Why you should care
Because the best teams aren’t always made up of all-stars.
This year’s recent NBA draft was a weird one. A record 24 of the 60 picks were born outside the United States. Fans groused that they’d never seen their team’s first-round picks play in college, and Bostonians griped that they couldn’t even pronounce Guerschon Yabusele. Beyond the bitching: a sense that playing for a winning college team is no longer a prerequisite for getting drafted. Among the first-round picks who played U.S. college basketball,
27 percent played for teams that didn’t even make the tourney.
That doesn’t include the three players whose teams only got into the Big Dance through the play-in game. No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons? His LSU team missed the NCAA tournament entirely. Ditto for No. 8 pick Marquese Chriss of Washington and No. 18 pick Henry Ellenson of Marquette. This trend has a precedent — in 2012, seven of the 29 first-round picks who played college ball — 24 percent — didn’t play in the NCAA tournament.
We’re reaching a new norm in college basketball during this one-and-done era, where successful teams might not have the strongest individual players. Exhibit A: Reigning national champion Villanova saw zero players drafted. “Our guys understand we may not be lottery picks, but we’re really good players, we’re hard workers, we’ll do whatever we have to do to be able to win — and most of all we’re a team,” Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard, who spends months on the road annually recruiting, told OZY.
But wither the days of the NCAA tournament being where the biggest stars are future NBA stars? Not so fast. This Villanova team was more anomaly than trend. In fact, the last time a title-winning team didn’t have a player who would eventually be a first-round pick was 1963. Villanova’s ability to win it all without blue-chip talent was because last season in college basketball was also more anomaly than trend. It was dubbed “The Year of the Senior” as much because of dynamic NBA-bound seniors (Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, North Carolina’s Brice Johnson) as because of a subpar freshman class. For further context, this season followed two absurdly talented freshman classes in which the best teams swept the draft, like how the 2015 Final Four alone had nine players who’d be selected in the first round of the draft.
Next year? Wooooo-wee. The incoming freshman class is considered one of the best freshman classes in a decade. DraftExpress.com projects five of the top six 2017 draft picks to be one-and-done players, and unlike this year, where elite recruits chose random schools such as LSU, Marquette and Washington, next year’s elite recruits are heading to the blue bloods: Kentucky and Duke each have three freshmen ranked in ESPN’s top 10. Whereas last year’s paucity of recruiting wealth was spread throughout college hoops, which allowed Villanova to win it all, this year’s bumper crop of freshmen are heading where you’d expect: to Kentucky and Duke and Kansas and UCLA.
“The incoming freshman, this 2016 recruiting class, is the best class I’ve evaluated since I’ve been in this business,” said Evan Daniels, basketball recruiting director for Scout.com. “They’re going to have an immediate impact in college basketball, but it’ll be immediate and brief, because most of these players are one-and-done and heading to the NBA. The blue-blood programs, the top-tier programs, have really loaded up, and I expect that’ll show through when teams hit the court.”
This year, the rich get richer.