The rise of second-round picks: How the once undervalued draft assets are shaping a new market landscape

New Orleans Pelicans guard Josh Richardson during an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
New Orleans traded four second-rounders and Devonte’ Graham to San Antonio for Josh Richardson. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

While the minutes ticked away before the NBA’s annual trade deadline last Thursday, team after team landed player after player for second-round pick after second-round pick.

A handful of transactions snowballed into three- and four-team deals, but the LA Clippers effectively landed Bones Hyland from the Denver Nuggets for two second-rounders. The Memphis Grizzlies sent out three second-rounders in exchange for Clippers guard Luke Kennard. New Orleans traded four second-rounders and Devonte’ Graham to San Antonio for Josh Richardson. And the Hawks essentially shipped five second-rounders to Golden State for Saddiq Bey, only for the Warriors to reroute that number of picks to Portland and reunite with Gary Payton II. The list goes on, if you want to search RealGM’s transaction log.

In total, 71 second-round picks changed teams from Jan. 1 until the buzzer sounded at 3 p.m. ET on deadline day. Only 29 seconds were dealt during that window in 2022, 32 in 2021, 17 in 2020 and 32 in 2019 — which includes conditional picks, plus selections that allow teams to choose between the more favorable of two or three picks.

Not every second-round selection is created equal. Not every first-round pick is created equal. But the bona fide arms race to compete for a championship, all without a clear-cut title favorite, has left contenders with little first-round capital to trade, despite greater motivation than ever to improve. Contenders are selling everything short of their houses and the furniture that’s not screwed to the floor.

“You can’t trade first-round picks if you don’t have first-round picks to trade,” an Eastern Conference analytics staffer said.

The Lakers and Bucks emptied the cupboards to New Orleans to land Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, respectively. The Thunder control the Rockets’ picks, Houston controls the Nets’ picks, and Brooklyn now controls the Suns’ picks after dealing Kevin Durant for four unprotected first-rounders between 2023 and '29. “Any time there’s market imbalance, there’s going to be some wild trades,” one team cap strategist told Yahoo Sports.

Ahead of this year’s deadline, there were also few players available whom executives graded as worthy of their precious remaining firsts. For those who were available, their incumbent teams were holding out for more. The Pistons wanted an unprotected first-rounder and then some, sources told Yahoo Sports, in order to part with 34-year-old sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic. The Mavericks, and then the Nets, sources said, each turned down offers of multiple second-round picks for Dorian Finney-Smith. The Chicago Bulls told various inquiring teams they could get upward of two first-rounders for Alex Caruso.

But when the going rate for superstars such as Durant, perennial All-Stars such as Donovan Mitchell and fringe All-Stars such as Dejounte Murray has been a minimum of three unprotected first-rounders, you can understand why certain front offices would be reluctant to send out a first-rounder for a fifth starter in February.

“A lot of teams are holding those picks to go all-in for stars,” the cap strategist told Yahoo Sports.

Milwaukee did that for Holiday and still felt the need to improve for another shot at a championship this June. The Bucks coveted Jae Crowder so much that Milwaukee sent two seconds to Brooklyn for his services and then attached a second-rounder to each of George Hill, Serge Ibaka and Jordan Nwora in order to unload their salaries onto the Indiana Pacers. That’s a total of five second-round picks to incorporate Crowder into their quest for a second title behind Giannis Antetokounmpo.

There doesn’t appear to be any direct valuation of how many second-rounders equal a first in the absence of a team holding a first-rounder it's even willing to deal. Again, not every second-rounder is created equal. Picks between Nos. 31 and 45 often provide teams with a chance to land players their front office graded as having first-round talent — especially when that range yields players who are willing to sign two-way contracts, which don't count against a tax-conscious contender’s cap bill. The term “fake second” came into vogue with teams trading top-55-protected second-round picks, which convey only if that team has a top-five record in the league, and the chance of landing an NBA player in the last few selections of the second round is quite minimal.

But we have two clear examples of the inflation of second-round picks. For the past decade, when teams traded a protected first-round selection, it was standard practice for that pick to revert into a pair of second-round picks if it never conveyed. This deadline, New York traded its top-14-protected 2023 first-rounder to Portland in a deal that netted Josh Hart. That pick is almost guaranteed to fall out of the lottery as the Knicks vie for a playoff berth and are currently slated for the No. 22 selection in June. And if it does not convey, the draft capital owed to the Trail Blazers will become a staggering four second-round picks instead of just two.

In 2021, when Orlando pivoted into a rebuild and sold off its veterans, the Magic were unable to find a first-rounder in exchange for Evan Fournier and settled for two second-rounders from Boston. That going conversion rate has clearly increased — and seemingly doubled in certain deals. The Wizards got this year’s second-round ball rolling in mid-January by taking three seconds from Los Angeles for Rui Hachimura after originally searching for a first-rounder for their former No. 9 overall selection.

“I’m not sure if that set the market, but this is a copycat league,” an Eastern Conference executive said.

Several rival teams viewed the cost of absorbing Graham’s contract from New Orleans — with two more years at over $12 million per remaining — as a first-round pick, but the Pelicans were able to land Richardson in return for the price of four second-rounders instead. The Lakers got three second-rounders back for reserve center Thomas Bryant and then shipped one of those picks alongside Patrick Beverley to Orlando for Mo Bamba.

These are truly the quarters of the NBA’s asset pool. “Second-round picks are currency,” one assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports. This deadline, four and sometimes five equaled a dollar, and business was done. Extra second-rounders can also be used on draft night to move up into that valuable Nos. 31-45 range, and two or three seconds can often be dealt for a late first-round pick once teams are on the clock. But some franchise owners also look at their pick in the 40s and decide they’d rather sell it for cash.

We’ll learn more about this trend come draft night. Last June, the Knicks sent a 2023 first-rounder, plus four second-round picks, to Charlotte in order to help deliver Jalen Duren to Detroit and allow the Pistons to absorb unwanted Knicks salary and aid New York’s free-agency efforts. The league’s tinkerers just seem to keep getting more creative. And second-round picks have helped grease more and more deals amid this contested postseason chase across the NBA.