Would LeBron James have played better in the NBA Finals if he played four years of college basketball?
My dad thinks playing college ball would have helped LeBron in the Finals. He thinks players who spend four years in college make better NBA players than those drafted out of high school. Michael Wilbon made a similar argument in a column on espn.com about LeBron’s performance in the NBA Finals.
The numbers, however, say otherwise. High school players drafted into the NBA have been 144% more productive than players drafted from colleges and foreign leagues.
This article will use Wins Produced, a statistical model created by sports economist David Berri from the Wages of Wins Journal, to measure how much a player's box score statistics contributed to their team's efficiency differential and wins. An average player produces 0.100 wins per 48 minutes (WP48), a star player produces +0.200 WP48 and a superstar produces +0.300 WP48. More information on this stat can be found at the following links:
What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say
Calculating Wins Produced
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of the wins produced by NBA draft picks from high schools, foreign leagues and colleges since 1977 (the stats required to calculate Wins Produced were not tracked in NBA box scores until the 1978 season).
- 39 High school players: 1,496.1 wins produced in 525,012 minutes, 0.137 WP48
- 151 Foreign players: 1,685.1 wins produced in 802,189 minutes, 0.101 WP48
- 60 College freshmen: 1,065.8 wins produced in 548,422 minutes, 0.093 WP48
- 120 College sophomores: 3,207.0 wins produced in 1,315,267 minutes, 0.117 WP48
- 221 College juniors: 6,471.0 wins produced in 2,582,741 minutes, 0.120 WP48
- 1,751 College seniors: 21,408.1 wins produced in 11,929,903 minutes, 0.086 WP48
The 39 high school players drafted into the NBA since 1977 have the second-lowest total of wins produced but that’s because they have played the least amount of minutes. If those 39 high school players had played the same amount of minutes as the players from foreign leagues and colleges, then they would have produced over 15,000 more wins than those players combined. If they had played as many minutes as the college seniors, then the high school players would have produced 12,641.8 more wins than them.
I think the memories and analysis of people like my dad and Wilbon are skewed by focusing only on the best players. Does the analysis change if it just focuses on the best players in the NBA with four years of college experience?
Since scoring dominates most people’s player evaluation, let’s just focus on the top 10 scorers in the NBA since 1977 (based on points per game) that were drafted as high school players and college seniors:
- Top 10 high school players in PPG: 20 PPG, 1,113.6 wins produced, 0.217 WP48
- Top 10 college seniors in PPG: 20.5 PPG, 1,255.6 wins produced, 0.208 WP48
The best high school scorers are still more productive than the best scorers with four years of college experience but there’s not a big difference. LeBron is currently the highest scoring player drafted from high school (27.7 PPG career average) and Larry Bird is the highest scoring player drafted as a college senior (24.3 PPG career average). LeBron’s in good company so far.
If the analysis focuses on the top 10 high school players and college seniors by wins produced, then the story changes.
- Top 10 high school players by WP: 1,226.9 wins produced, 0.223 WP48
- Top 10 college seniors by WP: 2,362.9 wins produced, 0.289 WP48
The 10 most productive college seniors drafted into the NBA since 1977 were much more productive than the 10 most productive players drafted from high school. The problem here is that it’s not a fair comparison. The 10 most productive college seniors represent just three percent of the minutes played by all college seniors while the 10 most productive high school players represent 30 percent of the minutes played by all high school players. A better comparison would be the 10 best college seniors vs. Kevin Garnett’s best seasons (his entire career accounts for over eight percent of the minutes played by high school draft picks).
Because there have been so many college seniors drafted in the NBA since 1977, a selection of the 10 best is going to be an elite group. Five of the top 10 seniors in Wins Produced are already in the Basketball Hall of Fame (John Stockton, Bird, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen) and two more are guaranteed spots (Tim Duncan and Gary Payton). The last three players are long shots, according to the basketball-reference.com Hall of Fame probability formula.
Below are the Hall of Fame probabilities for the 10 most productive high school players.
- Kevin Garnett: 99.9%
- Kobe Bryant: 100%
- LeBron James: 99.3%
- Tracy McGrady: 66.4%
- Dwight Howard: 48.8%
- Tyson Chandler: 0%
- Rashard Lewis: 0.6%
- Amare Stoudemire: 62%
- Josh Smith: 0.4%
- Al Jefferson: 0.5%
As you can see, there’s definitely a drop in talent for the high school players after the top five or six and there are only three guaranteed Hall of Famers on the list. The sheer number of college seniors in the NBA gives them a depth of talent the high school players cannot match. Of course, that could change if the age restrictions are changed in the next collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and National Basketball Players Association.
Regardless of what his peers have done in the NBA since being drafted from high school, LeBron has been very productive in the NBA with over 150 wins produced (good for 34th amongst all players in the NBA since 1977) and there’s not a lot of evidence that college would have made him any better. Besides, LeBron’s not the reason the Miami HEAT lost the NBA Finals anyway.
The productivity of NBA players drafted from high school, foreign leagues and NCAA schools was calculated using the following methods:
- Early entry candidates for the NBA draft since 1977 were identified using data from nba.com (from 1977 to 2001) and thedraftreview.com (from 2002 to 2010). Only candidates since 1977 were sampled because all the stats required to calculate Wins Produced were not available until the 1977-78 NBA season. That means Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were not included in this analysis. I noticed some early entry candidates were left off the list from thedraftreview.com, so if you notice any errors/omissions please leave a note in the comments section.
- Any players that weren’t on the early entry list and played college basketball were assumed to have been seniors when they were drafted.
- The calculations for each player’s wins produced in the NBA were powered by NerdNumbers.