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Analysis: Drafting the youngest player is (almost) always the right call

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Sekou Doumboya could be latest player who went from youngest player in the draft to NBA star based on 30 years of evidence

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Pick your favorite overused metaophor — the NBA Draft is a crapshoot; no sure things; better to be lucky than good (that’s the one Ed Stefanski used). Despite all the preparation, video breakdowns and building of psychological profiles, there are many more hits, washouts and NBA vagabonds than true difference-makers. That’s true whether you look at the top-3 picks, the lottery or even into the back of the second round.

Look at the just-announced list of players who took home the league’s top hardware — MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th pick), Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic (3rd), Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (27th), Most Improved Player Pascal Siakim (27th) and Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams (45th).

Teams are always looking for an edge — a marker that says this trait is more valuable than that trait. You could draft the tallest, fastest, highest steal rate, most efficient, most prolific scoerer, etc. The most valuable trait, however, could be the one the Detroit Pistons just capitalized on. With the 15th overall selection, Detroit grabbed Sekou Doumbouya, who has the honor of being the youngest player selected in the first round and, indeed, the youngest in his entire draft class.

That made me curious — what does it mean to draft the NBA’s youngest prospect? Does it portend good things or is it simply meaningless? That’s when I cracked open Excel and pored over data found on basketball-reference.com.

The answer was encouraging. Actually, it was more than encouraging. It was a big flashing neon sign with a spotlight on it that said “It’s a great idea to draft the youngest player!”

Now, there are other reasons young players get drafted, of course. Shaquille O’Neal was the youngest member of his class, but his appeal was clear far beyond his young age. On the opposite end of the spectrum, drafting the youngest player is no sure thing. In fact, the only other time the Pistons have done it in the past 30 years was when they took future apple farmer and MMA fighter Darko Milicic in 2003. Oops.

But back to the good news! The data indicates that Sekou has a much better chance than a typical prospect of having not just a successful NBA career, but in becoming a true difference maker. Here’s how I crunched the numbers.

  1. Went draft by draft since 1989 and identified the youngest player drafted in the first round and noted their draft position.
  2. Went draft by draft and collected the median career Win Shares for each draft position from 1-30.
  3. Went draft by draft and collected the median career Win Shares per 48 minutes for each draft position from 1-30.
  4. For each of the identified players, I listed their career Wins Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes, including for players who are still active

Why these numbers? These are productivity metrics easily available on basketball-reference.com, and I chose the median to eliminate any outliers from skewing the data and to guard against recent players who have not compiled a large amount of Win Shares in the past five years as their careers are just getting underway.

The Results

Let’s make it super straightforward. Taking the average Win Shares Per 48 minutes at each draft slot where the youngest player in the draft was taken over the past 30 years gets you an average of 26.16 Win Shares and 0.090 Win Shares per 48 minutes. That nets out at roughly a below average starter.

But looking at the actual production of the youngest player at the same draft slot gives you 49.33 Win Shares and .121 Win Shares per 48 minutes. That means you’re getting a player roughly twice as good as expected in the same draft position and going to give yourself an above average starter.

Here’s how the raw data looks.

That might look like a mess, but we’ll break it down further. Put simply, the blue line and blue bar are the youngest players in their respective drafts. The red line and red bar are the median production of players in that draft slot, respectively. You see how the blue is consistently above the red? That’s good. Very good.

OK, now let’s take it into good old fashioned table form.

Productivity of Youngest Player in Every Draft Class

Draft Player Pick Win Shares Avg. Win Shares Win Shares Per 48 Avg. WS/48
Draft Player Pick Win Shares Avg. Win Shares Win Shares Per 48 Avg. WS/48
1989 Shawn Kemp 17 89.5 6.7 0.147 0.061
1990 Jerrod Mustaf 17 1.7 6.7 0.043 0.061
1991 Kenny Anderson 2 62.5 40.7 0.116 0.104
1992 Shaquille O'Neal 1 181.7 50.6 0.208 0.128
1993 Chris Webber 1 84.7 50.6 0.132 0.128
1994 Donyell Marshall 4 59 35.8 0.113 0.105
1995 Kevin Garnett 1 191.4 50.6 0.182 0.128
1996 Jermaine O'Neal 17 66 6.7 0.116 0.061
1997 Tracy McGrady 9 97.3 23 0.152 0.101
1998 Al Harrington 25 42.5 10.2 0.073 0.077
1999 Andrei Kirilenko 24 75.4 16 0.151 0.088
2000 Darius Miles 3 9.5 39.6 0.039 0.118
2001 Eddy Curry 4 21.7 35.8 0.08 0.105
2002 Nenad Kristic 24 21.5 16 0.098 0.088
2003 Darko Milicic 2 7.1 40.7 0.04 0.104
2004 Andris Biedrins 11 30.7 13.1 0.132 0.079
2005 Andrew Bynum 10 37.4 22.8 0.1168 0.109
2006 Joel Freeland 30 3.2 3.2 0.084 0.054
2007 Kevin Durant 2 141.7 40.7 0.217 0.104
2008 Serge Ibaka 24 63.9 16 0.142 0.088
2009 Ricky Rubio 5 32.2 40.2 0.101 0.089
2010 Derrick Favors 3 49.5 39.6 0.146 0.118
2011 Bismack Biyombo 7 22.9 22.9 0.093 0.093
2012 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2 21.2 40.7 0.095 0.104
2013 Giannis Antetokounmpo 15 53.2 8.7 0.168 0.0074
2014 Bruno Caboclo 20 1.1 7.1 0.54 0.066
2015 Devin Booker 13 9.8 11.2 0.053 0.081
2016 Dragan Bender 4 0.2 35.8 0.002 0.105
2017 Frank Ntilikina 8 -1.8 17.5 -0.033 0.069
2018 Jaren Jackson 4 3.3 35.8 0.105 0.081

That’s 19 players with more or equal career Win Shares than the median selection at the same spot. Comparatively, 11 years saw the youngest prospect not live up to expected production. Unsurprisingly, that includes the players past five seasons, where the players selected haven’t had as much time to develop, and even there signs are more encouraging than it might appear.

I’d wager most prognosticators presume Dragan Bender and Frank Ntilikinia will end up being big-time busts. Bruno Cabocolo of “two years away from being two years away” fame finally got a shot at real playing time as small-ball stretch big in Memphis, and it looks like he has a chance to turn his career around. Devin Booker, meanwhile, has loads of ability and smart people predicting a breakout season contingent on the Suns surrounding him with some actual talent. Finally, there is Jaren Jackson Jr, who looks to be a dream big in the modern NBA as a mobile, switchy, two-way player with chance to be a big-time rim protector and legitimate 3-point range — aka, a unicorn.

That’s 19 players over-performing their draft spot, Jackson who looks on track to do the same in a big way, Booker, I think, will overperform even he isn’t going to be the “star” some predict, Cabocolo wouldn’t have to do too much to rise above his station and there are still active players like Ricky Rubio and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could maaaybe get there too.

What’s it mean for Sekou?

There is still a lot that must go right for Doumbouya to reach his full potential. He has to want to be great. He has to put the work in. The organization must invest in player development on and off the floor. His coaching staff must teach him the game and integrate him successfully into the rotation. He has to stay healthy.

None of that is a given, but the raw material is there. And even while selecting a raw prospect might seem incredibly risky for a franchise like the Pistons, the numbers say taking Sekou at No. 15 was the easiest money in town.