By Michael Rochlis
Reading Time: 5 minutes
In the relationship between college basketball and the National Basketball Association, an interesting dynamic exists. Often, the best college basketball players in the country are seniors—48 of the last 110 Wooden Award All American Team members from 2006 to 2016 were in their final year of eligibility—but that on-the-court success in college doesn’t typically translate to higher draft positions in the NBA draft. In the drafts from 2006-2016, only 17.6% of all players drafted in the first round played through their senior year in college. This difference represents a clear divide between who the best players are at the college level versus which players are seen as the most valuable upon declaring for the draft. While there are many explanations for this—the main one being non-seniors are younger players with presumably more room to develop—it begs the question as to whether seniors have become an undervalued draft commodity that have consistently been overlooked due to perceived limited potential. Additionally, because seniors are older when entering the NBA and therefore should be more developed both physically and as basketball players, it is fair to wonder whether they provide more instant impact compared to their younger or international counterparts.
To set the parameters of the study, Basketball Reference’s win shares was used as the primary metric to compare the value that players provide to their teams. Win shares will be used heavily, so it is important to note that an average player accumulates roughly three win shares a year. For all of the data that follows, only the players drafted between 2006 and 2015 were used, as 2006 was the first year that high school players were ineligible to enter the draft, while players drafted in 2016 have only completed their rookie years. Also, with a dominating proportion of the NBA’s best players coming from the lottery (picks 1-14), pick 15 made sense as a starting point to assess the value of the players drafted outside of that point. Once the lottery ends, the success rate of draft picks plummets making it a clear dividing line in terms of draft position. Additionally, the rarity of senior lottery picks would skew the data towards more successful non-senior draft picks.
By going through the data for all of the seniors drafted between 2006-2015 as well as every draft pick between 15-30 in that same range, a couple of important questions arose. First, are seniors better players than non-seniors getting drafted in the same range simply because seniors are undervalued? The short answer to that question is no. Comparing both the median and mean win shares of seniors and non-seniors drafted between picks 15 and 30, non-seniors came out on top as more productive by both measures. Looking at the graph below, the median win shares produced by non-seniors was 2.3 better than seniors (6.1 vs. 3.8). The mean win-shares produced was closer with non-seniors edging seniors 11.7 to 10.7. Using the median is probably more productive in this instance, as the range of career win shares is very high, and the sample size, particularly for seniors (39 players fit this description) is small enough for a player like Jimmy Butler to carry a lot of weight. An interesting note about this data, though, is that the average draft position for seniors was 24.5 while the average draft position for non-seniors was 21.9, so it should be expected that the non-seniors fitting this criteria are the better players. The main takeaway, though, is that seniors in the 15-30 range are not inherently undervalued and better than non-seniors.
While seniors may not be better players outright over the courses of their careers, a notable advantage of drafting a senior should be their early career production. Seniors that are drafted have had four years to hone their craft working on aspects of their game with ample playing time at the college level. For non-seniors, particularly the one-and-done players, a large part of their early careers is devoted to developing their body and skills for the NBA, as very few 19-year-olds possess the ability to contribute to an NBA team immediately. So, it would be expected that seniors are more productive players right away at the expense of having a lower ceiling and a shorter career. Taking only the data of players between picks 15 to 30 with 20 career win shares or more (including all seniors drafted that have 20 career win shares or more)—many players have zero win shares, so 20 was used as a baseline for a successful player—seniors on average produced more in their first four years in the NBA than non-seniors. Although the gap in both median and mean win shares is quite small, the data coincides with the intuition that a senior provides much more of a plug-and-play option compared to younger prospect who is drafted based on their projected ceiling.
Now that some initial questions have been answered, the most important question lingers: what is the value of seniors, and more importantly, are they undervalued? To dive into this inquiry, win shares by draft position from 15 to 30, including seniors, was compared to that of all seniors drafted from 15 to 45. In the 31-45 range, many productive seniors have been drafted giving credence to the idea that seniors can be undervalued. Notable examples of these first half of the 2nd round seniors include all-star Draymond Green, Chandler Parsons, Jae Crowder, and, of course, reigning rookie of the year and Virginia’s own Malcolm Brogdon. Particularly with Green, Parsons, and Brogdon, the early returns on these players, who were all drafted between 35 and 38, were/are very promising, which is to be expected for seniors. The graphs below display the median and mean win shares by draft position—either based on career totals or win shares per year—with seniors on the far right. In both cases, as mentioned above, the data for seniors also contains players drafted in the 31-45 range (although there were some productive players drafted beyond that threshold, players drafted beyond pick 45 were more likely to completely bust than do anything of substance). A very important piece of information about the seniors column is that the overall average draft position of seniors drafted between position 15-45 was 32.90. This is an important distinction because it means that if all things were equal, the seniors would be less valuable than every individual draft position from 15-30, but this was not the case. The median and mean win share value for the career totals for just seniors were 1.7 and 7.1 respectively. While that may not seem like gaudy production, this actually aligns the seniors totals most closely with the 28th pick (win shares median and mean of 1.6 and 5.4 respectively). With the seniors used in this data having an average draft position close to 33, this is a signal that seniors are in fact undervalued in the draft.
Based on this study, one could conclude that not only are seniors slightly undervalued when it comes to the draft, but they also are better bets to produce early in their careers. These are useful findings as teams that generally pick towards the bottom of round one are contending teams, and those teams might be looking for players that can aid in their title aspirations over a project player that may be useful when the team is out of contention. In the 2017 draft, it seems like the Spurs might be trying to get immediate value out of their 29th pick by selecting Colorado senior Derrick White. Seniors can also be useful in jump starting an existing young core. Recent examples of this include Draymond Green with the Warriors and Malcolm Brogdon with the Bucks. It is possible that teams like the Lakers, Suns, Magic, and Kings—all rebuilding teams with young core players—are trying to emulate the success of the seniors drafted by the Warriors and Bucks as all four teams drafted seniors in the 30 to 34 range in this year’s draft. Although, for teams looking to completely reset and get a franchise cornerstone, maybe drafting seniors isn’t the best route. The top five players drafted between 15-45 from 2006 to 2015 were all non-seniors with the best players being Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. Additionally, for a team like the 2014 Milwaukee Bucks, taking a risk on a raw 19-year-old from Greece has paid ginormous dividends as they landed Giannis Antetokounmpo, a franchise cornerstone, instead of taking a senior who would not have had the same ceiling. A draft strategy when it comes to seniors is very much player driven and team-need driven, but it is clear that seniors shouldn’t be overlooked, and might be the best way to get value when a team finds itself outside of the lottery.