So You Want To Play in the NBA

Congratulations!  You just finished you senior year of high school and were a consensus Top 100 basketball prospect.  You’re an eternal optimist with the cocky bravado of a high school kid who sees fortune in his future.  You assume that after one year (or more) of college, you’ll be in the NBA and amassing your fortune.

It doesn’t work like that.

As a Top 100 consensus high school recruit (as defined by, there is a 28.8% chance of hearing your name called on draft night in the next four years and a 34.7% probability of munching on just one PB&J in the NBA.  And you want to be a first round pick, right?  I would, for the four year guaranteed NBA salary.  Well, the likelihood of that happening is only about 1 in 6.

But wait, you didn’t tell me the full story? You’re actually rated in the Top 50?  Well that definitely improves your chances of becoming the next LeBron James.  It’s basically 50/50 if you’ll be drafted or make it to the NBA.  The first round guaranteed contract?  About a 30% chance.

But you’re being modest, right?  You’re actually really good?  Like Top 10, every school recruited you (especially Kentucky) and offered you benefits under the table?  Then things definitely look rosier.  Let’s put it at a 5/6 likelihood of being drafted or playing in the NBA and a 70% probability of being drafted in the first round.

Let’s forget about how many high school players there are each year who don’t crack the Top 100.  Almost all boys who pick up a basketball will never play basketball in college, let alone the NBA.  The guys who crack the Top 100 are the players who have a legitimate opportunity to establish a long basketball career in the NBA or overseas.

Don’t misinterpret me, however.  There are plenty of players outside of the Top 100 who establish lengthy and successful basketball careers (Stephen Curry anyone?).  But the Top 100 are the elite guys who college programs fight over and who we expect to earn the big money.  During any given NBA season, there are only 510 roster spots available in the NBA (including the two new two-way roster spots).  There’s a lot of competition for those spots between established veterans, upcoming young players, international players, and the scrubs trying to latch on to the fringe of NBA rosters.  With an influx of 60 drafted players each year, how many of the top high school basketball players trickle into the NBA each year? compiled the consensus Top 100 of the last 17 high school basketball classes and Basketball Reference lists the draft status of these players through the 2017 NBA draft.  Using this data, we can track the success of each high school class with respect to being drafted in the NBA and appearing in an NBA game.

The figure below shows the number of players within the Top 100 who were drafted from each high school class from 2001 to 2013.  While there are players in the NBA from the 2014 to 2016 classes, the vast majority of players from these classes have not completed their college eligibility.  Thus, we can’t fully conclude on the success of these classes.

The number of Top 100 players drafted steadily increased from 2001 to 2004, fell off in 2005, increased again until 2007 before going to a free fall ever since.  If we ignore the 2005 class, there is an increasing number of players being drafted from the Top 100 until 2008, when the number starts to decrease to 2001 and 2002 levels in 2013.  An increase (or decrease) of five to six players being drafted from each high school class may not seem significant, but it represents a 14 to 28 percent change.

What could be driving this change?  The straightforward explanation is that the scouts evaluating high school players are not as good as they used to be.  More players outside of the Top 100 are being selected compared to before.  There have been changes to the scouts evaluating prospects, so there may be something there.  The question is whether there has been a statistically significant structural change.

The one and done requirement may also be influencing this as well.  As players enter the draft further away from their high school years than before, the notoriety they gained on the AAU circuit may diminish as scouts scrutinize these players’ skills against bigger and more mature college athletes.  It could also be that more international players are being selected rather than US players.  A record 26 international players were selected in the 2016 draft (many of these guys actually attended high school in the US and are not international players).

What’s going on within each class?  In particular, what happened in 2005?  The star of that class was Josh McRoberts.  McRoberts is best known for being the guy who would be enough to keep LeBron James in Miami (oops!).  He’s currently on his way out of Miami to clear cap space.  #2 was Monta Ellis, who the Pacers recently waived and was Steph Curry’s original backcourt partner with the Warriors.  Both of those guys have had relatively successful careers but they were drafted in the middle of the second round.  No one ever thought they would reach LeBron levels (or even Dwight Howard levels).  Based on win shares, the best player from this class is Lou Williams, one of the best 3 and defense-optional players in the NBA (drafted 45th).  Amazingly, only two players were drafted in the Top 10, Martell Webster and Andrew Bynum at #6 and #10, respectively, directly from high school.

In addition to 2005, only 2002 and 2008 did not have a player selected #1 overall in an NBA draft.  2002 produced some very good basketball players.  Two of its best players, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony were stuck behind a pretty good basketball player (LeBron) and a young Wilt Chamberlain, Darko Milicic in the 2003 draft.

2008?  Not a great class, but at least the Top 8 players were all first round picks as 5 were drafted in the Top 10.  Plus, two guys from 2008, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, are key cogs on a budding dynasty.  Another interesting tidbit from the 2008 high school class is that Terrelle Pryor, the NFL quarterback and now wide receiver, was ranked 53rd (five spots ahead of Klay Thompson) before electing to play football at Ohio State.

High School Ranking and Draft Pick Correlation

The correlation coefficient provides a crude measure of the strength of each class at least with respect to making it to the NBA.  The correlation between the rankings in the Top 100 and draft slot is 30.1%, meaning there is a positive relationship between draft slot and ranking in the Top 100.  That is, as draft position decreases (i.e., closer to the #1 pick), so does the ranking in the Top 100.  For reference, there would be 100% correlation if the first 60 players in the Top 100 were ultimately selected 1 to 60 in the NBA draft.  It makes sense that there would be a positive relationship.  Players rated better in high school are more likely to be drafted higher.

What if we separate this by each high school class?  While weak classes will still supply players to the NBA, players who stayed in college an additional year (or one fewer) may trump guys from a weak class, pushing them down in more than one draft.  The figure below shows the correlation coefficient between high school ranking and draft pick for each high school class.

All years have a positive correlation, except the notably weak 2005 high school class.  A negative correlation coefficient indicates that the higher a player is ranked, the lower the draft slot.  Given how close the coefficient is to 0 in 2005, it signals that there is no relationship between the two variables with respect to the 2005 high school class.

As I mentioned earlier, only two players in this class were drafted in the Top 10 of any NBA draft and both were selected directly from high school.  Given how Martell Webster turned out (remember when David Kahn traded a first round pick for him and subsequently horribly overpaid him?!), it would be shocking to see him drafted that high had he been forced to enroll in college for a year.  By good fortune, Webster barely escaped that result by one year.  When implementing the one year requirement, the NBA certainly picked the right high school class to follow in order to exaggerate the need for a one year delay.

Pedigree isn’t everything.  Just ask David Kahn.  He boasted about building a team with eight players who were drafted in the top-seven in the NBA draftThat team won 17 games.  Some of the best high school players will never play in the NBA.  However, the higher a player appears in the Top 100, the higher the probability of being drafted and forging a successful NBA career.

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