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Derrick Favors & the mystery of the 3rd draft pick: What’s in a Number?

In order to be the 3rd pick in the NBA draft you either have to be able to show a team something positive (be it talent, personality, or upside), or have Michael Jordan be a GM of a team. It’s hard to argue with the number of successful 3rd picks in the draft – this pick is usually money. For every Adam Morrison, Darius Miles, Raef LaFrentz, and Benoit Benjamin you have a Dominique Wilkins, Buck Williams, Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Chauncey Billups, Baron Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Al Horford, O.J. Mayo, and Pau Gasol. There’s a 3:1 ratio between All-Stars to busts at this echelon.

Three is a good place to draft, if for nothing else than the chance to take a solid player that’s not a huge question mark. You’re not reaching for a guy with upside, or taking a chance on a foreign dude here. This spot is most reserved for a known quantity, someone who produced in college, and is more than likely to be a player in this league. Even after factoring in the Chris Washburns, Benoit Benjamins, and Adam Morrisons from this pick – since 1981 till now (30 years) this pick has averaged 14.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, and 3.0 apg over their NBA careers. That’s not too shabby.

Derrick Favors is in the middle of this rookie campaign, one in which he was traded by the team that scouted him, interviewed him, and drafted him. This is a rare occurrence, but one must recognize that it’s not everyday that you have a chance to trade a rookie and a middling level starter for an Olympian / All-NBA type. Truly, Derrick Favors being traded as a rookie had more to do with the availability of Deron Williams than it had to do with Favors projected future development.

What’s so special about the number three draft pick? How well do Top 5 Lotto picks fair after being traded in their 3rd, 2nd, or 1st years of their careers? Click on to find out!

The Number Three Pick – by the numbers:

Before we go any farther, this entire post is the brain child of the magnanimous Ross Siler. He asked me a question (via twitter) and it was interesting enough that I HAD to look it up. That said, here’s the numbers of all the #3 Draft Picks in the last 30 years:

Clearly, Favors’ numbers look bad – mostly because his rookie season isn’t even over yet. Furthermore, he was drafted to a team that was special enough to a)both suck, and b) have a guy ahead of him on the depth chart that prevented him from getting the mucho-mucho playing time that other guys drafted at this spot get. Seriously, look at that list. Sean Elliott got 33.0 mpg as a rookie, and the New Jersey Nets couldn’t find more than 19.3 mpg for him. This doesn’t mean that Favors just needs more playing time to improve, he also needs to get better over-all.

I’m not discouraged by this chart, in fact I look at Baron Davis (who played around the same amount of MPG as a rookie) and see that you can be an All-Star type of player even if you have a slow start. Another sign of encouragement is that Favors seems to do more than just one thing. He doesn’t just rebound. He doesn’t just score. He’s capable of doing both in nearly equal measures. A quick look at the other #3 draft picked bigmen reveals that the more successful ones were able to do this as well. Sure, he doesn’t have the minutes or opportunities to really go out there and dominate the boxscore—but when he’s in the game he’s doing something right. In a perfect world he could be coached into a slightly taller, Malone-like scorer and rebounder.

Of course, I’m putting the cart in front of the horse quite a bit here. I dropped the M-word already without taking into account the point that this guy wouldn’t have been traded (probably) if he was a HOF lock. A number of rookies do get traded for a variety of reasons within their first three seasons. Let’s look at this closer.

Top 5 Lotto Pick Rookies who get traded early

To be precise, a Lotto pick should only be traded if a) the drafting team recognizes that he will be a bust, or b) a deal is too good to pass up. With the following list you’ll see some players who under achieved, but you’ll also see some guys that the drafting team gave up on too soon.

Out of the last 30 seasons, there have been three other Top 5 Lotto picks who were traded in their Rookie years: Chauncey Billups, Donyell Marshall, and Al Wood. Sure, Al was never an All-Star, but he still had a respectable career when all was said and done (he played in 417 games). Donyell Marshall, a much more accomplished player, was talented enough to play for a billion years and developed into a niche player. Sure, he wasn’t a ‘Nique or Jordan, but how many are? Billups went on to become Finals MVP while leading a system based team to a title. The players traded in their 2nd season and 3rd season are longer lists – and appear to display the same distribution of career success. You have some failures, but most of them were solid players or occasional All-Stars. It serves some purpose that the only Top 5 Draft pick to be traded in his rookie year, and who is also a #3 draft pick, is one of the most successful people on this list and a HOF candidate once their careers end. (Probably not first ballot, but still….)

What’s in a number?

Outside of statistics, I think Favors has a very bright future, and upside. Sure, he’s not going to gain the ‘benefit’ of Jerry Sloan "developing" him; but he’s going to go up against Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, (hopefully) Mehmet Okur, the wily Francisco Elson, and pituitarily advanced Kyrylo Fesenko every day in practice. Surviving that gauntlet will only make him way more capable in his future basketball endeavors than playing 30 minutes again against crappy players on opposing teams for 70+ games in his rookie season.

Each of these practice players have their advantages, from speed and guile to playing dirty and, well, being a 300 pound man with a 9’5 standing reach. Of course, if the Jazz coax Bigfoot Mark Eaton or Karl Malone into some sort of organized Bigman coaching spot I think he will only get better. At the power forward spot 6’10 appears to be the new 6’8/6’9. I think we should develop this rookie into a power forward more than a center at this point. Imagine if Malone had a jumper as a younger player. That’s what this guy could be with his length and skill set. Of course, I haven’t seen anything close to a post move from this guy yet – but he’ll have plenty of opportunities to develop one.

Dreams and fluff aside, this kid is raw and needs polish. You can see the basketball player inside, but over the next few months his skills need to be refined. If he has the proper work ethic and takes this job like a job we may have made a steal with this deal (without even looking at the other potential lotto picks). I don’t know if he does have those qualities though. What he does have going for him, though, is the pedigree of being a Number 3 draft pick. With Adam Morrison, O.J. Mayo (who is averaging like 12 ppg this season) and James Hardin all closer to ‘meh’ than ‘marvelous’ all being drafted in close succession the law of averages (and the actual list of the last 30 years) projects that Favors could be a really special player – when you keep in mind that crazy good 3:1 ratio of good players vs. busts found at this spot. That last statement probably doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, the illogic behind the good fortune for players in this spot does not make sense either. Sometimes good things happen beyond the rules of logical men. Getting Derrick Favors is a good thing, even if he’s not producing stats to blow people away with. After all, statistics are just numbers too. And what’s in a number?

Apparently nothing . . . unless it’s a number #3 draft pick . . .