Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Team is poised to select really good player with the high number pick in the draft. This selection will change their franchise for years to come.” You hear that or some iteration of that every single year in every single draft of every single league, or some iteration of that.
Most often times it is true, but it isn’t always that way. For every Peyton Manning there is a Jamarcus Russell. For every Lebron James there is an Anthony Bennett. There’s no doubt Peyton Manning and Lebron James are living legends, but the other two are only known for a couple of the biggest busts in the history of their sports. Something they all have in common? They were all first overall picks.
Good Scouting is More Valuable than a High Draft Pick
Before a player ever becomes draft eligible, they are put under a microscope. They are scouted based on their intangible traits (work ethic, maturity, etc.), physical traits/abilities, and how well they play for their current team. Scouting intangibles is important because you don’t want a player that doesn’t love the game or is lazy, and you don’t want to invest assets into a player if they are a flight risk or a risk of suspension.
Scouting a player’s physical traits/abilities are just showing how fast, strong, and agile they are compared to the competition, which is important because you don’t want a player that can’t keep up at the professional level. The gauntlet these players run through just to get to the next level is extensive. They are scouted in high school, they have coach interviews, All-Star games, and college recruitment (if players are required to go to college). Then, pre-draft they will have some more All-Star showcases, even more coach interviews, a scouting combine, pro days, and private workouts.
If teams play their cards right and have good scouting departments, they will find the right player whether they have a high first round pick, low first round pick, or none at all.
The NBA Champs
The most recent example of a team succeeding because of good scouting, and not having a slew of high draft picks is the current NBA Champions the Toronto Raptors. Not one of their postseason contributors were high draft picks, the earliest pick being Kawhi Leonard at 15th overall his draft year. One of the Raptors’ most significant contributors wasn’t even drafted: Fred VanVleet. This isn’t just true for the NBA, however. There have been many success stories across all major sports leagues that have been drafted past the first round or not drafted at all.
On the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox, Mookie Betts is coming off one heck of a year last year: World Series Champ, AL MVP, All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, AL Batting Title. What round was he drafted? The fifth. One of the best hitters ever was drafted in the 13th round of his draft: Albert Pujols. Hall of Famer and 19-time All-Star Cal Ripken was drafted in the second round. The vast list of great MLB players drafted in low rounds is peppered with the names of Wade Boggs (7), Nolan Ryan (12) and Mike Piazza (62).
In the NFL you have to look no further than probably the greatest player in the league’s history as a testament to scouting. Tom Brady was drafted 199th overall in 1999 and he’s still carving up defenses like a Thanksgiving turkey and winning championships like it’s his job (it is).
Arguably the best receiver in the league today in Antonio Brown was drafted in the sixth round, one of the best defensive backs, Richard Sherman was drafted in the fifth round, and Russell Wilson, his former teammate and the Seahawks franchise quarterback was drafted in the third round.
It’s not just current players either, there have been plenty of underdrafted Pro Football Hall of Famers. Some of the most famous are: Bart Starr (Round 17), Roger Staubach (Round 10), Mike Webster (Round 5), Terrell Davis (Round 6), John Randle (Undrafted), Warren Moon (Undrafted), and Kurt Warner (Undrafted). There are certainly more great underdrafted or undrafted players, but we could be here all day listing all of them.
The NHL scouting departments have even found success past the first round of their draft. Some of the most successful goalies have been drafted outside of round one.
Some examples that are playing the game now include: 2x Stanley Cup Champ Matt Murray and 2x Stanley Cup Champ Jonathan Quick (Both Round 3), and Vezina trophy (league’s best goaltender) winners Henrik Lundqvist (Round 8) and Pekka Rinne (Round 9).
Some of the biggest steals in NHL history also include: Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, who was considered the best two-way forward in the NHL during his playing days (Round 6), his teammate Henrik Zetterberg who scored just under a point per game during his career (Round 8), Patrick Roy, who some refer to as the best goalie of all-time (Round 3), Mark Recchi who is 12th on the NHL all-time points list (Round 4), and Dominik Hasek who is a six-time Vezina trophy winner (Round 10).
Just like in the other leagues, there are way too many players in the league’s extensive history to list all of the ones that were underdrafted or undrafted.
The Bottom Line
When a team drafts a player, they are taking a small leap of faith. Good teams with good scouting departments take smaller leaps than others. Good scouting departments will find players that no one else appreciates. They will find the players that slipped all the way to the end of the draft, and give them the chance that no other team will. Oftentimes when it pays off, it’s because the player was thoroughly scouted and they fit the system and the culture of that one team.
If you ask me if I’d rather have multiple picks in the first round or no first round picks but an excellent scouting department, I would say I’d rather have the scouting department without even missing a beat. Scouting departments aren’t dumb. They know about generational talents that they want to target in the first round. But, teams don’t sign players to lifetime rookie deals. Those deals run out, and there aren’t enough first round picks over those few years to field a super team through the draft. That’s why you must find contributors beyond the first round. A great scouting department will do just that, and maybe even find a Hall of Famer.