LeBron James was half of the NBA’s most effective two-man combination in the 2019-20 season. This fact surprises no one: He is, after all, the world’s best player.
More surprising, however, is the other half of that duo. When James shared the court with Alex Caruso, who went undrafted in 2016, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 18.6 points per 100 possessions, the best mark out of 864 two-man combinations that played at least 400 minutes. No other teammate in LeBron’s long and storied career—not fellow no. 1 picks, not future Hall of Famers—has formed such an efficient pair.
And in the Finals, it was Caruso’s insertion into the starting lineup that sparked the Lakers’ title-clinching Game 6 victory—the ultimate symbol for a postseason in which scarcely a day passed without an undrafted player sparking headlines. Caruso and Duncan Robinson started in the Finals. Daniel Theis and Fred VanVleet won plaudits with clutch performances in crucial moments. Luguentz Dort became a playoff legend by nearly single-handedly eliminating the Rockets.
This breakthrough for undrafted players was an extension of a broader trend. An NBA record-tying 136 undrafted players appeared in at least one game in the 2019-20 regular season, and adjusting for the number of teams and games played, they were more productive than ever before. (This graph’s timeframe begins with the NBA-ABA merger.)
The 2019-20 postseason ultimately exhibited—as usual—the value of superstars, with former no. 1 picks LeBron and Anthony Davis leading the way for the Lakers’ title run. But they may not have won their championship without one-time fringe players like Caruso taking giant steps forward in the playoff spotlight. Three of the top five Mavericks in playoff minutes were not drafted. Ditto four of the top 10 for Toronto, three of the top 10 for Utah, and three of the top 10 for Miami.
Undrafted players were already playing more, and better, than ever before, and after their showcase in the playoffs, the whole league must have taken notice. Years of evidence and numerous team employees and agents all agree: The undrafted trend will only grow through next season and beyond.
“Miami was the 5-seed in the East, and they went to the Finals featuring a few undrafted guys,” one agent says. “I think any team with half a brain is going to say, ‘Why didn’t we sign Duncan?’”
The first and most obvious reason for the rise in undrafted players is supply and demand. Starting in 2011-12, active rosters expanded to 13 players (along with two inactive spots), and in 2017-18, the introduction of “two-way” contracts gave each team two more players who are essentially allowed to move freely between its NBA and G League rosters. Compared to a decade ago, there are now nearly 100 extra NBA players each season. But the draft is the same size, 60 deep. Most of the extra players have to come from the undrafted ranks.
The NBA draft shrank from seven to three rounds in 1988, then to the now-standard two rounds the following year. Less than 1 percent of NBA players who appeared in the 1987-88 season were undrafted because every viable talent before then had been selected at some point in the late rounds. But with a shortened draft, the undrafted percentage rose quickly, eclipsing 5 percent by 1990, 10 percent by 1993, and 15 percent by 1997. It stayed in that range for the next two decades, until the introduction of two-way contracts boosted that figure another level, above 25 percent.
This graph shows the number of undrafted players appearing in at least one game in each season since the merger, with the seasons with two-way contracts colored red.
These undrafted players aren’t all back-end roster filler. Although the number of undrafteds appearing in at least 20 games hasn’t increased as steeply as the overall number, the 2019-20 season still set a record (77 players with 20-plus appearances) despite the abruptly shortened schedule.
For players, that means second chances for those initially overlooked by all 30 teams, as well as higher salaries for more NBA hopefuls: In 2018-19, players on two-way contracts earned a base salary of $77,250 plus extra for days spent on the NBA roster, versus the base G League salary of $35,000. For teams, it means a path to fill out the rotation on the cheap, while deepening the pool of potential contributors.
“When the NBA went to two-ways, our eyes got wide,” says a personnel executive for one NBA team. “The rise of two-ways made us look at these undrafted guys differently because it’s almost like you have a second draft as soon as the draft is over.”
Searching for the best “61s” or “61st picks,” as teams call them, has become a major part of draft preparation. Actually signing undrafted players is an entirely different process, involving a back channel with agents in the weeks leading up to the draft to see which players are amenable to going that route.
The kind of player who doesn’t get drafted is in large part an inverted byproduct of the kind of player who does: Undrafted players are often older, with more college experience. “The draft has become an upside play, especially in the first round,” the personnel executive says. “And a lot of the super-skilled, closer-to-being-ready-to-contribute guys get pushed into the two-way pile, in the undrafted pile.”
Out of the 20 undrafted players who tallied at least three win shares in the 2019-20 season, 15 were college seniors and three were international players, meaning only two of the 20 came out of college after fewer than four years. And that win-share cutoff means other productive college seniors like Caruso, Torrey Craig, and more aren’t included in that count.
Most Valuable Undrafted Players, 2019-20 Regular Season
|Derrick Jones Jr.
|Danuel House Jr.
Understanding that draft bias means casting a wider net in the predraft process to properly identify those seniors who might slip through the cracks. “You shouldn’t just be ranking 60 guys,” says another front office employee. “You should go over 100 just to make sure you cover all your bases and make sure you have a full list of guys that maybe will be able to come to training camp or play for your G League team.”
Only 14 players who were not drafted by NBA teams have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not one of the 14 is a recent star, however: Twelve debuted in 1952 or earlier, when the draft was stumbling in its infancy; the 13th was Connie Hawkins, who was banned from the league for years because of his connection to a college point-shaving scandal; and the 14th was Moses Malone.
Malone, a three-time MVP, is the best undrafted player ever, but his undrafted status comes with a large caveat: He jumped straight from high school to the ABA, then joined the NBA when the two leagues merged. He never had the opportunity to be drafted in the traditional manner by an NBA team.
Best Careers for Undrafted Players Since the Merger
In other words: Teams won’t find future Hall of Famers outside the draft. (Ben Wallace, outside the Hall but probably deserving with his four Defensive Player of the Year awards, is the only modern exception.) But in 2020, they can find role players galore past the 60th pick.
The modern undrafted success story fits into one of several profiles. He might shoot so well that his marksmanship overrides skill gaps elsewhere, like Robinson, Seth Curry, and Matt Thomas. He might be an overlooked foreign gem, like Theis, Joe Ingles, and Maxi Kleber. He might serve as a dependable, if not spectacular, reserve guard, like Garrett Temple and T.J. McConnell; VanVleet fit this profile once upon a time, before evolving into an even more valuable archetype. He might be a high-energy, if slightly undersized, big, like Chris Boucher, JaMychal Green, or sneakily enticing free agent Christian Wood. Or, in the largest category, he might fit the 3-and-D mold, like Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, Robert Covington, Danuel House Jr., Wesley Matthews, and more.
Above all, a successful undrafted player must make supplementary sense for his roster. “Teams try to find the right fit,” says Cody Toppert, a former NBA assistant and head G League coach, “and at times, that could potentially mean maybe the ceiling is lower, but the fit is better.”
Fit applies to both the teammates and the organization, which ideally knows how to nurture his growth during the development from draft castoff to valuable rotation player. “I think Duncan [Robinson] makes it no matter what, but you never know,” says Nevada Smith, who coached Robinson on the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Miami’s G League squad. “If he goes to an organization that doesn’t value what he does or doesn’t value their G League development program, does he ever get a chance? Because you can look at his deficiencies and say he can’t play and write him off. So it’s really who believes in them, who can give them a shot, and what fits their game.”
Because fit is so crucial to these players’ success, Smith argues that it’s better to go undrafted than to be selected late in the second round. “If you’re 50 to 60 in the draft, I think it’s better to be that next tier of 10 or 15 guys, where you can pick where you want to go,” says Smith, who now works at the University of Texas after five seasons with two G League teams. “I really think that’s a huge advantage. You can say you got drafted, I guess, if you get picked in those spots. But you’re put in one spot and you have to adapt to that.”
That was the idea back in the ’80s, when the National Basketball Players Association negotiated a reduction in the number of rounds in the draft: Fewer rounds meant more freedom for players to choose their teams. “The idea from our perspective [was] that a young person could then seek employment where his skills are most needed, as opposed to someone just deciding to draft him,” says Charles Grantham, who served as the NBPA’s executive vice president at the time and later became the executive director.
In that negotiation, the NBPA originally sought to eliminate the draft entirely, and Grantham still thinks this is the best option for players, so the best prospects could “have all 20 or 27 or 30 teams bidding for your services” instead of just one team that wins the prize. At a minimum, he says, sounding a bit like Smith, “the value of that second round is still questionable.”
The teams with the best track record of developing undrafted players into viable parts of an NBA rotation look like the usual suspects, given which teams relied most heavily on undrafteds in the 2019-20 season. This graph shows the total win shares from undrafted players for each team over the last decade. It’s not a perfect measure of undrafted development because it includes players over their whole careers—so the Mavericks, for instance, get a boost from Wesley Matthews even though he first developed in Utah and Portland—but the top teams here track closely with those mentioned by team personnel as the role models in this area.
Dallas takes the top spot not just because of Matthews’s veteran production, but because of contributions from J.J. Barea, Kleber, Finney-Smith, and Yogi Ferrell. Miami’s work with undrafted players extends beyond Robinson to Tyler Johnson, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, and Derrick Jones Jr. as well.
The teams at the top end of that graph have one key trait in common. “The teams that seem to hit on undrafted guys do seem to be the teams that prioritize their G League development,” the personnel executive says. “It’s not that they have 12 NBA guys or 15 NBA guys—they have 30 because the G League guys become an extension of the NBA club.”
No longer can smart teams eclipse their competitors by embracing simple strategies during a game; their most important work happens before games, away from prying eyes of fans. In baseball, for instance, the first sport to embrace modern analytics, every club is now on relatively even footing with statistically sound strategies like stacking the top of the lineup and eschewing the sacrifice bunt. The next analytical frontier is player development, where the smarter teams can separate themselves from the chaff by maximizing player talent. The same phenomenon has arrived in the NBA.
“The low-hanging fruit was like, ‘Oh, let’s shoot 3s and they’re going to shoot 18-footers and then we’re smarter than they are.’ Everyone’s figured that part out,” the personnel executive says. Now, teams need to find new advantages, like in the areas of “sports science or nutrition, and one of the things for sure is an inefficiency with how teams are using the G League.”
A decade ago, the NBA’s minor league—then called the D League—had only 16 teams, and just four were either owned by or affiliated with a single parent NBA club. Now, the G League has nearly doubled to 28 total teams, each one associated with one NBA team that can control the development of its prospects at a most granular level. (The Nuggets and Trail Blazers are the lone holdouts.)
One important trend in this developmental focus is a shift to specialized instruction rather than grouping all players—even at a certain position—together.
“Our player development was very much based on what roles these guys would have to fill at the next level. You don’t necessarily want to be the G League’s leading scorer,” says Toppert, who is now an assistant on Penny Hardaway’s staff at the University of Memphis. “Their development is, how can we develop you to stick in what is more than likely going to be a supplementary role, right? How are we going to develop you to be a sixth or seventh man? How are we going to develop you to fit one of these very specific job descriptions?”
Larger coaching staffs also lead to more individual attention; development is primarily a matter of time and resources. Here, too, smart NBA teams have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. Smith says that in his first season in the G League, his team had just one paid assistant and one computer for the whole group. But in his last season, 2018-19, he had two assistants, two operations managers, a video guy, a strength coach, and three interns, all working together to help the Heat’s fringe roster candidates improve to the point that they could start for a Finals team.
During this past postseason, Robinson was the most prominent player embodying the undrafted trend, but as soon as free agency begins, he’ll give way to another. After scoring 18 points and notching seven assists per game last season (regular season and playoffs combined) on 39 percent 3-point shooting, the Raptors’ VanVleet should command one of the largest contracts in a relatively lackluster market. Given Robinson’s and VanVleet’s success, it’s only a matter of time until more teams outside of Miami and Toronto follow the leaders and devote more efforts to unearthing undrafted gems of their own.
One NBA agent tells a story of unsuccessfully pitching a group of GMs on signing one of his undrafted clients. When that client finally found an opportunity and excelled elsewhere, the agent says, “multiple GMs from those teams said, ‘Hey, our plan is to call up a bunch of guys and just cycle through 10-day contracts because we missed on [the player].’”
After all, the agent continues, investment in the best two-way players is minimal, given their relatively meager salaries, but the potential reward is enormous. It’s all a matter of sample size and persistent investment in the project. “With the 61st pick, so to speak, it’s hard to hit on someone who’s going to be a real contributor,” he says. “But if you try enough times, the math says, if you’re smart and you try enough and the sample gets big enough, you’re probably going to hit on someone.”
These success stories can also increase the pool of undrafted talent, in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, by inspiring new college seniors to bet on themselves. Both the advent of two-way contracts and the expansion of the G League itself have vastly increased the available roster spots in the U.S. Many more fringe American players are staying in their home country and hoping they can jump one step to the NBA, says a scout who helps European teams find American imports.
As this scout notes, that development has made his job “way harder. It’s very annoying. But it’s the nature of the beast, so I understand it. There’s a month in, say, June when I have to play this whole guessing game of, like, is a guy going to sign an exhibit 10 or get a two-way, or can we get him for Europe?”
This shift of some amount of talent from Europe to the NBA’s waiting room has real repercussions for the league and its contenders. In 2018, for instance, future Finals starter Caruso was in discussions with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Lakers’ guard rotation would have looked mighty thin were Caruso in Israel instead of the Orlando bubble.
The pandemic could scramble this evolving dynamic. Team personnel aren’t sure whether the draft’s five-month delay, to November 18, will make for more undrafted surprises or fewer. On the one hand, safety precautions have permitted fewer predraft workouts, and the absence of summer league further prevents players on the cusp of a roster spot from making their case; on the other, front offices have had more opportunity than ever to closely scrutinize college film, and given both the abbreviated offseason and the potential for coronavirus-related absences to rostered players, they might be more inclined to target safer prospects in the draft. Uncertainty around the 2020-21 G League season only compounds these questions; so too does the league’s financial landscape, whereby some owners might be more eager to generate production from lower-salaried two-way spots.
But however the undrafted trend adapts to the current health landscape, there is little doubt it will grow in the seasons to come, once the league’s typical schedule returns—meaning more opportunities for those willing to work hard to improve and embrace complementary roles, like Caruso for James and the champion Lakers.
“If you’re not willing to be a round peg in a round hole … learn to speak Chinese,” Toppert says. “You’re going to have to go abroad to make your money.”
But the converse is enticing, Toppert continues: “Make a corner 3-point shot at a 42 percent rate and you’ll buy your mom a house. Now think about that.”