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Even in a good year for them, the NBA Draft was light on seniors

July 7, 2016 Columns No Comments

So much for the great senior class in college basketball this past season.

It’s long been a given that the college game and the NBA are different. There is no shortage of ready examples to demonstrate that, from college teams loaded with future NBA players that underachieved to college stars not getting drafted or being drafted late. It has long been established that age matters.

And all of that was driven home two weeks ago in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Freshmen dominated the first round once again, as ten of the 30 selections there had completed just one year of college. Meanwhile, just five seniors went in the first round, though two were in the lottery. The last time more seniors went in the first round was when seven were taken in 2011, but you can go down a list of top seniors from this season and find that it didn’t translate into much on draft night.

The second round was better for seniors, with ten players going there, but that was also concentrated towards the end – the last three players and five of the last nine taken were all seniors. It stands in sharp contrast to the college season, where four of the five first team AP All-America members were seniors, with two more each on the second and third teams. The Final Four saw a number of seniors leading the way, with the two teams that reached the national championship game each having two vitally important senior starters and one of the semifinal teams being senior-laden.

Plenty of college basketball’s best this past season now have to fight their way on to a roster starting with summer league play, which has already begun. Included are third team All-America selections Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) and Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa), but it doesn’t end there. The terrific backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker at Wichita State, Gonzaga star forward Kyle Wiltjer, Kansas star forward Perry Ellis, SMU star guard Nick Moore and Villanova’s championship bookends Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu all went undrafted.

Most have signed on with teams for their summer league; some have signed multi-year deals with some guarantee. Still, it’s an uphill battle. The most likely result is that many end up in the NBDL or going overseas for more money, and the process continues.

All of these players have something to offer NBA teams. While most don’t have a ton of upside, quite a few have either a skill and/or the intangibles to last a decade in the NBA as a contributor, even if they won’t be stars. VanVleet, Baker, Wiltjer and Ellis won a ton of games in college; Arcidiacono and Ochefu join Wiltjer in having won a national championship along the way. Moore, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, had a lot to do with the revival of SMU the last few years.

Indeed, this can also be said of those who ended up in the second round. Don’t be surprised if Georges Niang, for example, makes a roster and even hangs around in the league for a while. No, he doesn’t have “perennial all-star” written all over him, but his career at Iowa State suggests he knows how to play even if he lacks athleticism. He’s highly skilled and his intangibles are off the charts.

The seniors mentioned here are just the beginning for this discussion. Many more seniors who had nice college careers have longer roads to the NBA and might just end up with careers overseas. This is especially true for those at mid-majors, who didn’t get the same kind of exposure as those who played at Power 5 schools. The NBA isn’t for everyone, and some have no clear path to ever get there.

Each draft will continue to remind us how different the college game is from the NBA from the standpoint of individual talent. This has been happening for decades, so it is nothing new. We often talk about underclassmen who leave school early and go undrafted, but in a year like this, looking at seniors who went undrafted is quite interesting as well. This year, seniors occupied a big piece of the college basketball landscape, but on draft night, they were relegated to no more than a supporting role.

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