Prisoners of the Moment: How the NCAA Tournament Affects NBA Draft Stock
While NBA decision makers don't like to admit it, March Madness performances can affect how the draft plays out.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
College basketball revolves around the NCAA tournament, a single-elimination event encompassing 67 games over three weeks in March and early April. While the tournament rarely results in the best team throughout the course of a full, four-month season being crowned as champion, it's dramatic, frenetic, and emotional. It's also—by far—the major driver of interest in college hoops among fans and people within the basketball industry alike.
As a result, the press and the public tend to place outsized importance on NCAA tournament games when discussing and evaluating NBA draft prospects. And even though March Madness can be the ultimate small sample size theater, it's easy to see why many of us overvalue it: the games are pressure-packed, the competition can be fierce, it's the last time we'll see most of these players on a court until the draft, and who among us doesn't love tournament standouts who just know how to win?
Question is, do NBA teams and executives similarly overreact to March Madness? Does the tournament unduly affect their draft decision-making process?
The answer, most NBA front office personnel would tell you, is no. Or at the very least, those people want to be able to say no. The job is hard. Detail-oriented. Almost everyone logs long, unforgiving hours, particularly scouts on the road. NBA people want you to know that they're doing their homework all season long, and that when they take a Kyrie Irving with the top pick in the draft, it's based on his full body of work, and not just a few games in March—even if those games can be more important than the ones played before them.
Overall, I think most NBA franchises are pretty good at not going overboard on NCAA tournament performances. They listen to those who are paid to grind. And yet: over the last five years, we've seen players such as Malachi Richardson, DeAndre Daniels, Mitch McGary, and Shabazz Napier get drafted, or drafted higher, based largely on their March exploits.
Clearly, the answer is more complicated than a simple no. So what gives? To get a better sense of how the NCAA tournament can—and can't—impact draft stock, I spoke with a number of NBA executives.
The first thing they told me? We're all human. Think about meeting someone in non-basketball life: our first and last impressions are often the strongest. For many NBA prospects, March Madness is the last impression scouts and evaluators have of their games, at least in meaningful, competitive action. Subsequent individual team workouts are highly useful, but they just aren't the same.
"I wish I could say that we haven't been prisoners of the moment before, but we have," a longtime NBA executive said of his organization. "Most of the time, we use standout (NCAA tournament) performances to give players extra looks. A reason to go back through the tape. But we've made mistakes hoping a player was improving throughout the course of a season versus getting hot for a few games."
It's something like recency bias—our tendency to give additional weight to more recent events when evaluating something. The last time you saw a player is the last bit of information stored within your working memory, and that performance is more likely to make you think either positively or negatively about him. The best way to combat this bias is to inundate the brain with additional information, creating an accurate impression of a player's long-term development prior to his most recent performance. NBA scouts and the higher-level team executives who make time to get out and see players at events like USA Basketball, Nike Hoop Summit, and Adidas Nations have an advantage here—through sheer proximity, they have a better understanding of the way players have developed over time, and therefore a better chance of placing NCAA tournament performances into that larger picture.
Not every NBA general manager, however—or owner, for that matter, if they're the sort who gets involved in the decision-making process—is able to attend these events. GMs have many duties, including trade negotiations and roster evaluation; it's unrealistic to expect them to see every player. That's why they have, and rely upon, their scouting departments.
"We don't go to most NCAA tournament games," another NBA executive said. "The way (our organization) goes about it is that we'll be sitting next to our general manager, and kind of direct him toward what to watch. The tournament can be very valuable because of the high-level games played that often feature elite players matching up. But you have to value it properly, and it has to be put into the right context."
Context is key. And putting NCAA performances into the proper context isn't always easy. Like all things March Madness, the narrative can be overwhelming; the hype train on certain prospects is very, very real. Last week, Jon Givony at The Vertical told a story about how some NBA GMs head to Europe during the tournament so as "to avoid getting caught up in the groundswell of hype." That's actually a smart idea, given how loudly a big game or heroic buzzer-beater can resonate with the public.
While some of the executives I spoke with admitted that their franchises sometimes put too much value on NCAA tournament performances, most believed that doing so was becoming less common across the league as a whole. As analytics and big data have moved to the forefront of talent evaluation and roster construction, that shouldn't be surprising.
"I think for a while, (the NBA) put too much stock into the tournament," a Western Conference executive said. "But then that became a well-known sort of thing (in NBA circles). Like a 'don't put too much stock into the tournament, you'll get burned' type of thing."
The bottom line? Good NBA scouts who have done their homework throughout the course of the college season—and even earlier—can and should be open to changing their minds if something different and new pops up in the NCAA tournament. That said, seismic shifts in draft stock should be extremely rare—and given the professional careers of NCAA standouts-turned-draft risers like Napier, Patrick O'Bryant, and Derrick Williams, viewed with extra skepticism. The smartest NBA teams don't go mad over March.
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