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Waiting games

Answering Qs from Billy D and all the hoops world

Posted: Wednesday November 22, 2006 2:05PM; Updated: Wednesday November 22, 2006 2:05PM
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Did Gator big-men Al Horford (top) and Joakim Noah do the right thing by passing up the NBA Draft this summer? The answer lies in the chart below.
Did Gator big-men Al Horford (top) and Joakim Noah do the right thing by passing up the NBA Draft this summer? The answer lies in the chart below.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
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When you've got reader questions this good, you don't need no stinkin' preamble. Let's dive in:

Do we really need to wait until the end of the year to give conference coach of the year awards? Just give it now to the already-widely-admired coach whose team lost a bunch of seniors, will start several highly touted freshmen and sophomores, slightly over-performs against unjustifiably low expectations and then gets bounced in the first or second rounds of the dance to a team it really should've beaten. This is easy! Congrats, Tom Izzo, you're the 2006-07 Big Ten Coach of the Year! Congrats, Jim Calhoun, you're the Big East Coach of the Year!
-- Devin Gordon, New York City

There's a reason why Mr. Gordon is a 'Bag Hall-of-Famer, folks. Freaking hilarious point, not least because you're probably right. Let's give credit to Izzo and Calhoun for their manifold achievements, but they're also big-name coaches who recruit blue-chip youngsters to their programs, mitigating most of the surprise we should have at their success this season with young teams.

For example, Michigan State probably isn't as good as North Carolina was last year, but the similarities are striking: SI left both off our preseason Field of 65, and both are early-season "surprises" thanks to a strong crop of youngsters (led by Raymar Morgan/Tyler Hansbrough) and a key holdover leader (Drew Neitzel/David Noel) combined with a future Hall of Fame coach (Izzo/Roy Williams) and overly low expectations based almost entirely on the players who were lost (Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis/Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams). About the only question left is which team will be MSU's answer to UNC-slayer George Mason on the NCAA tournament's opening weekend?

(BTW, we can't think of a bigger non-story than the dead-on-arrival nonsense about Izzo's supposed candidacy to coach the Spartans football team. While we're at it, the 'Bag would like to confirm on background that we're one of the finalists for the vacant U.S. national soccer team coaching job.)

Our next query comes from one Billy Donovan of Gainesville, Fla., who posed an intriguing question to us recently that we decided to pursue with some research. We were talking with the Florida coach about the possible reasons why so many surefire first-round NBA Draft picks (many of them big guys, including Gators Joakim Noah and Al Horford) had decided to return to college basketball this season. Billy D had several ideas, but his main thrust was that players want to be more ready to contribute as soon as they arrive in the pros, not least because guaranteed contracts for first-rounders are now for only two years instead of three. After all, he pointed out, the NBA contract that makes you set for life isn't the first one you sign, it's the second one.

"To me the most important statistic in the NBA if you're a player is minutes played," Donovan said. "If you're not playing, you can't produce. Most of the contracts are based on a kid's ability to produce. The big question is, What kind of second contract are you signing? ... Everyone talks about Kobe, Garnett and the elite of the elite. But what about the guys who left early that maybe got a cup of coffee in the NBA despite being a first-round pick?"

And with that I had my research questions: Is there any correlation between how long a player stays in college and the contribution he actually makes in the NBA, as measured by 1) minutes played in his fourth NBA season, and 2) the average annual salary of his second NBA contract? I crunched the numbers for every first-round draft pick in the eight drafts from 1995 to 2002 and came up with the following data:

To Stay in School, or Jump to NBA?
College Experience (yrs) No. Players Drafted Avg. Draft Pos. Bust %* Avg. Mins. Played in 4th NBA Season Avg. Annual Salary of 2nd Contract (Millions)
HS 14 11 .071 1440 9.851
1 14 11 .286 1714 7.976
2 40 11 .250 1558 8.334
3 37 13 .378 1266 8.285
4 97 17 .340 1150 6.074
Foreign 26 18 .423 1029 8.332
* To be considered a "bust," a player had to have played fewer than 1,000 minutes in his fourth NBA season and had to be earning less than a $2 million annual salary in his second contract.

Conclusion: If I'm a player who's 100 percent positive I'll be picked in the first round and I'm concerned about not being ready for the NBA, history suggests there is little to no advantage to sticking around college for another year (if all you're concerned about is your NBA livelihood and performance and not the value of, say, enjoying college, earning a degree, winning a national championship, etc.).

Granted, there are a couple caveats: 1) Being 100 percent sure you'll be drafted in Round 1 is pretty rare, especially at a time when Donovan points out that NBA teams are issuing fewer draft guarantees than ever, and 2) Nobody is quite sure yet how much the 2005 switch from three to two guaranteed contract years for first-round picks will affect these numbers.

Finally, a couple interesting points:

• The new age-minimum rule that prevents high-schoolers from going straight to the NBA is based on fears that (from these numbers, at least) appear to be dubious. The first-rounders drafted straight out of high school from 1995 to 2002 have done exceedingly well in the NBA. Sure, they represent "the elite of the elite," as Donovan calls them -- Amaré Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, etc. -- but they've also gone on to make great bank and have had only one first-round bust (Leon Smith in the class of '99) out of 11 picks, by far the best percentage of any group. (I know, I know, there were some high-schoolers who declared but didn't get drafted in the first round -- Taj McDavid, Korleone Young, etc. -- but how many of those sad stories had we seen in recent years? Not many.)

• For players like Noah who stick around for Year 3 in college but could have gone high after Year 2, there doesn't appear to be any advantage when it comes to "getting more ready" for the NBA performance-wise. The average second-contract salary for NBA first-rounders who left after their sophomore years ($8.334 million) is virtually identical to the salary for those who left after their junior years ($8.285 million), but the Year 2 departures log more minutes and include fewer busts.

• Foreign first-round draft picks have gone on to make good money, but their playing time and bust-frequency are the worst of the group.


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