NBA draft futures: Auburn's Smith a good bet for now

April 21, 2022 10:25 PM

From a betting perspective, next week’s NFL draft in Las Vegas is dominating the conversation. With yearlong interest in the league, the draft has turned into one of the most anticipated betting events of the spring. 

All of this attention means the public has already hit the NFL draft boards and bookmakers have responded accordingly. 

Sure, there are still plenty of NFL bets to be made, but it’s a great time to jump ahead of the public and move over to the NBA draft market. This board is being overlooked while most NBA bettors are focused on the playoffs.

The No. 1 overall pick prop is available for proactive futures bettors. With the NBA lottery still a few weeks away — the lottery is May 17 and the draft is June 23 — there’s an added layer of risk in making this wager now that must be addressed. 

Betting on a player to be selected by a yet-to-be-determined team brings plenty of uncertainty, but that shouldn’t stop bettors from beginning their handicap process. Doing that work now can be advantageous since no prospect has been identified by the media as a clear favorite worthy of significant minus odds. Unlike in the NFL, the draft numbers for the NBA are fresh. 

The candidates: Most NBA analysts and bookmakers have the No. 1 overall pick down to three legitimate candidates: Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. ( 100 DraftKings), Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren ( 140) and Duke’s Paolo Banchero ( 350). Anyone else, including Purdue’s Jaden Ivey ( 7500), is a long shot that must leapfrog the top three. 

The lottery-ticket holders: The teams with the best chance to win the lottery are the Rockets, Magic and Pistons. All three have a 14% chance of landing the top overall pick. Bettors analyzing the No. 1 pick market should not be overly focused on which team wins the lottery. NFL and NBA draft analysis are not the same. In the NFL, positional need plays a major role in the top selection; in the NBA, size and skill trumps the G, F or C that follows a player’s name.

Styling and profiling

In this current era of the Big 3, teams are less interested in making five players fit the traditional positional rotation and more focused on finding flexible pieces who can score from behind the arc and in transition. 

The last three top overall picks — Cade Cunningham, Anthony Edwards and Zion Williamson — were selected primarily because of their scoring. Where they fit on the court with four other players has become a secondary concern. Perhaps conventional NBA thinking has changed since the 2018 draft, when Deandre Ayton went first and Marvin Bagley second because of their interior presence, leaving Luka Doncic and Trae Young on the board.

Regardless of which team selects first this year, the No.1 pick should fit the profile of a scorer with length, versatility and the ability to produce from behind the 3-point line. 

Who can best stretch the court?

There is a certain copycat philosophy NBA teams follow regarding playing style and personnel. As bettors, we need to identify this. 

Beware of mock drafts 

A general note to follow when handicapping drafts: Do not be overly influenced by the sudden changes some of your favorite online mockers might make on a weekly basis. 

Content providers generate a tremendous amount of traffic from mock drafts in all sports. The business model for these outlets is to increase their clicks to satisfy advertisers. That leads the mockers to post numerous versions of their drafts, with some different picks each time. This has more to do with generating interest on social media than it does with their thought processes actually changing.

Don’t let your betting decisions be overly reliant on a writer’s desire to boost his or her clicks for “Mock Draft 2.0.” The value in mock drafts comes from a macro perspective, not necessarily a micro one. 

Right now, when doing a Google news search of NBA mock drafts, there are plenty that identify Smith, Holmgren, Banchero and Ivey as the top pick. This lack of a clear consensus benefits futures bettors.

In handicapping the No. 1 pick market, the best sources are the local newspapers for each of the contending lottery teams. 

The market knows best

Oddsmakers tend to know draft projections better than anyone. 

That’s one of the reasons Smith, at nearly even money, is the best wager to make at this time. 

For most of the college basketball season, the 6-foot-10 Auburn scorer was referred to as the likely top pick in the NBA draft. Even though his Tigers failed to meet expectations, his outside shooting, size and defense are what NBA executives covet the most. Expect to hear how well Smith fits the “3-and-D” style.

How a player was presented to the public over the course of a college season must be emphasized in your handicapping. Fans are already familiar with Smith’s reputation as both the likely top pick and someone who will make a better NBA player than Holmgren or Banchero, 

Smith has draft inertia working on his behalf. The media and fan bases are familiar with the way Smith has been framed. Team executives, always on shaky ground when they have the No. 1 pick, may be fearful of going against what fans expect.

In today’s social media climate, team owners understand how important it is to win the PR battle.

Looking back at recent NBA drafts, players labeled by the media and bookmakers as the one who should go first are almost always selected in the top spot. Cunningham, for example, was -8000 to be the first pick ahead of last year’s draft.

The last time there was any real debate about who would go first was in the weak 2013 draft when Anthony Bennet — almost by default because of his size and profile — was taken first by the Cavaliers.

Since Smith is “the one” right now, he has no reason to overexpose himself during pre-draft workouts. That means a bet on Holmgren or Banchero includes the belief that either one can impress the lottery-winning team enough to overtake Smith and create a new media narrative. 

The knock against Holmgren 

On paper, a 7-foot frame to go along with tremendous shooting and ball-handling capabilities should make the former Gonzaga star the No. 1 overall pick. Being a big man who can play like a guard puts Holmgren into the “unicorn” conversation. 

However, being a unicorn, meaning a player with a unique look and skill set, may actually work against Holmgren. Other so-called unicorns such as Donic, Kevin Durant and Kristaps Porzingis were also highly coveted prospects, but some teams shied away on draft night (none of the three went No. 1 overall) because of concerns about their frames and physical strength. 

Their elite potential was easy to see. Nonetheless, general managers in the position to take one of those aforementioned players decided to look elsewhere. GMs drafting No. 1 must show immediate dividends and might not be comfortable waiting for a player to increase his weight. 

General managers of bad teams have a self-preservation motive that becomes apparent when analyzing the top picks in the major professional leagues. That works against Holmgren and should concern bettors who are looking for an option other than Smith at 100. If a team executive makes a selection based on how well a player fits an established profile, and if the player fails to meet expectations, the player gets the blame. If a team executive takes a risk and it doesn’t work out, the executive gets the blame.

The market is leaning toward Smith because he’s considered the safer option. Of course, Smith and Banchero also need to improve their strength, just not as much as Holmgren. 

How to play it 

A bet now on Smith makes sense from a timing and value standpoint. For those who think he will be the top pick, there’s no reason to wait for a better number. Once the lottery-winning team is determined, the odds will change. If the odds rise and he loses his current spot on the futures board, then it's probably a bet you didn’t want to make. 

Smith’s current value comes from the odds being around even money or a slight plus number at some books. If the tide does turn in Holmgren’s favor — if he works out for teams and shows some added strength — bettors who actively track this market should still have time to get a ticket on him at around 140. Coming back on Holmgren, if needed, can protect an in-pocket Smith ticket for the least amount of damage. The same logic applies to possible upward movement by Banchero.

Tracking and then playing this market early provides the opportunity to hedge out in any way since all come at a plus number. As a futures bettor, time can be an asset.

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