- Kevin Pelton, ESPN Staff Writer
Last week, my Per Diem colleague Tom Haberstroh laid out the ugly numbers for the 2013 rookie class. Fortunately, that season is in the past, and it's time to look to the future. Is there hope for last year's draft? I think so, within reason.
In general, how draft classes perform as rookies is predictive of their long-term value in the league. Here's how those match up in terms of wins above replacement player (WARP) for drafts from 1977 through 2000, the most recent class with fewer than 10 players still active.
There's a clear linear relationship, but it's far from perfect. And even far and away the worst rookie class in that span, from the dismal 2000 draft, racked up more than 300 career WARP the remainder of their careers as ineffective picks lost their playing time while the promising rookies developed into capable veterans.
Additionally, the greatest outlier of any draft class won't be found on the chart because it's too recent. During 2007-08, rookies from the 2007 draft combined to rate worse than replacement level. Led by fast-developing Kevin Durant and late bloomers like Mike Conley, Joakim Noah and Arron Afflalo, players from the 2007 draft have already racked up nearly 400 WARP, more than either the 2002 or 2006 drafts.
So, which players from the 2013 draft might someday help it escape ignominy? Answering that question required me to study the relationship between individual rookie performance and value going forward. I focused on the next three seasons, the remainder of the rookie contract, and found three predictive variables: Age, performance level (measured by win percentage, the per-minute component of WARP akin to PER) and minutes per game. Together, those three factors explain about half in the variation in average WARP over the following three seasons.
Based on those factors, here are the 2013 draftees -- not counting Nerlens Noel, who had no rookie performance -- most likely to excel over the next three seasons.
(5.6 projected WARP per season)
If we redid the 2013 draft a year later, Antetokounmpo would likely go No. 1. At age 19, Antetokounmpo started 23 games and never looked out of his depth. Among players younger than 19 at the time of their NBA debut, just three (LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith) played more minutes as rookies. Antetokounmpo's performance wasn't quite to that standard, as he rated around replacement level, but he's got years of improvement before he reaches his prime.