College Basketball Insider

A senior year doesn't help most real NBA prospects like some suggest

Nick Johnson is skipping his final season at Arizona to enter the draft.   (USATSI)
Nick Johnson is skipping his final season at Arizona to enter the draft. (USATSI)

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Basketball is a sport now run, in lots of ways, by numbers that dictate what coaches and players do in certain situations. There are statistics that suggest when a team should and should not foul. There are statistics that suggest where specific players should be forced on a court. There are statistics that suggest which five-man lineups work best, and you get the sense that anybody with a basic understanding of the game who is A) willing to commit to the numbers, and B) capable of managing egos could theoretically guide a team.

That's an overstatement, probably.

But you get the point.

And yet still, when it comes to the NBA Draft, people tend to ignore the numbers and what they suggest -- especially in regard to commenting on whether college juniors who are not guaranteed first-round picks should or shouldn't forgo their senior seasons. I'm reminded of this each year when a junior who is a borderline first-round pick -- like Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes or Arizona's Nick Johnson -- declares, at which point there's a chorus of folks insisting they should've returned for their senior years and improved their stock enough to ensure a place in the following year's first round because second-round picks are usually screwed.

The problem with this unsolicited advice is that it ignores two realities.

  1. Juniors who are borderline first-round picks or projected second-round picks don't usually solidify a place in the first round with a senior year of college.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of second-round picks aren't screwed. In fact, they usually end up with an NBA contract of some sort.

The first important thing to understand is that an average of just five seniors per year have been selected in the first round of the past five drafts, and, on average, only one senior has been picked in the lottery. So the idea that a junior who is a projected second-round pick can expect to return for his senior season and become a lottery pick is an idea rooted in fiction because that almost never happens. In fact, 17 of the 26 (65 percent) seniors who have been selected in the first round in the past five drafts have been picked between 20 and 30, and, again, only five seniors, on average, have been selected in the first round of the past five drafts. In other words, if you're a projected second-round pick after three years of college, you'll more than likely be a projected second-round pick after four years of college. That's what recent history tells us. Perhaps you'll be the exception -- like Michigan State's Adreian Payne, for instance. But, make no mistake, if you're a projected second-round pick after three years who is bound and determined to solidify a place in the first round, you are betting on becoming the exception to an established and undeniable rule.

Good luck.

The other important thing to understand is that being picked in the second round isn't the death sentence many pretend it to be because the overwhelming majority of college players selected in the second round do actually end up in the NBA, one way or another. In the past five years, 117 college players have been picked in the second round, and 93 of those have signed some sort of NBA contract. That's 80 percent. And even if you don't end up in the NBA as a second-round pick, there's usually a legitimate European option available, meaning prospects like Stokes and Johnson, even if they're not picked in the first round next month, will either still land on an NBA roster or in Europe with a contract in excess of $100,000 annually. So the best-case scenario is great and the worst-case scenario is still pretty good relative to what most folks face in the year immediately following their last year of college.

To be clear, I have no problem with juniors returning for their senior years.

There's nothing wrong with playing four years of college.

There's nothing wrong with getting a degree.

If that's what somebody wants to do, that's what he should do. My only point here is to figuratively roll my eyes at those who suggest a legitimate pro prospect who doesn't choose that path is somehow making a mistake even if he does get drafted in the second round because, again, most juniors who are projected second-round picks remain projected second-round picks after their senior years because, after three years of college, you typically are what you are as a prospect in the NBA's eyes, and, again, the overwhelming majority of second-round picks, regardless of class, actually end up with some kind of NBA contract anyway. That's what the past five years have taught us. And that's why Jarnell Stokes, Nick Johnson and every prospect like them will probably be just fine ... or, at least, no better-off or worse-off next month than they would've otherwise been next year after a final season of college basketball that might've been fun but, statistically speaking, probably not all that beneficial toward the goals they've set for themselves.

 
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