SALT LAKE CITY — There’s something about the moniker “lottery pick’’ that makes one automatically think “great player.’’
Obviously, it’s not always the case — see Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Darko Milicic. But for the most part, especially in the NBA, it’s the players who were once lottery picks that turn out to be stars that lead their teams to championships.
Last year’s champion Miami Heat is a prime example. They had five players who were once picked in the top six in the draft — LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller and Shane Battier. The year before, Dallas had seven lottery picks on its champion team that included the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler.
Go through past NBA champion teams and you’ll always find high lottery picks (top 14 in draft) from Tim Duncan to Paul Pierce to Shaquille O’Neal.
While there are always busts, as noted above, as well as low-draft picks and non-drafted players who turn out to be excellent players, it’s the high draft picks that everyone wants to build their teams around. And more than any other sport, players drafted high in the NBA go on to become the future stars of the league.
Utah’s new general manager Dennis Lindsey is well aware of that concept and agrees that most NBA executives hope to load up their teams with as many lottery picks as possible.
“If you study the history of the league, you really have to respect what we call the scouting curves opinion,’’ he said. “In football and baseball you can get all-time greats in later rounds. But in basketball, the talented prodigies, like LeBron James — most times they turn into the best players in the league.’’
Lindsey acknowledges there are “late bloomers” in basketball, but says it doesn’t happen as much as in other spots.
“When you study where guys are taken relative to their production, it’s a pretty strong relationship that the better players are taken sooner,’’ he said.
Remember the NBA list of the 50 greatest players ever that came out about 15 years ago? Of those 50 players, all but a handful were top-10 selections and 32 of them were top-5 picks. Of the players who have played since that list came out, those that would be considered among the all-time greats —James, Duncan, Kevin Durrant — most have been high draft picks.
That brings us to the Utah Jazz.
Forget for a moment about their 45-point loss Monday night and look ahead three or four years. Right now, the Jazz own more young, high lottery picks than anyone else in the NBA.
While five teams have more total lottery picks on their rosters (New York has the most with nine, but four are 38 years or older), no team has more under the age of 25. And the Jazz has the most under the age of 22 with Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (21), Alec Burks (21) and Enes Kanter (20).
It’s a big difference from most of Jazz history when Utah has rarely had any lottery picks. Remember neither Karl Malone nor John Stockton were a lottery pick, and those great teams of the late 1990s only had a handful of lottery picks (Chris Morris, Thurl Bailey, Felton Spencer).
Lindsey gives all the credit to longtime Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor, who assembled the present roster with some shrewd moves to acquire the current group of high lottery picks.
The Jazz “earned” its lottery pick in 2005 thanks to a poor record and O’Connor traded from No. 6 to No. 3 that year to draft Deron Williams. That pick was parlayed into acquiring Favors and Kanter as well as Marvin Williams, who was traded last offseason for Devin Harris.
The Hayward pick came from a deal with the Knicks. The Jazz would have had a high lottery pick last year until Golden State tanked the final month to keep a protected No. 7 pick (the Jazz will get the Warriors’ pick this year, probably around No. 20). The Jazz also picked up Randy Foye, a former No. 7 pick, this year as a free agent.
“Kevin O’Connor deserves a lot of the credit for his ability to collect first-round picks that have turned into lottery picks,’’ Lindsey said. “So I feel really fortunate to be in the same camp with Kevin relative to his ability to see into the future to bring projections with delayed gratification and staying disciplined to how we need to build.’’
One of the teams closest to the Jazz in terms of young, high lottery picks is Wednesday night’s opponent, New Orleans, which has three under the age of 22 in 19-year-old Anthony Davis, 20-year-old Austin Rivers and 22-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu.
Other teams with three lottery picks under age 22 include Washington (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely), Charlotte (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Bismarck Biyombo) and Cleveland (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson).
The big exception to the lottery picks rule is San Antonio, which currently sports the best record in the league with just one lottery pick. Of course, it happens to be one of the greatest players of all-time in Duncan, who has been the anchor of what has been a top NBA franchise for the past couple of decades.
Lindsey came from San Antonio and he has very nice things to say about his former employer. However, even he admits that the Spurs have found success due to a perfect storm that isn’t likely to be duplicated in the NBA any time soon.
“Everybody talks about the San Antonio model. Well, there is no model,’’ he said. “You line up David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich all together — in my opinion that will not happen again in the NBA. That’s so unique.’’
The Jazz are happy with its 47th picks (Paul Millsap, Mo Williams) as well as its players picked 27th (Jamal Tinsley, DeMarre Carroll). But to contend for a championship in the future, they’ll need to build their team with as many lottery-pick players as possible. With the young players they have, the Jazz future looks bright.
“We’re not a finished product,’’ Lindsey said. “But we want everybody to understand that we know we’re playoff competitive but not championship competitive yet. And we aspire to put ourselves inside the championship competitive group, even if we need to take a real patient approach.’’