College Basketball Recruiting: Assessing NBA Draft Early Entrant Risk

How likely are blue chip recruits like Devonta Pollard to depart early for the NBA, and how does that impact the way we should think about optimal recruiting strategy?

As Texas Longhorns basketball fans wait for five-star McDonald's All-American center Cameron Ridley to sign his letter of commitment today, and the attention turns to five-star McDonald's All-American small forward Devonta Pollard, I've begun to spend some time thinking about the benefits and risks to recruiting these high profile players. As a Texas fan, for obvious reasons I've been increasingly interested in evaluating the risk associated with underclassmen in general -- and McDonald's All-Americans, in particular -- leaving early for the NBA Draft, and in trying to assess how that impacts their relative value to a college program.

NBA Draft Early Entrants By Class

As a starting point to considering this question, I decided to look, first of all, at how many early entrants between 2009-12 were either freshmen or sophomores, and then second, how many of those freshmen and sophomores were tabbed McDonald's All-American between 2008-11. For a more complete study of this question, I would also want to spend the time identifying recruits who were consensus five-star players but were not named to the McDonald's All-American team -- for example, John Wall and Jordan Hamilton, both of whom were five-star recruits who would have been named to the 2009 McDonald's All-American team but for failing to meet the eligibility criteria.

Regardless, even this more limited review proves instructive. First, let's assume for present purposes that we're only interested in identifying recruits who leave after their freshmen or sophomore seasons, on the assumption that you should always want a top-flight recruit who you knew would stay in the program for three or more years. Looking at the early entrant lists for the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 NBA Drafts, of the 265 underclassmen who declared (or are expected to declare) prior to their senior season, 103 (39%) were freshmen or sophomores. (Note: for the 2012 early entrants, I am counting only those players who as of today NBADraft.net is listing as "Officially Entered" or "Likely Entering," and based on the historical trend it wouldn't be surprising to see quite a few more juniors wind up declaring for the 2012 NBA Draft.)

Early Entrants, 2009 - 2012
Year
Total
Freshmen
Sophomores
Juniors
2012
42
10
15
17
2011
69
10
14
45
2010
80
12
18
50
2009
74
7
17
50
Total
265
39 (15%)
64 (24%)
162 (61%)

To be honest, I found these numbers a bit surprising, as I had expected to find the composition of early entrants to consist of relatively more freshmen and substantially fewer juniors. Though I didn't give it too much thought beforehand, I suspect that my assumption was largely misguided by the related bits of conventional wisdom that every player who can leave early does, and those who aren't good enough to leave early are unlikely to be good enough to do so at all (i.e. those who have to stay for three years, will also have to stay for four).

This data suggests a different story, however. Let's assume that most or all of these players make either correct or soundly defensible decisions with respect to when to turn pro. First of all, the number of freshmen for whom one-and-done is a viable, actionable course of action appears to be a good bit smaller than we tend to assume -- certainly disproportionate to the amount of attention they receive. Of course, Texas fans may be particularly biased in this regard, following the mass exodus of early departures in recent years, including three freshmen and a sophomore in the last two drafts alone.

Second, the data suggests that a substantial number of players who were not in a position to declare for the draft after their freshman or sophomore seasons are in such a position after their junior seasons -- which is also to say, not in need of returning for a senior season. Now, a fair number of these players who declare do not get selected in the NBA Draft, but of the 89 underclassmen drafted in the 2009, 2010, and 2011 NBA Drafts, 40 were juniors (45%) -- almost as much as the 28 sophomores (31%) and 21 freshmen (24%) combined. In this case, as a Texas fan, I perhaps should have known better, considering the wholly sensible departure of J`Covan Brown following his junior campaign.

In sum, while everyone is aware that among all freshmen who play college basketball only a tiny percentage leave early for the NBA Draft, even among the substantially smaller population of underclassmen players who actually do declare early for the NBA Draft, the percentage who are freshmen appears to be substantially lower than is widely assumed, with the lion's share of such underclassmen being comprised of departing juniors.

McDonald's All-Americans as NBA Draft Early Entrants

Let's narrow our focus now to blue chip recruits, looking at how many of those early entrants who left after their freshman or sophomore seasons between 2009-12 were high school McDonald's All-Americans between 2007-11.

McDonald's All-American Early Entrants, 2009 - 2012
Year
Freshmen
Number McD's AA
Sophomores
Number McD's AA
2012
10
5
15
4
2011
10
8
14
1
2010
12
5
18
8
2009
7
4
17
6
Total
39
22
64
19

Again, you might forgive a Texas fan for assuming these numbers would be higher, what with all three of the Longhorns' McDonald's Americans during this timeframe (Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, and Tristan Thompson) leaving after just one year in Austin, and a fourth player in Jordan Hamilton (who would have been a McDonald's All-American but for eligibility issues) leaving after two. But as it turns out, while a substantial portion of the pool of freshman and sophomore early entrants is comprised of former McDonald's All-Americans, among all McDonald's All-Americans, only about 25% leave after their freshmen seasons and another 20% after two, leaving a full half who remain in their program for three or more seasons.

Applying the Risk Assessment to College Basketball Recruiting

So what have we learned from this quick and dirty look at recent data? Well, first of all, that Texas has been disproportionately stung by early entrant losses to the NBA. Among a random selection of four McDonald's All-Americans, you would expect one to leave after his freshman season, one to leave after his sophomore season, and two to stay three or more seasons. Texas lost Bradley, Thompson, and Joseph after one year, and Hamilton after two. Awesome.

But looking at this more globally, I think one of the lessons to draw from this exercise is to be wary of categorical proclamations that Texas (or any other team) should avoid recruiting McDonald's All-Americans so as not to get crushed by an avalanche of early departures, as Rick Barnes has in recent years. The Longhorns recent track record appears likely to be a good old fashion case of bad luck and a small sample size, and if last month Texas fans were understandably resigned to losing Myck Kabongo the same way, the odds that our next blue chipper would play for more than one year was actually a good bit more likely than we realized. And in the same vein, neither is Cameron Ridley's departure after one season nearly as certain as many of us assume it to be.

In fact, this limited study suggests that teams are substantially more likely to enjoy the fruits of multiple blue chippers recruited in different classes playing together than it is to get burned by all of its blue chippers departing before those from different classes get a chance to play together, as has plagued Texas in recent years. A more intensive study might reveal there to be some predictive ability as to determining the types of blue chip recruits who are more likely to depart after one or two seasons, but as a general matter: the more the merrier, and the expectation should be that the majority of blue chippers wind up staying for two or more years.

This limited study also suggests some amount of caution may be prudent when counting scholarships and projecting availability in future years. Again, while recent history at Texas has made it seem like every recruit with professional potential can be counted on to depart after a season or two, that isn't the norm, and it would be quite the blunder to handcuff yourself with a lesser recruit who -- because more top-flight recruits wind up staying for multiple years -- limits your ability to bring in another blue chipper in a future class. To be sure, that's in many ways a pretty great problem to have, but it's worth keeping in mind where you're talking about marginally helpful recruits and the potential to create a scholarship crunch that limits your ability to bring in one or more high-impact players.

Applying these lessons to the present circumstance in Austin, I'm inclined, first of all, to revise my frigid position towards Devonta Pollard, which has been fueled in no small part by my perception of him as a player likely to depart after an only modestly helpful freshman season -- that is, to follow in the footsteps of players like Bradley and Joseph who departed before Texas could enjoy the full benefits of their contributions at the college level. In truth, Pollard is probably much more likely to play more than one season of college ball than I was imagining, and whatever other (legitimate) reasons there may to prefer an alternative strategy, attempting to dodge him as a one-and-done candidate shouldn't be among them.

With an eye towards some of the high-impact talent in the class of 2013 that Texas is courting, I'm also inclined to proceed cautiously with respect to maxing out our scholarship limit, such that so long as Pollard is still on the table, taking DeMarcus Holland or Jordan Clarkson seems reasonable, but I wonder about the prudence of taking both. Not only do I like the group we have for 2012 well enough, but where there is a meaningful chance that Texas could wind up faced with the opposite (good) kind of problem from recent years (where all of the blue chippers decide to stay), and the opportunity that creates for a big-time season with the addition of super-recruits in the class of 2013, it would be tragic to miss out because of a scholarship crunch.

All of which is to say, while there are lots of ways to justify and feel good about Texas taking two of Pollard, Holland, and Clarkson, it's worth considering the degree to which taking all three creates a risk. Truthfully, I haven't watched enough of Clarkson to offer an informed opinion on whether there may be cause to prefer his known commodity over Pollard's potential, but I wanted to raise the example to frame the way we might try to think through this decision, and others like it.

Or more accurately, how we might think about how we want Rick Barnes to evaluate these kinds of decisions. There's a tendency among fans -- myself included -- to make certain assumptions in the ways we think through these recruiting decisions, but as the thoughts in this post are meant to illustrate, the situation isn't always as clear-cut as our recent experience can cause us to think that it is.

In conclusion, then, consider this post food for thought -- in all likelihood, an introductory foray into a complex, multi-dimensional topic. Beware not only the small sample sizes of the data presented above, but the potential for last year's NBA Draft -- which preceded an imminent lockout -- to have skewed some of that data. My aim here was to explore the soundness of some of my own unfounded assumptions, and to begin probing the contours of what an optimal evaluation of these decisions should be taking into account.

After Ridley puts pen to paper, I'll perhaps spend some more time looking at Devonta Pollard and Jordan Clarkson, and thinking about what the optimal outcome with respect to their recruitments might be.

Hook 'em

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