I had an intriguing thought the other night while watching the Bulls-Celtics series. A few years ago there was a lot of talk about the "smart" teams who were drafting players who had been successful in college for successful programs. As we look back at players now, it seems that there is almost no correlation at all between a successful NCAA program and a successful transition to the NBA. This seems counterintuitive, but I think it warrants further review.
The two teams that stand out to me as prime examples are Chicago and Charlotte. The arguments I'm about to make might be easy to reject based on the premise that perhaps the GMs were just terrible drafters. For the sake of this argument please hold those objections. I'll see if I can address them later.
Chicago began drafting players with the "successful NCAA program" pedigree a few seasons back. Well, let me qualify what I mean when I say they "began" this. Draft trends are cyclical. For a while it was high schoolers. There have been trends of drafting freak athletes (Atlanta comes to mind with their love of SFs), players with height regardless of skill (looking at you, Seattle), or falling in love with Euros (hi there, Chad Ford). All of these trends come in and out of favor, and we'll surely see some of these trends return. So, while the Bulls obviously have drafted players from successful programs in the past (some kid named Jordan out of UNC), there was a recognizeable shift in drafting philosophy a few years ago.
Chicago drafted guys like Ben Gordon from UConn and Joakim Noah from Florida (during a temporary rise in prominance). They did this in response to the sense of having failed at drafting young guys with a lot of potential (Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler left Chicago branded as busts). Tyrus Thomas came from LSU after a semi-successful tournament run. Kirk Hinrich came from the history-rich Kansas. Luol Deng came from Duke.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that Chicago is the 7 seed in the East, so obviously this strategy worked! Memphis had even risen to prominance under Calipari by the time they took Rose #1. And you'd be right. On the surface, this strategy has worked. But was it because they took athletes from successful programs? Rose is an incredible athlete, and Chicago lucked into that #1 pick. Noah has largely been viewed as a disappointment, but provides a lot of energy. Thomas has been a bit of a head case and has had discipline issues, but he's talented. Ben Gordon is lightning in a bottle when he gets his shot going. But let's put this to the ultimate test: how many of these guys are going to be on a Chicago team that eventually wins a title. If Chicago wins a title with any of these players, it will be Rose and Deng. Anyone else I've listed will be a secondary player. They will not be the catalyst. For as many high picks as these players represent, that's a below average rate of return.
Let us now take a look at our other prime example, Charlotte. Notable players from notable programs include Emeka Okafor from UConn, Sean May and Raymond Felton from UNC, and even though he's no longer with the team we can include Adam Morrison from Gonzaga. I suppose you could also include D.J. Augustin from Texas, but I think it's too early to pass any judgement on him either way.
Okafor has been serviceable when healthy. May was considered a reach at the time of the draft and has continued to disappoint. Felton got mentally destroyed by Larry Brown. And we know that Morrison has done absolutely nothing. Personally I feel liked the Bobcats fall under the "bad drafters" category, but still the evidence persists.
For as many high draft picks as these teams have had over the past several years, they have very little to show for it. Both of these teams are a very long way from a championship still. And very few of their players from well-established NCAA programs will ever be a key part of either of these teams ever being able to win a championship.
Now at this point you're probably thinking, "Great, but why didn't you post this over at Blog-a-Bull or Rufus on Fire?" Well my friends, I'm about to bring it back to the Kings. To paraphrase the old saying, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
To me, it seems that some of the most successful college players came from programs that were ok, but became elevated by one or two key players. Notable I'm thinking of Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Durant and Augustin at Texas, Oden at Ohio State, or even a guy like Jameer Nelson at St. Joe's. Beasley at K-State might fall under this category someday, but I'd be surprised. That's just personal bias though, the guy never impressed me.
As much as I've campaigned against Griffin, this is honestly the best arguement I've found in his favor. Don't get your panties in a bunch, I know all about his numbers and stats and that his dunks get him on Sportscenter. But the best thing I can see is that he elevated OU to a new level. Thabeet would fall under the "established program" category.
Why does this pattern seem to exist? I have a theory. If you're good enough to get offers from a lot of colleges, but not good enough to be a top-tier player, where would you want to go? Somewhere where you'd have a chance to win a championship, probably. So you're looking at the big programs. An established programs has brand recognition in its name alone. So places like UNC, Duke, Kansas, etc. are going to have a better supporting cast around their stars. A truly elite player will stand out at the college level even without a supporting cast.
Please do not confuse this as an endorsement of Blake Griffin, per se. This is simply an observation I had and wanted to explore further. Something we can all consider as we look at draft prospects both for our first pick, as well as Houston pick and our second-rounder.
More than anything, I want to hear about the examples I forgot. Examples that either support or disprove my theory. Let's talk, argue, debate, name-call, and all the other these we do so well. What are your thoughts?