 to produce solid role players, but not much more than that. Remember, these numbers are averages. Rondo and Boris Diaw were picked at 21, but so were Pavel Podkolzin and Dickey Simpkins. The Celtics can’t reasonably expect to get another Rondo, but they also should do better than P-Pod.

If the Celtics can’t get anything better than a dependable bench player in return for one of their picks, they’re better off using it themselves. Alternatively, if they plan to package both of their picks in a trade to move up in the draft, they shouldn’t settle for anything outside of the 10-12 range, according to the Win Shares data. Either way, the draft marks the beginning of what should be an intriguing offseason, and the Celtics are positioned to make good basketball decisions both for the present and the future.

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  • Given that players at the top of the draft on average accumulate win shares at a faster rate than those at the bottom, aren’t you skewing your data downwards by using career win shares for active players? For example, if LeBron has another season like his 2011-12 (14.5 win shares), he’ll single-handedly move the mean up. An active player could currently rank below the median, but be well above it after his career has finished. Under the assumption that the biggest moves are more likely to occur for top-10 picks than lower picks, it would seem that your data set undervalues top picks.

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