The mystery behind NBA recruiting is the unknown success that the player will achieve in his professional career. In the NBA, players are currently allowed to declare for the draft one year after their high school graduation. At 19-20 years old, most players have not reached their full potential and the scouts must infer what their future success will look like. Scouts somewhat rely on the “hype” built up around players to determine their future success. Does this hype, defined as exposure and popularity, before the NBA draft, define the potential career of an NBA rookie?
Each year, 10-12 players are chosen for the “Rookie Game,” currently called the “Rising Stars Challenge,” after showing prowess over the course of his first two seasons. In the current format, any first or second year player is eligible and the teams are selected by the assistant coaches of the NBA. From my findings, the ‘average’ rookie who is on this all-Rookie team is one that succeeds at a Power 5 college, was a first round draft pick, and relatively high points per game. I will use this classification to define rookie success, referring to these players as “rookie-gamers,” using data from the 2000-2017 Draft classes.
I noticed that many players had successful years statistically, but still weren’t chosen for the rookie team, why would that be? I also observed many cases where the player had a strong background leading up to his rookie year as a star player in college or a high draft pick, but then flopped when he went to the NBA. These are all things that must be observed and considered by NBA scouts as they select their draft picks. Of the players chosen for the Rookie Game, most were well known and hyped up before entering the NBA, and then produced extraordinary statistics right from the beginning of their career.
Almost every rookie-gamer can be categorized as a hyped player who produced good results, so I analyzed factors that would contribute to a player’s pre-NBA “hype”, showing why these aspects would be portrayed as rookie success.
A majority of the rookie-game class came from a Power 5 school, that is if they attended college before the NBA. Why does the conference of the college matter? On average, 65% of a Rookie Game roster played for a Power 5 program. A Power 5 school belongs to the biggest conferences, including the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC; the term originated in college football but now is used to categorize all sports. Since collegiate athletics have such a large impact on these schools, the budget and stage are larger for college basketball games, usually leading to more exposure for the players.
These Power 5 programs hold the best coaches and training programs of college basketball, and the majority of games are played against the best teams within those conferences. Success in a Power 5 program has already prepared the player for the pressure of the atmosphere of high-level games, like in the NBA. Players from big programs such as Duke, Kansas, or Kentucky are most likely more recognizable than the players at smaller schools since they are playing in big-ticket games and most sports news coverage centers around the top schools. These players will have a brand name going into the NBA draft, and are more likely to be recognized and played during their rookie year of the NBA.
One measure of success in college basketball is the All-American team. Of the rookie-gamers, 32% were named All-American while playing in college. Only 15 players are chosen each year among the three ‘teams,’ and may also not be going to the NBA yet, making this status extremely prestigious. Since only a few players are selected each year, the 15 chosen are well known and begin to gain popularity while still in college. There are also outliers such as international players and players who did not attend college that make the rookie team.
Another key factor of a player’s hype is their draft pick number. The qualitative aspect of the draft pick is their publicity before the draft. A player such as Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks was the 5th pick in the 2018 draft, and has become the face of the Hawks team. He was a popular draft pick due to his outstanding freshman year with Oklahoma, so the Hawks used his publicity to shape their brand around him, and he has started every game this season. Comparably, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman were the Hawks’ other first-round draft picks, but they have only started 9 games and 8 games so far versus Young’s 26. The rookies who play more minutes their first year are more likely to be named to the rookie team, but is their playing time based on their talent or on the team’s desire to market the player? Trae Young will receive more rookie accolades due to his exposure and games started, over the other two players who were drafted in the same first round. However, Young is also bringing a lot more money to the Hawks team, as fans want to attend games to see him play.
There are outliers who have a fantastic rookie season and are rewarded for their success, such as Malcolm Brogdon (#36 draft pick, 2017 Rookie of the Year), but it is less common due to the lack of exposure. My study does not account for comparisons to the talent of the rest of the rookie class, and other reasons a player may have visibility. These low-drafted stars are usually in a class of average players, so any sort of high playing statistics could make them a candidate for the rookie team, as in Brogdon’s case. Other outliers are the high drafted players who completely flop when they enter the NBA. A player that was considered an overrated draft pick was Anthony Bennett, who was drafted #1 in 2013 and played an average number of minutes. However, the hype slowly dwindled down after only scoring an average of 4 points per game. The hype of high drafted players carries them into the beginning of their rookie season, but then they must use their talent to produce playing statistics that will maintain their status.
The playing statistics that were strongest in rookie-gamers were Minutes Played, Games Started over Games Played, and Total Field Goals. While this seems obvious that the stars of the rookie class would have the highest number of field goals, that statistic is based on the number of games played. Rookies who have more hype are likely to play more, with more opportunities to score. If a player is popular, then they will play more.
Points Per Game (PPG) is the number of points the player scored, divided by the games he scored in. This statistic reflects the player’s scoring ability, but not his complete success.
Games Started over Games Played (GS over GP) is a statistic I calculated, which shows the percentage of games that a player started in his rookie season. Most rookie gamer started at least 90% of the games that they played in.This shows that from the beginning, the hyped players are starting in most of their games, which allows them to build their exposure early on. A less hyped player probably would not be in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, giving him fewer opportunities to shine. While this does depend on the needs of each specific team, I think that a rookie is more likely to start if they are popular and will generate fan excitement.
Total Field Goals (FG) and Total Rebounds (TRB) measures all of the points a player scores from the floor and all of the rebounds by the player. The number is higher in the rookie team players, most likely due to their high minutes played. I found it interesting that the number of total field goals more positively correlates with rookie team selection as opposed to field goal percentage.
Minutes Played (MP) is an exact representation of the amount of playing team each player had during their rookie season. Very few players on the rookie team played less than 1000 minutes, and any player with greater than 1000 minutes was either on the rookie team or had a low PPG average. Rookies who are given more playing time have more chances to prove themselves, leading to rookie team selection.
Selection for the Rookie Game does not define an NBA player’s career, and it by no means is a reflection of how the player will perform in the future. However, I think that the players who are hyped before the NBA draft, are more likely to have “success” as a rookie in the league. This hype is by no means an incorrect indicator of talent, but there is room for error as it leaves out the underrated players and includes the overrated players.
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“NCAA College Basketball AP All-America Teams.” Basketball-Reference.com.
Salisbury, Colin R. “Non-Statistical Factors Present in Successful NBA Rookies.” Sport Management Department, St. John Fisher College, 2017.