The Big Ten in the NBA Draft, a tale of woe

The NBA draft was a couple weeks ago, and the Big Ten didn't have a good one. Only one player from the conference was drafted in the first round (JaJuan Johnson at #27 to the Celtics), and not high in the first round at that. Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer went to the Bucks at #40, Michigan point guard Darius Morris went at #41 to the Lakers, Ohio State guard Jon Diebler went at #51 to Portland, and Purdue guard E'Twaun Moore went at #55 to the Celtics. Second round picks don't get guaranteed contracts and are frequently training camp casualties, so don't count on seeing these former Leaders and Legends in the conference next year (although Diebler has such a specific and valuable skill in his three-point shooting that I wouldn't be surprised if he managed to hang on). It was not a strong draft haul, and it continues a trend for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten has averaged two first round picks and 1.55 second round picks over the past 10 years, but this doesn't really tell the whole story of the conference's draft production. To truly understand the weakness of the conference's drafts, you need to weigh the picks by their rank somehow; the Big Ten's five picks in 2011 may look pretty good, but the three picks in 2004 (with two in the lottery) represent, I would argue, a stronger draft.

A Method For Weighing: "Draft Value"

My method for weighing was pretty simple: if a pick was the first pick out of 60, it was worth 60/60, if it was 2nd, it was worth 59/60, etc.*  In equation form:

Draft value of a pick = (Draft size - Pick number + 1)/Draft size

So in a 60-player draft, the #1 pick is worth 1, the #16 pick is worth .75, the #31 pick .5, and the #60 pick .02.  For a given conference and a given year, we can add up the draft values of each of the picks and arrive at a total draft value for the conference.  It's sort of arbitrary, but it does allow us to compare the total value of different groups of picks in one handy number.*

* I considered going other directions with the weights, such as weighing the picks by salary, but this proved problematic, because there is no set salary scale for second round picks, and many late second round picks are cut before signing a contract.  If you go by the rookie salary scale, the #30th pick isn't worth roughly half of the #1 pick (as it is in my system), but rather about 1/5th, and even this probably exaggerates how close in value the #30 pick is to the #1 pick. Another possibility would be to measure average draft position, but averages can obscure the depth (or lack thereof) of a draft.  The Big Ten's average pick for 2010 would have been 2 (Evan Turner was the only pick for the conference that year at #2), while the ACC's average would have been 28.5, but the ACC had eight picks to the Big Ten's one, including picks #3 and #8, so it would be hard to say the Big Ten really had a better draft that year.  My system probably isn't perfect, but it at least  values the picks of all the conferences in a consisently imperfect way.  Also note that since the size of the draft has expanded a few times, the value of a pick is always proportional to the size of a draft; so the 30th pick in a 58-team draft is worth slightly less than the 30th pick in a 60-team draft.

That number doesn't have an obvious intuitive meaning, although it might help to remember that one point of value is equal to a number one overall pick.**

** This points to another problem: not all drafts are created equal -- some are deeper than others -- so one could make the critique that it doesn't make sense to weigh Greg Oden's #1 pick in the loaded 2007 draft as worth the same as Kyrie Irving's #1 in the weak 2011 draft.  Hopefully that type of effect balances out over time between conferences, but it is possible that it hits some conferences harder than others.  More study needed here.

When you weigh the Big Ten's drafts in this way, here are the "values" of the Big 10's last 34 drafts (first and second rounds only) with annotation of some of the better drafts (click to enlarge)*:

* I decided to cut off my analysis at 1977; that was the year the draft expanded from 36 to 44 picks, and I wanted to try to compare drafts of at least somewhat similar size.

To take an example of how this figure is calculated, in 2011, the Big Ten had the #27 pick (.57), the #40 pick (.35), the #41 pick (.33), the #51 pick (.17) and the #5 pick (.1), for a total of 1.52.

Looking farther back, The conference had a very good year in 1980, a very good year in 1990, a couple more good years when the Fab Five and Glenn Robinson entered the draft, a very deep draft in 2000 (when seven players were selected), and, of course, the Oden/Conley year, but there are also many, many weak drafts in there (anyone remember the epic Byron Mullens/Goran Suton draft of 2009?).  But to really appreciate how weak some of these drafts have been, we need to compare the Big Ten to other conferences.*

Because the membership of conferences has changed over the years, I used the 2010-11 membership to define which teams were in which conference.  So even though South Florida was not in the Big East in 2001, for simplicity's sake, they are included in that grouping for the purposes of this study.

Here is the Big 12 over that time period:

And the ACC:

And the Big East:

And the SEC:

And the Pac Ten:

And, just for fun, here's the skyrocketing draft value of foreign players in the draft (ah, how the league went nuts for foreigners in 2003):

There's a lot of bouncing around in these numbers, so it may be more helpful to look at simple averages (I tossed in some other minor conferences, as well as foreign and high school players in this list):

 Conference Avg. Total Pick Value, 1977-2011 ACC 3.85 Big East 3.64 SEC 2.66 Pac Ten 2.64 Big Ten 2.58 High School (1995-2005) 2.39 Foreign 2.33 Big 12 2.18 Mountain West 1.02 Conference USA .89 Atlantic 10 .79 West Coast .33 Missouri Valley .31 Horizon .23

As you can see, the Big Ten ranks well behind the ACC and Big East, but comfortably in the middle with the SEC and Pac Ten.  But this is perhaps too broad a picture.  It includes the years when the Big Ten truly was a dominant basketball conference and not the more recent fallow period.  If we look at just the last ten years, we get a more current snapshot of the conference's draft success (click to enlarge):

Now the "foreign" group is far and away the best, the ACC is the best of the college conferences, and the high school group (which ceased to exist in 2006) did well while it lasted.  The foreign number, it should be noted, is misleading in a couple of ways: a) the practice of "Euro-stashing" means that teams frequently draft foreign players long before they ever plan to sign them (which doesn't happen with U.S. college players) and b) it's a bit unfair to compare a "conference" the size of the globe with a 12-team league like the ACC.  That second point also applies to the "high school" group.  Both groups generated several very high draft picks in the past 10 years, though: e.g. in 2011, when four of the top seven picks came from foreign teams, or 2004, when high-schoolers Dwight Howard and Shaun Livingston went #1 and #4, respectively, or the dreaded Darko draft of 2003.

The ACC, Big East, and Pac Ten appear to be the class of college basketball in terms of producing high draft picks, which shouldn't be too surprising: UConn, Cincinnati, Pitt, Georgetown, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Arizona and USC have churned out a steady supply of excellent players throughout the decade.  But the Big Ten has had a very, very weak decade for a major conference.  There have been a few highlights (Jason Richardson, Devin Harris, Deron Williams, Greg Oden, Michael Conley, Eric Gordon and Evan Turner), but the stars haven't come in as great of numbers nor as regularly as they have in other conferences.  And for all the history of the Big Ten as basketball power, the SEC and Big 12 have overtaken the conference and appear to be getting stronger, probably due to the emergence of non-traditional basketball powers Texas, Florida and LSU as draft lottery regulars.

One serious caveat is that the major conferences are not all the same size.  But even adjusting for size (by dividing the total value by the number of teams in a conference), the Big Ten doesn't look so hot:

It's interesting to note that, after adjusting for size, the Pac Ten (with its ten members) actually moves ahead of the ACC (with its twelve members).  It also becomes clear that the mighty Big East is not so mighty.  The 16-team mega-conference actually winds up being worse than the Big 12 and only slightly ahead of the SEC.  The Big Ten, unfortunately, still comes out looking like the worst of the major conferences, and has fallen perilously close to Horizon/Mountain West Levels in recent years (and indeed fell behind the Mountain West this past year).

Conclusions

Past is not necessarily prologue.  Things could change for the Big Ten.  If Jared Sullinger had entered the draft this year, this draft would have wound up looking a lot better for the conference, so we can at least expect that next year's draft will go better for the Big Ten.  It's also important to note that this past decade has been unusually rough on several historically good basketball schools: Indiana has obviously had its problems in recent years, and that showed up in the draft (only three draft picks since 2001); Michigan and Purdue also have only had three picks in that time period.  All three programs seem to be on the upswing, and could produce more picks as the years go by.

But the Big Ten does have some challenges to overcome if it wants to place players higher in the draft.  The players who are most valuable, those that go in the top 10 picks, overlap to a large degree with the players who in an earlier age would have come straight out of high school: Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, etc.  Can the Big Ten convince these players that their conference provides them with a good platform to improve their draft stock?*

* I'm leaving aside the issue of NCAA rule-bending to get recruits to certain schools, which also no doubt plays a role.

The Big Ten seems to offer plenty of TV exposure, good coaching, and chances to play in the NCAA tournament, so what's the problem?  Is it simple demographics?  The upper Midwest is not growing as fast as other parts of the country, and a smaller recruiting pool could mean fewer recruits.  But if you look at the ESPN Top 100 recruits for 2012, the Big Ten actually winds up looking pretty good: 28 of the 100 recruits come from states with a Big Ten school, which is just as many as come from ACC states and more than the comparable figures for the Big East (27), the SEC (20), the Big 12 (13) and the Pac Ten (8).  Is it style of play?  The Big Ten is notorious for a slow, grinding style of play, and it's possible that some prospective recruits fear that style will not show off their games in a positive light.  But a slow, defensive style hasn't seemed to hurt Ben Howland's ability to recruit players to UCLA or Jamie Dixon's to Pitt. Is it weather?  It's possible, but it's not like Storrs or Pittsburgh is all that pleasant in the winter.

There is one theory appeals to me (and I apologize if this seems too obvious): the great recruiting schools are good at recruiting because they were good at recruiting.  Duke didn't always used to be a mark of basketball quality, but after many years of getting great recruits, getting those players drafted, and then having those players succeed in the NBA, it is one now.  If a recruit's primary concern is signalling to professional teams that he is a good bet as a player, then one of the best things he can do is associate himself with a reliable brand, such as the Krzyzewski brand or the Roy Williams brand or the John Calipari brand.  So even if you could stay in Iowa, score 40 points a game and be a folk hero (ahem, Harrison Barnes), going to North Carolina will be a more dependable stamp of approval and, from a psychological perspective, a much more important personal validation.  In that sense a North Carolina basketball scholarship is sort of like a Harvard diploma -- it's a marker of selection.*

* And given that the best players rarely stay longer than one or two years and thus have little time to receive actual basketball instruction, one could argue that it is almost purely a marker of selection.  That and a chance to be on national TV 20-odd times a year.

I'm not sure if any Big Ten coach or program can produce this kind of instant validation of a player's reputation -- Thad Motta, maybe, but the prestige of his program is somewhat dimmed by the middling success of his highest picks (Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Evan Turner). Other quality Big Ten programs such as Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin haven't built up a strong enough track record of producing NBA stars yet.  Deron Williams was a great success coming out of Illinois, but James Augustine, Brian Cook, Devin Harris, Alando Tucker and Carl Landry aren't exactly all-stars.  And that's not even taking into account the various Big Ten programs that have produced virtually nothing in the draft the past ten years (that's us, Hawkeye fans).

Just to be clear, we are talking about the quality of the Big Ten as an NBA star factory, not as a basketball conference per se.  The two things are related, but not perfectly.  In an odd way, mediocrity helps the conference, as Big Ten schools can hang onto their best players for longer, precisely because they are not of the first rank; for example, Purdue held onto JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore until they were seniors, while Kentucky served as little more than an Extended Stay Motel for John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patternson, and Eric Bledsoe.  The Big Ten had a very strong year this past year (it was the strongest conference overall, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings), but had a rather pedestrian draft, while the SEC was the sixth best conference and had a very good draft.  A conference can be good at basketball and rate poorly in the draft, although ideally the Big Ten would do well at both.

My main goal here was to present the data, and I think the message there is clear: looked at overall, the past decade has been a pretty dismal one for the conference in terms of producing NBA draft picks.  There have been a few high picks, but they have been few and far between, and there have been many, many second-round picks.  Here's hoping it turns around -- on a purely selfish level, it would be fun to go back to the days when an Iowa fan could count on seeing players at the level of Kendall Gill, Steve Smith, Scott Skiles, Jim Jackson, Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber stroll onto the court once a year.

Notes: This piece owes a debt of inspiration to the great article published here a few months ago by UpUpDownDown, "The best (and worst) college programs and conferences at developing recruits into NFL players". I went in a slightly different direction, but his post got me thinking about the subject in the first place.  I also owe a great debt to the blog Rush The Court, which had much of the draft history recorded in convenient spreadsheet form.  Also, if you want to see the data I used to generate the "value" figures, you can find it in spreadsheet form here.

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