There was a time when second-round draft picks in the NBA held about as much value to some teams as the caps that were given to each player chosen on draft night.
As the new collective bargaining agreement imposes far harsher penalties for exceeding the salary cap, finding cheap, productive players after the first round closes has never been more important.
The NBA draft opens tonight, with most of the interest from fans focused on the top 14 lottery selections. While many might tune out once those are over, the draft will really be just getting started. Finding players who can fit into a team’s rotation — either next season or after a year or two of development — has become a priority for cost-conscious franchises that spend the bulk of their money on an All-Star or two at the top of their roster.
“Eventually, the cap is pretty hard,” new Timberwolves President Flip Saunders said. “You’re going to have to have people that are going to be able to fit in. Especially if you have a good team and have two or three guys who are close to max (salary) type players, then you’re going to have to find some low-end type guys that fit into (your payroll). That’s why the development of some low-round guys can be important.”
That trend could be seen all over the NBA playoffs, where teams struck gold with players drafted in the second round, or not drafted at all. The Golden State Warriors had Draymond Green and Carl Landry. The Houston Rockets had Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons. The Indiana Pacers had Lance Stephenson and Sam Young. The Memphis Grizzlies had Marc Gasol.
They were all players who were drafted in the second round, either by the team they were playing for or a previous team, and all played crucial minutes for teams making postseason runs.
It was more of the same in the NBA Finals, where Miami had second-rounder Mario Chalmers and undrafted big men Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem against the San Antonio Spurs, perhaps the NBA’s gold standard for finding and developing under-the-radar talent.
Danny Green was a second-round draft pick of the Cavaliers in 2009 and was cut twice by the Spurs before developing into a reliable perimeter shooter who broke the record for 3-pointers made in a finals series. Gary Neal was undrafted and had to go over to Europe before getting a chance with the Spurs’ summer league team and solidifying himself as one of the team’s first players off the bench.
And Manu Ginobili, of course, has been one of the most successful second-round picks in NBA draft history, a three-time champion and one-third of a Spurs core that has stuck together for 10 years.
“Ginobili ... that was a pick that a lot of people knew was going to be good,” Saunders said. “It’s just at the time a lot of people didn’t want to wait for him.
“Green was cut by Cleveland. There’s a lot of ways to build your team, whether it’s through the draft or taking guys that you feel fit better in your system than somebody else can.”
Other notable second-round picks in recent years include Isaiah Thomas, Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan and Goran Dragic.
Whomever is taken in the second round this season certainly doesn’t need to make a difference right away. They often are stashed away on the bench, or in Europe for a season or two, and developed before they get a shot at significant minutes in the NBA. Because they come into the league making a relatively small salary, teams can afford to be patient with them early.
In this new fiscal world, they can’t afford not to.
The penalties for exceeding the salary cap are so harsh these days that even teams in the largest markets with the biggest revenues are starting to pay it some serious attention. Often after signing two or three players to big-money contracts, there is little left over to spend on the supporting cast. Fortunately for the savvy NBA general manager, second-round picks cost them little in the way of up-front investment.
The trend offers encouragement for some of the fringe prospects in this year’s draft. They watched players who weren’t picked in the lottery become featured pieces in the postseason, offering a road map to the NBA one way or another.
“There are a lot of different routes to the NBA,” Wisconsin forward Jared Berggren said. “You don’t have to be a lottery pick or a first-rounder to make an impact in the league. I don’t know if that’s what it’s going to take for me. Whatever it takes, I’m going to stick with it and hopefully reach my goal of one day playing in the NBA, however I get there.”
And even if they don’t hear their name called tonight, Neal offered a little bit of advice on how to channel the disappointment into something productive.
“Just dealing with the reality that I wasn’t going to get drafted, that’s like a crossroad for a lot of guys coming out of college,” Neal said. “You realize you’re not going to get drafted and there’s a great chance that you might not become an NBA player.
“You kind of have to make your mind up that you want to continue on professionally and take the European route. After I talked it over with my family, that’s what I decided to do. I was able to mentally just get past the European thing and go over there and be professional about it.”