When Kevin Garnett declared for the 1995 NBA Draft immediately following his high-school graduation, his decision was criticized by fans and scouts alike. Deemed too immature to enter the NBA at just 19 years of age, Garnett wasn’t the first to make the leap from high school to professional basketball. He was, however, the first to do so in 20 years.
Over the course of the next 10 drafts, teams selected 38 players out of high school, a move that would now be in violation of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Still, athletes need to reach age 19, or be one year removed from high school, to enter the draft.
Today, even though bypassing college entirely is forbidden, highly talented players often leave college early, sometimes only fulfilling the minimum one year in college. Although this practice’s existence runs as far back as the NBA Draft, its popularity has intensified in recent years. In 1990, only two players selected in the top 10 forewent college eligibility, Chris Jackson, a sophomore, and Dennis Scott, a junior. In 2012, all 10 of the top-10 picks had skipped at least one year of college eligibility, five of which were freshmen.
Any armchair critic will tell you that early entry to the NBA Draft has been a detriment to the talent level in college basketball today. It would only make sense to assume that if players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard had played college basketball, the talent pool available to college teams would be greater. And that might be true.
But I’m not buying the argument that there’s less talent in college basketball today than there was before the proliferation of early entry.
In theory, if college basketball was losing some level of quality talent to the NBA, it should be most evident in the top teams. Presumably, teams like Mississippi Valley State and Gardner-Webb have the same pool of recruits that they did 25 years ago. The only apparent difference would be in top-tier teams that could have recruited elite players had those players not entered the draft right after high school.
Thus, if the talent in college basketball has been watered down because of early entry, top teams should be beating Division I bottom-feeders by less than they used to.
To analyze the effect of early entry to the NBA Draft on the level of talent in college basketball, I collected data from the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll at the end of each season since 1989-90.
I took the average margin of victory for these teams against non-“BCS” conference schools (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC), excluding NCAA Tournament games.
To compare margin of victory to talent level (in terms of NCAA eligibility), I counted the total years of eligibility skipped by the top-10 draft picks in the previous year’s draft.
y-axis: Average margin of victory against non-BCS schools by the No. 1 AP team at the end of each respective year.
x-axis: number of years of eligibility foregone by the top-10 picks in the previous year's draft.
r=.10 for the plot.
Not surprisingly, there’s a correlation between the top-ranked teams’ margin of victory and the amount of talent withdrawn from the previous year’s draft. However, it’s a very weak correlation and one that deserves more time to prove its case.
Is college basketball occupied by less talent today than it was 20 years ago? Probably. But the disparity is not as stark as it’s made out to be.