DURING THE LATE winter of 2013, an 18-year-old curio named Giannis Antetokounmpo was turning heads in Greece’s second-tier professional league. Though he was averaging fewer than 10 points per game, Antetokounmpo’s physical profile, body control and vision screamed “modern-day NBA.”
Only a handful of front-office executives from the NBA had witnessed Antetokounmpo in person, and only the Atlanta Hawks had brought him into their facility. Most of the league had relied on video, as well as intelligence from scouts and various contacts in the world of European basketball, for their information. What multiple front offices heard gave them great pause about the prospect.
An executive from one team that passed on Antetokounmpo in the June draft did so because the word was that the teenager was soft. For all the raw talent and upside, Antetokounmpo, who spoke no English and had limited exposure to the world outside of Greek basketball, couldn’t survive in the NBA. The intel also warned that Antetokounmpo’s family could be an impediment: The immigration status of his parents and brothers was thorny, and the task of getting them into the United States could present complications for a team that drafts him. Being alone in a strange city without his family, the thinking went, Antetokounmpo would struggle personally.
The Milwaukee Bucks selected Antetokounmpo in the 2013 draft with the 15th pick, one slot ahead of the Hawks, who were devastated. After a steady development period during his first few years in the league, Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a five-time All-Star, two-time MVP and NBA champion before his 27th birthday.
So far as Antetokounmpo’s potentially problematic family, his affiliate piety and brotherly love have been defining characteristics of his success. Far from being a distraction, Antetokounmpo’s devotion to his kin has been a main driver of his renowned work ethic. To the extent it informed the ultimate decision of any of the 14 teams that drafted ahead of the Bucks, the intel was a germ.
Intelligence is merely one ingredient that goes into the talent evaluation of NBA draft prospects. Yet despite extraordinary advancements in so many areas and exponential front-office growth to match, the NBA collectively is no better at projecting an elite draft prospect than it was 40 years ago.
In a landscape where the NBA’s brightest minds have pushed the boundaries of the frontier, the NBA draft remains the most stubborn line of resistance. But there’s one team that believes it might know something the rest of the league doesn’t.
THIS SPRING’S FINAL offer an object lesson in the power of the annual draft. The Boston Celtics’ starting five featured four first-round picks between 2014 and 2018. The Golden State Warriors transformed from a backwater to glam franchise by drafting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Younger draftees Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney also proved indispensable in the Warriors’ title run.
In contrast, the failure of the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic to find franchise players despite drafting repeatedly near the top of the lottery have consigned them to chronic mediocrity.
One team that’s had mixed results in recent years — like most NBA teams — is the Phoenix Suns. Unlike most NBA teams, the Suns have determined that the best way to value the NBA draft might be to not value it at all.
In a league where teams spend millions of dollars and employ an ever-growing number of scouts in a year-round pursuit to nail the June draft, the Suns, under the current leadership of general manager James Jones, are taking the inverse approach.
Phoenix’s tack is as unconventional as it is anti-establishment: Not only are the Suns bucking a pronounced league trend by diving from the Draft Industrial Complex, they’re also espousing a view in the information age that less of it is better.