Ben Simmons took a lot of heat for his decision to attend LSU for his mandatory year of service after high school. He pledged himself early and the promise was solidified with the hiring of his godfather as an assosciate head coach. Due to the NBA regulation, one-and-done situations like that of Simmons, have become common for top recruits. Frequently, players are committing to schools that would not be considered among the best in the nation. The 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are no exception. Washington has grabbed two 5-stars in those classes and Western Kentucky landed 5-Star Center Mitchell Robinson. Analysts have criticized players like Simmons for making the decision to go to a non-powerhouse basketball program. The truth is that it does not matter what people say, the results matter.
The main goal of almost any athlete in basketball is to reach the pinnacle of the sport: the NBA. Any decision that a player makes could be an impact one. In any other career path where you choose to attend school can certainly make all the difference. Are young men in the sport making a poor decision by choosing a less than spectacular program? While it is a big decision, the fact is that a player’s college choice is not as impactful as we make it out to be in terms of professional progression.
Past NBA Examples
There have been dozens of precedents for players coming from smaller schools and programs being successful in the NBA. Their success is one piece of evidence that college is not the leading factor in professional development in the sport.
One of the better examples would be four time all-star and four time Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Wallace. Wallace went undrafted out of Division II Virginia Union, and previously was at Cuyahoga Community College. Ben Wallace had an NBA aspirations, NBA drive and NBA talent. Players in his situation slip through the cracks for being extremely raw at recruitment time or undersized for their position. He went from being a 6 foot 9 under recruited center to one of the leaders on the 2004 Detroit Pistons NBA Finals squad.
There are plenty of examples like that of Wallace from the past: Steve Nash (drafted 15th overall, Santa Clara), Karl Malone (dafted 13th overall, Louisiana Tech), John Stockton (drafted 16th overall, Gonzaga), and many others. These are not role players in the Association. Rather, these are current or future Hall of Famers. However the league has changed over even the past decade. With a dilution of talent, does this assertion hold up currently?
Current NBA Examples
While the league is, in fact, filled with may players from powerhouse schools, some of the league’s best have come from small, mid-major, and power conference schools not exactly well known for their NBA talent production.
Kawhii Leonard was a 4-star recruit before selecting San Diego State. Granted he did have Steve Fisher as his guide through the years, the results of his career thus far have been astounding. After being selected 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers and traded to the San Antonio Spurs he became Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016. All-NBA First team and NBA Finals MVP also rank among the best of his accomplishments thus far.
Paul Millsap has put together an overwhelming NBA career. He was not a highly touted recruit. He did shine at Louisiana Tech, but was still only drafted in the middle of the second round. Millsap is a three time NBA All-Star.
Damian Lillard is one of the best examples out there. He was a 3-star recruit and was not even ranked among the top 50 point guards of his class. Portland took him 6th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. After a stellar first season with the Trailblazers he became the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2013. The two time All-Star shows much promise for the years to come in his career.
The league contains a plethora of other examples. Two play on the same team in Stephen Curry (drafted 7th overall, Davidson) and Klay Thompson (drafted 11th overall, Washington State). Paul George (drafted 10th overall, Fresno State), James Harden (drafted 3rd overall, Arizona State) and C.J. McCollum (drafted 10th overall, Lehigh) also all went to smaller schools or non-traditional basketball powers.
The 2016 NBA All-Star Rosters fully embody the notion presented here. The East Roster has 14 members, with Chris Bosh and Jimmy Butler unable to play due to injury. 50% of the East’s roster went to non-traditional basketball powers or smaller schools (Fresno State, USC, Louisiana Tech, Washington, Georgia Tech, and two from Marquette). Marquette made the Final Four with Dwayne Wade, but that actually proves the point further. Wade made that run for the school, along with help of course, and did not end up at a more traditional basketball power. He is now a perennial All-Star.
The West All-Star roster mimics the trends of the East. 58.3% of the West’s roster attended a smaller school or non-traditional power (Davidson, San Diego State, Arizona State, Wake Forest, and two from Texas). Some would argue that Texas and Wake Forest players do not belong in this category, however, neither school has a championship and Kentucky has more Final Fours this decade than either program has in its history. They are hardly basketball powerhouses. However, the All-Star rosters indicate that players do choose these schools and still end up amazing professional talents. Therefore, a trip to UK, UCLA, Duke or North Carolina is not the only path to NBA excellence.
Schools that Guarantee a Draft Spot
Granted that all eligible UK players in the past year entered their names in the draft, there is plenty of proof that powerhouse schools do not guarantee being drafted or NBA success. There is a laundry list of players that enrolled at big schools with their sights set on the pros yet did not blossom for one reason or another.
Marquis Teague is a prime example, being the top point guard in his class in 2011. Teague played a roll in Kentucky’s 2012 National Championship run. Since entering the league in 2012, he averages less than ten minutes per game. Accruing a pedestrian stat line of 2.3 points per and 1.4 assists, he is leagues from the promise that his recruitment showed.
Even though he has not debuted in the NBA yet, Cheik Diallo (Kansas) is another example. Coming in as a top ten recruit, scouts and coaches thought only the best for him. In his one season at Kansas he averaged a whopping 3.0 points per game in 7.5 minutes of floor time per game. The Pelicans selected Diallo in the 2016 NBA Draft, but it was not until the second round of the draft.
Dozens of other names fit the criteria of players enrolling at a big school that did not work out for one reason or another. Cliff Alexander (Kansas) had academic issues, but did not even come close to expectations. Rasheed Sulaimon (Maryland) was a top 15 recruit but Duke dismissed him and after that no team drafted him. The list goes on and on. Top recruits just do not get a guaranteed pass for attending basketball powerhouses.
The Reality behind the Myth
So why does it not always work? Why do guys come in highly touted with all of the promise in the world but exit without fulfilling expectations? The simple answer would be that players are just overrated as recruits. There is more to it thank that, though.
To begin, NBA talent is NBA talent. This may seem like a simple assertion, but it has broad consequences. Some players do come in raw and due to their college experience, develop into NBA greats. Even then, that usually has little to do with what school they select. Occasionally a coach takes on a protege and turns them into something that they were not before. This is extremely rare and does not come without the player putting in the effort anyway. Most times a player’s work ethic is what ultimately turns them into a star, if they come in with untapped potential.
Additionally, players’ talent can be diluted in programs where there are many a star. At a program with less talent, there is less keeping a player from standing out head and shoulders above the competition as a superstar. At a bigger program, players can take a back seat post injury or to new blood. The next man up mentality is much easier to believe in when there is another five star recruit to fill a void.
So there are several reasons why going to a powerhouse can actually hinder a player from their NBA dreams. In fact, perhaps the best thing for them to do to enter a league full of isolation play is to isolate themselves from other stars.