Drafting a “Winner”: Does the NBA overvalue NCAA champions in the draft?

In the draft, every NBA front office is searching for that edge. While there are relatively tangible attributes that all teams look at to judge a player, such as shooting ability or athletic prowess, talent evaluators often try to look beyond the numbers for an indication that a particular player is destined for greatness. This usually comes in the form of “intangibles,” a player’s overall mindset. One rationale that has been pervasive throughout the NBA community is that X player is going to be great because “he’s just a winner.”

The intangible value of having “a winner’s mindset” is something often discussed when evaluating college prospects. The popular theory is that players who have won the NCAA title have proven through their experience that they can lead a team to success. Heading into the 2015 NBA draft, one of Jahlil Okafor’s perceived strengths was that “he’s proved to be a winner at every level,” which included winning the NCAA championship in his freshman year at Duke.

He and fellow champion Justise Winslow were both taken high in the draft, 3 and 10 respectively, but so far neither has quite panned out in the league. NCAA champion Jalen Brunson was another player lauded for his intangibles heading into the 2018 NBA draft. He was selected to the Mavericks 33rd overall, and in coach Rick Carlisle’s initial press conference on the selection, he made a point that “[Brunson’s] won the national championship two out of the last three years, he’s obviously a winner…the character is obviously there with what he’s been able to do winning two in the last three years.”

Jalen had many of the traits that would dissuade teams from drafting a player. He’s undersized, un-athletic, and old for a prospect, having spent three years at Villanova. Even still, according to Jalen’s former coach Pat Ambrose, “you can’t measure heart and that brain Jalen has. Wherever he has gone, he has been a winner.”

This all sounds nice, and it’s a good talking point to give to fans on draft night, but do NBA teams actually buy into this theory? More specifically, are prospects that have won an NCAA title viewed more favorably by NBA teams, and should they be?

To answer these questions, I used a dataset of all players drafted to the NBA between 1989 (when the draft went to two rounds) and 2007 (so that players who have only played a few years in the league are not included). I then created a dataset of all drafted players during this period who won an NCAA championship. To determine whether or not NBA teams are drafting players who won a championship in college too high, I had to compare the output of each championship player to the expected value of the draft position where they were selected. My calculations were made in career win shares¹ to best reflect the total added value of the player over the course of their career. I averaged all the differences between actual win shares of the championship player and expected win shares for the draft position where they were selected. The results were that, on average, championship players underperform their draft position by approximately two win shares.²

Because the career production of any given player in a draft class varies from year to year, we cannot know the true value of each draft position. Since drafted players who won an NCAA title is a subset of all drafted players, we have to account for variability in both samples.³ Taking this into account, we are 77% confident that college basketball players who won the NCAA championship actually perform worse than the average player at that draft position, with only a 23% chance that this difference is due to sampling variability.⁴ Therefore, it is more likely than not that NBA teams attribute too much value to the “winner’s mindset” when evaluating prospects.

To quantify roughly how much additional value is given to prospects who won the NCAA title, it’s helpful to determine how much an NBA team is overvaluing these players in terms of draft position. Since the calculations or player performance are done in career win shares, we have to estimate the average expected decline in career win shares between draft picks in order to translate the average difference in production from win shares to draft picks.

graph

In a plot of average win shares per draft position, results show that there is a .73 decline in career win shares between each pick as you go further back in the draft.⁵ Since the results of our testing indicated that NCAA champions underperform their draft stock by two win shares, we can conclude that players who won a college championship are drafted somewhere between two and three picks too high.⁶

(-2.03 difference in win shares) / (-.73 decline in win shares per draft position= 2.73 or       ≈ 2-3 difference in expected draft position

So, why are NBA teams making the mistake of drafting championship winners too high? Why are NBA general managers incorrect to add additional value for act of winning an NCAA championship?

One player alone cannot win a championship. The ability of the rest of the team and the unpredictability of the NCAA tournament have an impact over a team’s chances of success. Still, this is not enough to explain why NBA teams are overvaluing NCAA champions. These guys are usually elite college players contributing heavily to their team. Thus, their performance would likely have a large impact over the outcome of the season. Therefore, if their impact helps the team win the NCAA title, their abilities should be looked upon positively.

This is a logical line of thought, however, when a player wins the title, their contributions are actually over-magnified because of double-counting. NBA general managers are counting abilities plus winning when evaluating these prospects. But to count winning separately is to double count that player’s value, because the amount that a player adds to winning is a result of their abilities on the court. These abilities  are already being accounted for in the evaluation of the player, so winning should not receive any additional weight.

Basically, players who win NCAA championships are typically good players, but their talent should be evaluated based on the merits of their game, not the fact that they won the title. Championship players have been drafted 21st overall on average, which is well above the expected average draft position for all picks between 1989 and 2007 of 29.⁷ In reality, they should be getting drafted closer to 23 or 24 overall, which is still considerably above average. The abilities these players have, abilities that contributed to winning the championship, do make for a valuable prospect. However, the fact remains that these players are being overdrafted relative to their actual skill level, which suggests that NBA front offices are giving unwarranted value to the act of winning alone.

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The value of winning continues to be a talking point in the basketball community. As a result, NBA teams often fail to evaluate these prospects correctly, which can end up in them selecting inferior talent. All front offices want that edge. Unfortunately, there is no secret formula for evaluating prospects. If there was, it most likely would have been found by now. Front offices need to stick to evaluating players based on the merit of their abilities. For those GM’s who look for added value in a “winning mindset,” they have a fundamentally flawed conception of talent evaluation.

 

Footnotes

¹ Win Shares is a stat that calculates a player’s individual contribution to total team wins. Full description in link

² Data taken from basketball-reference.com. Dataset and summary of statistics in link

³ Two sample t-test was used for statistical testing. Complete test in link

⁴ 23% is the probability of Type 1 error. Type 1 error occurs when a premise is incorrectly accepted. This is also known as a “false positive”

⁵ This is not a perfect estimation because the true decline in value of a draft pick appears to be nonlinear. However, a linear estimation of decline is still useful with the goal of roughly estimating a single value to quantify average decline per draft position.

⁶ Average of the all the differences between actual win shares of championship players and the expected win shares for their draft position divided by difference in win shares per draft position equals the difference in expected draft position and actual draft position. -2.03/-.73=2.73 or ≈2-3

 The average draft position across all drafts from 1989-2007 is 29.07. This is because as expansion teams have entered the league the draft has expanded from 54 to 60 picks. The average draft position for championship players of 20.62 is still well below this average. Complete data in link

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Is the One and Done Rule beneficial?

Over the past decade, the NBA has changed drastically. Before a new rule was implemented, NBA prospects could enter the NBA right out of High school. Only a selective few were big time names coming out of highschool.  Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, and Moses Malone are the most known High school prospects that came straight from High school into the league and was very successful. There were many more athletes who tried to make that big leap from highschool to the pros and did not quite meet the expectations set out for them. To address this issue, the NBA and their Players Association approved a bargaining agreement that requires prospect entering the draft to be a minimum of 19 years old and or have completed their first year of college. Players are now forced to spend a year in college, even if they had or have no intentions of graduating.

 

When the rule was first established, it was meant to allow collegiate fans to see superstars like Derrick Rose, Karl Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis for at least a year. This excitement was quickly reversed when prospects were only meeting the minimum requirements to enter into the NBA draft. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, has spoken about his willingness to change the rule. “It’s not working for the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from,” Silver proclaimed.  “They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either, in part because they don’t necessarily think the players who chartare coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see.”

 

As you can see in the graph displayed, there has been a significant jump of one and done prospects over the past few years. In 2008, there was 16 freshman who declared for the draft and was drafted in the first and second round. There was a significant drop off of young prospects in years 2009-2015. The hype began to pick up a lot more in years 2016 and 2017. Last years’ draft had the most one and done draftees in history. 24 freshmen were drafted in the first and second round. There were 40 freshmen overall declaring for the draft.

 

40 freshmen declared for the draft.

 

meta-chartMany have questioned and have concerns about the one year out of high school rule. College coaches and college administrations disagree with the one and done rule. Many college coaches look to build a foundation with their programs. How can college coaches create a foundation with athletes only coming to their school for one year.

 

Schools like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have been named the prolific one and done schools. Prospects would only go to these schools for a year and seek to enter the draft after their first collegiate season.  

 

In the graph above, you can see that since 2016, Kentucky has had the most one and done players coming out of there program. Duke is in a distant second following Kansas with 8 players.

 

Now the question is, are the athletes benefiting from one year in college? Is there another option for these prospects to take instead of one year in college?

 

meta-chart copy.jpegTo decipher this issue, I am going to look at their performance in the NBA to determine if the year in college helps them or hurts them.

 

One and Done athletes  average 1.3 more points than other players in their drafts.

meta-chart copy 2One and Done Players average less assist than other players in the Draft.

 

These charts do not give an accurate assumption whether their production in the NBA could be better if they could have gone straight to the league from High school.

 

Many believe that most young prospects are not developed enough or ready to jump into the league at such a young age. Allowing them to get more experience, exposure and training in college could propel them with a long career in the pros. Others say that if prospects want to enter the league, why should we hold them back.

 

This is a constant conversation that has been going on for the past few years and has reared its head again over the past few months. Not knowing what the future holds for the ‘one and done rule’, could be detrimental to the athletes and the NBA. Adam Silver is determined to come up with a solution that will well suit all parties involved.

 
Sources:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2015/04/08/a-look-at-how-one-and-done-players-perform-in-the-nba/?utm_term=.6a92082208ce

https://herosports.com/news/one-and-done-rule-list-college-basketball-nba-visualized

All the NBA draft’s one-and-done lottery picks: a scorecard

https://www.thoughtco.com/one-and-done-325778

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2014/02/17/college-basketball-nba-draft-early-entry-one-and-done-rule/5552163/

https://www.si.com/nba/2018/06/21/2018-nba-draft-grades-players-teams-pick-analysis

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