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by Jon Nichols
With the 1st pick of the 2nd round in the 1975 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks selected Bill Willoughby of Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey. He was the 7th player in NBA History to enter the NBA straight from high school but the last player to be drafted out of high school for 20 years. One year earlier, Moses Malone was hired by the Utah Stars of the ABA out of high school. Despite his future success, no team in the NBA was willing to risk taking a high school player in the draft again until the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Kevin Garnett with the 5th overall pick of the 1995 draft. This move was met with much criticism. After all, aren’t teenagers too weak mentally and physically to play professional basketball for 82 games?
Since 1995, 50 players who played their basketball outside of the United States have been taken in the 1st round. However, despite players such as Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko becoming stars in the NBA, some GM’s and fans still dislike selecting foreign players. After all, aren’t foreign players unprepared for the most competitive and physical league in the world?
To solve these myths, I took a look at the careers of NBA players drafted in the 1st round between 1995 and 2002 (many players drafted since 2003 still have the chance to develop). The stat I used to rate these players was Player Efficiency Rating (PER), developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger. Players were divided into six categories: college seniors, college juniors, college sophomores, college freshmen, high school players, and international players. Additionally, lottery picks (picks 1-13) were separated from the rest of the players taken in the 1st round.
The table below shows the average PER of the different groups:
The most successful group in the lottery was players from high school. Undoubtedly helped by the high PER’s of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Amare Stoudemire, high school players have had an average PER of 17 through their careers so far. College seniors attained the lowest average PER.
Looking at the first round as a whole, high school players still had the highest average PER, and seniors still had the worst. Interesting to note is that as players drafted get older, you see their average PER drop. Foreign players fit somewhere in the middle.
Another way to look at the success of the players drafted is by the variations of their careers. I determined this by looking at the standard deviations of the groups:
As common sense would suggest, college seniors were very predictable, and high school and international players were the most unpredictable, both in the lottery and the 1st round overall. So far, drafting a high school player has been, to an extent, taking the all-or-nothing approach. However, it must be emphasized that predictability isn’t necessarily a good thing. Even if you knew what you were getting with a college senior, you knew that what you’d be getting was a below-average player.
One last thing to look at is how many players in each group were “busts.” I determined a bust to be a player who played less than 50 games in their career:
International players had the highest percentage of busts. Over 15% of foreign players drafted in the 1st round between 1995 and 2002 have failed to set foot on an NBA floor 50 times in their lives. Some other observations…
One final statistic to share: the average PER of lottery picks taken between 1995 and 2002 was 15.21. The average PER of non-lottery picks taken in the first round was 12.31.
With the NBA’s recent decision to ban the drafting of high school players, a great talent pool has been eliminated. Undoubtedly many players who would have left after high school will now leave after their freshman year of college. Before any serious conclusions are made about these findings, a couple possible pitfalls of this study should be mentioned:
Based on my research, I believe the answer to the title of this essay is: no, college experience does not necessarily help an NBA player in the future. The future of the NBA is in the hands of foreign players and players drafted out of high school or in their early college years.
Information from Basketball-reference.com, NBADraft.net, and www.thedraftreview.com was used in this study.
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