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Do Simons and Little have more upside than other first round picks?

Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little were both drafted later than expected, based on their recruiting ranks coming out of high school. What does that tell us?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers have selected players in the late first round of the last three NBA drafts. In all three cases, the selected players experienced significant declines from their recruiting class rankings to their actual spots in the draft.

Caleb Swanigan, for example, was the 16th ranked high schooler in the 2015 class, but slipped 10 spots to the No. 26 pick when the Blazers drafted him in 2017. More dramatically, Nassir Little dropped from the third ranked recruit to the 25th overall pick and Anfernee Simons dropped from a No. 7 rank to the 24th pick.

Simons and Little have both been touted as possible steals — players with lottery talent who were acquired with non-lottery draft picks. The logic behind this line of thinking is that they were ranked highly out of high school because they have high upside, but that upside was temporarily obscured by external circumstances (e.g. a non-traditional path to the NBA, stacked college roster).

Obviously with Swanigan that logic did not work out, but the jury remains out on Simons and Little. The Blazers have made it clear they place a great deal of trust in Anfernee, especially, seeming to gift him a spot in next year’s rotation despite very little on-court experience.

The logical follow-up question: Do players who are highly ranked as high schoolers but drop significantly on the draft board have good careers? More simply, does past performance suggest that Simons and Little have the significant potential upside that general manager Neil Olshey has touted?

To answer that question, I aggregated the top 39 ranked players from high school classes dating back to 2002 (the last year the majority of players were drafted in the post-2005 one-and-done era) into a single spreadsheet. I then subtracted their draft position from class rank.

The resulting number tracks how far a player’s draft position departs from their recruiting rank — negative numbers indicate the player was drafted sooner than their recruiting rank while positive numbers indicate a player who’s draft position slipped relative to recruiting rank.

Here are some examples:

Note that the RSCI ranks (and all the other info in the spreadsheet) was copied from Basketball-Reference.

This table tells us that Thomas Robinson and Maurice Harkless were both drafted 23 spots ahead of their recruiting rank, while Anfernee Simons fell 17 spots from his rank.

In other words, Simons was the 7th ranked recruit form his class, but was only drafted at No. 24, a 17 spot slide so he gets a value of +17. Conversely Harkless, who was drafted well ahead of his recruiting rank, has a negative “Pick — Rank” because he was drafted ahead of where predicted (Here’s a link to the full spreadsheet.)

Now that we have a rough metric for how far top ranked players climbed or fell on draft night, I want to see if that climb/drop in draft position correlates to productivity in the NBA.

Basketball Reference’s recruit rankings page includes win shares (WS), which I also copied onto my spreadsheet. I then divided WS by number of years in the league to create a WS per year mean. While not a perfect proxy for NBA success, WS per year will give us a general feel for whether or not a player contributed during his career.

From there, I checked for a correlation between “Pick — Rank” and win shares per year, creating this scatter plot:

Note that players who never played in the NBA or were never drafted have been excluded.

For the stats 101 crowd out there, r = -0.195 and p = 0.0005 for the relationship between WS per year and draft position relative to recruiting rank.

In English, that tells us there is a relationship here such that as players are drafted at a higher position than their recruiting rank they produce more WS. But that relationship is VERY weak — i.e. many players who are drafted well below their recruiting rank produce a lot of win shares and vice versa.

Overall, this chart is neutral news for Blazers fans. There is a very slight trend predicting that Simons and Little will be less likely to have successful careers than someone like Harkless, but that trend is so weak it’s nearly meaningless. On the flip side, based on this historic data, there’s also no reason to believe that Little or Simons have more upside than any other late first round draft pick, contrary to Olshey’s narrative.