CHICAGO -- The 2015-16 college basketball season was known as the 'Year of the Senior.'
Around the country, players like Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and Michigan State's Denzel Valentine wowed crowds with their shooting acumen and passing displays. Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon and North Carolina's Brice Johnson went from being good, All-ACC type players to first team All-Americans. The Final Four was littered with them, as the most important player on each team (Hield, Johnson, Syracuse's Michael Gbinije and Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono) was, you guessed it, a fourth-or-fifth year player.
However, the NBA Draft tends to be based one thing, and it's not production.
It's that single, essential, somewhat intangible -- but certainly vital word.
In the one-and-done era, it has become ritual for freshmen to be taken early in the lottery and seniors to slide in behind them (if at all). Over the last 10 drafts -- the 10 in which the "one-and-done" rule has been in place -- there have been eight freshmen, one sophomore and one international player taken No. 1 overall. Seven of those 10 drafts have seen at least three freshmen be taken in the top five picks, and in each of the last two years freshmen have gone Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Last year, only four seniors were taken in the entire first round. The year before it was five, and in 2013 it was only three.
Basically, the senior has been marginalized in the NBA Draft process. Sure, part of it has to do with more players declaring for the draft early and there simply being fewer NBA-level seniors around in college basketball. But at this point, potential has certainly overridden production, and college basketball players have taken notice.
"I think it speaks to what a lot of the NBA teams are looking for," said Brogdon, a 23-year-old senior. "They're looking for young guys, they're looking for athletes."
"Teams want the younger coming-up guys," St. Joseph's senior Isaiah Miles said. "So they feel us older guys aren't necessarily as sexy as the younger players. So that's why you have to take opportunities like these for teams to come out and watch you play and prove them wrong. To show that you are as good as the other guys."
It's a matter of development curves, for all intents and purposes. In a very basic example, the NBA team would obviously rather have the 19-year-old that averaged 18 points per game over the 22-year-old that did, simply because there's typically more to work with and a greater amount of time to get him to an NBA level. Now, scouting doesn't work in black-and-white terms quite like that, obviously. There are questions of translation to the different NBA game, questions of players' mentalities and dealing with different situations throughout a rigorous 82-game basketball season. But for the most part, younger players tend to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of their game coming along.
"They definitely do," North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said about the idea of younger players getting more benefit of the doubt. "You see a kid that's 19 years old, he has more upside in their eyes. He can improve more, and by the time he does improve he'll be 21, 22 years old which is where we already are."
Paige nailed it on the head, as the average bell curve for player development tends to show that NBA teams drafting younger players ends up leading to more success. But where does the production in college line cross the potential line and make it more marginally more effective to take an older player? Plus, what if that player still has some room for growth in his game, as Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff explained to me.
"They use your age against you, so it's good and bad," Uthoff said. "They say 'Oh you're 23, how much more potential can you have?' But in my opinion, I'm not even close to reaching my potential. My body isn't mature yet. I still have a skinny frame. I think I can get a lot better."
While frame maturity may be one place that guys like Uthoff (and Paige, Johnson and others) can improve, emotional and mental maturity was the answer that came up most often when I asked what the most positive thing a senior brings to a team is, both in terms of approach and just readiness to compete.
"As a senior, we're kind of grown men, if you will," Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. "We've been through four years of college, kind of grown up in those four years. For us, we know it's a business in a way that teams are going to look at younger guys as more valuable players, just because they've got two, three years of productivity that they can work with as far as the age difference between me and a freshman. But from our stand point, we're good business clients for teams, just because we know how hard to work. They know what they're going to get from us. It's just the nature of how the business side of things works as far as the NBA."
"I know we've probably had a couple more experiences than some of the freshman guys," North Carolina's Johnson added. "They're just jumping from level to level. Well, we've been through the level. We know what it takes to get to the next level. We just have to keep working toward that."
NBA teams basically have to decide at what point a player's development curve could become an outlier. When do they fully cross over into the stream of being a "late bloomer" that not only grew through college, but also in the NBA and got better while also being able to provide slightly more production early in their career? We've seen it over the past few years with Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green in the NBA developing into possible top 10 players in the entire league despite taking a while to figure it out in college and going in the 30s. Heck, to a smaller extent we're seeing it in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as Josh Richardson and Norman Powell are getting rotational minutes as rookies.
This isn't to say that teams should go out and gobble up every senior player they can for their teams and hope for the best. But it's worth pointing out that you shouldn't simply disregard players due to their age without considering their developmental cycles.
"If you want a guy who can come in immediately and already help, I think the seniors have an advantage in that regard," Paige said. "So it just depends on what teams value. But I think guys like myself, Malcolm Brogdon, Denzel Valentine, Brice, we're more mature. We've been through it. We're ready to play right away. So I think there's a benefit to being old, too."
Indeed, new is not always better. Sometimes the classics can be just as good as the hits, and like a fine wine sometimes things get better with age.