In the 2005-2006 edition of the Pro Basketball Forecast book that ESPN analyst John Hollinger used to publish annually, he introduced the concept of a “second draft” where savvy NBA General Managers can acquire young prospects at a low cost before the rest of the league realizes the potential value of these players. Here’s how he described it:
“In the past, a player would leave school at age 21 or 22, sign a three-year rookie contract with an option for a fourth year and not hit free agency until about age 25. By then, his development as a player was nearly complete, so a team playing the free-agent market couldn’t find many bargains.
“The current environment has made bargain hunting much easier. If a player joins a team at age 19, he’s a free agent by the time he’s 22 or 23. In many cases, the players haven’t received much playing time and are still making all kinds of mental and physical adjustments to their game. Hence, teams can snap up a player like this in free agency, or even in a trade before he becomes a free agent, and with patience and a little luck they’ll have a quality player at a bargain price.”
On February 22, Raptors President/GM Bryan Colangelo traded the Miami Heat’s 2011 first round pick they acquired in the Chris Bosh “trade” to the Chicago Bulls for small forward James Johnson, who is in the second year of his rookie contract and was buried on a deep roster. It was primarily a cost-cutting move for the Bulls (Johnson earns $1.7 million this season and will make $1.8 million in 2011-12) and Colangelo probably had very few qualms in parting with a late first round pick in what is likely to be a very weak draft.
Johnson turned 24 two days before he was traded so he’s a little bit older than your typical second draft acquisition, but with only 880 minutes of NBA experience at the time of the trade and with what is obviously a raw skillset for this level, Johnson is a classic second draft pickup. When you consider that he was drafted 16th overall in 2009 and that Colangelo acquired him for what will likely be no higher than a 25th overall pick in a weak draft, the trade looks that much better.
Of course, it only looks like a good trade by Colangelo if Johnson can actually play. Technically, you could also consider former second overall pick Hasheem Thabeet to be a second draft pickup by the Rockets but all signs point to the likelihood that Thabeet is a bust of epic proportions. In comparison, Johnson already does a few things well — defense, rebounding, passing, shot-blocking — that make him a solid NBA rotation player at his current development level.
You can find a number of second draft examples over the past decade that didn’t work out — Darko Milicic, DeSagana Diop and Luke Jackson come to mind — but there have also been some notable success stories.
Jermaine O’Neal — Drafted as a 17-year-old by the Portland Trail Blazers, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he never averaged over 13.5 minutes per game in any of his four seasons in Portland. In August 2000, the Blazers traded him and Joe Kleine to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis. In Indiana, O’Neal was named to six All-Star teams and was the leader of the 2003-04 Pacers squad that took the Detroit Pistons to six games in the Eastern Conference championship.
Gerald Wallace — The Sacramento Kings selected Wallace as a raw 18-year-old with the 25th pick in the 2001 draft and he understandably didn’t see a lot of playing time in three seasons in which the Kings never won fewer than 55 games. He was snatched up by the Charlotte Bobcats in their 2004 expansion draft and almost immediately earned a starting spot with his athleticism and tenacious defense. Wallace developed some offensive polish over the next several seasons and played in his first All-Star Game last season.
Luis Scola — Considering the San Antonio Spurs’ stellar reputation with late draft picks, Scola sticks out as the one diamond in the rough they let get away. The Spurs drafted Scola with the 55th overall pick in the 2002 draft and were never able to negotiate a buyout with his Argentinian club over the next five years. San Antonio finally traded his rights along with Jackie Butler to the Houston Rockets for the rights to Vassilis Spanoulis, a 2009 second round pick and cash. Since he secured the Rockets’ starting power forward spot midway through the 2007-08 season, he’s continued to improve his game and he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists for Houston this season.
Will James Johnson turn into a success story like O’Neal, Wallace or Scola? Probably not. You would think the Bulls wouldn’t give him up so cheaply if he had that kind of potential. But if he develops into an above-average starting small forward over the next two seasons of his rookie contract, Colangelo will have used the second draft philosophy to turn a late first round pick into a player who will almost certainly be better than anybody he would have likely drafted with that pick.