NBA draft: essential in building competitor, but a little perspective, please, on value of 12th pick

Luke Kennard, the 12th pick in the 2017 draft, will attempt to become the first player taken in that spot to make an All-Star team in the last 29 years.
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHICAGO – What unfolds over these next several days here is proof of the value of the draft.

NBA teams send two handfuls or more of their employees here for a week to get information that amounts to the tip of an iceberg of data they already possess on the nearly six dozen draft-eligible players invited to the draft combine.

They’ve already got thick dossiers of info on those players and scores more that have been exhaustively scouted on six continents – and, probably, some team looking for an edge has a scout somewhere in Antarctica right now looking for somebody with nimble footwork or 3-point range.

If you were hired tomorrow to run one of the NBA’s 30 front offices, the wise course would be to invest heavily in the most proficient, connected and diverse scouting staff you could amass. It’s pennies-on-the-dollar prudence in a league where the bidding for a free-agent starter is likely to open at $10 million a year.

One more time, for clarity’s sake: The draft is vital to success in the NBA. You need to hit on draft picks to stock rotations with enough quality players that your salary cap isn’t suffocated with oppressive free-agent deals.

That said, perception of the value of draft picks has become overinflated.

The Pistons had to give up the No. 12 pick as part of the acquisition cost for Blake Griffin. Not three No. 1 picks. Not two No. 1 picks. One No. 1 pick. The No. 12 pick, as it turned out when Tuesday’s draft lottery didn’t vault the Pistons into the top three.

Griffin has been a five-time All-Star and – based on his productivity last season: 21.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists – he’s still an All-Star. The unseen asterisk there is: if healthy. That’s a big part of why he was available, presumably.

So there was risk involved in making the trade. There’s risk involved in virtually every transaction – unless you’re Golden State and Kevin Durant asks to join the club. That’s pretty risk free, all things considered.

But for a dose of perspective, consider this: The last time a player drafted No. 12 went on to appear in an All-Star game, it was 29 years ago. The player was Mookie Blaylock. He made the All-Star game once – or 20 percent of Blake Griffin’s current total.

The player before that drafted 12th to appear in an All-Star game? You’ll have a better shot at recalling this one, at least if you’re a Pistons fan of a certain age: Kelly Tripucka. Drafted in 1981 – after Trader Jack McCloskey picked Isiah Thomas 10 spots higher – Tripucka joined Thomas in the All-Star game that rookie season and made it once again, two years later.

By the time the Pistons would win the NBA title in 1989, Tripucka was playing for the expansion Charlotte Hornets, having been traded for Adrian Dantley, who was in turn traded for Mark Aguirre.

The Pistons took Luke Kennard there last season and he showed enough as a rookie that he’s going to comfortably beat the median level of productivity for a 12th pick. If you were to pick the best from the 18 No. 12 picks made in this century, Steven Adams would be ranked No. 1, followed by some combination of Kennard, Dario Saric, Thaddeus Young, Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison and Alec Burks.

If you took the best No. 12 picks of the last decade, congratulations: You’d have a team good enough to get you another No. 12 pick.

The rest of the list is littered with names like Xavier Henry, Gerald Henderson Jr., Hilton Armstrong, Robert Swift, Yaroslav Koralev, Melvin Ely and Jason Thompson.

The face of the modern-day No. 12 pick is probably Vladimir Radmanovic, who had a 12-year career with a scoring average of 8.0 points a game. Useful player, hardly anyone who altered the course of a franchise’s history.

You always hope you can do better than that with your draft pick, of course. That you can beat the odds. It’s also true that there have been some truly great players taken after the 12th pick. Seven years ago, Kawhi Leonard was the 15th pick. Two years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo went in the same spot.

For every one like that, there are five Nick Collisons and five Melvin Elys. Still, teams are right to guard their No. 1 picks zealously. But there is a time to acknowledge the reality of the draft and cash in one of those most valuable chips. The Pistons – from owner Tom Gores through then-president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy and his cabinet – decided Blake Griffin represented the right type of risk.

Only time will tell if they were right. But tap the brakes before suggesting it’s reckless to hand over the No. 12 pick in this draft for the chance to see where Blake Griffin might take a roster with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson at its core.