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March 22, 2012
Disappearing Act
The Lost College to NBA Star

by Neil Paine

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As perennially exciting as the NCAA Tournament is, most sports fans will tell you that the overall quality of college basketball feels like it has declined sharply over the past 10-15 years. But since feelings aren't numbers, I did a little research to show exactly how much the relationship between the NBA and NCAA basketball has changed in recent seasons.

For a time, the obvious culprit was the preps-to-pros phenomenon that inundated the NBA Draft in the late Nineties and early 2000s. Although a handful of players (notably Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, & Bill Willoughby) made a similar exodus prior to the '90s, Kevin Garnett's giant leap from Farragut Academy to the Minnesota Timberwolves ushered in an era of gifted 18 year olds taking their talents directly to the game's highest level. Between 1995 and 2005, 39 prep players were selected in the NBA Draft, including three (Kwame Brown, LeBron James, & Dwight Howard) who went No. 1 overall.

Using the framework I laid out here to assign players into broad categories of performance (Superstar, All-Star, Starter, Regular, Scrub, Did Not Play), here's how the NBA's high school draftees fared:

Player             Draft   Rd    Pk    Outcome
------------------------------------------------
LeBron James        2003    1     1    Superstar
Dwight Howard       2004    1     1    Superstar
Kevin Garnett       1995    1     5    Superstar
Tracy McGrady       1997    1     9    Superstar
Amare Stoudemire    2002    1     9    Superstar
Kobe Bryant         1996    1    13    Superstar
Jermaine O'Neal     1996    1    17    Superstar
Andrew Bynum        2005    1    10    All-Star
Rashard Lewis       1998    2    32    All-Star
Kwame Brown         2001    1     1    Starter
Tyson Chandler      2001    1     2    Starter
Darius Miles        2000    1     3    Starter
Eddy Curry          2001    1     4    Starter
Shaun Livingston    2004    1     4    Starter
Martell Webster     2005    1     6    Starter
DeSagana Diop       2001    1     8    Starter
Sebastian Telfair   2004    1    13    Starter
Al Jefferson        2004    1    15    Starter
Josh Smith          2004    1    17    Starter
J.R. Smith          2004    1    18    Starter
Dorell Wright       2004    1    19    Starter
DeShawn Stevenson   2000    1    23    Starter
Travis Outlaw       2003    1    23    Starter
Al Harrington       1998    1    25    Starter
Kendrick Perkins    2003    1    27    Starter
C.J. Miles          2005    2    34    Starter
Monta Ellis         2005    2    40    Starter
Andray Blatche      2005    2    49    Starter
Amir Johnson        2005    2    56    Starter
Jonathan Bender     1999    1     5    Regular
Robert Swift        2004    1    12    Regular
Gerald Green        2005    1    18    Regular
Louis Williams      2005    2    45    Regular
Leon Smith          1999    1    25    Scrub
Ndudi Ebi           2003    1    26    Scrub
Korleone Young      1998    2    40    Scrub
James Lang          2003    2    48    Scrub
Ricky Sanchez       2005    2    35    DNP
Ousmane Cisse       2001    2    46    DNP

Superstar - 18%
All-Star - 5%
Starter - 51%
Regular - 10%
Scrub - 10%
DNP - 5%

For all the hemming and hawing about the dangers of letting high schoolers go straight to the NBA, only 15 percent of prep draftees were “scrubs” or worse, while 74 percent were starters or better (and 18 percent were classified as “superstars”).

In the meantime, the college game has had difficulty producing those kinds of superstars. Since 2000, only 67 of the 120 First- or Second-Team All-NBA slots were filled by players who went to college at all, and nine of the 19 “superstars” who debuted since 1995 saw zero college action.

Even fewer were actually considered stars while in college--among First- or Second-Team All-NBAers to debut in the last 15 years, none of Steve Nash, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook, Gilbert Arenas, LaMarcus Aldridge (assuming he makes All-NBA this season) or Derrick Rose garnered consensus All-America honors during their NCAA careers. Here's a breakdown of First- or Second-Team All-NBA players and their college status since 1963:

Year   College  AA
------------------
1963    100%    14
1964    100%    15
1965    100%    14
1966    100%    13
1967    100%    14
1968    100%    14
1969    100%     8

Year   College  AA
------------------
1970    100%     8
1971    100%     9
1972    100%     8
1973    100%    12
1974    100%    10
1975    100%     5
1976    100%     9
1977    100%    14
1978    100%    12
1979     90%     8

Year   College  AA
------------------
1980     90%     6
1981     90%     9
1982     90%     5
1983     90%     8
1984     90%    11
1985     90%    15
1986    100%     9
1987     90%     7
1988    100%     9
1989    100%     8

Year   College  AA
------------------
1990    100%     9
1991    100%     8
1992    100%     7
1993    100%     8
1994    100%     2
1995    100%     5
1996    100%     7
1997    100%     8
1998    100%     9
1999    100%    10

Year   College  AA
------------------
2000     80%     9
2001     70%     7
2002     60%     8
2003     60%     7
2004     50%     5
2005     60%     7
2006     70%     6
2007     40%     2
2008     40%     3
2009     50%     6

Year   College  AA
------------------
2010     50%     2
2011     40%     2
2012     60%     4

(This assumes, using on a regression based on past All-NBA voting, that the 2012 First and Second Teams will include Aldridge, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade.)

Aside from 1994, an outlier year in which the only former All-Americans who made First- or Second-Team All-NBA were Hakeem Olajuwon, Mitch Richmond, and David Robinson, the NBA has never seen so few All-Americans represented among its elite players as in recent years.

Want more evidence that the All-America teams have been increasingly unable to predict future NBA success? Here's a year-by-year accounting of All-Americans since 1981, along with the number of players who fell into each broad performance category:

Year    Tot   Super  A-S  Start  Reg  Scrub  DNP
------------------------------------------------
2010     11     0     0     3     3     3     2
2009     11     0     1     5     3     2     0
2008     11     0     2     4     2     1     2
2007     10     1     0     3     3     2     1
2006     12     0     1     3     7     1     0
2005     11     1     1     2     6     1     0
2004     10     0     2     3     1     3     1
2003     10     1     3     3     0     1     2
2002     10     0     1     6     1     0     2
2001     10     0     0     6     2     2     0
2000     12     0     1     4     5     0     2

Year    Tot   Super  A-S  Start  Reg  Scrub  DNP
------------------------------------------------
1999     10     0     4     3     3     0     0
1998     10     0     4     3     2     1     0
1997     10     2     1     7     0     0     0
1996     11     2     1     7     1     0     0
1995     10     0     2     4     3     1     0
1994     11     2     1     7     0     1     0
1993     12     3     2     4     2     0     1
1992     10     2     1     5     2     0     0
1991     10     1     4     4     1     0     0
1990     12     2     2     6     1     0     1

Year    Tot   Super  A-S  Start  Reg  Scrub  DNP
------------------------------------------------
1989     11     1     2     5     2     1     0
1988     11     0     4     6     1     0     0
1987     10     1     3     5     1     0     0
1986     11     1     2     5     2     0     1
1985     11     3     1     6     0     0     1
1984     11     4     0     5     2     0     0
1983     14     3     2     9     0     0     0
1982     10     1     4     4     0     0     1
1981     11     1     5     3     2     0     0

Here's a summary in five-year blocks:

Year       Tot    Super   A-S   Start     Reg  Scrub    DNP
-----------------------------------------------------------
1981-85     57     21%    21%     47%      7%     0%     4%
1986-90     55      9%    24%     49%     13%     2%     4%
1991-95     53     15%    19%     45%     15%     4%     2%
1996-00     53      8%    21%     45%     21%     2%     4%
2001-05     51      4%    14%     39%     20%    14%    10%
2006-10     55      2%     7%     33%     33%    16%     9%

In the 1980s and through the early '90s, the stars of the college game tended to carry that status over into the pros. During that span, a full 84 percent of First- and Second-Team All-Americans went on to become NBA starters or better, with 36 percent becoming All-Star caliber players, and 15% becoming full-blown superstars. Not coincidentally, that period of time was a golden era for college basketball that saw the NCAA Tournament's popularity explode.

Starting with the beginning of the preps-to-pros era, though, you can see the erosion of college talent made manifest in the inability of NCAA stars to make the leap to the pro game. Only 23 percent of All-Americans from 1996-2005 became All-Stars or better (6 percent reached superstar status), with 35 percent washing out as non-starters or worse.

This was to be expected; after all, preps-to-pros meant that 3-4 prospects, mostly star-caliber, bypassed the NCAA per year, a phenomenon that couldn't help but damage college basketball's standing as a feeder system to the NBA. Curiously, though, the controversial age-limit rule that the NBA instituted in 2006 has not been particularly effective either when it comes to cultivating superstars at the college level. During the present one-and-done era, only one “superstar” (Kevin Durant) and four All-Stars (Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Roy) have been culled from the All-America ranks, representing just 9% of First- and Second-Team All-Americans over that span--by far the lowest percentage in a 5-year stretch since 1981.

The more common outcome for an All-American in today's game is to be an ordinary starter or even a non-starting rotation regular (33% have met this fate so far). There's still plenty of time for regulars like Evan Turner and Greivis Vasquez to become starters, and for starters like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to become All-Stars (in fact, Cousins arguably should have been one this season). But those are the exceptions--in reality, the book is likely already written on most of the post-age-limit prospects produced at college basketball's highest level, and it's not filled with anywhere near as many stars as in days gone by, despite the rule forcing elite high school talent to spend a year on campus.

The reasons for this counterintuitive trend are up for speculation. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that major awards (like All-America teams) are often handed to upperclassmen who, in a one-and-done system, are inherently less talented or NBA-ready than younger players. If they were stronger prospects, the reasoning goes, they would have declared for the draft as rising sophomores or juniors, long before having the chance to grab postseason hardware. Instead, older players like Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, who went undrafted and has never played a minute in the NBA despite being named to the 2010 All-America First team, post big numbers as 22-year-old seniors against mostly younger competition.

Whatever the reason, college basketball's brightest lights are not players of the same caliber as they were 30 years ago. This much is intuitively clear to fans (most of whom largely ignore the regular season and tune into the NCAA Tournament for the random thrills only a high-variance single-elimination tournament can provide), but it's also borne out numerically in the sport's increasing failure to convert its stars into high-impact NBA players.

Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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