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Premium Article Top Drafts (06/29)

June 29, 2012
NBA Draft
Bang for Bucks

by Bradford Doolittle

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Players under rookie contracts can be one of a team's most valuable assets. When you land a star-level player in the draft, the value per production ratio is invariably in your favor. Production equals wins and wins have a value.

Our rule of thumb puts that value at about $2.5 million. Well, Anthony Davis is going to get paid around $4.3 million as a rookie for being the top pick in Thursday draft. To justify that salary, he just needs to be worth at least two wins. Needless to say, he projects to do considerably better than that.

This is tremendously valuable to rebuilding teams. For prime examples, just look at the Chicago Bulls. After drafting Derrick Rose, the Bulls were rewarded with a level of production that made Rose the league's MVP in just his third NBA season. During that season, he earned just $5.5 million. With Rose in place as a low-cost foundation player, Chicago was able to lock up Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, while going out and signing a premium free agent in Carlos Boozer. Down the line, the costs shoot up, but there is no better way to stock a roster than by starting with a star player on a rookie contract.

With that in mind, let's look at some projected values from last night's draft. The first section takes a look at the lottery. The second section projects the rest of the first round. We're going to see which players project as the best values over the four-year duration of their rookie contracts. I've projected each player's on-court production using my ATH system for projecting rookies.

In a nutshell, the system estimates how well a player's amateur production will translate based on certain athletic factors, such as foul-drawing ability, rebounding, shot-blocking and steals. This method is also used to project a possible aging pattern for each player, based on his age upon entering the league and similarities to past players with similar athletic traits.

Using ATH, I've forecast the WARP (wins above replacement level) totals for the first four NBA seasons for each player in the lottery. Then I've applied the dollars per win rule of thumb to determine the player's value in dollars. (The actual amount I use is between $2.3 and $2.4 million per win.) Some players project as below replacement level; the financial value of these players is then assumed to be the league minimum. By plugging in estimates of each player's slot-mandated salary, we can measure how much of a value each player promises to have.

THE LOTTERY PICKS

The slam dunk

Anthony Davis (No. 1 pick, New Orleans)
73.9 projected WARP; Net Value of $127.6 million over rookie scale

No one was close to Davis when it came to consideration as the top pick, and no one is close to projected value. He projects to add nearly 74 wins to the Hornets' bottom line over the next four years, while costing New Orleans just $17.2 million. Those wins, in an open-market environment with no cap and no max salary, would be worth $128 million. I'd say that's a bargain. If Davis meets expectations, he'll have no trouble landing a max contract when his rookie deal is up.

Solid values

Thomas Robinson (No. 5 pick, Sacramento)
27.8 projected WARP; Net Value of $44.3 million over rookie scale

Robinson was projected at No. 2 in many mock drafts and my projections suggest that's where he should have gone, at least among those being legitimately considered for the top five. If he puts up 27.8 WARP over the next four seasons, he'd be a solid top-50 player in the league. That's not an impact player per se, but as a running mate for DeMarcus Cousins in the Sacramento frontcourt, it's pretty solid. It's a level of production that allows the Kings to improve on the court while locking up Cousins and pondering what to do about Tyreke Evans.

Harrison Barnes (No. 7 pick, Golden State)
26.1 projected WARP; Net Value of $42.9 million over rookie scale

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Barnes fared well in the ATH translations. While his actual athletic score wasn't that high, the system likes his ability to create shots. If he turns out to be this good, the Warriors will be thrilled.

Andre Drummond (No. 9 pick, Detroit)
22.6 projected WARP; Net Value of $37.6 million over rookie scale

Drummond is viewed as a project and that type of player doesn't always look that good in statistical projections. Age and defensive indicators work in his favor.

Damian Lillard (No. 6 pick, Portland)
23.7 projected WARP; Net Value of $37.4 million over rookie scale

ATH likes Lillard's athleticism, shot-creating ability and his offensive efficiency. As a three-year player, his ceiling is a little lower, but the system also pegged him as one of the six-worst defenders in the first round. If he proves to be better than that on the defensive end, he becomes that much more of a bargain.

John Henson (No. 14 pick, Milwaukee)
18.6 projected WARP; Net Value of $31.7 million over rookie scale

As a two-year player with solid defensive projectability, it felt like Henson went a little low on Thursday. Thus he rates as a good value for Milwaukee. Only Drummond projects as a lower-efficiency offensive player, so Henson has a lot of room to grow. It's hard to see much downside for the Bucks by grabbing Henson at No. 14.

Dion Waiters (No. 4 pick, Cleveland)
17.8 projected WARP; Net Value of $23.9 million over rookie scale

Waiters was the surprise pick in the top five. While ATH thinks he'll produce enough to out-perform his rookie contract, it's really not that hard. In terms of value-to-compensation, rookie-contract players are woefully underpaid. Waiters rates as solid in most categories, with no one area really standing out. It shouldn't be a disastrous pick for the Cavaliers, but they could have gotten more bang for their bucks by going big with either Robinson or Drummond.

Could have been better

Bradley Beal (No. 3 pick, Washington)
14.1 projected WARP; Net Value of $15.9 million over rookie scale

It's better than it looks. We all know that Beal got off to a rough start in his one year at Florida before finding himself late in the season. The ups and downs hold down his projection. However his athletic score was the best of any player in the first round. I'm confident he'll soundly beat his projection and be part of a dynamic -- and cheap -- backcourt in tandem with John Wall. Subjectively speaking, Davis is the only player I liked better in this draft.

Meyers Leonard (No. 11 pick, Portland)
10.6 projected WARP; Net Value of $15.3 million over rookie scale

Conversely, I think this pick is worse than it looks. Leonard projects as a solid defender. However, his athletic score was easily the worst of any player in the first round. That makes the possibility of him actually realizing that decent defensive projection iffy at best. If he proves to be that much of a cipher on defense, then he won't get the minutes I projected for him either. We'll see how it works out.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 2 pick, Charlotte)
9.0 projected WARP; Net Value of $6.6 million over rookie scale

MKG is more of a scouts' darling than a stats' darling and I can't help but feel like his one-year numbers at Kentucky were held down by the breadth of the talent with which he played. Of course, his willingness to subsume his individual production in service of a national championship is a wonderful trait. He does rate as an upper-echelon athlete. His defensive score isn't as good as you'd think, but that only underscores the difficulty in quantifying a player's defensive impact from one level to the next.

Jeremy Lamb (No. 12 pick, Houston)
3.4 projected WARP; Net Value of $3.8 million over rookie scale

Lamb's numbers are disappointing. It's not surprising that his athletic score isn't great. That's often the case for jump shooters given to passive approaches on the offensive end. However, you'd like to see better shot-creating ability, and perhaps we will. This is, after all, not an exact science.

Austin Rivers (No. 10 pick, New Orleans)
2.6 projected WARP; Net Value of $1.8 million over rookie scale

The most polarizing player in the draft didn't put up great numbers in his season at Duke. As a result, he doesn't project as a starting-caliber NBA player. He's got a good athletic score for a perimeter player. That will hopefully help him outperform his projection as the worst defensive player in the first round.

In the red

Terrence Ross (No. 8 pick, Toronto)
3.0 projected WARP; Net Value of $-0.2 million under rookie scale

The Raptors reached on a guy who projects to be a standstill shooter. Even though he looks to be more valuable than Rivers, the fact that he was drafted two spots ahead of him means that Toronto will be paying out more in salary than is dictated by the wins Ross will create. It's hard to do that with rookie contracts.

Kendall Marshall (No. 13 pick, Phoenix)
-22.1 projected WARP; Net Value of $-4.5 million under rookie scale

What can I say? The ATH system hates, hates, hates Kendall Marshall. Only Leonard rates as a worse athlete. He's the lowest usage player in the first round and still doesn't project to be particularly efficient. His defense rates as poor. The system doesn't give him full credit for his real strength, which is playmaking. That's just sort of submerged into his offensive rating. However, that didn't hold back other point guards that we rated. If this projection holds up, the Suns will still be looking for their replacement for Steve Nash.

REST OF THE FIRST ROUND

Slam dunks

Jared Sullinger (No. 21 pick, Boston)
52.7 projected WARP; Net Value of $99.4 million over rookie scale

ATH thinks that Sullinger will prove to be worth the top-five slot he might have landed in had he come out after his freshman year. He was very productive during his two years at Ohio State. However, I kind of expected that a poor athletic score would drive down his projection. Instead, only Bradley Beal rated higher in that category. Remember, ATH works in terms of applied athleticism. It's not how quick you are or how high you jump, it's how you turn your physical traits into measurable production. It appears that Sullinger did that very well.

Andrew Nicholson (No. 19 pick, Orlando)
40.4 projected WARP; Net Value of $75.2 million over rookie scale

As someone who admittedly didn't watch a lot of Atlantic-10 basketball, Nicholson was a bit of an unknown quantity when the time for draft preparation arrived, but it's apparent that the numbers love him. He's got the efficiency of an interior player and the shot-creating ability of a wing. It's a deadly combination. How much of it was a product of A-10 competition? ATH does make strength of opposition adjustments, so we'll see if these projections are for real. If they are, the possible blow from Dwight Howard's departure will be that much softer.

Tony Wroten Jr. (No. 25 pick, Memphis)
32.0 projected WARP; Net Value of $60.0 million over rookie scale

The top three applied athletic scores in the first round were Beal's, Sullinger's and Wroten's, who also projects to have the best shot-creating ability of any player announced by David Stern on Thursday. He's not efficient, at least for the moment, but if he develops a semblance of a jump shot, he could be outstanding. The Grizzlies got a steal in landing Wroten at this slot.

Terrence Jones (No. 18 pick, Houston)
30.7 projected WARP; Net Value of $56.3 million over rookie scale

There was another Terrence Jones in college basketball last year. The other one played for Texas-Corpus Christi. Initially this messed up my projections and made the Kentucky Jones look like a bum. He's not. Whereas teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist didn't land a great defensive projection, ATH likes Jones' production on that end. He's an upper-level athlete with a high offensive ceiling. A heist for the Rockets at No. 18.

Festus Ezeli (No. 30 pick, Golden State)
28.9 projected WARP; Net Value of $54.4 million over rookie scale

Even as a prospective backup for Andrew Bogut, Ezeli looks like a project. But the numbers like him. He's got the body of a potential defensive anchor, but surprisingly he also rates to have solid shot-creating ability. Frankly, I'll believe it when I see it.

Tyler Zeller (No. 17 pick, Cleveland)
29.2 projected WARP; Net Value of $53.2 million over rookie scale

With so few true centers in the draft, Zeller should have gone higher. He's a good athlete for a big man and combines good efficiency with a solid usage rate. If he can defend, he can start in the league.

Solid values

Perry Jones III (No. 28 pick, Oklahoma City)
19.1 projected WARP; Net Value of $35.4 million over rookie scale

I still can't believe that the Thunder landed Jones at No. 28. He's capable of much more than his tepid numbers at Baylor would indicate. For one, his athletic score was in the bottom 10 of the first round. If you watch Jones for even one game, you can tell he's got elite raw physical skills. He just doesn't choose to use them that often. On a team with the talent and culture that Oklahoma City has, he should flourish. More importantly, he could provide rotation-level production at a bargain-basement price, something the cap-strapped Thunder could really use.

Evan Fournier (No. 20 pick, Denver)
15.5 projected WARP; Net Value of $27.3 million over rookie scale

ATH doesn't like Fournier's defense, but it almost never likes the defense of overseas players. That's as it should be. Until a European guy proves he can guard in the NBA, you have to assume he can't. More often than not, you'll be right.

John Jenkins (No. 23 pick, Atlanta)
14.5 projected WARP; Net Value of $25.9 million over rookie scale

Jenkins' projection paints an accurate portrait. He's the second-most efficient offensive player in the round behind Anthony Davis. His athleticism rates as middling and his defense is the second-worst behind Austin Rivers. The key for Jenkins to be more than a guy that stands around the 3-point arc is to exhibit some shot-creating ability. His indicators in this area are inconclusive, so he bears watching.

Maurice Harkless (No. 15 pick, Philadelphia)
14.2 projected WARP; Net Value of $24.2 million over rookie scale

To me, this was the most surprising reach of the round, though the numbers see it as a defensible selection. Not sure why. He's just okay in most categories. If he proves to have the skill to play the three at 6-foot-9, then maybe it'll work out after all.

Royce White (No. 16 pick, Houston)
12.8 projected WARP; Net Value of $21.1 million over rookie scale

ATH doesn't know about any intangible problems that White might have, so we can factor that out. What we do have is a projection for a player with excellent athletic ability that is undermined by a lack of on-court discipline. Seems about right.

Could have done better

Jared Cunningham (No. 24 pick, Dallas)
2.5 projected WARP; Net Value of $3.8 million over rookie scale

The main concerns about Cunningham are on the defensive end, but his athletic score suggests he has the tools to compete. You'd like to see better shot-creating indicators for a wing player.

Arnett Moultrie (No. 27 pick, Philadelphia)
0.5 projected WARP; Net Value of $1.3 million over rookie scale

Given his lack of upside, poor athletic score and questionable defense, it looks like the Sixers are getting about what they are paying for at No. 27.

In the red

Marquis Teague (No. 29 pick, Chicago)
-12.7 projected WARP; Net Value of $-1.5 million under rookie scale

Teague was very undisciplined at times in his one year at Kentucky. That's underscored in his turnover rate and poor shooting numbers. The raw talent is there and he did start for the national champs as a freshman. At No. 29, Teague was certainly worth a shot for Chicago.

Miles Plumlee (No. 26 pick, Indiana)
-12.5 projected WARP; Net Value of $-1.7 million under rookie scale

Plumlee's selection was one of the shockers of the first round. He doesn't project well, but he was taken to be a dirty work player in the mold of Jeff Foster, who retired during the 2011-12 season. Since he can rebound, Plumlee might fill that role pretty well. Even if his box score stats don't capture his value, Plumlee isn't going to break the bank at No. 26.

Fab Melo (No. 22 pick, Boston)
-5.0 projected WARP; Net Value of $-2.3 million under rookie scale

Well, he's a project. We all know that. His college numbers don't give us a whole lot to work with, but his defensive projection is actually pretty good.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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