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