NBA teams do not know how to draft role players


by Robert Samuel

June 25, 2003

NBA teams do not know how to draft role players. Exhibit A: The

two teams that competed in this year's NBA Finals, the San Antonio

Spurs and the New Jersey Nets.

Looking at the star players on these rosters, one would see

that the NBA is fairly good at determining who will shine the most in

the league. The Spurs' Tim Duncan and David Robinson and the

Nets'Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd were all among the top 2 players

taken in their respective drafts, and fellow Net starters Kerry Kittles

and Richard Jefferson were taken in the top 10.

But a look at the role players on the teams creates a different

conclusion. The second tier players on those teams were not chosen in

the second tier of the draft, but towards the end or not at all. The

Nets' Lucious Harris and the Spurs' Stephen Jackson were taken in the

second round, and defensive ace Bruce Bowen was not drafted at all.

In a given draft, there are probably at most 10 players who

legitimately have a chance to be stars in the NBA, though a draft is

lucky to produce five established stars. The 1984 and 1996 drafts,

considered to be two of the greatest drafts in history, combined to

produce only 12 NBA stars by a generous definition of the word "star."

But for some odd reason, teams with picks past the No. 10 slot are

obsessed with trying to find a talent that no other organization has

yet to recognize. Instead of padding the teams' current stars with

adept role players, teams continually waste picks on players with

minuscule chances of becoming superstars and even smaller chances of

being solid role players.

This brings up an important point about players with superstar

potential: they will be either awesome or horrible. Most players

labeled as the "next big thing" have skills that would allow for

domination, but would not be incredibly advantageous to a player if the

player was not the number one option on the team. For example, it is

very unlikely that a player like Lebron James will become a role

player. If James' strengths do not allow him to excel to the pentacle

of NBA superstars, it is unlikely that these same skills would be of

any value. Some players just have to dominate. The Suns' Anfernee

Hardaway is a rare exception, as he has developed into a solid role

player after knee injuries slowed his All-NBA talent. Further evidence

of this theory is that almost none of the best role players in the

league - more specifically the Lakers' Robert Horry and the Hornets'

David Wesley - were ever expected to be superstars.

This is bad news for four-year college players like Duke's Dahntay

Jones. The MVP of the 2003 Blue Devils has almost zero chance of

becoming a superstar in the league, but a high chance of making solid

contributions to a playoff caliber team. To me, it makes little sense

for a team with a pick between the 15th and 25th slot not to select a

mature, smart player like Jones.

Teams will instead probably gamble on an over-seas player or a wiry

teenager, but the fact remains that after the first ten picks,

explosive talent is almost non-existent.

Let's look at what NBA scouts call Jones' weaknesses, for they are the

sole rationalization for taking on a project player rather than his

established talent. They say he has poor ball handling skills and has

trouble shooting off the dribble.

Their critique may be correct, but how much will Jones' ball

handling and shooting-off-the-dribble skills matter if he is the number

four or five option on his team? The answer is very little at the very


Jones' strengths make him a perfect candidate to be a solid

role player on a great team in the future; Jones skills will not win a

team championships on their own but they will certainly compliment a

team when they are surrounded by other great athletes.

Jones has stunning athleticism - perhaps the most athletic

player to come out of the ACC since Vince Carter - and has learned to

use them to stunning success on the defensive end of the court. Jones'

on-ball-defense was apparent all season, as he made things incredibly

difficult for every player he faced, including ACC player-of-the-year

Josh Howard. This ability would perfectly compliment an established

team, much as Bowen's has for the Spurs.

While Jones probably doesn't have a NBA caliber shot off the

dribble, he does have a quality spot-up jump shot. But how many plays

are actually going to be called for Jones to go one-on-one with a

player? A more likely scenario has Jones spotting up behind the arc

when one of his more talented teammates is double-teamed. Jones shot

just under 40 percent from behind the arc last season, and with his

considerable strength, do not expect that percentage to drop

dramatically when dealing with NBA three-point line, which is four feet

further away from the hoop than in college. This is another attribute

that Jones shares with Bowen.

Jones also could help teams at the end of games with his 75

percent free-throw percentage, an area where Bowen tremendously


As stated before, Bowen was not drafted into the NBA following

his college career. Jones is expected to be drafted, but not until the

second round. This difference is probably for only the simple fact that

Jones played for a high-profile college basketball program like Duke,

and Bowen played for Cal State Fullerton. But if NBA scouts played

closer attention to this year's NBA finals, they would see that after

The superstars, it is players like Bowen and Jones who make the biggest