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On the Reaction to the Scottie Barnes Pick

Why did people have the reaction they did? Let's examine three reasons: the reality of a rebuild kicking in, mock draft priming, and information asymmetry.

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Image: Clutch Points

The reaction said it all:

Why did people have this reaction? Let’s examine three reasons: the reality of a rebuild kicking, mock draft priming, and information asymmetry.

The Reluctant Rebuild

From a basketball perspective, if the two options were of beefing up the roster to come back strong next season or taking a longer view to matters, the Raptors did the latter. There is little point repeating things (Oren already covered it here and Tim has a response as well).

What can be inferred by the decision to select potential over production is how the Raptors brass views the ceiling of the current roster. The selection lends credence to the incessant Pascal Siakam rumour mill where the idea is that the Raptors want to avoid entering a DeMar DeRozan Part Deux era. If the rumours are to be believed, the Raptors are trying to ship Siakam despite the forward’s market value arguably being the lowest. This is puzzling but one course of speculation could be that this isn’t just about basketball but franchise fit – you may recall Siakam having a bust-up with Nick Nurse, and perhaps that is thematic rather than an isolated case. We don’t know, but giving up on Siakam for purely basketball reasons seems premature, especially given the low yields.

Pulling off a Kawhi 2.0 trade seems unlikely, with the only “star” player on the market being one that can’t shoot, and even if a Siakam-for-Simmons swap is made, it doesn’t move the needle much in the direction of contention. Frankly, I would much rather have Siakam simply because of his defensive impact than anything Simmons has to offer. The main benefit of having Simmons over Siakam is that his age is more aligned with OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr.’s, paving a way for a couple years of experimentation with a different core.

I do believe that the Raptors would have liked to compete now, but no matter what the trade configuration of their main assets (Siakam, VanVleet, Lowry), it just doesn’t produce something worthy of getting excited. So to sum it up, there are three, not two options:

  1. Step forward and aim to win now
  2. Stay steady and build incrementally
  3. Step back and build with a longer view

Option number one requires the Raptors to have a Kawhi-type trade which is unlikely. Option number two would have aligned with a Jalen Suggs pick, which leaves us with number three: the longer view.

Here’s my take on Scottie Barnes: Masai Ujiri missed out on Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 right after signing with the Raptors. Toronto did not have a pick in that draft and though the Raptors tried to get into it, they couldn’t. It was an opportunity missed and Ujiri is trying to find another diamond in the rough. The quest continues.

Mock Draft Priming

The over-analysis of this draft is a function of the void that needs to be filled by media outlets (this site included) as there isn’t anything else going on after the regular season ends. So we discuss the same prospects ad nauseum. We create videos, mock drafts, big boards, discuss highly unlikely scenarios (hey, we made a Moses Moody video) only to put out engaging content. Is all the content relevant? Probably not. Is a lot of it redundant? Absolutely. The most redundant might be the mock drafts, because they all say the same thing: Jalen Suggs at #4.

The same idea appears on different sites not because analysts have independently arrived at that conclusion, but because they’re influenced by what’s already out there. It’s like the “Netflix Top 10 in Canada” which often consists of older movies and TV shows which happen to be popular at this moment. Is it because many people concluded that The Walking Dead should suddenly be popular again, or because Netflix put The Walking Dead in front of them and they just clicked on it? Call it availability heuristic, exposure effects or whatever else you call the idea of group think, but the end result is the same: people being led to think the same way by a small group of people. Exposure to the same information gets primed in our brains and suddenly anything but the expected seems like a departure from the sane. So when Scottie Barnes’s name gets called to that reaction, there’s much more than his basketball skill that’s on the mind.

As a side note, Thinking Fast and Slow significantly changed my view on how to interpret these events and the book is a must-read.

Increasing Information Asymmetry

Players are staying in college/G League for less time than they did 10 years ago. It is now par for the course for a freshman who had a good season to declare for the draft and have a decent chance of getting selected. The top five picks in this draft were all freshman. Rewind to 10 years ago in 2011 and only two of the five were (Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson). Rewind a further 5 years to 2006 and there was only one freshman in the top five: Tyrus Thomas.

There’s always been information asymmetry between what teams know and what analysts know, and this asymmetry has increased. This is relevant because analysts who produce the hundreds of mock drafts are working off less data than before simply because they get to see less of the players due to their shorter stints in college. The increasing use of data and tools to evaluate players to make up for the shorter college careers can result in incredible insights, but these insights are more available to teams than analysts, whereas watching a player play was available to anyone.

Then there are the private workouts and interviews where most of these decisions get made, and the Raptors being the tight-lipped organization they are, will not let these details slip. So though ESPN and the Ringer do their best, neither are anywhere close to having the access to insider information, especially on the Raptors. Case in point is Michael Grange who is supposed to be an insider and has his picks backwards hours before the draft:

According to the intel I’ve been able to gather – the Raptors have zeroed in on Gonzaga’s six-foot-five two-way guard Jalen Suggs as their preferred choice if he’s available, though six-foot-nine do-it-all defender Scottie Barnes of Florida State would be a more than welcome fallback option if Suggs is off the board.

In fairness to Grange, it’s not like the Raptors have any incentive to tell him or anyone else what their plans are. At the end of the day, he’s guessing much like you and me. In the older days the media was a good way to put out information to throw off other teams or to extract information – think Tyrion in Game of Thrones when he feeds three different people three pieces of information to see what bubbles back up.

Social media has eroded trust in media so teams that may have been influenced by what they read in a newspaper would now scoff at what might be written. Better means of communication between teams also means that there are ways other than the media where information can be spread, ideas influenced and intelligence gathered. What would you give to be in the “NBA GMs” WhatsApp group?

This is also a cycle that feeds itself: because analysts get it wrong, they become wary of making such predictions in the future, thus increasing the secrecy around the Raptors operations.

If your job is to evaluate college talent, that has to be your main job. You simply can’t be following the league in an in-depth manner, covering the day-to-day for a team, and also have firm opinions on who’s a good fit for each club. Players are now coming not from just the NCAA and globally, but also from the G League, which makes scouting that much more difficult. The information needed to evaluate talent is increasing, and our attention spans are going the other way around. At some point, you just got to trust…the organization.

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