Draft season just ended, one of the times in sports that arm-chair general managers like me enjoy most.
We get to ask, “Why did you pick this guy over that guy?” and “Anybody could have picked that guy.”
Major League Baseball and the National Football League have already held their drafts. This weekend, it was time for National Basketball Association and National Hockey League teams to sift through many talented players and find the ones to build for the future.
Baseball’s draft is the only one that occurs in the course of the season. It is by far the largest of all drafts, lasting an incredible 40 rounds. The NFL and NHL drafts include seven rounds each. In the NFL draft, 256 players are selected. In the NHL draft, there are 217 players picked. The NBA draft is by far the smallest, consisting of just two rounds with a total of 60 players selected.
Compared to the other three sports, relatively few baseball selections ever make it to the major league level. Most baseball draftees come from the high school and college baseball ranks and begin their hopeful climb to the big leagues through one of many minor leagues. That ladder starts with rookie league or Class A level teams such as the Fort Wayne TinCaps.
The top picks in the football, basketball and hockey drafts are all expected to make an immediate impact at the top level or within a year or two of their selections.
The NFL hasn’t had a developmental league for young players since NFL Europe folded in 2007. The NBA has its own developmental league, plus players can go to Europe and play for any number of club teams. Like baseball, there is a tiered system of minor leagues for hockey, with the triple-A American Hockey League, the double-A ECHL where the Fort Wayne Komets play and the single-A Southern Professional Hockey League. If they aren’t ready for the pro ranks, young hockey players can return to their junior teams or continue in college before signing contracts.
NFL prospects tend to be the oldest players — in their early 20s — usually having completed three or four years of college before turning pro. NBA players are a bit younger, with one-and-done prospects — playing a single year of college basketball — becoming more commonplace. Baseball and hockey prospects tend to be younger still. At this weekend’s hockey draft, it wasn’t unusual to see a 17-year-old donning a jersey of the NHL team that drafted him.
It’s interesting to see how teams prepare for the draft and what their intentions are. However, like a boxing match, those plans can go right out the window when your opponent lands a punch to the jaw. In a draft, the equivalent is when the team above you snatches up that prize pitcher, sharp-shooting basketball guard, golden-armed quarterback or acrobatic goaltender.
Draft day, no matter the sport, usually carries with it a number of trades. Those trades could come from teams deeper in the draft wanting to move up to take a run at someone they deem to be a hot prospect. Trades also come from teams high in the draft who realize that one player isn’t going to turn around the franchise overnight, and they try to move down to accumulate more picks.
The only guarantee is there are no guarantees at the draft table. Even the best general manager can be wrong on a prospect. Even the worst general manager — like a blind squirrel eventually finding a nut — can guess correctly on a prospect or two.
That basketball player who looked like a sure-thing phenom one day could blow out a knee on the first day of practice and never be the same. That golden-armed quarterback might not be able to complete a pass with a pro defense in his face. That prized pitcher may not be able to find the plate against big-league batters. That acrobatic goaltender may not be able to stop a beach ball in the big time.
By the same token, a player taken in the fifth round of the football or hockey draft could turn out to be just what your team needed — a character player that others look up to. Five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. Conversely, Heisman Trophy finalist Ryan Leaf looked to be a sure thing, taken second behind Peyton Manning in the 1998 draft. He played just 25 games over three seasons and was out of professional football by 2002.
Sometimes, it’s a series of what-ifs and best-guesses, even on the surest of prospects. It just proves there are no sure things in any sport, no matter the athlete.
It also means wannabe general managers like me will keep turning in and imagining who we would have drafted or traded.
Maybe that’s why somebody somewhere created dynasty modes in electronic games.