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Sports Then and Now

Waiting for the Weekend: Old Fuddy Duddy Watching the NBA Draft

Posted on June 23, 2017 by Dean Hybl
Markelle Fultz was selected with the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft after playing only 25 games at the college level.

Markelle Fultz was selected with the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft after playing only 25 games at the college level.

I have decided in this column to serve as the old “fuddy duddy”, which is defined as being old fashioned and fussy.

Last night was the NBA Draft and I must admit, my 11-year-old son had a much better grasp of the players being selected than I did. Not only because he is significantly closer in age to them, but also because in today’s electronic world, he is much more familiar with their exploits than I am. Though most of the top players played roughly 30 games at the college level, if you are interested and tech savvy, you can find all their highlights on YouTube.

Sorry to sound dated and bitter, but I fondly remember a day when players being drafted into the NBA were familiar to fans not because of a YouTube video, but because we had watched them play through usually three or four years of college. Even in a time when cable television was not yet prominent and not every game was available to watch, we still had ample chances to enjoy the top players for quite a while before they moved to the NBA.

When Michael Jordan entered the NBA in 1984 he had played 101 games as a college player, not to mention being on the 1984 Olympic team. While I don’t recall there necessarily being discussion then that he was going to be the greatest player of all-time (such labels weren’t really all that important in a time before sports talk shows), there was no question that he was a great player and would be a successful pro.

You can say similar things about all the other top draft picks from the 1970s and 1980s. In most cases, they were familiar to fans across the country because they had been showcased in college for multiple years.

Now not every great college player in the past panned out in the NBA. As is the case today, there were many players in past generations who were great college players, but just didn’t translate to the NBA. But even in those cases, you had four years to watch them play at college and the number of top picks who didn’t have at least some semblance of an NBA career was pretty minimal.

Raph Sampson pplayed 132 college games and was a three-time AP Player of the Year before being the first pick in the 1983 NBA Draft.

Raph Sampson pplayed 132 college games and was a three-time AP Player of the Year before being the first pick in the 1983 NBA Draft.

For me as a kid, the player who best exemplified the “golden era” of college basketball was Ralph Sampson of the Virginia Cavaliers. Much like LeBron James two decades later, the seven-foot-four Sampson could have been the first pick in the draft out of high school. Instead, he spent four years in college and by the time he graduated was as well-known as most NBA players.

Looking back now at the 1983 draft, it is amazing at how many players picked in the first two rounds went on to be solid, if not all great, NBA players. In addition to Sampson, other high profile college players included Clyde Drexler, Rodney McCray, Byron Scott and Thurl Bailey.

Of the 24 players chosen in the first round, 20 played at least five years in the league and 14 played at least 10 seasons. Among the top 14 picks, the only real “mistake” was made by the Golden State Warriors with the sixth choice. They selected 6-foot-10 center Russell Cross from Purdue University and he lasted just one season averaging 3.7 points in 45 games. Every other player in the top 14 (the top choices were not known as lottery picks at that time) played at least five seasons in the NBA and 11 (all but Cross, Sampson – whose career was derailed by injuries and only played nine years, and Steve Stipanovich – who had five solid seasons before a knee injury forced him to retire) played 10 or more years.

Even many of the second round picks in 1983 proved to be solid NBA players. Of the 23 second round picks, 16 made an NBA roster and seven played at least four seasons. Mark West played a total of 17 NBA seasons while Doc Rivers lasted 13.

If you look at other drafts from the period, the story is pretty similar. A great majority of the players now referred to as being picked “in the lottery” had long NBA careers and most of the first or second round picks had extended and productive NBA careers.

For whatever reason, while there are still many great players who come out of the NBA Draft, the number of players who have long and successful careers is not as high as it was in the era when they entered the NBA after having extensive college experience.

Looking at the 2007 draft, whose players would have finished their 10th season this year, it is interesting to see the contrast to 1983 in terms of players who enjoyed NBA longevity. Of the 30 first round picks in 2007, only 12 have played 10 years in the league and a total of 19 lasted five years or more. Among the second round picks, 20 of the 30 made an NBA roster and eight lasted at least four seasons. Only Josh McRoberts, who played two collegiate seasons at Duke, and Ramon Sessions, who played three years at the University of Nevada-Reno, are second round picks who have played 10 NBA seasons.

Checking even more recently at the 2012 draft class, only 21 of the 30 first round picks are still in the NBA after five years. Seven second round picks, including Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, are still in the NBA. Like in the other drafts, the higher the pick, the more likely the player is still around as 14 of the top 15 picks from that draft have played five NBA seasons.

Of course, the point is that in this era when players are selected in the NBA Draft based on potential, rather than past college performance, it is a bit more difficult to predict NBA success and therefore you are going to have more players who just don’t pan out even to be adequate NBA players.

I know there are multiple factors that would make it difficult to go back to the days where most future NBA players spent at least two and usually three or more years in college, but it is clear that players who had more extensive college experience went on to longer and in many cases more productive NBA careers.

Certainly, for someone like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, spending three years in college may not have enhanced their NBA career significantly, but how many players who left after just one year would have been better served with more experience at the college level?

It is a tough question because in the NBA the players are paid, while in college everyone is making money except for the players.

I know it would forever damage college basketball, but in reality what the NBA needs is a true minor league system like baseball where players can mature physically and in their knowledge of the game by being immersed in it for two or three years before heading to the NBA. It is a role college basketball used to play, but with the lucrative contracts now available to the top draft picks, it is almost impossible to expect anyone to hold off on earning big money even if waiting a year or two could possibly ensure a more successful career.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recognizes that the current “one and done” system is not working for the league. The fact that nine of the first 10 picks in the 2017 NBA Draft played only one year of college basketball (the other is an 18-year-old from France) and a record number of one-year college players were selected in the first round is just further illustration that something has to be done to provide young players with more seasoning before joining the NBA.

I don’t think we will ever get back to the day where primarily juniors and seniors are selected in the NBA Draft, but if we can at least get to a time where they have more than a cup of coffee in college (or some other pre-NBA program), it would be a positive improvement and ultimately make the quality of play in the NBA better.

Birthdays: Check out the sports greats born the week of June 23-29.

June 23 – Art Modell (1925), Wilma Rudolph (1940), Tony Hill (1956), LaSalle Thompson (1961), Colin Montgomerie (1963), A.C. Earl (1970), Robert Brooks (1970), Matt Light (1978), LaDainian Tomlinson (1979)

June 24 – Jack Dempsey (1895), Billy Casper (1931), Loren Roberts (1955), Gary Suter (1964), J.J. Redick (1984), Phil Hughes (1986), Lionel Messi (1987)

June 25 – Willis Reed (1942), Phyllis George-Brown (1949), Dell Curry (1964), Dikembe Mutombo (1966), Aaron Sele (1970), Carlos Delgado (1972), Luke Scott (1978)

June 26 – Babe Heran (1903), Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911), Jumpy Geathers (1960), Greg LeMond (1961), Jerome Kersey (1962), Wendy Lucero-Schayes (1963), Shannon Sharpe (1968), Carlton Gray (1971), Derek Jeter (1974), Jason Kendall (1974), Chad Pennington (1976), Michael Vick (1980), Deron Williams (1984)

June 27 – Eddie Kasko (1932), Rico Petrocelli (1943), Catherine Lacoste (1945), Brad Childress (1956), Chuck Person (1964), Jeff Conine (1966), Jim Edmonds (1970)

June 28 – Ron Luciano (1937), Al Downing (1941), Don Baylor (1949), Mike Skinner (1957), John Elway (1960), Jay Schroeder (1961), Jeff Malone (1961), Michele Timms (1965), Bobby Hurley (1971), Marvin Jones (1972)

June 29 – Harry Frazee (1881), Harmon Killebrew (1936), Dan Dierdorf (1949), Rick Honeycutt (1954), Pedro Guerrero (1956), Pepper Johnson (1964), Troy Drayton (1970), George Hincapie (1973), Martin Truex, Jr. (1980), Joe Johnson (1981)

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