Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heat Check: Value of a College Education in the NBA

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 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).

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:

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.

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 Hall of Fame probability formula.

Below are the Hall of Fame probabilities for the 10 most productive high school players.

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 (from 1977 to 2001) and (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, 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.


    1. Mosi, I agree with you that time in the NCAA probably wouldn't have helped LeBron and other straight-out-of-high-school players, but your method (comparing the performance of high school players to NCAA seniors) doesn't actually answer the question "would high school players have done better if they had some NCAA experience?"

      It's impossible to answer this question, because each player is an individual. The only way to know for sure would be to compare current LeBron to a LeBron who spent X number of years in the NCAA. And clearly, we aren't able to do that...yet.

    2. @DDignam:

      I don't necessarily disagree w/ your point, but my goal was to address the issue that people like my dad & Wilbon keep bringing up - players with more college experience have been better in the NBA. I mentioned LeBron because he was the inspiration for the discussion and this is a Miami Heat blog.

    3. Nice article Mosi. Your dad and Wilborn's argument seems to be specifically about the PLAY-OFFS though. How difficult would it be to just look at the post season production?

      I ask because the knock on Lebron is that if he had spent 4 years in College he would have developed a post game, learned to score in a slow half court offense, deal with tournament pressure etc (I don't believe any of this)

    4. @kabelo:

      I knew somebody was going to ask that question. According to NerdNumbers, playoff wins produced are still a work in progress.

      As for the knocks on LeBron, I would tell the critics:

      1. He has a post game (see
      2. He's played in a slow, half-court offense his entire NBA career
      3. He's been to at least the 2nd rd of the playoffs in 6 of his 8 NBA seasons and has played in 7 elimination games, 2 of which were Game 7s.

    5. Well done research Mosi! Wilbon and I are just a couple of old school guys who like our NBA players having some roots to a college team; "from the university of
      <. >"... We like to remember how good he was or what a great pro he developed into.

      The Dad