In what would prove to be a very weak class – the Boston Celtics made the steal of the 2006 Draft – trading for Rajon Rondo in a deal in which they acquired Rondo’s rights as the 21st pick for the simple cost of paying the final $1.9 million of Brian Grant’s contract and a late-2007 1st-round pick (owed to them from the Cavs).
Despite being the highest-rated point guard (and the first one off the board), Rondo fell all the way to #21 due to many valid concerns over his shooting ability (or lack thereof). Rondo dropped because that weakness over-shadowed his strengths, which essentially included everything needed to be a star point guard in the NBA – minus the perimeter shooting.
Fast-forward 7 years, and Rondo is a 4-time All-Star with 2 NBA Finals appearances and 18 career triple-doubles. He’s had a triple-double in the NBA Finals, and a 40-point 10-assist game in the conference finals. Although he has improved his shooting to the point teams have to respect his mid-range jumper, for the most part Rondo has done this despite still being a below-average shooter. In his 4 all-star seasons, Rondo has posted shooting percentages outside 15-feet of 29.8%, 38.7%, and 35.1% before improving it to 44.1% in the first-half of the 2012-13 season in which he would miss the final 44 games with a torn acl. While it certainly helps to play alongside the likes of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – Rondo had definitely become a top-tier point guard and one of the most unique talents in the league. This was a pick and transaction the Boston Celtics would re-do ten times out of ten.
Rondo was a freak athlete who could penetrate, rebound, and play defense yet the fears over his perimeter shot dropped him to the 21st pick. This exhibits many of the keys to finding steals in the bottom-half of the first-round. Too often – solid prospects who are really good in several areas are downgraded because of a single shortcoming. Roy Hibbert fell to the 18th pick because he was considered too slow despite being a 7-2 shotblocker with good hands. David West fell to the 18th pick because he was labeled as an “undersized PF” despite his offensive polish, physicality, and rebounding ability.
In the mid-to-late 1st-round you’re obviously getting nowhere near as clean a prospect as you are at the top of the draft. The warts and limitations are much more noticeable and the tantalizing potential not nearly as high. Great drafting teams are able to identify the players in whom they envision possess enough strengths to overcome their weakness, and who have the character and desire to improve in the areas they are lacking. The Spurs loved Kahwi Leonard’s potential as a physical defensive wing and didn’t allow his shaky perimeter game to scare them off because they felt his shot could be re-worked and significantly improved. The Nuggets didn’t allow Kenneth Faried’s lack of ideal height and skill to overshadow the vision that his athleticism and motor would be a perfect fit in their high-tempo style.
So like every year, in the 2013 NBA Draft there will be prospects available in the bottom-half of the first-round who scouts and experts will say can’t do x or y. And like every year, several of them will still find a team that isn’t settling for them but rather targeting them because they envision them becoming an above-average player.
Somewhere beyond #14 on Chad Ford’s Top 100, there is a player who in 2018 fans will be saying “Man, I can’t believe we didn’t pick him!” And then there will be one team feeling like they robbed their annoying neighbor’s house and got away with it. Such is the nature of draft night steals.