Rookies in fantasy basketball - are they really worth the risk?

One of many dilemmas you have to face while preparing for your fantasy basketball draft each year is to somehow handle rookies. What we usually get through the media is more or less already digested product. But is it really worth anything for fantasy managers to know that player X is NBA-ready, player Y is raw, player Z needs 3 years... How hat that translate to a successful rookie campaign? And more importantly – how does that affect our decisions during fantasy draft?

Annually between March Madness and NBA Draft in June we are flooded with reports, rumors, leaks and information from "sources close to the team/agent/player".

Does the hype around "next Olajuwon", "next LeBron" or "next Jordan" cloudour judgment and we get overexcited?
Popular opinion is that rookies generally suck in fantasy basketball and they get drafted too high. There are of course exceptions, but overall it’s pretty much what you can feel if you had played fantasy for few years.

In order to understand why that happens - you need to remember that your decision to draft a player is based on rationale way different than the one of the General Manager of a real NBA team.

They need to cash outin long term, which is at least 3-4 years.

You want to win here and now.So you need an immediate impact. That is of course if you play a standard, single season league. Keeper leagues have their own set of rules and that can modify our attitude. But in this article we are focusing on single season leagues.

Do rookies universally suck and are not worth drafting? Let’s test that hypothesis.

What I am doing below is a simple comparison of an average draft position (ADP) in most popular 9-category format versus actual player ranking at the end of the season.

I’m using data, which covers drafts from 2005 until 2014.So essentially the journey will take us from Andrew Bogut (2005 #1 pick) to Andrew Wiggins (#1 in 2014 NBA draft).

At the very last I will attempt to explain why some rookies fall short of expectations while others exceed them.

Figure 1. Number of players drafted in fantasy basketball each year.

As you can see from the chart above there is an upward trend in number of rookiesbeing drafted. But it’s not a steady rise. It goes up and down. Why is that? What affects our decisions in invest in rookies more in certain seasons and less in others? Is the potential strength of the class a main factor? Hype? Better access to information? Or perhaps it’s success with rookies during previous season?

Let’s have a look at these drafts year by year.

Season 2005-2006

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
4 Chris Paul 60 15 45
1 Andrew Bogut 59 109 -50
3 Deron Williams 110 139 -29

ADP 9-cat is an Average Draft Position in a standard 9-category draft.
Rank 9-cat is Player Ranking at the end of the season (on averages and not totals)
Delta – it’s a difference between ADP and Rank. Green means player was more productive than his ADP. Red means player was drafted too early.

In 2005 only 3 rookies were popular targets in fantasy basketball. Other rookies were drafted for sure, but it did not occur enough times for them to earn ADP’s.

These players were Chris Paul, Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams. CP3 had an immediate impact and at the end of the year he was in Top15 in 9-cat rankings. The other two were minor disappointments as they were drafted 29-50 spots too high. But Paul was such a huge factor in winning a championship in so many leagues that the increase in number of rookies drafted the following year was an obvious consequence.

What have we learned from this draft?
Lesson #1: rookies can help you win championship!

Season 2006-2007

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
6 Brandon Roy 60 50 10
1 Andrea Bargnani 98 150 -52
21 Rajon Rondo 134 154 -20
8 Rudy Gay 106 163 -57
7 Randy Foye 105 170 -65
5 Shelden Williams 143 224 -81
4 Tyrus Thomas 140 267 -127

The class of 2006 was lead by Andrea Bargnani, who was supposed to be the next Dirk Nowitzki. Only that he wasn’t. The thing is - even during the NBA draft we knew Roy might be the best player going in. After all he was drafted by the Wolves and immediately traded to Portland for Randy Foye. It was one of many strange decisions by the Timberwolves’ management. And when during the preseason he had played over 36 minutes in 6 out of 8 games – he was as sure a thing as they come. He was drafted in fantasy as high as CP3 the year before. Even if his Rank was not as high in the end – he was a good pick.

As for the other guys – they were minor to major disappointments. Tyrus Thomas, Williams and Rondo were known for lack of strong offensive game. Gay and Bargnani had some offensive game but were not efficient. So here comes your...

Lesson #2: avoid drafting rookies with gaping holes in their game. They may come around within next couple of years, but in their rookie season if they cannot shoot, or make FTs or rebound –NBA game will only magnify their problems.

Season 2007-2008

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
2 Kevin Durant 49 76 -27
3 Al Horford 80 104 -24
55 Luis Scola 98 171 -73
39 Juan Carlos Navarro 154 172 -18
4 Mike Conley 113 192 -79
14 Al Thornton 127 202 -75
5 Jeff Green 156 238 -82
5 Rodney Stuckey 155 240 -85

Has there ever was a bigger hype around two top picks than the 2007 Oden vs Durant? Probably not as it was a year-long battle and both were under close scrutiny for a long time. But by the time fantasy drafts rolled out – Oden was hurt and Durant’s destiny was to be one of the best ever.

During preseason few players showed really nice. AlHorford was in Top50,Al Thornton seemed like a decent player for the Clippers. In addition we hadtwo second round NBA picks drafted to our fantasy teams. Why there were popular in 2007? Let’s speculate. Both Scola and Navarro were originally drafted in 2002 by Spurs and Wizards respectively.

Both of them were having successful careers in Europe. Navarro was a leading scorer in Euroleague and on top of that he won 2006 World Championship with Spain. As for Scola – his national team played USA fairly well in the bronze medal game (and lost). But more important was that he was traded to Houston Rockets who were considered title contenders at the time and needed a well-rounded player on PF to play with Ming and McGrady.

Overall in the rookie class of 2007 we had hyped players, we had nice preseason for few and international stars coming to NBA. Naturally we got a bit tooexcited, drafted them early and in the end there were no steals that year.

No player managed to beat his ADP, but to be honest Durant would have been much better in his rookie season if he was not forced to play for 70+ games out of his natural position. He had to play shooting guard for over 32 minutes per game as Jeff Green and Damien Wilkins were sharing small forward duties.

Lesson #3: Position matters a lot. If your player is forced to play outside of his natural position – he may not be as productive as he could.Even if offered enough playing time.

Season 2008-2009

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
10 Brook Lopez 123 60 63
3 OJ Mayo 88 73 15
1 Derrick Rose 84 101 -17
48 Marc Gasol 100 125 -23
24 Rudy Fernandez 100 133 -32
4 Russell Westbrook 156 143 13
5 Kevin Love 152 160 -8
2 Michael Beasley 51 175 -124
1 Greg Oden 80 195 -115

So what happened in 2008? It was supposed to be a strong class. Finally a rookie campaign for Greg Oden!Battle for #1 pick between Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley (even if not as exciting as the year before). Looking only at college stats – Beasley (26 pts, 12 reb, FG>53%, FT>77%) projected much better than Rose (14 pts, 4.5 reb, 4.5 ast, FG>48%, FT>71%), but there were strong questions about his character. Once Bulls made a right call by selecting Rose with number 1, Pat Riley immediately tried like crazy to sell his pick. Price tag was high so he found no takers. OJ Mayo joining Memphis Grizzlies. Rudy Fernandez known as a "European Michael Jordan" and another 2006 World Champion.

6 players were drafted in Top100 and only OJ Mayo managed to beat his ADP, with Lopez and Westbrook showing a lot of promise even though both were drafted in later rounds.

In the end – Oden played only 61 games and needed another knee surgery. Michael Beasley could not get his head in the game and was a huge disappointment both for the Heat and whoever rolled the dice with him in fantasy draft.

But other than those two – our projections were quite good.

Lesson #4: Health matters. Both physical and mental. Oden had a long track record of health issues, so we could and should have been more conservative and draft him later. As for Beasley – player can have all the talent in the world but if his ego is even bigger – that’s a recipe for a disaster.

Season 2009-2010

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
10 Brandon Jennings 156 90 66
3 James Harden 108 156 -48
6 Jonny Flynn 131 174 -43
2 Hasheem Thabeet 155 285 -130

2009 was supposed to be a weak year for rookies (at least at the time of fantasy drafts). Blake Griffin was injured during pre-season and we knew will miss the whole year. At this time everybody had Greg Oden flashbacks. With second pick Grizzlies took HasheemThabeet - shocking many, if not all.A tall guy with no offensive game.Wolves took Rubio who could not arrange buyout of his European contract and had to stay in Spain for next few years. Tyreke Evans was supposed to be a bad fit for Sacramento who desperately needed a true PG.

It looked like there will be slim pickings for fantasy managers among that class. Main players targeted were Brandon Jennings (who skipped college to play in Italy for a year), James Harden (destined to be a bench swingman behind Durant and Jeff Green), Jonny Flynn and Hasheem.A lot of unknowns.But as soon as the season started Steph Curry and Tyreke Evans began wreaking havoc. Curry almost immediately became a fringe Top10 guy and Evans simply took over the Kings.Our attitude toward rookies begun to shift yet again.

Lesson #5: It may be better to skip drafting rookies if none is looking like a sure thing. It may be better to take a veteran instead and target rookies in the first few weeks of the season. See which one is getting playing time and is able to produce.

Season 2010-2011

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
1 Blake Griffin 67 73 -6
1 John Wall 53 59 -6
4 Wesley Johnson 134 174 -40
2 DeMarcus Cousins 107 181 -74
2 Evan Turner 107 237 -130
9 Gordon Hayward 135 288 -153
28 Tiago Splitter 134 337 -203
11 Cole Aldrich 135 376 -242

This was another year when we had two number 1 picks available in the rookie campaign. Both were selected in fantasy drafts fairly high and both missed their ADP by a hair. But to be fair – Wall and Griffin had simply amazing preseason. Griffin delivering something like 17+12 with a great FG% in 6 games, and Wallputting 16 pts, 8 ast and 2 stls put him in Top60 for the preseason.

The only true disappointments were Turner and Cousins. Turner earned less playing time than expected – mainly due to crowded Sixers backcourt (featuring JRue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala) and coach Doug Collins’ inability to find a role in which Turner would thrive in limited minutes. On the other hand – DeMarcusCousins’s mental constitution did not match his physical traits. He couldn’t stay on court (fouling on average 5.2 times per 36 minutes), could not find his range (FG=43% from center is plain horrific especially if he cannot also make his free throws) and was turning the ball over at a very high rate. Oh and he was clashing with everybody left and right. Teammates, coaches, management and referees...

Other rookies drafted fairly late were just early candidates for waiver wire.

Lesson #6: Pay attention to pre-season, as it can be an early indicator of future success.

Season 2011-2012

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
1 Kyrie Irving 97 28 69
5 Ricky Rubio 132 49 83
22 Kenneth Faried 146 101 45
9 Kemba Walker 126 156 -30
8 Brandon Knight 134 161 -27
7 Bismack Biyombo 133 252 -119
6 Jan Vesely 133 257 -124
2 Derrick Williams 125 283 -158
10 Jimmer Fredette 124 287 -163
4 Tristan Thompson 134 300 -166
3 Enes Kanter 131 346 -215

It would have been a perfect story for those who like productive rookies. Only this was a lock-out season and nobody knew what to expect. We did not have preseason to judge young players and in the end the picks were very conservative. With 10 of 11 drafted outside Top120 we were not willing to risk too much. And in few cases it did pay off. Irving and Rubio both ended up in Top50 and Faried came in the second half of the season. In fact Irving turned out to be the best rookie selected in Top100 over last decade in terms of by a margin between his Rank and his ADP. Rubio being best overall – regardless of ADP.

Lesson#7: Conservative approach pays off. Literally!

Season 2012-2013

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NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
1 Anthony Davis 46 25 21
6 Damian Lillard 93 35 58
3 Bradley Beal 115 118 -3
2 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 83 163 -80
9 Andre Drummond 136 151 -15
4 Dion Waiters 121 185 -64
21 Jared Sullinger 133 202 -69
17 Tyler Zeller 133 200 -67
7 Harrison Barnes 124 231 -107
11 Meyers Leonard 132 250 -118
13 Kendall Marshall 136 368 -233
5 Thomas Robinson 142 380 -238
12 Jeremy Lamb 132 384 -252
10Austin Rivers 131 422 -291
28 Perry Jones 132 420 -288
22 Fab Melo 132 439 -307

An absolute record 16 rookies were targeted in 2012. True rookie-paloozaby all accounts. Though justifiably so, as 2012 class was supposed to be one of the best ever! Hype was at the all time high and resulted in fantasy managers willing to take a chance on almost anybody. The good thing is it happened mostly late in the draft as 12 of 16 rookies were taken outside of Top120.

Of the remaining four rookies - 3 were draftedin Top100, but two were among best in the last decade. Yet again we had forgotten that defensive specialists rarely (if ever) pan out in their rookie season, so MKGdidn’t manage to meet expectations.

We did expect Anthony Davis to be really good. But to be frank I did not expect him to be that good that soon andas a consequence I was late to the "Brow Party". Another surprise of the year was Damian Lillard whose magnificent season was a bit overshadowed by rising star of Davis. "Dame" not only he played all 82 games, but also spent a record ~3200 minutes on the court! The most by any rookie since Tim Duncan in 1997-98.Coming from small college, which wasn’t known for spawning talent NBA-worthy he had something to prove. In his case the difference was not only the talent, but also his attitude or rather his killer instinct.

Lesson#8: Contrary to whatever you may believe or have been told earlier in this article – if a transcendent talent comes to NBA – draft him as high as you can and do not worry about anything else.

Season 2013-2014

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NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
11 Michael Carter-Williams 124 95 29
2 Victor Oladipo 125 127 -2
9 Trey Burke 103 157 -55
13 Kelly Olynyk 136 193 -57
7 Ben McLemore 125 277 -152
4 Cody Zeller 128 289 -161
10 CJ McCollum 136 375 -239
1Anthony Bennett 130 432 -302
3 Otto Porter Jr 136 450 -314

Draft of 2013 didn’t get anyone drooling over available prospects. Bennett was a #1 pick and a head-scratcher (to put it lightly).

Trey Burke came close to being our top prospect as he was the heir to PG thronevacated once Jazz traded out Deron Williams over a year before, and let Mo Williams walk after 2012-13 season. Oladipo was labeled PG, but in over 100 games in college had an average of 1.7 ast/g. How the hell were we supposed to buy that?

Other players were either not NBA-ready or had fatal flaws in their games. Michael Carter-Williams had a passable season as a sophomore in college, but had a simply horrible shooting stats and 3.5 TO/g which were mixed with good rebounds (for PG), assists and steals. So there were no Top100 picks this year and even that turned to be too optimistic as 7 of 9 players were drafted way too early.

Lesson #9: Buyers beware! If your rookie cannot make FG or FT to save his life in college – he won’t magically learn to do that on a biggest stage of all.

Season 2014-2015

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NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
6 Nerlens Noel 55 59 -4
10 Elfrid Payton 107 187 -80
1 Andrew Wiggins 69 127 -58
23 Nikola Mirotic 136 126 10
6 Marcus Smart 134 174 -40
2 Jabari Parker 58 156 -98
13Zach LaVine 135 3246 -111
32 KJ McDaniels 146 219 -73
24 Shabazz Napier 136 311 -175
4 Aaron Gordon 132 301 -169
5 Dante Exum 132 373 -241
8 Nik Stauskas 139 377 -238
11 Doug McDermott 136 447 -31
7 Julius Randle 140 496 -356

And now we have the 2014 class lead by Andrew Wiggins,Jabari Parker and another "recycled" rookie coming off of an injury - Nerlens Noel.

As a fantasy basketball community we were spot-on with Noel. Not a whole lot of offensive game, but his rebounds and defensive stats – a pure gold. Last year only 2 players had over 8 reb, 1.5 stls and 1.5 blk per game. DeMarcus Cousins and Nerlens Noel. You can almost forget about his poor FT%. Especially that for last 3 months of the season he delivered 9+ rebounds, 2+ blocks and 2+ steals per game with FG at 49%.

Mirotic was a draft pick in 2011 draft (by Rockets) who spent few seasons in Europe, signed as Free Agent with the Bulls and had a chance to shine once injuries started piling up. And he made the best of it.

Of the 14 rookies listed above 10 were taken late in our drafts.Even if few provided promising second half of the season (Payton was a Top80 player and Marcus Smart in Top120 for last 3 months) for the whole season were not really good investments. Especially that rookies this year were really fragile in terms of their health.Only 4(Mirotic, Wiggins, Payton and Exum) played all 82 games.

Julius Randle was injured in his first game as a pro. JabariParker checked out with a season ending injury after just 25 games. Marcus Smart had problems with his Achilles,KJ McDaniels had a garden variety of injuries from sprained ankles through to elbow fracture. Napier had his season cut short due to sports hernia and subsequent surgery whileStauskas and McDermott had back issues. Ouch!

Lesson #10: Even if talent is there. Even if role seems big enough. Even if rookie is level-headed. Even if minutes and opportunities are there. You need luck with injuries. Lots of luck.

Rookie performance versus their position in NBA Draft

It is a popular expectation for top draft picks to be potential stars, franchise players and building blocks of future success. Unfortunately it does translate to raising our expectations as fantasy managers. But as stated above – our goals do not match those of General Managers.

Next table summarizes ADP and Ranking by the draft pick number. I took out some outliers who had ADPs outside of Top130 (in #1 it’s Bennett, in #2’s it’s Thabeet etc)

NBA Draft Pick ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta N
1 73 96 -24 9
2 85 173 -88 7
3 100 118 -18 5
4 105 170 -65 4
5 107 181 -74 1
6-10 104 152 -48 12
11+ 110 145 -35 5

On average #1 pick is drafted in fantasy in Top75 and returns Top100 production. So it is usually only a moderately bad idea to hurry-up and draft #1’s.
#2’s look much worse in the return on investment department.
#3’s look much better, but these are your OJ Mayos, Hardens, Horfords of the world and even they do not come close to their average ADP.So it does not look good.

But you have to remember – we are looking here at really small numbers of players here and drawing too farfetched conclusions would be quite dangerous.

Small sample size means even a single very good or very bad observation can completely skew your averages. So take the table above not with a grain of salt, but with a tablespoon.

The only thing we can see though is on average rookies get drafted too early because we - as fantasy managers - are too optimistic.

We set expectations too high and in the end we get burned and disappointed. There are exceptions but they occur only from time to time and what they do is they actually keep our hopes for another jackpot each year forcing us to draft too early again… And the vicious cycle continues.

Last 10 NBA Drafts in summary

As you can see - during last 10 years 89 rookies were popular draft targets.

Out of that number only 13 managed to exceed expectations (i.e. beat their ADP). It’s about 15% or 1 rookie out of 7 drafted.

Let’s be alittle less strict and assume it is somewhat OK if Delta does not go below -12. In other words if a player production is one round below his ADPin 12 team draft.Then this number goes up to 19. It’s about 21% or 1 rookie in 5.

Better, but it is a fairly low rate of success nevertheless.

45 rookies out of 89 (~50%) were selected with picks outside of Top130. These guys were low risk picks, so there was no harm done if one had to be dropped for a hot free agent. Funnyfact:five of those players managed to beat their ADP (Rubio, Mirotic, Faried, Jennings and Westbrook) and were worthy of being your rotation players.

But how about we turn the table around and see which rookies were in Top100 in 9-cat leagues. Perhaps they have something in common that will help us drafting better?

Rookies ranked in Top100 at the end of the season (9-category)

NBA Draft Pick Player ADP 9-cat Rank 9-cat Delta
6 Nerlens Noel 55 59 -4
11 Michael Carter-Williams 124 95 29
6 Damian Lillard 93 35 58
1 Anthony Davis 46 25 21
1 Kyrie Irving 97 28 69
5 Ricky Rubio 132 49 83
1 Blake Griffin 67 73 -6
1 John Wall 53 59 -6
10 Brandon Jennings 156 90 66
10 Brook Lopez 123 60 63
3 OJ Mayo 88 73 15
2 Kevin Durant 49 76 -27
6 Brandon Roy 60 50 10
4 Chris Paul 60 15 45
AVERAGE 86 56 30

This looks much better. We have 14 rookies (~16%)who finished season in Top100.

Point Guard/ Shooing Guard position – 9 players
Small Forward – 1 player
Power Forward/Center – 4 players
This is very much PG/SG heavy, which is not too surprising as NBA is becoming point guards league. Also PG position tends to be most cerebral requiring a combination of mental and technical skills. I do not mean to say other "non-PG" players can be dumb, but in terms of decision making – no other position is as demanding.

Here is an average statistical profile of these players in their rookie season:
PG/SG: 34 mpg, 16 pts, 1.2 3pm, 4.3reb, 1.5 stl, 0.2blk, FG=42%, FT=80%, 5.7ast, 2.8 TO.
SF/PF/C: 32mpg, 15 pts, 8reb, 1stl, 1.4blk, FG=49%, FT=74%, 1.7ast, 2.2 TO.

So to put numbers in perspective – if your rookie guard is known for his good offensive game, is able to shoot threes at NBA range, does make his free throws, is a decent defender and has a chance to start – your chances of success in case you want to draft him are much bigger.

Big players need to rebound, defend and be efficient scorers – even from the charity stripe.

Regarding position they got drafted by NBA teams:

  • Pick 1-5 – 8 players
  • Pick 6-10 – 5 players
  • Pick 11+ - 1 players

So essentially picks beyond Top10 have very little chance of making an impact and be ranked in Top100.