The NBA Draft Order Debate: Is Position Everything?

The NBA Draft Order Debate: Is Position Everything?

The annual NBA draft is one of the most anticipated events in professional basketball. Teams look to replenish their rosters with young talent in hopes of building a championship contender. The draft order plays a major role in determining where prospects land.  

Teams that finish near the bottom of the standings typically get earlier picks, while playoff teams select later. This system aims to help struggling franchises rebuild by acquiring higher-rated players. 

However, an ongoing debate exists around whether draft position matters more than the player selected. Should teams always opt for the highest remaining player on draft boards, or does positional need also factor in? This article explores arguments on both sides. 

The Position-Based Approach 

Many teams enter the draft with clear positional needs on their roster. As such, there is an argument for slotting prospects into those holes rather than simply going with the top talent.  

The NBA draft order gives teams a clear picture of when they can select players to fill their roster needs. This position-based approach suggests that teams set themselves up for more cohesion and balance by drafting for fit and need. 

Plenty of examples show that targeting a specific position has paid dividends. In 2019, the New Orleans Pelicans lucked into the No. 1 overall pick and chance to take phenom Zion Williamson. However, they also desperately needed a point guard. As such, they used their No. 8 selection on Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver to fill the playmaking void.  

Culver has since developed into an All-Star caliber guard, perfectly complementing Williamson. 

Likewise, in 2021, the Cleveland Cavaliers used the No. 3 pick on Evan Mobley to slot in as their center of the future next to emerging guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Building around an elite big man was their priority, and taking Mobley over other top prospects like Jalen Suggs or Jonathan Kuminga has proven a wise move. 

The theory is sound – target weak areas in the draft and build a coherent team from the ground up based on scheme and collaboration. However, it isn’t without flaws. Reaching for fit can sometimes mean missing out on premium generational talents just because they play the same position as an incumbent star. 

The Position-Based Approach

Best Player Available Approach

The “best player available” philosophy suggests that drafting based purely on talent upside and superstar potential, regardless of roster construction, is the smartest path. This school of thought argues that elite prospects transcend fit issues and should not be passed up. 

This philosophy succeeds with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s approach in back-to-back drafts. In 2022, they took Chet Holmgren’s No. 2 overall despite having promising big man Alperen Sengun on the roster. The following year, they captured wing prodigy Scoot Henderson at No. 1, even with the emergence of Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the perimeter. 

Rather than worry about duplication, the Thunder stockpiled elite young talent at every turn. Though still developing, Holmgren and Henderson project to be franchise pillars that OKC can build around for the next decade. 

Likewise, in 2020, the Charlotte Hornets took LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 pick despite having talented young guard Devonte Graham in the fold. Graham was later traded to clear the decks for Ball to assume full creative control. It paid off, with Ball blowing away Rookie of the Year voting and elevating the Hornets back to playoff contention. 

From these examples, the best player available won out over fit and roster balance. And given the superstar potential of prospects like Ball, Holmgren, and Henderson, it is easy to see why. Franchise-changing talent is hard to pass up, even if it doesn’t solve an immediate lineup problem. 
Best Player Available Approach

Weighing Priorities 

Of course, most teams don’t adhere strictly to either philosophy. The draft almost always comes down to weighing priorities and decision-making under uncertainty. Weigh the risk vs. reward of each prospect and try to balance current roster needs with future ceilings. 

The Houston Rockets found the perfect balance in 2023 by taking French phenom Victor Wembanyama No. 1 to be the tentpole superstar of their rebuilding efforts. But with their second top-10 selection, they opted for guard Amen Thompson to fill their glaring hole at lead playmaker over frontcourt project Ausar Thompson. 

Wembanyama was the best player available, but the fit and upside of Thompson at a position of need nudged him above higher-rated prospects. This flexibility in approach has served the Rockets well as they craft a young core. 

Furthermore, the Orlando Magic in 2022 took the No. 1 prospect in Paolo Banchero to be the focal point star. Still, it used their second lottery choice at No. 6 on Jeremy Sochan – targeting a versatile defensive wing to complement Banchero’s offense and plug roster gaps. 

Weighing Priorities

The Verdict

There is no consensus on whether team building through the draft should begin with targeting positions of need or letting the draft board fall as it may. Valid cases can be made for both schools of thought.  

Often, the perfect blend sits somewhere between the two, based on context and evaluation of prospect upside. Stars certainly transcend fit issues, but finding players to accentuate them remains important. 

The 2024 draft brings another opportunity for franchises to get this mix right—Victor Wembanyama headlines as a generational prize, much like Zion Williamson in 2019. But how teams use their secondary picks around players like Scoot Henderson, Ausar Thompson, Jarace Walker, and Cam Whitmore could make or break the cohesion of their rebuild. 

Therefore, the debate around draft philosophy will rage on. The fruits of this year’s draft strategy will become clear in the coming years for the league’s basement dwellers. 

The Bottom Line 

The ideal draft strategy remains an ongoing debate, with valid arguments for prioritizing fit and position or letting the draft board unfold organically based on talent. A balanced approach, combining franchise cornerstones when available and addressing roster gaps, could yield the best results.  

Besides, teams should not hesitate to select generational talents with top picks, even if incumbents play the same position, as elite upside can transcend traditional roster building. However, they must also identify prospects who can contribute immediately and fill gaps around those cornerstones with other valuable picks.