Chasing Gilbert Arenas: The Grail of the Second Round

Chasing Gilbert Arenas: The Grail of the Second Round
Feb 02, 2007, 07:09 pm
Other Gearan and Allen columns on DraftExpress can be found here

The dream of every elite NBA prospect is to come out with that most cherished of commodities, the first round guaranteed contract. However, with only thirty spots available in the first round of the draft, even the most promising player can drop to the second round in the blink of an eye. A sub-par season preceding the draft, a lingering injury, or a minor legal infraction is all it takes to launch a dizzying slide down the draft board. Former early season mock draft lottery darlings (yes, we’re talking to you, Chris Taft) with visions of their name dropping gently from the lips of David Stern suddenly find themselves hoping that Russ Granik will pronounce their name correctly in front of the one or two New York basketball junkies who have not already caught the train home.

Conversely, NBA general managers are seeking the opportunity to make their splash: to snap up a hidden gem in the second round. Looking to get a guy to fill a role or to take a flier on a long-shot star, GMs troll the bargain aisles of the second round to find that player nobody else has sufficiently appreciated. These are the picks that can make legends of GMs; picking Lebron James at #1 is child’s play, but finding Dennis Rodman (3rd pick of 2nd round,1986) among the chaff, now that is brilliance!

But how likely are these outcomes? How often does the second round draftee become a star or even a decent starter? And how likely is it that Isiah Thomas will choose the next Manu Ginobili deep in the second round? The short answer is not very. But with all of the efforts made in scouting, finding good solid role players must certainly be a more realistic goal? Yes, of course - but not by very much.

A Brief History of Round Three and Beyond

While every spring the excitement builds for the first round of the NBA draft, teams have always made selections beyond that highly anticipated first one. For decades teams (and some of the more ardent fans) sat through round after round of selection in a grueling process. Mercifully, in 1989 the league did away with round three, after axing rounds four through seven the year before. Previously, the draft had been reduced from 10 rounds in 1985, and from 20 - yes 20 - in 1974. With 53 roster spots, the NFL may need 7 rounds, but what was the NBA thinking? Can you imagine the televised event that this would produce even now? You know that upper level league administration would be long gone, dining at the Four Seasons by the time some intern announced: “With the 208th pick of the 2007 NBA draft, the Dallas Mavericks select (fill in the name of the star of your local community college here).”

The multi-round draft was largely a vanity process in which teams took care of old friends and adopted community favorites. Witness the 7th through 10th rounds for the Boston Celtics in 1984: Mark Van Valkenburg (Framingham State – in Massachusetts), Champ Godboldt (Holy Cross – in Massachusetts), Joe Dixon (Merrimack College – in Massachusetts), and Dan Trant (Clark University – you guessed it, in Massachusetts). Rumor has it that the Celtics were going to try for a little geographic diversity but could not decide whether to go for a kid from Rhode Island or New Hampshire.

These late rounds were also occasionally used for comic relief or a bit of touching recognition, as in 1982 when Boston took the disabled Indiana star Landon Turner with the final pick of the draft.

It’s not that there weren’t some good players drafted in rounds three and beyond. Spud Webb (1985 – 4th round), Mario Elie (1985 – 7th round), and Sedale Threatt (1983 – 6th round), were all pleasant surprises in their day. However, in these more civilized times, players like these are given the more dignified label for an underdog: “undrafted free agent.”


In this article, we examined players drafted in the second round between the years of 1980 and 2006. For outcome analyses, we have found in previous work that it takes five years before the true value of most players can be reasonably assessed, so we used only players drafted through 2001 for these analyses.

In previous work examining the first round draft picks from 1980 to 2001 (the results of which and specific methodology of player outcome ratings are contained in a previous article which can be found here), player outcomes were rated on a seven-point scale with the following categories:

7. Superstar (top 10-15 player in the league)
6. All-Star caliber player
5. Solid starter
4. Marginal starter/Top bench player
3. Solid bench player
2. Barely in league/End of bench player
1. Out of the NBA

We used these same rankings when evaluating how players, and teams, fared in the second round.

Second Round Outcomes

The most likely five-year outcome for the 574 picks made in the second round between 1980 and 2001 was that they were no longer playing in the NBA. Mixed in were a few bench players and, rarely, a starter or star. Of these players, 29% never played in an NBA game, 62% played fewer than 100 games, and 72% were not in the NBA within five years after being drafted.

Only nine star players arose from this group: Ginobili, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Price, Michael Redd, Doc Rivers, Clifford Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Nick Van Exel, and Gilbert Arenas. There were an additional five players who, while not consistent stars, made one all-star appearance: Danny Ainge, Cedric Ceballos, Antonio Davis, Rashard Lewis (of course he may yet become a higher profile star), and Kevin Duckworth. But basically, if you are looking for an all-star gem in the second round, good luck. Your odds are about one in 50. Additionally, of the 14 players listed above, only Ginobili, Hornacek, Ceballos, and Davis were obtained in the latter half of the second round.

So is there a distinct difference in outcomes between the bottom of the first round and the top of the second? While neither segment enjoys an enormous amount of success, low first round picks are given more initial opportunity than high second round picks, and do have more long-range success. In comparing the bottom 5 picks in the first round with the top 5 picks in the second, we see that late first round draftees are far less likely to be out of the NBA in 5 years (40% vs. 64%). Also, twice as many late first rounders (19%, or 21 of 110) as early second rounders (9%, 10 of 110) became at least solid NBA starters within five years. Interestingly, the advent of guaranteed first round contracts does not seem to be influencing this process, as these trends are similar in both the 1980s and 1990s.

Since 2002 there have been several notable second round finds (not included in these analyses), including Carlos Boozer, Dan Gadzuric, Ryan Gomes, Zazu Pachulia, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Chris Duhon, Trevor Ariza, Monta Ellis, Kyle Korver, Keith Bogans, and Luke Walton. The apparently increasing success of second round draftees can be attributed to several factors and will be addressed later.

Top versus Bottom Half of the Second Round

There was not a large difference in outcomes for players drafted in the top half of the second round versus those drafted later (Table 1). Players selected in the bottom half did marginally, but not significantly, worse than those selected in the top half. There are, however, more solid starters and top bench/marginal starters found in the top half, as compared to the bottom half. Also, the only superstar of the second round was drawn in the first half, along with six of the eight stars of this round.


Second Round Outcomes by Drafting Team

As it turns out, there are no teams with superstar GMs possessing uncanny abilities to find those unexpected second-round successes. Teams generally had comparable success with their second round draft picks over the past twenty years. However, there were a couple of teams that did slightly better than the rest, and a couple who were particularly unlucky in the second round.

While the average NBA team sees 70% or more of its second round draft picks out of the league within five years, Milwaukee had only 52% of their twenty-one second round picks meet that fate. Milwaukee seems to have been particularly good at identifying bench players in the second round, with a third of their picks becoming either solid bench players or top bench/marginal starters in the time period examined. Milwaukee was also able to extract one solid starter and one star (Michael Redd) out of their second round picks in this time period.

Dallas has also done well with its second round picks. Only 56% of Dallas’ thirty-four second-round draftees were out of the league within five years. However, unlike Milwaukee which only had one end of the bench player from the second round, about 15% of Dallas picks were barely hanging on at the end of five years. However, another 15% of Dallas’ second-rounders were solid bench players, and 9% were marginal starters. Dallas also managed to find a solid starter and a star (Mark Price) in the second round, although they promptly traded his rights to Cleveland. A moment of glory snatched.

The Golden State Warriors, while performing only average overall in the second round, deserve special mention for hitting the second round jackpot by picking this article’s eponymous superstar in 2001. However, they unfortunately experienced the dark side of not having a player contractually under your control for four years: if they become stars immediately they can leave for big money elsewhere. After his second year, Washington was able to lure Arenas away from Golden State with a six-year /$64 million deal (looks like a bargain now). This event served as a catalyst for some GMs to begin using a large part of their mid-level exception money to secure second round picks for the maximum allowable three years - just in case the player goes Arenas (or even Arenas-lite) on them. This also led to the “Arenas Provision” in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, which effectively addressed this loophole, but did not close it completely.

At the other end of the second round, Orlando and Vancouver have each seen 100% of their eight second round picks out of the NBA by year five, while the New York Knicks have seen all but two of their sixteen second-rounders sending postcards in that time. So while there do not appear to be any second round draft savants among GMs, there may be a few franchises who have been particularly poor at recognizing NBA caliber talent (or lack thereof).

Second Round Outcomes by Position

There is not a substantial difference among positions in terms of the likelihood of second round draftees remaining in the NBA five years after being drafted, although point guards/ combo guards fare slightly better than wings or big men (Table 2). Star players, or even solid starters, are rare for any position.


Second Round Outcomes by Year

There is not a lot of variation in second round outcomes from year to year. Nor has there been any trend toward better (or worse) second round players over time. Approximately 72% of players were out of the league five years after being drafted in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. The only year that truly stands out in terms of stellar second round outcomes was 1986. A mere 48% of players drafted in the second round of 1986 were watching games from their living rooms five years later. The second round that year also yielded an amazing 3 all-stars (Price, Rodman, and Hornacek), representing a third of all of the all-stars drafted in the second round over the years examined. Interestingly, in the first author’s previous assessment of first round picks, 1986 yielded one of the worst first rounds among the past two decades of drafts.

Unfortunately, 1987 quickly reversed these fortunes, offering the worst year measured for second round outcomes. Among second round draftees in 1987, a whopping 87% were out of the league within five years, and no solid starters emerged. The two best players drafted in the second round that year (Vincent Askew and William Garland for those of you keeping score at home) were only marginal starters/top bench players five years later.

The Future of the Second Round

The primary developments that may have a significant influence on the future of second round draft picks are the further internationalization of the talent pool, the ability of teams to carry 15 players on the roster without having to resort to the sleight of hand of the injury list, and the creation of the NBA Developmental League as a tool for development.

Sixty-two percent of the 119 second rounders chosen between 2003 and 2006 made a team roster in the year after their draft. Admittedly, many of these draftees had very short careers, including what may be one of the shortest NBA careers ever: that of Slavko Vranes, a 2003 draftee who played a whopping three minutes of regulation basketball before bidding adieu to the NBA. But at least Slavko and his compatriots got a chance.

Many draftees in recent years have been international players. Thirty-seven of the recent second round draftees did not play college ball in the US. Of those players, a mere 30% made an NBA roster in the year after they were drafted. However, given the handling of
international athletes in the draft, and the emerging trend of the secondary market of NBA draft rights, it is certainly possible that more of these players will eventually do some time in the NBA.

Among the 82 domestic draftees chosen in the second round of the last four drafts, 77% made a roster in the year after they were drafted. These percentages are notably higher for the past two years, since the inception of the NBDL (Table 3).


In addition to these factors, the economic ramifications of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will always provide both opportunities and limitations for young players. As indicated earlier, some teams have chosen to utilize part of their allocated Mid Level Exception money to sign second round draft picks to multi-year deals. Other teams, however, have held roster spots for large veteran contracts of non-active players to use as trade chips rather than cutting that player in favor of a younger developmental “project.” The guaranteed contract, the increasing longevity of players, and the ability to import overseas talent via free agency all make roster spots a valuable commodity. Second round picks are generally given a narrow window during which to prove their worthiness for one of these precious seats.

Dreams would not be dreams if easily attained. The search for the next Arenas, Rodman, Boozer or even simply the next Bimbo Coles will continue. This potentiality is part of what makes even the deep recesses of the draft so fun and intriguing. Just don’t listen with too open a heart on draft night when your team grabs that conference player of the year with the 49th pick and all of his positive attributes are glowingly described by the GM. Odds are, in five years you’ll be struggling to remember #49’s name.

Note: Data for this article was compiled from,, DatabaseBasketball(2.0), and The authors would like to thank all those involved with developing and maintaining those resources and making them available for public use.

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