Posted by Neil Paine on March 11, 2009
I have to say that I'm fascinated by old high school recruiting lists. There's something about looking back with the benefit of hindsight at the talent scouts' evaluations of teenage players that's always been very compelling to me -- mainly because I usually end up asking the question, "How did they get it so wrong?" or, "Whatever happened to that guy?"
Now, I'm not saying the evaluators are always wrong, or even that they have a horrible success rate when it comes to identifying top prospects. What I am saying is that the cases of correctly predicted NBA-caliber talent in 17- and 18-year-olds are, at least to some degree, "boring" when compared to the incorrect predictions. Because by definition, once you've been identified as a top prospect, it's only a surprise when you fail to meet that expectation. For instance, the fact that LeBron James was rightly pegged for NBA superstardom in high school isn't anywhere near as interesting (to me, at least) as the idea that Kelvin Torbert was considered the best college recruit in the Class of 2001.
So what eventually happens to you if you make the McDonald's All-American Team? I mean, obviously some McDonald's alums go on to lead productive NBA careers, but it's no guarantee of success at the college level, much less the pros. Although the players that make up the All-American rosters are theoretically the 24 best high school senior ballers in the United States, how many ultimately become first-round draft picks?
Since the first McDonald's team was selected in 1977, 767 players have been chosen as the cream of the HS basketball crop for their senior season, and 363 (47.3%) have been picked in the NBA draft. Of course, that's a misleading rate -- obviously the class of 2008 (much less 2009) couldn't have been drafted yet because of the NBA's age restrictions, so let's limit the sample to McDAA's between 1977 and 2004, giving all players 4 years to get drafted (although, oddly enough, no one from the class of 2004 was drafted in 2008).
When we do that, the success rate changes to 332/647, or 51.3%; of that 647-player sample, 238 were drafted in the first round, which represents just 36.8% of the All-Americans. I don't know if that sounds particularly low to you, but the closest analogue I could think of in another sport was the MLB draft: similar to the NBA, the most talented players are identified at age 17/18, but have to make it through various checkpoints over the next handful of years before playing in the Show. 55% of MLB 1st- and 2nd-round draft choices (essentially the baseball equivalent of McDonald's All-Americans) eventually make it to the majors; likewise, 53% of McDAAs eventually play at least 1 NBA game. So basketball certainly isn't alone in its success rate.
But what happens in the intervening years that causes roughly half of the most talented players in the country to drop off of the NBA's radar? Well, in the next series of posts, I'm going to look at historical McDonald's All-American rosters, sorting players by their Win Shares, and try to see what separates the successful prospects from the not-so-successful ones. Stay tuned...