How taking risks in the draft have paid off for the Raptors

Nov 16 2020, 12:02 pm

If Masai Ujiri’s drafting history is an indicator, Wednesday’s NBA Draft will be an exciting one for the Toronto Raptors.

Ujiri has overcome cognitive biases often plaguing NBA front offices. He’s not afraid to break the status quo and take calculated risks rather than settling for safer options.

The Raptors have set a new standard, winning the 2019 championship and are one of the NBA’s premier teams. That gives Toronto leverage to make a solid choice with the 29th pick this year, at a time when the pandemic has only compounded an inexact science: talent evaluation. Toronto has the option of picking a solid 3-and-D or a finding a diamond in the rough, falling late in the first round.

“We’re a pretty aggressive group and if we see an opportunity to take a very young prospect that maybe doesn’t have the same level of experience, but we believe he’s a talent that can change the course of our franchise, we’re gonna swing,” said Raptors Director of Global Scouting and International Affairs Patrick Engelbrecht in a virtual press conference.

“We’re not gonna sit on the sidelines and take an upperclassman just because it’s safe.”

Not afraid to pick mid-major prospects

In 2016, Ujiri chose Pascal Siakam 27th overall, and needless to say, he has exceeded all expectations. Ujiri demonstrated elite decision-making by picking Jakob Poeltl earlier at No. 9 and more importantly, Ujiri resisted the temptation to pick Skal Labissiere, a then-20-year-old, 6-foot-10’ Haitian centre, over Siakam.

Siakam was already 22 years old and the only first-round pick to come from a mid-major program, New Mexico State. Labissiere, in comparison, was a one-and-done at Coach Calipari’s Kentucky, a hoops factory that churned out the likes of Anthony Davis and John Wall. After an underwhelming freshman season, Labissiere was still available, but Ujiri wasn’t wooed by his youth, size and potential.

Similarly, when Ujiri was the Denver Nuggets’ GM, he drafted Kenneth Faried at 22nd in the 2011 Draft who came from mid-major Morehead State (that’s the same year Jimmy Butler fell to #30).

Both these picks demonstrate tremendous foresight. As Daniel Sailofsky, author of a research paper titled “Drafting Errors and Decision Making Bias in the NBA Draft,” points out, GMs are often pressured to preserve the status quo by picking younger prospects from blue-chip programs. GMs typically avoid unorthodox decisions because the price of failure is greater when those decisions don’t yield the right results.

This year, at #29, San Diego State senior Malachi Flynn might be available. Like Siakam in 2016, he too will be 22, having transferred from a competitive Pac-12 Conference after two seasons, redshirting, and then playing in the Mountain West Conference, which may cause his stock to drop. He’s improved consistently in nearly every statistical category, lowering his turnover percentage, increasing his total rebound percentage and has demonstrated scoring efficiency by increasing his free throw attempt rate (the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt).

Taking risks

Ujiri swung for the fences and picked Bruno Caboclo at 20th in 2016. Dubbed the ‘Brazilian Kevin Durant’ who was “two years away from being two years away,” Ujiri took a gamble on the unproven 6-foot-9 18-year-old prospect with a 7-foot-7 wingspan. After three-plus seasons with the Raptors, he was traded away.

High-risk decisions like this don’t always pan out. Considering the Raptors made the playoffs in 2014 for the first time in five seasons and Andrea Bargnani being dealt away the summer earlier, the Raptors had nothing to lose. Drafting a high-risk, high-upside player made sense at the time.

It’s harder to swing for the fences this year, but there will be sleepers. This year’s swing-for-the-fences pick will be 7-foot Serbian centre Aleksej Pokusevski who will still be 18 years old on Wednesday. If he’s still available, it’ll be interesting to see if Toronto swings.

Looking for the right fit

In 2017, the Raptors drafted OG Anunoby despite an injury in his last season at Indiana where he only played in 16 games. That didn’t discourage Ujiri from picking him up at 23rd.

3-and-D options at #29 remain plentiful this year. Isaiah Joe from Arkansas could be passed up the same way Anunoby was. Joe’s injury this past season kept him to 26 games, but he’s an elite three-point shooter with a low 9.8 turnover percentage, an estimate of 9.8 turnovers per 100 plays.

“At the end of the day, Masai, Bobby (Webster), we like to really stay focused on the talent and we don’t try to get sidetracked by a guy’s great situation versus his talent,” said Engelbrecht at the virtual press conference. “With all things being equal, we’re going to go with the talent.”

We’ll see who NBA teams pass up, and the 29th pick won’t be finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. Four players who received 2020 All-Rookie mentions were drafted 21st or lower, two of them undrafted, one being Terence Davis.

If Ujiri snagged Siakam at 27th and Fred VanVleet from the undrafted market in 2016, let’s wait for him to work his magic in this busy and shortened off-season.

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