SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA draft lottery is tonight, and the Utah Jazz are nowhere near the grouping of teams hoping to win the No. 1 overall pick through the lottery process. The Jazz are slated to pick at No. 21 in June’s draft, closer to where the league's elite teams are drafting than they are to the cellar dwellers at the top of the draft.
The Jazz find themselves drafting in this remarkable position because they’ve found remarkable players, ironically, by drafting in this position. Rudy Gobert, who is the player on the Jazz roster most responsible for the team’s defensive identity, was drafted with the 27th overall pick, a draft pick the Jazz purchased from the Nuggets.
Donovan Mitchell, who represents the spark to the Jazz's otherwise dormant gasoline spill, was selected with the 13th pick, which the Jazz acquired by combining the 24th overall pick in the draft, and Trey Lyles, who was the 12th pick in the draft. While any top 15 pick is expected to be a contributor, Mitchell has wildly outplayed his draft position already in his young NBA career.
Now, drafting again in the 20s, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey will try to do the impossible again, something he’s done twice before, find elite talent outside of the NBA’s top 10 draft picks. In a league that focuses heavily on analytics and statistical trends, Lindsey is actively defying the draft’s odds with the players he’s selecting in the draft positions that he’s selecting them. It’s a bad model, and it’s almost unique to the Jazz.
The Philadelphia 76ers purposely lost games for four straight seasons in order to land top draft picks, and looking at their team makeup, it worked. Center Joel Embiid might round into the best player at his position for the next decade, and Ben Simmons might be the closest thing to Magic Johnson since he retired in 1996.
The Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks have the three best odds of winning the top overall pick and will likely add a franchise-changing player to their roster on June 21. In fact, losing games to earn the top pick has become so successful, the NBA has taken dramatic steps to prevent teams from tanking to rig the draft lottery.
Even the teams that have fared well drafting in a similar position to the Jazz have traditionally had a transcendent talent on their roster that buoyed the talent around them.
While the San Antonio Spurs were revolutionary in scouting and drafting international players, the winning done over those players' careers was due in large part to Tim Duncan, one of the five greatest players to grace a basketball floor over the past 20 seasons.
The Golden State Warriors appear to be on a hot streak of drafting players, and while their free-flowing offense may influence that, even mediocre talent when playing alongside Hall of Famers Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will appear far above average.
As of today, the Jazz don’t have a surefire Hall of Famer on their roster. In fact, they don’t have a player that has made an All-Star game. Those nods will come for Gobert and Mitchell in the next few seasons, but playing alongside the league’s top talent isn’t the reason these two players have excelled. The Jazz have identified high upside players late in the draft and trusted their focus on player development to fashion their roster into a winning team.
Now, because the Jazz have developed Mitchell and Gobert into franchise altering pieces, the player they pick in June’s draft has the luxury of not having to be a franchise-changing talent, but a supporting piece similar to what the Spurs and Warriors were able to find late in the draft’s first round, bolstered by elite talent.
Or maybe Lindsey will continue to prove that he doesn’t have to catch lightning in a bottle, but that he knows the formula for success selecting outside of the draft’s top 10. And if the Jazz find another elite talent like Gobert and Mitchell, the Jazz won’t have to worry about the draft lottery for another decade or more.