Looking At How ESPN Voters Ranked Rookies

Mar 24, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Dion Waiters (middle) drives between Ohio State Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (32) and guard Aaron Craft in the second half of the finals in the east region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE

I saw this float across my Twitter timeline this morning and felt compelled to share it with you guys. Ian Levy at Hickory-High took a look at how ESPN voters ranked the 2012 rookie draft class in the #NBARank project. Anthony Davis' rank was finally revealed at #62 and now that the entire group of rookies has been slotted, Ian made some interesting observations.

You'll have to open the link to see the full table of recently drafted rookies and how they ranked and I encourage you to do so. The gap between Anthony Davis and everybody else is quite staggering. Davis was deemed the 62nd best player in the NBA despite not having played a professional game. The next highest ranked rookie was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist coming in at 128th. Levy points out where Kyrie Irving was ranked coming into last season:

Last summer’s top rated rookie was Kyrie Irving, who came in 140th with an average rating of 4.99. Irving went on to have on of the best statistical seasons by a rookie in league history. If Davis really is that much better than Irving, then NBA fans are in for a treat.

So according to these results, people believe both Davis and MKG are better NBA players than Kyrie was coming into last season? Considering the season that Kyrie had, there is something clearly wrong with that. There were some other puzzling rankings that seem to contradict the work of scouts and GMs who conducted the draft.

  • In the minds of the group Harrison Barnes was the fourth best player in the draft, leaping Dion Waiters, Damian Lillard and Thomas Robinson. Pre-draft evaluations of Barnes seemed to vary wildly so I was surprised to see him average out so highly.
  • The group really liked Jared Sullinger. I guess when the criteria for evaluation is "current quality," long-term concerns about potentially debilitating back injuries can be ignored. Sullinger was the seventh highest ranked rookie, jumping 14 other players who were selected ahead of him in the draft. Seventh is probably close to where he would have been selected anyway with a clean bill of health.

Now, I can't pretend to know for sure why the ranks turned out the way that they did, but I have a guess. You look at guys who were overrated (based on their draft spots) by the ESPN voters and you'll see names that most people heard lots about before the draft and during the college season. Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis, and MKG were all talked about extensively before the draft. Davis and MKG were both on the team that blew through the NCAA tournament and won the national championship. That means plenty of nationally televised games and lots of air time on SportsCenter. In comparison, Kyrie Irving played just 11 games and most people probably didn't hear a whole lot about him. People heard that he and Derrick Williams should both be considered for the top spot and that the 2011 NBA Draft was super weak.

Now this is not to say that ESPN voters didn't do their homework. I know a lot of the people who voted on this and I know that they watch lots of games. I also know that it's nearly impossible to watch every single one of these players and as humans we're bound to be affected by some other factors. How many games do you think the average voter saw of Harrison Barnes? What about Dion Waiters and Damian Lillard? The difference is probably pretty significant. You probably heard a hell of a lot more about Sullinger coming up to the draft than you did Meyers Leonard. Leonard ranked 330th while Sullinger ranked 247th. Levy talks about immediate impact and perhaps that a valid explanation, but the difference just seems exaggerated if you ask me. There are some very smart basketball minds voting on these ranks, but I think our opinions are impacted by hype and familiarity a lot more than we like to admit.

I also believe that where a player was drafted impacts how they were ranked. The perceived "value" of a draft pick was somehow involved when ranking players based on ability. For example Dion Waiters was ranked the 11th best rookie, although he was the 4th player drafted. Similarly, Sullinger was ranked as 7th best while being drafted 22nd overall. The common belief is that Waiters was a reach while Sullinger was a steal. While those things may be true (I don't necessarily agree), they have nothing to do with how good each player is at basketball. Would anybody (besides OSU fans) draft Sullinger ahead of Waiters? That may be a matter of NBA readiness (as Levy already pointed out), but if that's the case, would anybody rather have Sullinger than Tyler Zeller? The combination of being viewed as a value pick and the hype surrounding Sullinger and his Buckeyes the past two seasons led to him being woefully overrated, in my opinion.

Finally, Ian Levy talks about the fact that most of these players (outside of Davis and MKG) are simply underrated. He looked at the range of where these first rounders were ranked...and the results are pretty interesting. Year after year we see rookies perform very well and become firmly entrenched in NBA rotations. Based on some of these rankings, it seems that our expectations for most of these rookies are far too low. Make sure to read the whole article to see the previously mentioned table and his thoughts on the underratedness of rookies in general.

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