Often lost in a pre-draft shuffle packed full of proclamations from “experts” up and down the spectrum of legitimacy is a simple fact: None of us are all that good at predicting how draft prospects are going to turn out.
This not-so-bold statement rings true at every level. Regardless how informed or prepared one is, there’s just too much we can’t predict accurately about teenagers with so much mental and physical growth left in their lives. Even the very best scouts and models alike completely whiff a large percentage of the time.
That doesn’t stop us from trying, of course. There’s no doubt elements like historical precedent, measurables, statistics, raw talent assessment and any other number of intangibles serve as useful benchmarks throughout what’s likely the NBA’s least scientific process. But it’s when one of these rough barometers crosses over into a measure of certainty, or becomes a crutch that allows for the ignorance of relevant context, that things begin to fall apart. And in Jazzland over recent weeks, it seems the evaluation of Frank Kaminsky has begun to serve as a cautionary tale in many respects1.
First up is the theme of “best player available.” It’s a macro concept, if not a particularly well-titled one2, but it definitely has its uses, especially for true rebuilding teams. Franchises like the 76ers or Lakers, devoid not only of talent but also of a true team identity moving forward, should absolutely be selecting the player they deem most likely to provide the highest NBA value regardless of his position or projected role.
Separate but related is “upside,” everyone’s favorite buzzword this time of year. These prospects are unfinished projects to a man, and painstaking effort is undertaken to determine not only what a guy can grow into at the NBA level, but how likely it is that he approaches this perceived ceiling. Again, a very useful tool when approached responsibly and with an eye to all variables involved.
Unfortunately, the application of these themes is where the disconnect begins, and Kaminsky is an excellent example.
The “upside” vultures have been picking at him for months now, and they aren’t without some justification. Kaminsky is older, wasn’t dominant until later in his college career, and has a physical profile that suggests his ability to develop from here may be limited compared with his peers. This isn’t too debatable.
What is, however, is the upside of others in his range, and particularly how likely they are to hit that upside. Much of Kaminsky’s panning seems to assume that an alternate selection is certain to approach their own ceiling – this just isn’t the case, or even close to it. Historical precedent suggests that, while several3 will likely succeed, possibly as many as half of Kaminsky’s likely companions in this lottery will never even match his current level of value added. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton put it perfectly on Nate Duncan’s podcast4 last week: It’s hard to predict ability to improve.
Texas prospect Myles Turner is a good example. He has many of the physical tools and several historical trends pointing in his direction5, and at three years younger than Kaminsky will undoubtedly be the better NBA player if he checks a majority of his boxes. But there’s the rub: he hasn’t done that yet, and many in his position over the years have failed miserably. Kaminsky, on the other hand, may not have superstar growth in him – but he’s proven capable of a couple very important skills6 that it seems foolish to assume won’t transfer well at the next level. Which would a team like the Jazz rather have?
Simply put, hard-line BPA doesn’t hold water for a team in Utah’s position. For some reason, the Houston Rockets seem to have become the torchbearer for this line of reasoning. GM Daryl Morey is famously obsessed with the idea of asset accumulation, rejecting all questions of fit or chemistry for years before landing a blockbuster payday in the form of superstar James Harden.
But how many other times has this approach yielded such a result in modern NBA history? Two? Three? The stars truly aligned for that trade to be possible; the assumption that any team that accumulates enough strong assets, even if many overlap each other, can simply move those pieces for equal value down the line is misplaced.
All of this is particularly relevant for the Jazz, who are a few strong moves and a bit of developmental good fortune away from becoming a true contender in the Western Conference. Ignoring fit entirely at this point in favor of a higher-upside prospect or the “best player available,” even if that player fills fewer or none of the team’s needs, is inadvisable at best. Punting on a guy like Kaminsky because he might provide less cumulative value over the next 10 or 15 years is ignoring what he can bring to the table right now that most of his peers simply can’t. Good team-building absolutely does not always entail thinking a half-decade or more down the line with every single draft selection, especially for a team like the Jazz with so many future picks still available.
The theme of a timetable, with the salary cap as a backdrop, is another where Kaminsky could be a preferable option. It absolutely means something that he would be paid under $3 million per year through the 2018-19 season (under $2 million for the first two years) as the 12th pick – a potentially massive bargain should he prove capable with his already-known skills at the NBA level7. Furthermore, he’ll do so while in and around his physical prime from ages 22 to 26, which happens to coincide perfectly with the rough time frame during which the Jazz hope to contend.
Additionally, while it’d obviously be great to nail another star, the career average PER of the 12th pick in the NBA is 12.7, or over two points below league average. Swinging for the fences with a pick that historically produces a bench player is a risky move, especially for a franchise that’s well past the point of needing high risk/high reward youth.
Trading the pick remains a viable option. Patrick Patterson was discussed on this week’s SCH Radio show as a possible option with a couple of similar skills to Kaminsky. But it’s important to remember these sorts of trades carry both risk and cost. The Jazz would have to surrender other valuable assets to make things work, and would sacrifice some or all of their remaining cap space to bring in a veteran. Kaminsky might provide similar value without limiting their ability to participate in the July market.
Some may continue to dislike Kaminsky as a pick for talent reasons alone, and while I would disagree, this is a defensible position. It’s certainly possible that the longer NBA 3-point line gives him issues and he slips from a great shooter to an average or below-average one, or that he’s so weak in other areas that even a third big role is too much to expect of him in the pros.
But this seems highly unlikely to this eye; some scouts have reportedly put him in the same tier as someone like D’Angelo Russell as a pure shooter, and he seems too intelligent and hard-working to allow certain weaknesses to play him off the floor. Furthermore, as noted in my scouting report linked earlier, he’d be drafted into a situation where his positives could be leaned upon while his minuses could be covered or avoided altogether in certain disadvantageous situations.
Conceptually, though, Kaminsky is an excellent example of the way an attachment to concrete rules is inadvisable at the team-building level. Instead, investigating all angles, including talent, upside, fit, and intangibles, is the right approach.