34 players heard their names called before Draymond Green in 2012.
32 players were selected before Jalen Brunson in 2018.
29 players went before Jimmy Butler in 2011.
21 players came off the board before Grant Williams in 2019.
These four represent the overlooked and undervalued, a growing number of draft sleepers that feature prominently in every NBA draft class. As these four played prominent roles in this year's Conference Finals, I couldn't help but think about the common threads shared by this select group. Why did scouts overlook them in the first place? And why do teams keep making the same mistake over and over again?
Best NBA Draft sleepers in today's NBA
The tape measure that is so much a part of the NBA Draft evaluation process never said much flattering about Grant Williams. As Williams prepared for the possibility of being selected in June of 2019, his resume included two Southeastern Conference Player of the Year awards and consensus first-team All-America honors.
But production is often outweighed by potential on draft boards, especially for a junior forward with a shorter wingspan than many guards and a vertical leap exceeded by practically everyone.
Luckily for the Celtics, they saw past the tale of the tape.
They saw what they needed to see and heard what they needed to hear. After they made Williams the 22nd pick in the draft, he showed up at a team press conference along with three other freshly minted Bostonians and declared to the Boston Globe, “It’s really going to be whatever it takes for us to hang the next banner here. Because I’m the type of team player it doesn’t matter what you need me to do, just however I can make an impact, whatever you ask me … that’s what I do.”
Fast forward three years and Williams is Boston's top defensive option against two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on one end and knocking down a Game 7 record seven 3s on the other end, an indispensable rotation piece without which Boston never advances to the Conference Finals let alone the NBA Finals.
Of course, Williams was not alone in these playoffs. As the Mavericks, Heat and Warriors advanced to the conference finals, the sight of an NCAA basketball star who was relatively overlooked in the draft making substantial contributions to their teams’ postseason success became common.
With the Mavs, it was guard Jalen Brunson. With the Heat, it was star Jimmy Butler and role player P.J. Tucker. And the Warriors, as throughout their dynasty, relied upon the vast array of contributions from forward Draymond Green.
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So how might teams selecting late in the 2022 NBA Draft first round, or at some point in the second, identify their own Draymond?
“I had Draymond Green going in the first round, and a lot of people didn’t think that he was that type of basketball player,” veteran NBA scout Tim Hardaway, who recently joined the Knicks staff, told Sporting News. “And I saw that, and a lot of people passed on him. And a lot of people are mad now. I thought he could bring the intangibles he has brought to the team, what he could do with his height and his size and what the game was going to become.”
One-and-done NBA prospects vs. proven college stars
The first, and most important, element of finding such a player in the draft is being open to the concept. There are teams that spend later selections in the first round on “upside”, believing or hoping a younger, one-and-done player with a “higher ceiling” will develop into a star. It seems like a reasonable theory, but it hasn’t so often paid off as intended.
Since the 2010 draft, there have been 33 one-and-done players selected in the second half of the first round, which comprises picks 16 through 30. Only four of them became rotation players for a team that reached at least one conference finals. Only 11 of them became rotation players in any playoff appearance, and their collective record in those series is 13-30.
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Green, selected 35th overall in 2012, has a playoff series record of 23-4. Butler, chosen with the final pick of the first round in that same draft, has a series record of 8-10. And he’s been a far greater factor in those results than, say, Avery Bradley, who became the 19th pick in the 2010 draft after a single season at Texas and is 4-4 in his playoff series. Or Cory Joseph, who played one year at Texas, was selected 29th in 2011, and is 3-4 in series.
The 2022 conference finals included 16 players in the four teams’ rotations who played multiple college seasons and were not selected in the top half of the first round. That includes Miami’s Max Strus and the Mavs’ Dorian Finney-Smith, who went undrafted but became fundamental to their teams’ success this season.
“The league is driven off star talent, but the role players are just so valuable now more than ever, the glue to keep it running,” a Western Conference scout told The Sporting News during the NBA Draft Combine. “A lot of those guys, you’ve got to have a competitive drive and a love for it, a passion for it, embracing your role, leadership qualities, unselfishness — like all sorts of intangibles. Because what it comes back to is just knowing who you are.
“These guys like Draymond are smart enough to know how to put themselves in a game and be productive without having to score. It’s such a skill to know how to play. I think what it comes back to, and it’s something we identified last year, is finding guys that have a high IQ. Because you’re taking guys from college that had a completely different role, and how does it fit into your system, with your coaches?”
It is a transition for a player such as Payton Pritchard, who started 140 games at Oregon, averaged 34 minutes per game and fell just short of the 2,000-point and 700-assist marks. The ball was in his hands all the time and he was on the floor almost without interruption. Operating as a backup point guard required to appear only 14 minutes a night is similar only in that both endeavors involve a ball and a hoop.
After completing a college career at UTEP that included consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances — and a stunning first-round shootout against LSU All-American Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in which the Miners prevailed — Hardaway was somewhat overlooked in the draft himself. At a time when there only were 27 first-round selections, he lasted to No. 14.
The player chosen directly in front of him, BYU forward Michael Smith, scored 698 career points. Hardaway scored 15,373 — more than every player in that draft but Glen Rice — and ranks top-20 all-time in assists. Hardaway will enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September.
“It not only drives you harder, it makes you concentrate a little bit better,” Hardaway said. “It makes you a lot more focused on what you have to do to make sure that people understood that they passed you over for someone they thought was better than you, and you have proven yourself to be better than them. It’s just a chip on your shoulder that you come out each and every night to show people: I should have went higher, and I should be getting more respect than I have been.”
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Identifying the best sleepers in 2022 NBA Draft
So who fits the bill in 2022?
For starters, this isn't an exact science. NBA teams spend millions of dollars a year trying to answer that exact question and still mess it up.
But if you’re wondering who such a player might be in the 2022 draft, a nice place to start would be Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell. It seems to be no coincidence that a lot of these breakthrough draft picks were All-Americans as collegians. Such players as Malcolm Brogdon, Bobby Portis, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke have been substantial contributors to successful teams after being relatively overlooked in drafts since 2016.
After averaging 19.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks for the Buckeyes, Liddell was a unanimous third-team All-America selection and now is projected to go 20th in a consensus of five mock drafts from major media outlets.
Liddell has seen such players as Williams and Green succeed or excel and can imagine himself having a similar impact as an NBA player.
“They’re different players, but I see like different pieces of my game from them,” Liddell told Sporting News during the NBA Scouting Combine. “Draymond is a great facilitator. Grant Williams has become a really good spot-up shooter. I watch P.J. Tucker, as well, just his effort around the floor. And I take pieces of their game and just add them to mine.
“My confidence level definitely just improved every single year. Showing my work ethic, letting me get better every single year. I don’t expect to be perfect my first year in the NBA. But I’m definitely going to learn a lot, because I call myself a sponge, just soaking up all the information I can.”