Think getting into the first round doesn't matter? Think again.
There are some common misconceptions regarding early entries into the NBA Draft. A new "wisdom" seems to have sprung up among fans: sooner is always better, the key is starting your career earnings clock, there's still more money than joe fan will ever see in getting on a roster - or even in Europe - heck, add in that the streets of Europe's major cities are paved in gold.
There are significant problems with these new orthodoxies - career longevity is where the real money is at (even for guys who are never more than bench players), an early start date on a career earnings clock doesn't mean much if the clock never gets past year 2, $1.2 million pre-taxes, agent cut, and expenses, is far from life changing money, some European teams can't even meet their payrolls due to cratering economies*, and most of the stories about huge Euro contracts seem to be apocryphal and possibly the work of a small handful of crazed European fans who plant these stories on various forums.
The facts very clearly display that it is far, far better to land in the first round of the NBA Draft - both for the guaranteed contract and the higher likelihood of establishing yourself in a league where it pays to play many years rather than a few - they print funny money for just about everyone besides first, second, and third year players in the NBA, stars or not. Willie Green, who in a 12 year career has averaged 10 points per game twice, had banked more than $22 million at the end of 2014. I studied draft years 2003-2013, and as the tables and charts show above and below** (props to our own LSAClassOf2000 for turning my sleep addled tables into these graphical displays), there is a distinct difference between length of the careers that start in the first round and those that start in the 2nd.
Lest anyone protest that, of course, first round careers are longer, as the top half of the round is all lottery players, note that isolating the non-lottery first rounders yields largely the same results.
Two articles ran last year on cbssports (HERE and HERE) that had truly dubious conclusions: the first suggested that early declarants fare better than their senior peers (this one is simply not true - it's mathematically wrong), the second suggested that the idea of bumping up one's prospects by returning for a senior year was outdated and fanciful. It is accurate that NBA teams (foolishly, I think, judging from the stats I've poured over these last weeks) tend to shy away from seniors in the lottery, but as the tables and charts show below, the value of turning yourself into a first round lock - even near the bottom of the first round - is significant.
So what if you don't get into the first round? I'm not finished with my research, but a general hypothesis is emerging. If you're stuck in the 2nd round, you better be ready to play right away or have freakish talent that teams will be willing to take multiple runs at. Essentially, if you're a 2nd rounder, you want to be either a guy who has spent 4 years in college (RS Jr or a SR) or a former top 30 recruit.*** Looking at second round seniors who are non-top 30 guys vs. early entries into the NBA Draft who are also non-top 30 HS recruits, the former have logged 37.63% of all possible years of service while the early entrants**** have accounted for 24.92% of all possible years of service. That's a pretty significant difference. It suggests that you don't want to be a second rounder or an undrafted guy (the cbssports article's point was that you make a roster generally as an early entry, drafted or not) whose game or body is not ready for NBA competition. If you are in that pool, it's good to still have the buzz (and the inherent talent) of being a former top 30 high school recruit.
To bring this part of the research to a close, I think people focus too much on the first contract (even though it is valuable for *future* contracts to be a first rounder). We hear too much about the "stigma" of being a junior and not a sophomore and the "super stigma" of being a senior (gasp) and not a junior with more upside. You know what's much more important than any of that? Being ready to play on day one of your entry into the NBA. Being ready to play on that first day in summer league.
Here is a partial list of guys who have had solid, lengthy NBA careers (or look to be on their way to such careers) after being drafted in the second round as seniors, without a former top 30 status to fall back on:
Dominic McGuire (RS Jr)
and a whole slew of guys still in the league who were drafted in 2012 and are looking very strong (Acy, Hamilton, Scott, Sacre, etc.)
I certainly understand the allure of the NBA Draft. For so many kids, the league is the dream. And why delay getting started with one's career? But is the dream a two to three year run (or, even worse, never seeing an NBA court)? I have to think it's a 10-12 year career, with some playoffs thrown in for good measure. My research suggests it can be a very bad thing to leave a a year before you're ready for the league if you have a lengthy career in mind. In fact, even relative to athletes who perhaps stay a year too long, it is a worse road to travel, to a significant statistical degree.
I believe people can improve their games at the league level - many do. But to get the attention and the support and the patience of an NBA team to allow for your development, they have to make an investment in you. And there's nothing wrong with spending four years in a college program to make sure that you are an investment that starts paying dividends on day one.
** Basically all international players with zero years of service were eliminated from these calculations. Essentially, if you didn't make a significant attempt by playing a year in the d league, you were treated as a "Euro-stash" pick. African players drafted tend to want to make the league - Euros with zero YoS cannot be included or would skew results too far in favor of the first rounders.
*** In the top 30 of one of the major recruiting services
**** the list was combed. No one who just happened to declare for the draft because they're 25, have been injured multiple times, and just always wanted to declare for the draft - none of those guys were counted. Only guys who are early entry with a legitimate expectation that they might be drafted were counted.