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April 11, 2012
Early Entrants
The Guys Who Didn't Make It

by Neil Paine

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Amid the reactions to David Stern's thoughts on the NBA's "one-and-done" rule ("We would love to add a year," Stern told reporters), Mark Cuban chimed in last week with his preference--adding a third year to the NBA's college requirements.

"I just think there's a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early or going to school trying to be developed to come out early than actually make it," Cuban said. "For every Kobe or Garnett or Carmelo or LeBron, there's 100 Lenny Cookes."

That's a common sentiment among age-limit defenders, who frame their argument as one of altruistic concern for the well-being of young players. (Surely it has nothing to do with the inherent benefit to teams of extra scouting time and more prime years covered by team-friendly contracts.)

Putting aside Cuban's ulterior motives, is his statement even accurate? Have early-entry players flamed out at an especially high rate?

On the surface, it seems like Cuban has a case. From 1994-2005, there were 86 players who entered the draft early either out of high school or following their freshman year of college. Using the broad categories of performance (Superstar, All-Star, Starter, Regular, Scrub, Did Not Play) I employed in this article, this is how they performed in the NBA:

Superstar--8.1%
All-Star--10.5%
Starter--36.0%
Regular--14.0%
Scrub--9.3%
DNP--22.1%

While the numbers are quite good for drafted preps-to-pros players (18% superstars, 74% starters or better, 15% scrubs or worse), the inclusion of undrafted players like Cooke, who declared in 2002, changes the picture quite a bit.

Cuban obviously exaggerated for effect, but for every superstar who came out early there were roughly four early-entry hopefuls who either barely scraped the bottom of the NBA barrel or didn't play in the league at all. Perhaps these were players who could have improved their eventual standing by attending college or staying in school an extra year or two.

Then again, for the most part we're not exactly talking about future Hall of Fame talents who were "ruined" by coming out early. Using DraftExpress' recruiting rankings (which go back to 1998), we can try to gauge how much raw talent was irrevocably destroyed by the preps-to-pros or one-and-done phenomena. Of the 23 players in that span who either failed to reach the NBA or peaked as "Scrubs", just four ranked among the top 5 in their high school recruiting class, and only five were in the top 10:

Year Player HS Rank Pre-Draft Team Class Draft Status From Category
1998 Korleone Young 3 Hargrave Military Academy 1978 DOB * 1998 Rnd 2 Pick 11 HS Scrub
2003 Ndudi Ebi 4 Westbury Christian School 1984 DOB * 2003 Rnd 1 Pick 26 HS Scrub
2002 Lenny Cooke 5 Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest 1982 DOB * 2002 NBA Draft HS DNP
2001 Ousmane Cisse 5 St. Jude High School 1982 DOB * 2001 Rnd 2 Pick 18 HS DNP
2003 James Lang 7 Central Park Christian High School 1983 DOB * 2003 Rnd 2 Pick 19 HS Scrub
2005 Randolph Morris 11 Kentucky Fr * 2005 NBA Draft College Scrub
2002 DeAngelo Collins 11 Inglewood High School 1980 DOB * 2002 NBA Draft HS DNP
2001 Omar Cook 13 St. John's Fr * 2001 Rnd 2 Pick 3 College Scrub
1999 Leon Smith 13 King College Prep High School 1980 DOB * 1999 Rnd 1 Pick 29 HS Scrub
2002 Jamal Sampson 23 California Fr * 2002 Rnd 2 Pick 18 College Scrub
2001 Tony Key 55 Centennial High School 1982 DOB * 2001 NBA Draft HS DNP
2005 Jermaine Bell 138 Indian Hills Fr * 2005 NBA Draft College DNP
2005 Julius Lamptey 142 Garden City CC Fr * 2005 NBA Draft College DNP
2005 Curtis Brown Jr. NR Garden City CC * 2005 NBA Draft HS DNP
2005 Kyle Luckett NR South Side High School 1985 DOB * 2005 NBA Draft HS DNP
2002 Giedrius Rinkevicius NR Bridgton Academy 1983 DOB * 2002 NBA Draft HS DNP
2002 Lee Benson Jr. NR Brown Mackie Fr * 2002 NBA Draft College DNP
2002 Rashid Byrd NR Eastern Oklahoma State CC Fr * 2002 NBA Draft College DNP
2002 Adrian Walton NR Fordham Fr * 2002 NBA Draft College DNP
2001 Preston Bennett NR Grayson CC Fr * 2001 NBA Draft College DNP
2001 Benjamin Eze NR Southern Idaho Fr * 2001 NBA Draft College DNP
1999 Gene Shipley NR San Jose City Fr * 1999 NBA Draft College DNP
1998 Ellis Richardson NR Polytechnic High School * 1998 NBA Draft HS DNP

Conversely, 12 of the 23 placed outside the top 100 prospects in their class, and 18 were outside the top 10.

As impressive as a moderately high recruiting ranking looks on paper, the future is not typically bright for those types of prospects, whether they declare early or not. According to research I did last summer, 73% of players ranked outside the top 10 in their class failed to make the NBA at all, and 8% more maxed out as mere scrubs. Only 11% were NBA starters or better.

Given those numbers, is it any surprise that so many early entrants failed? Based on their recruiting rankings, only Cooke, Korleone Young, Ndudi Ebi, and Ousmane Cisse can really be considered to have underachieved relative to their NBA potential. Perhaps that quartet would have blossomed into regulars or even starters with NCAA seasoning, but it's worth hammering home that even prospects on the order of a Randolph Morris or DeAngelo Collins fail to make the NBA roughly half of the time.

In the final analysis, Cuban's argument is not only transparently self-serving from an ownership point of view, but it's historically inaccurate. The assumption that all or even most early entrants washed out because they eschewed extra college seasoning doesn't hold water when you consider the talent level that most of those players were working with--whether they stayed in school or not, the vast majority of them would have fallen short in the NBA simply for lack of raw ability.

The take-home lesson of those failed prospects isn't the virtue of college experience, but rather the incredible difficulty any player faces when attempting to earn and maintain an NBA job.

Neil Paine is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Neil by clicking here or click here to see Neil's other articles.

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