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How often do teams make the correct pick in the NBA draft?

The higher the pick, the better the player a team should get. At least, that’s how the draft is supposed to go.

Los Angeles Clippers v Milwaukee Bucks
Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers drives around Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of a game at Fiserv Forum on December 06, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The NBA draft is the chance for teams to start building foundations to contend for a title or add to their existing championship structure. Franchises hope to land top draft picks in order to secure the best players, sometimes in explicit ways deemed detrimental to the league.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how good a player will be until he takes the floor. And with many NBA prospects enter the draft before they turn 21, it’s hard to tell exactly who will be good in two to three years. As a result, teams often don’t take the best player with the top selection.

The Philadelphia 76ers understood this randomness when they underwent “The Process”. The team acquired as many high draft picks as possible, knowing the hit rate on each pick wasn’t high. With more chances to draft top players, eventually the team would get enough picks right to build a contender.

So how often do teams selecting in the top five pick a player who ends up being one of the five best players from the class? Here’s a look back at all the top five selections from the 2010-19 NBA drafts. The players in bold ended up being in the top five of their class.

2010: John Wall, Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson, DeMarcus Cousins

Wall and Cousins were picked in the top five, but Gordon Hayward and Paul George were not. The two forwards, who arguably ended up being the top two players in the class, went ninth and 10th respectively. Eric Bledsoe, Hassan Whiteside and Lance Stephenson are all contenders to be placed ahead of Turner and Favors in the top five. The hit rate here varies depending on how you view Turner and Favors.

2011: Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas

This was a not a good look for teams at the top of the draft with Irving being the lone player who ended up being one of the five best in the class. Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler are the most notable players from this year, but Nikola Vucevic and Kemba Walker also went outside the top five. Isaiah Thomas and Tobias Harris were also in this group.

2012: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Thomas Robinson

I thought Kidd-Gilchrist would be a good player, but he never learned how to shoot. Waiters, on the other hand, never learned when to stop shooting. Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond went just outside the top five, but the real steals came in the second round of this draft with Draymond Green and Khris Middleton.

2013: Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr., Cody Zeller, Alex Len

This draft class is mostly known for Giannis Antetokounmpo going 15th overall. Oladipo checks in as a top five player, but no one else makes the list. CJ McCollum and Rudy Gobert clearly rank above the players drafted in the top five and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope may have the edge over Otto Porter Jr., despite the latter getting a big contract. Another situation where the hit rate could change based on your personal view of the player.

2014: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum

The Sixers got the only player worthy of a top five pick with Embiid, which is shocking considering the reviews on Wiggins and Parker coming into the draft. The former is on a big contract while the latter is struggling to stick as a rotation player. Zach LaVine has performed well above his draft position and Julius Randle is likely to be taken higher in a re-draft, but the biggest diamond in the rough from this class is Nikola Jokic. The second-round pick was named 2020-21 NBA MVP.

2015: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja

This was a good showing from teams in the top five, although Russell and Porzingis are no longer with the franchises who picked them. Devin Booker, Myles Turner and Montrezl Harrell all went outside the top five and have performed than Okafor and Hezonja. The latter was a personal favorite of mine for his competitive demeanor and confident quotes, but never matched that flair on the court.

2016: Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn

This is another banner draft, relatively, for teams in the top five. However, there was a lot of great talent outside the top five. Pascal Siakam, Jamal Murray, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Buddy Hield all went outside the top five and have panned out well in the league. Brogdon and Hield could challenge Ingram for a spot in the top five in this class, but the New Orleans Pelicans wing gets the nod.

2017: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox

Jackson is the only major mishap of this class in the top five. Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo are clearly top five players in the class. Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins is going to be paid like a top five player from a draft class this summer. Lauri Markkanen and OG Anunoby are also in the mix, but Fox gets the nod over those players.

2018: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young

Depending on how Jackson Jr. develops, this could be the best performance in the last decade of drafts among teams picking at the top of the lottery. Bagley looks like a very poor selection at the moment, especially with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. thriving. Porter Jr. would’ve been a top five pick had it not been for a series of injuries throughout the previous season and pre-draft process. Mikal Bridges has earned himself a sizable extension after this season.

2019: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett, De’Andre Hunter, Darius Garland

It’s still fairly early to judge this class, but Williamson and Morant have justified their draft position so far. Barrett is coming along nicely in New York, while Hunter is fitting well in Atlanta. Garland could take a bigger role with Cleveland soon. Tyler Herro, P.J. Washington and Matisse Thybulle have been decent so far. Cameron Johnson and Keldon Johnson are also productive players early in their careers.

The Verdict

Of the last 50 players drafted in the top five, only 20 justified their position. Even if you want to make arguments for Turner/Favors, Hunter and Jackson Jr., that’s a hit rate between 40 and 46 percent on top five selections. Given the amount of intel teams supposedly have on players, this is not good. The 76ers hit on two of their four selections in the top five during “The Process”, but they’re also interested in trading Simmons entering the 2021-22 season. They also traded Bridges and even though he wasn’t a top five pick, he would be a useful piece for them right now.

What does this mean for the 2021 NBA draft? It means two or three of the Pistons, Rockets, Cavaliers, Raptors and Magic are likely to take a player who will not live up to his draft position. We won’t know who those players are for another few years, but we do know they will exist.