SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz have the No. 21 pick in June’s NBA draft. It’s a bit of a precarious spot to be drafting, and history appears to bear that out.
The picks are in the bottom third of the first round, meaning the team selecting has traditionally been a playoff team but wouldn’t be considered one of the true championship contenders in the NBA.
The last team to win a championship after drafting 21st overall was the Boston Celtics in 1983, who drafted BYU’s Greg Kite and won the championship in 1984. It would be hard to argue that Kite’s 197 minutes in the regular season played much of a role in the Celtics' championship.
While I believe it may be a little naive to examine all No. 21 picks as if they are a part of a controlled study, without dozens of variables that change from year to year, I think there is some value to looking at what type of player is traditionally drafted in this spot and what impact those players make historically.
I do believe most draft picks are influenced in some way by a general manager’s desire to mitigate the potential fallout for drafting a bust. The fallout being the loss of a job by a general manager, and the mitigation being completed by making easily defensible draft selections.
A good example of this would be the 2014 NBA draft. As the college basketball season concluded, Joel Embiid had elevated himself to the top player in college basketball. But because of his injury history, he wasn’t taken with the top overall pick. Instead, the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Andrew Wiggins with the top overall pick, and the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Jabari Parker before the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Embiid with the third pick.
Embiid has since gone on to be the most dominant player of the three, but drafting him, with his injury history, over two other highly touted but clearly lesser players, could have cost the Cavaliers general manager his job had Embiid failed to get on the floor over either Wiggins or Parker.
As mentioned, I believe every draft and every pick has its own specific set of circumstances that influence which player is taken: is the draft deep with talent? What are the specific needs of the team draft at No. 21? What are the common trends in the NBA the year of that draft? All of those things change every season and can make it difficult to identify patterns from season to season.
However, after looking at the history of the 21st pick, here are some common trends I’m seeing:
- First, older players are often drafted with the 21st pick. The average age of the pick, dating back 10 years, is 21, likely meaning the players selected are upperclassmen in college. These players have less upside going into the NBA but may have a more defined role as rookies.
- Second, the players traditionally selected at No. 21 were pegged to go lower in the draft than they were taken. According to nbadraft.net, the average projected selection for the players actually drafted with the pick was 25.3. Essentially, teams tend to reach for players with this selection.
- Third, the average career length is longer than its immediate counterparts. On average, the 21st pick has played 234.5 games in their career. The average player drafted with the 20th pick in the last 10 years has played roughly 189 games in their career. The average career length for players selected at 22 is just 204 total games.
- Finally, it’s simply a difficult spot in which to find success. The best player, according to ESPN, drafted with the No. 21 pick is two-time All-Star Michael Finley. Larry Nance, selected at 21 in the 1981 draft, made three All-Star appearances. No Hall of Famers have been drafted with the pick.
The Jazz find themselves with a nice luxury, though. Having already drafted Rudy Gobert in the 20s, fans can find comfort ahead of the draft knowing that General Manager Dennis Lindsey has done his homework when selecting this late in the draft. However, looking at the historical trends of the pick itself, perhaps fans should temper their expectations about the next Jazzman.