Markelle Fultz and the paradox of GM draft strategy

NBA Draft Board 2019 (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NBA Draft Board 2019 (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

A look into how Markelle Fultz, among others, displays a lack of consistency in the front office decision process throughout the NBA

They say that 40 is the new 30. Well, in our beloved league, 19 is the new 23. Youth has become an invaluable attribute in the eyes of general managers when evaluating potential talent. Age, what used to simply be an additional demographic descriptor of prospects, is now a dominant variable in the ever-difficult formula to determine where certain players should be selected in the draft.

One simple stat which illustrates this shift is that from 1990 through 1994, zero players 19 years old or younger were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Looking at the previous five drafts, over half of the selections were used on such prospects. The logic is sound; if two players are perceived as relatively equal, it would be wise to invest in a younger player who you could spend more time developing in a professional environment.

If you’re a GM and you’re deciding between a 23-year-old college senior who is graded at a B+ and a 19-year-old freshman with a B grade, it would make sense to roll the dice with the understanding that the 19-year-old could be graded at a B+ (or even higher!) by the time they reach 23 years old.

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In fact, Coby White was shocked upon discovering his college teammate served as the exception to this rule. Potential is more trendy than Bitcoin in this world. The problem is, why are front offices so eager to give up on such investments?

Premium draft picks are at the forefront of this youth movement. Over the past five years, 32 top 10 picks came into the draft after their freshman seasons, and that doesn’t even include young players from overseas. The kicker is, 10 of them already find themselves on different teams. If the logic behind drafting younger players over older, more proven prospects, is to invest in their long-term development, why are we seeing front offices bail on these players before the term even becomes long?

Some shining examples of how this lack of patience can backfire are Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram. I get it, Ball and Ingram were used to acquire Anthony Davis and any team in their right mind would make that trade. But the reality is that the Lakers were already out on the idea of Ball and Ingram taking primary roles and likely would have moved them if other opportunities presented themselves. Fultz, on the other hand, is currently the protagonist in a Shakespearian redemption story.

The 76ers “Trusted the Process” all the way to investing the most cherished of all assets, the first overall pick, into selecting Fultz to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. After some injuries and some questionable shooting form changes, Philly lost their trust in the process of Fultz’s development and traded him to Orlando after just two years. Markelle Fultz has responded by putting up career highs across the board in all major statistical categories this year and has averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game over his last 10 games.

Now that may not match the ideal production from a No. 1 overall pick, but a 20 point triple-double on January 15th in a road win against the Lakers is exactly the potential such a pick should demonstrate. The problem is, the team that initially drafted him had already given up on said potential.

Markelle Fultz, along with Ball and Ingram, are the most notable and productive players over the past 5 years who highlight the lack of consistent logic by front offices to draft young players, only to give up on them early on. Dennis Smith Jr., Marquesse Chriss, Stanley Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, and even Josh Jackson could still find themselves contributing valuable minutes to competitive teams later on after their initial teams gave up on their development. Let’s not overlook D’Angelo Russell, who was also abandoned by Los Angeles (seems to be a trend in the Lakers’ front office), and has gone on to be an All-Star and an incredibly productive scorer.

The verdict is still out on how many top 10 and first-round selections from the 2018 and 2019 classes will remain with their current teams. I’d be willing to wager that at least one will be either traded or not re-signed and will go on to flourish in another location. This brings us back to the initial predicament. It is easy to understand the logic behind banking on the potential of younger players and selecting them over older, less flashy, older players (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Brogdon).

But it baffles me how eager front offices seem to give up on these investments when the second half of the ‘young draft pick equation’ is the development side. Picture it as: Potential + Development = Valuable Contribution.

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Let’s hope GMs throughout the league can realign their strategies and actually spend time developing their young players instead of giving up on them for not winning Rookie of the Year. If they don’t, I’ll keep pulling for Markelle Fultz, Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, D’Lo, and the rest of the Island of Misfit draft picks to prove their old teams wrong by shining with their new franchises.