Toronto Raptors Showcase Importance of Late NBA Draft Picks

As the 2019 NBA Playoffs near its dramatic conclusion, most teams have already set their sights on improving for 2019-20. The NBA draft is coming quickly, and executives are scrambling to identify their top choices.

The book on this year’s prospect haul is that it’s woefully uninspiring outside of Zion Williamson. It lacks the depth of instant stars we see in most drafts.

Nevertheless, anyone who’s sleeping on the value of late-first-round picks, second-round picks and undrafted acquisitions in 2019 should look at the Eastern Conference champion Toronto Raptors.

Several teams that made deep runs in the playoffs, including the four that reached the conference finals, are littered with late-draft gems. But no group exemplifies the “unheralded prospect” persona more than the freshly-crowned Raptors, who upended the Milwaukee Bucks with a 100-94 comeback triumph Saturday.

Nick Nurse’s squad enters its Finals clash against the Golden State Warriors with a roster comprised exclusively of non-lottery overachievers. There isn’t a single top-14 pick on Canada’s beloved club, and no other NBA team in 2018-19 can make that claim. Per Noah Coslov of Stadium and Sirius XM NBA Radio, no conference champion in league history has done it:

Toronto’s current and former All-Stars (Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol) were all overlooked in the draft, and their journeys are a testament to cultivating elite talent outside the top handful of picks. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri didnt draft most of these studs himself—they were selected by other teams and later shipped to Toronto—but its still impressive to see a collection of non-lottery standouts rise to the league’s grandest stage.

Nurse also enjoyed critical playoff contributions from late-first round picks Serge Ibaka (24th in 2008) and Pascal Siakam (27th in 2016), second-round picks Danny Green (46th in 2009) and Norman Powell (46th in 2015), as well as undrafted signee Fred VanVleet.

Toronto’s magical run wouldn’t be possible without them.

VanVleet is perhaps the best underdog story of the bunch, especially with the latest chapter he wrote this past week. Since his son was born on Monday, the 6’0” Wichita State alum shot 14-of-17 from three-point range in the past three games to help the Raptors clinch the series.

May 25, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guards Kyle Lowry (7) and Fred VanVleet (23) react as the Raptors win over Milwaukee Bucks in game six of the Eastern Conference final at Scotiabank Arena to advance to the NBA Final. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Less than three years ago, VanVleet was an undrafted summer addition for the Raptors, and he played just 37 games his rookie year. This week, he was one of Toronto’s finest shot-makers during the biggest series in franchise history. He probably won’t have to pay for a meal in Canada again.

I’m not here to bash “tanking” or to preach against valuing high draft picks. I just wanted to illustrate that exceptional assets are regularly found beyond the lottery.

It’s possible to add rotational players and even future All-Stars in the late-first and second round. It takes superior scouting, plenty of patience, and a bit of luck. Rising stars like Siakam, who made drastic developmental improvements year after year, prove that teams can convert relatively unexciting draft spots into long-term value.

Toronto is the hot item right now, but there were plenty of other late-draft success stories in these playoffs outside of Jurassic Park.

Four of the top five postseason performers in NBA Math’s Total Points Added were drafted after the lottery: Leonard, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green (the lone lottery pick in the top five is James Harden).

The Raptors’ Eastern Conference Finals foe was also nearly devoid of early picks. Brook Lopez was the lone lottery selection on the Milwaukee Bucks (No. 10 by New Jersey in 2008). Some of their most important pieces, such as Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton, were second-round picks. Antetokounmpo’s case, in particular, is an example of how teams can strike gold outside the lottery even in a year when the overall talent is subpar.

Much like this 2019 crop, the 2013 draft class was disenchanting. And for the most part, it has performed as poorly as we thought it would. Yet, the Bucks somehow landed a franchise-changing superstar with the Greek Freak at No. 15. In a dismal draft year, there was still hope outside the presumptive top prospects.

Nov 26, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks the ball in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Ziller of SB Nation noted that sometimes it requires a combination of good homework and luck to land an eventual prize like Antetokounmpo:

“…Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson wanted to take Giannis No. 13, but Mark Cuban overruled him to make a minor cap space move to make a free agent chase at … Dwight Howard! Picking Giannis at No. 15 means you had to avoid 14 other teams missing what you saw in him (and realistically, the other 15 teams either missing it or being unable to trade up into the top 14 to grab him). That requires just as much luck as a series of ping-pong balls landing you the No. 2 pick.”

The moral of that story? Don’t disregard any picks, even in a “weak” draft class.

The Western Conference playoffs boasted a few more marquee lottery prospects than the east.

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and James Harden all left a massive imprint on that side of the bracket. However, none of their squads would be nearly as dynamic without crucial late-first, second-round and undrafted additions.

Golden State stealing Green at No. 35 in 2012 is a well-documented factor in the Dubs’ catapult to dominance. Late-first round prospects Moe Harkless and Rodney Hood gave the Portland Trail Blazers an extra boost, and Seth Curry was undrafted. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets are armed with a slew of standouts who were once overlooked draftees.

Mike Malone’s earned the No. 2 seed in the West and was one game from the conference finals with a rotation of dark horses.

Jan 22, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) reacts with guard Gary Harris (14) after a play in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the draft history of this core:

  • Nikola Jokic: 41st in 2014
  • Jamal Murray: 7th in 2016
  • Gary Harris: 18th in 2014
  • Paul Millsap: 47th in 2006
  • Will Barton: 40th in 2012
  • Mason Plumlee: 22nd in 2013
  • Malik Beasley: 19th in 2016
  • Monte Morris: 51st in 2017
  • Torrey Craig: Undrafted

Murray is the only lottery pick of the bunch. The Nuggets produced 7.1 of their 8.4 playoff win shares via late-draft talent (per basketball-reference.com). It’s more proof that winning teams can build most of their core without great draft slots.

When June 20th comes along, and the big names like Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett are off the board, don’t be too hasty to leave the broadcast. A future star of the Eastern Conference Finals might be lurking in the late teens; a Defensive Player of the Year could be scooped up in the second round; a surprise hero might not even hear his name called.

The hidden gems are out there. Let’s see who’s diligent and fortunate enough to find them.

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