The Psychology Behind Drafting Zion Williamson

The decision-making factors that steer us towards stardom.

Posted Jun 20, 2019

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

After one year at Duke University, Zion Williamson was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans as the first overall draft pick in the 2019 NBA draft. His combination of size, athleticism, and basketball intelligence are undeniable, and he was the near-unanimous consensus top prospect in this year’s crop of draft-eligible players.

But why? How do people “know” that he will be a better NBA player than anybody else in his cohort? The answer is: they don’t know for sure. People are just attracted to two attributes that Zion provides.

When making decisions, we typically consider two components of an option:

  • The mean expected value.
  • The outcome variance, also known as the risk.

This is all a fancy way of saying we usually don’t know exactly what will happen, but we have a good idea of what the possible range of outcomes are and what their likelihood is.

Mean expected outcome: If we think we’ll get a lot of out of an option, we would say it has a high mean expected value. Conversely, if we think an option will likely leave us dissatisfied, we would say it has a low mean expected value.

Outcome variance (i.e. risk): If we think an option could lead to a large range of possible outcomes, we would say it is high risk. Alternatively, if an option leads to only one or two outcomes, we would say it is a low-risk option.

The consensus is that Zion is probably going to be a very good NBA player. Standing at six foot seven inches, weighing in at 285 pounds, sporting a 45-inch vertical jump, and the ability to make moves like these, Williamson is an 18-year-old basketball savant. He put up good statistics in college, and played well in the NCAA tournament. Put in decision-making terms, Zion Williamson’s mean expected outcome is very high. Everyone expects him to be good.

There’s also very little belief that Zion will be a bad player. Nobody believes there's a chance he will be a bust playing in China in two years. And, if he improves his jump shot and becomes a league average (or even above average) shooter, his other attributes could make him an NBA superstar. This means Williamson has very little downside risk, while offering a lot of “upside risk,” which is more commonly referred to as “potential” in sports.

All of this is to say: Zion provides the ideal blend of having a high mean expected value and little apparent downside outcome variance.

This combination is something you also unconsciously (and hopefully consciously) strive for in your own life. The problem is, options in our lives naturally require trade-offs. We usually have to choose between high mean expected outcomes with high risk (e.g. trading in the stock market), or medium to low mean expected outcomes with lower risk (investing money in a 401K).

The Pelicans were lucky enough to get the holy grail of decision-making. If you ever find an option that offers you the same combination, you should take it before somebody else takes it the other way.

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