Top prep school players don’t need college for NBA

When defenders of the NBA’s one-and-done rule for the draft want their selfish desires to sound altruistic, they often talk about top prep school ncaa nbathe need for those players to develop their basketball skills in college.

It’s not that they want to prevent qualified 18-year olds from entering the workforce; it’s that those 18-year olds will be better off professionally if they spend some time in college. It’s not that they want to force top college players to work for below-market compensation so they can enjoy better college basketball or see more mature players entering the NBA; they just want to help those players make good decisions.

To believe (or pretend to believe) basketball players are better off playing in college is to take a paternalistic view of those players (they can’t be trusted to make their own career decisions in a free market). It also fits nicely with the coach worshipping narrative that is so prevalent in college basketball (those kids need the coaches more than the coaches need the kids).

It’s a line of thinking that also ignores the overwhelming success of players who entered the NBA without playing in college before the league and players’ association adopted the one-and-done rule in 2006.  Michael McMann, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, summed up his academic paper on the subject:

In stark contrast to popular myth, this Article finds that players drafted straight out of high school are not only likely to do well in the NBA, but are likely to become better players than any other age group entering the league. In fact, on average, these players perform better in every major statistical category than does the average NBA player or the average NBA player of any age cohort. Beyond excellence in performance, high school players can also earn substantially more over the course of their NBA careers. . .

Similarly, Neil Paine of Basketball Prospectus studied the data and concluded: « For all the hemming and hawing about the dangers of letting high schoolers go straight to the NBA, only 15 percent of prep school 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. »

Now Gary Parrish of points out that the top 10 players in high school classes are almost assured of making the NBA: “There are five high school classes that have exhausted their college eligibility since the one-and-done rule was put into place, and those classes produced 50 top-10 recruits. Now guess how many of those 50 eventually played in the NBA? Answer: 46. That’s 92 percent.”

Parrish was making an argument for the usefulness of recruiting rankings. His data also makes the case that the best high school basketball players don’t need college to make it to the NBA. With McCann’s study showing that players who skip college end up being better pros and making more money than players who go to college, there is no rational basis on which to say basketball players need college to develop their skills.

That’s why it’s always laughable when coaches such as Kentucky’s John Calipari get credit for “developing” NBA players. Derrick Rose was going to be an NBA star whether he played for Calipari or any other college coach. Anthony Davis didn’t need college to become an All-Star in his second NBA season. Those players were showcased by Calipari (Rose at Memphis) but it’s not as if NBA scouts didn’t already knew they projected as stars.

Says Kobe Bryant, one of several superstars who didn’t play college ball: « It seems like the system really isn’t teaching players anything, if you go to college. . . . [T]hat’s always been the big argument, as a player you have to go to college, you have to develop your skills and so forth and so on, and then you come to the league. So, we kind of got sold on that dream a little bit. Fortunately, I didn’t really listen much to it. »

When I covered the Heat, then-coach Stan Van Gundy (who coached a year at Wisconsin) used to always say that players are much better off developing their basketball skills in the NBA than in college. He made it clear he wasn’t talking about intangible benefits such as getting an education (dubious as that may be), the social experience or anything not having to do with basketball. But from a pure basketball standpoint, Van Gundy said, the NBA develops players better.

In college, players are limited by NCAA rules by how much time they can practice. Even if they don’t get much playing time, NBA players get a lot more practice time, and against much better competition. They also get plenty of individual instruction from generally superior coaches whose time is devoted to developing players.

Anyone who watches a lot of college and NBA basketball can see the difference that makes. One of the unfortunate side effects of covering the NBA for seven years is that it made it harder for me to enjoy college basketball, which I’ve loved since my childhood in Louisville.

Beyond the obvious difference in talent, there is a major skills gap. The fundamental plays in the NBA happen like clockwork, with tempo and precision. After seeing that up close for years, it gets frustrating watching college players take 12 seconds off the shot clock trying to start a play, failing to reverse the ball to get open shots or struggling to make simple entry passes.

The best prep school basketball players are better off learning how to play in the NBA. The majority of lesser players might benefit more from some time in college. Regardless it should be their career choice, and anyone who says players need college to develop is just trying to generate a self-serving smokescreen.