Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There’s something about the moniker “lottery pick’’ that makes one automatically think “great player.’’
Obviously, it’s not always the case — see Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Darko Milicic. But for the most part, especially in the NBA, it’s the players who were once lottery picks that turn out to be stars that lead their teams to championships.
Last year’s champion Miami Heat is a prime example. They had five players who were once picked in the top six in the draft — LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller and Shane Battier. The year before, Dallas had seven lottery picks on its champion team that included the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler.
Go through past NBA champion teams and you’ll always find high lottery picks (top 14 in draft) from Tim Duncan to Paul Pierce to Shaquille O’Neal.
While there are always busts, as noted above, as well as low-draft picks and non-drafted players who turn out to be excellent players, it’s the high draft picks that everyone wants to build their teams around. And more than any other sport, players drafted high in the NBA go on to become the future stars of the league.
Utah’s new general manager Dennis Lindsey is well aware of that concept and agrees that most NBA executives hope to load up their teams with as many lottery picks as possible.
“If you study the history of the league, you really have to respect what we call the scouting curves opinion,’’ he said. “In football and baseball you can get all-time greats in later rounds. But in basketball, the talented prodigies, like LeBron James — most times they turn into the best players in the league.’’
Lindsey acknowledges there are “late bloomers” in basketball, but says it doesn’t happen as much as in other spots.
“When you study where guys are taken relative to their production, it’s a pretty strong relationship that the better players are taken sooner,’’ he said.
Remember the NBA list of the 50 greatest players ever that came out about 15 years ago? Of those 50 players, all but a handful were top-10 selections and 32 of them were top-5 picks. Of the players who have played since that list came out, those that would be considered among the all-time greats —James, Duncan, Kevin Durrant — most have been high draft picks.
That brings us to the Utah Jazz.
Forget for a moment about their 45-point loss Monday night and look ahead three or four years. Right now, the Jazz own more young, high lottery picks than anyone else in the NBA.
While five teams have more total lottery picks on their rosters (New York has the most with nine, but four are 38 years or older), no team has more under the age of 25. And the Jazz has the most under the age of 22 with Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (21), Alec Burks (21) and Enes Kanter (20).
It’s a big difference from most of Jazz history when Utah has rarely had any lottery picks. Remember neither Karl Malone nor John Stockton were a lottery pick, and those great teams of the late 1990s only had a handful of lottery picks (Chris Morris, Thurl Bailey, Felton Spencer).
Lindsey gives all the credit to longtime Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor, who assembled the present roster with some shrewd moves to acquire the current group of high lottery picks.
The Jazz “earned” its lottery pick in 2005 thanks to a poor record and O’Connor traded from No. 6 to No. 3 that year to draft Deron Williams. That pick was parlayed into acquiring Favors and Kanter as well as Marvin Williams, who was traded last offseason for Devin Harris.
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