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The case of the disappearing college senior

March 17, 2016 Columns No Comments

Have you seen this person? A physical description isn’t available, but we know some characteristics that might help.

He could be any height or weight. He has a plethora of experience – more than most of his peers, in fact – and plenty of maturity. He is a better player than he was four years ago, proving he can get better, and he is probably more ready to help someone right now than he was back then. The other distinguishing feature is that he’s probably being discounted by those evaluating him, and on a big night in late June, suddenly goes missing.

The NCAA Tournament tips off this week, in what some have labeled “The year of the senior” given the strong senior class in college basketball. This deep class has accomplished a great deal and earned a great deal of press, especially this year, even while a freshman has garnered a lot of press while playing for a team that will not be in the postseason. Of the Player of the Year awards in the Power 5 conferences, three went to seniors; in the American Athletic Conference, considered about on par with them, a senior won the award. Clearly, college seniors are alive and well in the month of March.

Lately, at other times of the year, that does not appear to be the case, and through no real fault of their own.

The college senior has done a disappearing act from the first round of the NBA Draft in recent years, although it’s a trend that one could see coming over a decade ago. At one time, not every elite prospect jumped to the NBA Draft right away, but now, we’re beyond shocked when a player who could be a first round pick or better – think Tim Duncan two decades ago, or Marcus Smart or Kris Dunn more recently – opts to return to school, even if only for their sophomore or junior year, let alone senior. Conversations ensue about how much money they give up in so doing, and studies are even done on the scenarios involved as regards eventual free agency.

The past 11 NBA Drafts give a sense of this. The 2005 NBA Draft was the last one in which a player could enter straight out of high school, and ironically, it is the one that had the most seniors selected (9) in the first round during this stretch. (It helped that the high school class of 2005 was significantly weaker than the loaded class a year earlier.) In fact, over that stretch, the numbers dwindle for every additional year of experience, as shown in Figure 1. The 2016 NBA Draft, just a few months away, is not likely to reverse this trend, based on current projections of the most reputable media outlets that specialize in covering the NBA Draft.

Year Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior International Other
2005 1 4 9 9 3 3
2006 2 7 7 8 6 0
2007 8 3 8 6 5 0
2008 10 8 3 5 4 0
2009 4 6 8 6 6 0
2010 7 8 9 5 1 0
2011 6 4 8 7 5 0
2012 8 11 5 5 1 0
2013 6 7 7 3 7 0
2014 9 8 1 5 6 1
2015 13 5 4 4 4 0
Totals 74 71 69 63 48 4

Figure 1: NBA Draft first round selections by class, international or “other” (high school or NBDL players who were eligible for the NBA Draft)

There are a few pervading thoughts on this that help explain the phenomenon.

The first is the notion that a player who is good enough will leave school early, with no real reason to stay in school such as something to prove. The thinking goes that if a player comes back to school, he’s not good enough. One flippantly asks the question, “Why stay in school unless you’re not good enough?” There’s not a lot of thought that goes into it, but that notion is out there.

The second is the idea that with more college experience, NBA scouts have more chances to pick apart a player’s game and find problems with it. It is similar to the old idea that “familiarity breeds contempt.” While true in a literal sense, scouts also have more chances to see a player develop, giving a sense of how coachable he may be as well as to notice a track record. In addition, the implication is that scouts miss a lot in only seeing a player a few times in one or two seasons, as if players basically audition well at just the right time(s) and get undeserved opportunities. While merit isn’t really a bit part of this, the reality is that most scouts know what they are doing, whether they see a player three times or 30 times.

Another notion that comes from some quarters deals with the age of the players. There’s no getting around it: seniors are older. That means they are most likely closer to their ceiling than someone a year or two younger is. That’s not always the case, because human beings’ bodies mature at different paces, and players’ games mature at different paces as well, but it impacts the thinking. The tendency has been to look at seniors as “right now” players instead of for their upside, which is the biggest factor behind underclassmen being drafted high.

Through all of this, there are no hard, fast rules that apply, even if there are some patterns. Because we are talking about human beings and not robots, so many things can happen that defy the best attempt at predicting outcomes. As noted earlier, players mature at different paces, both physically and with their game. There are freshmen who haven’t scratched the surface of what they can do, but there are also some who have already reached much of their physical maturity. There are seniors who are mature physically, but there are seniors who have a long way to go before reaching their ceiling. In addition, not every player has been playing the game for the same amount of time; a senior who is relatively new to the game will be seen to have more upside than one who has been playing since he was a little boy. That same senior might not have been ready to show the potential he has at an earlier time.

Some players that may be ready to get drafted, even high in the draft, may come back to school precisely as a way of managing their professional careers. They may give up a year of pay, but they feel they will be better off for playing 30 or more minutes a night in meaningful, high-level college games than they will practicing and barely getting off the bench during meaningful minutes for an NBA team. They play not so much for the rookie contract, but for the second and subsequent ones, feeling that if they are more ready when they get there, they will be more ready to produce enough to earn a big second contract. They pass on some up front money with the idea that they will make more at the back end.

Whereas in many years, freshmen have become the center of attention in college basketball and with the NBA Draft, that has not been the case this season save for one noteworthy freshman. Where many of these seniors will end up on draft night remains to be seen, but if current trends persist, many will have to wait until the second round or look to sign with a team as a free agent for their summer league and try to earn their way to a roster spot that way. Among the most well-known outlets covering the NBA Draft, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford lists just four seniors in the top 30 of his top 100 and 12 in the top 60; DraftExpress lists just three seniors in its top 30 and 14 in its top 60; and NBADraft.net lists six in its top 30 and 15 in its top 60.

You see the trend: seniors are not near the top of the list, but tend to be more toward the bottom of the draft range, even in a good year.

The NBA Draft is not the only path to the NBA for a player by a long shot; it is merely the most prominent given that the Draft is much talked about and nationally televised. Over the past decade or so, seniors have consistently had to take a less prominent path to the NBA than many of their peers, a trend that appears to be ready to continue into the foreseeable future.

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