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High School Recruiting Ranking vs. NBA Success

Posted by Neil Paine on August 3, 2011

High school recruiting rankings, particularly the historical variety, have long fascinated me. There's something really interesting about looking back at them with the benefit of hindsight, and comparing a player's actual career trajectory to that which was predicted when he was just 18 years old.

With that idea in mind, I put together this post to see how often players of a certain ranking end up with a certain type of NBA career. For every player, I classified them in one of six categories:

  • Superstar - Either made 1st-team All-NBA or was Top-5 in MVP voting at least once in his career
  • All-Star - Made an All-Star roster at least once in his career
  • Starter - Finished top-5 on a team in games started at least once in his career
  • Regular - Not a starter, but played at least half of a team's games in a season at least once in his career
  • Scrub - Not a regular, but played at least 1 NBA game in his career
  • Did Not Play - Never played an NBA game

I then looked at the recruiting rankings on this site, gathering the data from 1998-2003 ('03 being the final HS class for which you can reasonably say every player has been given a full chance to reach his NBA potential -- if a guy hasn't made it by now, it's probably never going to happen). Based on their national prospect rankings coming out of high school, how many players ended up in each category in the NBA?

Rank Did Not Play Scrub Regular Starter All-Star Superstar
1-5 16% 10% 16% 35% 16% 6%
6-10 38% 10% 10% 31% 7% 3%
11-25 46% 16% 16% 19% 2% 0%
26-50 70% 9% 7% 12% 2% 0%
51-100 82% 5% 7% 5% 1% 0%
Rank Did Not Play Scrub Regular Starter All-Star Superstar
Top5 16% 10% 16% 35% 16% 6%
Top10 27% 10% 13% 33% 12% 5%
Top25 38% 14% 15% 25% 6% 2%
Top50 54% 12% 11% 18% 4% 1%
Top100 68% 9% 9% 12% 2% 1%

This is a sobering reminder of how elite the NBA's talent level really is.

Even if you're one of the 100 best high school players in all of America, there's almost a 70% chance you never play in the NBA, and almost an 80% chance that, at best, you'll be a journeyman scrub who doesn't play regularly. And while top-5 talents have a decent probability of being an NBA starter or better (58%), after that the drop-off is steep: 41% for players ranked 6-10, 21% for #11-25, 14% for #26-50, and only 6% for players ranked outside the top 50 (including just a 1% chance of being an All-Star).

Not to harsh the mellow of any budding BMOCs out there, but the typical top prospect's NBA career is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short.

For the full list of recruits used in the study (and the categories they fell into), click here.

30 Responses to “High School Recruiting Ranking vs. NBA Success”

  1. Nic B Says:

    That is a really interesting article. It'd be interesting to see the numbers with a bigger sample size dating back to early 90s too.

  2. Will Says:

    Interestingly, like the 2000 NBA draft, the 2000 HS class was also relatively bad too.

    In your table, David Lee, #10 of 2001, is incorrectly classified as 'did not play' - I presume that's the same David Lee of the Warriors ?

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    #2 - Good catch -- it was matching his name to leeda01 instead of leeda02:

    I fixed the charts.

    Incidentally, I have an irrational hatred of all players who screw up research like this by having the same name as another player. Don't even get me started on the Marcus Williamses...

  4. EvanZ Says:

    Apparently, to be a future "superstar", you better rank in the top 10 of your class.

  5. Phil Says:

    Love the article. It would also be interesting to see how many superstars and all-stars weren't even ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school. I would think there are at least a few.

  6. brandon Says:

    the fact that kwame wasn't even the top ranked hs player leads me to believe that #1 pick might have been a mistake

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    Another mystifying player from that class is Kelvin Torbert. He ranked ahead of Dajuan Wagner and won national HS PoY awards over him (even though Wagner scored 100 points in a game as a senior). Wagner was no great shakes as a pro, even before illness cut his career short, but he played reasonably well (21 PPG) for Memphis as a freshman, and made the NBA as a 19-year-old. Torbert was a very mediocre college player despite great surrounding talent at Michigan State, stayed all four years (showing only mild improvement between his freshman and senior seasons), and never played in the NBA. How did the talent evaluators go so wrong with Torbert?

  8. EvanZ Says:

    You can find the RSCI index at Draft Express as well:

  9. NBAGuru Says:

    @#5, note who isn't in the list of players: Dwyane Wade. Future HOFer, not even top 100 in his class. The odds of that happening seem pretty astronomically low though.

  10. EvanZ Says:

    Wade was #55 according to All Star Report. Not sure how the other services completely missed on him. Joakim Noah was ranked 67 by Hoop Scoop in 2003, but not ranked by any other service.

  11. kkopi27 Says:

    NBAGuru: Interestingly, the '03 draft seems to be full of those players: David West, Josh Howard, Chris Kaman all fit the bill. Not superstars, but at least (more or less deserving) All-Stars. Perhaps it's just because '03 produced many All Stars though.

    Another interesting question derived from this: How much did staying in college longer typically help?

  12. NBAGuru Says:

    Yeah Kkopi, that is an interesting question, particularly since the three guys you mentioned all spent a lot of time in college (all 4-year players, if memory serves right). Also, all three aren't anything special in the athletic department, which could explain how they slipped under the radar.

  13. marparker Says:

    Wade was a power forward in HS. THey didnt think he could make the transition.

  14. wiLQ Says:

    "High school recruiting rankings [...] have long fascinated me"
    Me too, but mostly about creative process: how do you compare teenagers in a limited number of games who don't play against the same competition and each other? What's the difference between let's say #58 and #65 high school recruit in the country? Etc.

    "How did the talent evaluators go so wrong with Torbert?"
    They probably focused on the tools/upside while downside/lack of intangibles happened...
    "To be honest, I think that when I got to college I came into it with the wrong mindset," Torbert, 26, says today. "I always thought that I was good enough that I was going to be fine no matter what. I got caught up listening to the wrong outside people that were always telling me how good I was, and not listening to the people that were telling me the truth and had my best interest at heart."

    So maybe it wasn't evaluators' fault? ;-)

  15. test Says:

    Is it possible to add a "not ranked" group for those who were high school seniors in the same time period? There wouldn't be a meaningful "never made it" group, but it would be interesting to know ho wmany in each NBA player category weren't ranked top 100 in high school. One superstar has been noted (Wade), are there others?

  16. Neil Paine Says:

    #14 - If a player has #2-in-his-class talent, it would take phenomenally poor intangibles to cause him to turn out as disappointing a player as Torbert was. I think we can all agree that the late Eddie Griffin (also #2 in his class) had as few intangibles as anyone, but he made the NBA as a 19-year-old, and in fact scored more PPG against NBA competition in that rookie season than Torbert did as a 19-year-old sophomore vs. college competition.

    I think the scouts just whiffed on Torbert, plain and simple, and Torbert finds it easier to explain as a case of "people telling him the wrong things" than accepting that he was never as good as the evaluators thought he was.

  17. Gabe Says:

    Honestly, I don't find this all that surprising.

    Basically, 32 out of every 100 high schoolers have at least a cup of coffee in the league.

    There are 29 or 30 first round draft picks every year during the time these guys were drafted.

    Add in the few 2nd round guys every year who make it, take away the foreign players and a few first round busts here and there, and you probably get around 32 new (American HS-educated) NBA players every year.

  18. EvanZ Says:

    "Basically, 32 out of every 100 high schoolers have at least a cup of coffee in the league."

    Wow, that's a lot.

    (I assume you meant 32 out of every top 100 high schoolers each year...)

  19. NBAGuru Says:

    #13 - I did not know that, interesting. Maybe that explains why Wade is so loose with the ball and turnover-prone at times. Still, guy must've worked his tail off in college if he came in with a pf skill set. To think, they wanted to make him a pg in Miami at first!

  20. Stephen Says:

    Yeah, Torbert being rated as such a top prepster baffled me as well. He didn't even look the part from a physical standpoint: he was short-armed and sort of dumpy looking. He was said to be an explosive jumper and while I don't remember him being compared to Richardson, that must have gotten him compared to Jason Richardson with him also being from Michigan and the same height. My lasting memory of him is how awkward his jumpshot was. He used to hold onto the ball for an eternity before releasing it. He'd get up in the air, hold the ball, hold the ball and then shoot it just before hitting the ground. Coaches must have worked on his form but it never changed much during his four years there.

    I thought part of the reason why he never met expectations was because an injury he sustained before arriving at MSU robbed of him some of his athleticism. I seem to remember Izzo lamenting about it. I couldn't find anything about it so I guess I'm imagining things.

  21. Jeremy Says:

    Good to see that the BBR blog isn't locked out.

  22. alvin Says:

    Very informative article. You will see that hard work is the key, if you love this game you must start at your young age and practice makes you not as perfect but the best as you can be!

  23. Nick Says:


    You also missed the other Bobby Jones, 2002, #97.

  24. Nick Says:

    Steve Hunter, #36, 1999, is possibly Steven Hunter .

    Thanks for your work Neil.

    Also, Ronald Curry, became a pro football player. There maybe others in this list that switched sports.

  25. Panic Says:

    This is really fun stuff. Add me to the list of people interested in whether years of college, controlling for HS ranking, significantly predicted NBA success. My intuition and a quick look at the list tells me it didn't.

  26. BALLplayer Says:

    Deon Taylor and Dr.J have revamped the ABA and it will be interesting to see with the nba lockout looming and how this effects players going oversee's and coming directly out of college. Cant wait to see how they produce good luck Dr. J and Deon Taylor.

  27. Devin Black Says:

    Has anyone ever taken a look back similar to this, but individual to each ranking site.

    For example, breaking down the above findings to see if overall Scouts Inc. has been better than Rivals, or better than All Star Report, etc.

    I imagine they'll all kind of be mushed together in there, but it would be interesting to see if perhaps one stood above the others.

  28. Devin Black Says:

    Also, and I know it's early in his career still (and that Neil only went to 2003), but Blake Griffin looks like a pretty good bet to break the trend of no one outside the Top 10 ever reaching the superstar level. In 2007, Blake's RSCI was #16.

  29. HighLikeKite Says:

    I second the mention of the ABA -- it might be where it's at after this lockout. I yearn for the days of the red white and blue basketballs. Dr J and Deon Taylor have high ambitions to re-launch the legendary league. Let's wish them the best!

  30. Ryan. Says:

    #100: Longar Longar - Did not play

    He does however, have a shot at the throne for Greatest Name of All Time.