The NBA’s deadline for early entries declaring for the draft is fast approaching (April 22). Many have already declared or announced that they are staying in school, and this year, like every year, I am surprised by some of the decisions because the chances for failure appear to far outweigh the chances for success. Of course, it is not fair of me to judge anyone’s decision, at least without knowing his specific circumstances, but on the surface, it seems that some players who are declaring would be better off by staying in school for at least one more season. I believe that many of the people advising these players fail to acknowledge or refuse to admit just how difficult it is to make it in the NBA, or any professional basketball league for that matter.
Watch just about any college basketball game, and you will hear an announcer say that players X, Y, and Z will play at the “next level.” College basketball analysts seem to talk as if professional basketball is an endless source of employment opportunities (and 70 schools are “second-weekend” teams in the NCAA Tournament). The reality is that there are 450 roster spots in the NBA. There are roughly another 300 playing in the G-League. And because of roster restrictions on foreign players, I estimate that there are no more than 900 Americans making a salary equal to or better than the G-League as an international pro.1 That’s roughly 1,650 jobs potentially available to American college players, with some of those jobs paying less than $20K per year and nearly all of them already being filled by talented basketball players. The opportunities to make decent money as a pro basketball player are slowly increasing, but the system will never be able to find jobs for all of the hundreds of capable players who hit the market each year.
The biggest changes are happening in the G-League, where another new team will be added next season (up to 13 new roster spots), and salaries will increase for all players. While these changes look good on the surface, you have to wonder if a bigger and better G-League will further stress the European leagues that are struggling to make money and retain talent. In other words, the G-League might not be creating a lot of new jobs in the big scheme of things.
This past season, the new “two-way” contract essentially allowed NBA teams to expand their rosters from 15 to 17. G-League players with two-way contracts made anywhere between $75,000 and $279,000, depending on how many NBA games they played in, plus expenses and benefits, while G-League players made a base salary between $19K and $26K, with some earning bonuses, in addition to expenses and benefits.
Boosted by the two-way contracts, 120 rookies played in the NBA this season. Over the five seasons prior, the league average was 79 rookies. Of the 120 rookies this season, a little over a third (41) played in at least half of the 82 regular season games, while half (60) played in 20 or fewer games. In other words, most rookies just had a sip of coffee in the league, and they’re hardly standing on solid ground.
While at least 150 players enter the draft each year with serious NBA aspirations, just 60 will be drafted, and only the first-round picks (30) are guaranteed any money. The second-round picks are left fighting for a roster spot with the undrafted free agents and others. According to Spotrac, of the 30 second-round picks in 2017, 16 were eventually signed to deals that ranged from $2.7 million to $816K in guaranteed money, with the highest paid making roughly 350K less than the lowest paid first-round pick. The rest of the second-rounders either played in Europe, signed a two-way G-League contract, or signed a standard in G-League deal.
In June, a whole crop of new players will be thrown into the mix. Based on the rookie numbers from the past, we can expect at least 80 new players in the NBA, which means at least 80 other players will be looking for a job. But the rookie impact is far greater than that, as undrafted rookies will debut at all levels: the G-League, international leagues that pay a fair wage, and international leagues that do not. Even with the G-League expansion, there will be a lot of displaced people.
And that’s the thing with becoming a professional basketball player: it’s not so difficult getting a job, it’s keeping it. Of the players drafted this year, it is unlikely that more than half will be in the Association five years from now. Of the 60 players drafted in 2012, 25 are still in the NBA, 20 are playing internationally, one is in the G-League, the rest (14) are not playing pro ball. And the odds of sticking in the NBA are far, far greater if you are drafted in the first round. Of the players drafted between 2011 and 2013, 61 first-rounders (68 %) are still in the NBA, while just 26 (29 %) of the second-rounders remain. Those numbers are striking – roughly two thirds of the first-rounders are likely to be around in five years, while two thirds of the second-rounders are likely to be gone.
Would Tony Wroten, who came out as a freshman in 2012 and was taken with the 25th overall pick, still be playing pro ball if he stayed in college for another year or two? Wroten, who is just one example, was a great athlete, but he could not shoot. Perhaps if he stayed, scouts would have found major flaws in his game, and he would have slipped to the second round or worse. Or perhaps, if he stayed and was able to develop his game without all of the pressures that come with being a pro, and he would still be in the Association today. As it was, he had a four-year career, playing in a total of 145 NBA games.
There does seem to be growing trend of players “hiding” from scouts, skipping college, sitting out a year, and betting that their high rankings from high school recruiting services will help carry them into the first round. And as sad as it is to say, there is some logic to their thinking. As I scout games, my first thought is, “Can this guy be a star in the NBA?” and with the exception of about 30-40 players, the answer is “Probably not.” All top-rated high school players have impressive YouTube videos, and that’s what tends to stick in our minds. However, the more you see a guy against high-level, organized competition, the more see what he can’t do and won’t do.
To sum things up: staying in school does seem to make a ton of sense for those who are not fairly certain that they will be taken in the first round, and as early entries go through the process, they should get a fairly a good idea from the NBA about their chances. Those players who do not sign with agents have the option of withdrawing from the draft (June 11 deadline) and returning to school. Unfortunately, as I look at the early entries who are already planning to hire agents, I see more than 20 players who are likely going in the second round, if they are drafted at all. And as I noted above, second-rounders have a much tougher hill to climb, make a lot less money from the start, and don’t stick around nearly as long as their first-round counterparts.
Endnote #1: The estimate of roughly 900 Americans playing internationally and making a wage equal to or better than the G-League was calculated by simply counting the number of Americans currently playing in high-level, respected leagues, such as the Spanish ACB and the German BBL. The source used was RealGM.com.
A Couple of Site Notes:
1) You may have noticed that players who say they are staying in school are still in our rankings. Soon after April 22, we will have a complete list of who is staying and going. Before that, it is a bit premature to assume anything. After we receive the official early entry list, we will remove the underclassmen who are staying, and update the rankings and the mock draft. With a number of highly rated players, such as Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford, staying in school for at least another year, both the rankings and the mock draft will look quite different in May than they do now.
2) After scouting countless games for the past four-plus months, looking at hundreds of players, and making thousands of notes, we are finally at the point when we can begin posting prospect scouting reports, and we plan to begin posting them on a regular basis, starting next week.