Here's Part 2 of Jonathan Gault's piece comparing players' successes at both the college tournament and NBA levels. Click here for Part 1, which covered 2008, 2007, and 2006.
Final Four (champion listed first, runner-up listed second): North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State, Louisville
All-Tournament team (Most Outstanding Player in italics): Sean May, North Carolina; Raymond Felton, North Carolina; Luther Head, Illinois; Rashad McCants, North Carolina; Deron Williams, Illinois
Other stars of the tournament: Luther Head, Illinois; Dee Brown, Illinois; Salim Stoudamire, Arizona; Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia; Nate Robinson, Washington; Maurice Ager, Michigan State; Kelenna Azubuike, Kentucky; Chuck Hayes, Kentucky; Patrick Sparks, Kentucky
Other notable NBA players who were drafted in 2005: Chris Paul, Wake Forest; Danny Granger, New Mexico; David Lee, Florida; Andrew Bogut, Utah
This was an bad year for future talent in the NCAA tournament—of the four future All-Stars in the draft, just one (Williams) advanced past the opening weekend. Top pick Andrew Bogut’s Utah team also managed to make the Sweet 16, but he had his poorest shooting night of the season (8-of-19) in the Utes’ loss to Kentucky. Paul’s highly touted Wake Forest squad was upset in the second round by upstart West Virginia, as Paul fouled out late in the game. Granger’s New Mexico team and Lee’s Florida team were both knocked out by Villanova in the first and second rounds, respectively. Granger and Lee were both overlooked in the draft, as Granger was taken 17th and Lee 30th, whereas champion North Carolina had four players taken in the top 14 picks, none of whom have been as productive as either Granger or Lee. Paul and Bogut’s subpar tournaments did not affect their draft stock, as both were taken among the top four picks.
Perhaps more than any other, this year produced tournament stars whose careers fizzled once they hit the pros. The only UNC player to have an effective NBA career so far has been Felton, and that includes Marvin Williams, who the Hawks inexplicably took at #2 ahead of both Chris Paul and Deron Williams, despite the fact that Marvin Williams didn’t even start for the Tar Heels. Pittsnogle caught fire for a few weeks in the tournament, but couldn’t maintain his hot shooting in training camp with the Celtics after he went undrafted in 2006. Robinson showed everyone what he was capable of at Washington, and he fills essentially the same role now for the Thunder—quick and athletic, capable of scoring in bunches, but extremely undersized and not the best defender. He was dominant at Washington, but his lack of size has been exposed in the NBA. Hayes may have had the best NBA career among tourney stars (excluding Illinois’ Williams), as he has been an efficient, reliable center for the Rockets despite the fact that he, like Robinson, is undersized for his position.
Other notable NBA pros:
I talked a bit about Bogut, Granger, and Lee in the “NBA Stars” section, even though none of the three should really be mentioned alongside Williams or Paul. My main point was to show that most of the players who had success in the ’05 tournament could not translate it to the pros, and the best NBA players’ teams largely underperformed in ’05.
2005 was definitely the most unclear tournament, NBA potential-wise, that I’ve discussed thus far. NBA executives were similarly puzzled, and had some hits (Bogut, Williams and Paul were all taken in the top 4) and misses (Marvin Williams at #2, Granger and Lee falling to the tail end of the second round).
Final Four (champion listed first, runner-up listed second): Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Duke, Oklahoma State
All-Tournament team (Most Outstanding Player in italics): Emeka Okafor, Connecticut; Will Bynum, Georgia Tech; Luke Schenscher, Georgia Tech; Rashad Anderson, Connecticut; Ben Gordon, Connecticut
Other stars of the tournament: Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph’s; Tony Allen, Oklahoma State; Joey Graham, Oklahoma State; Chris Duhon, Duke; Kennedy Winston, Alabama; Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech; B.J. Elder, Georgia Tech
Other notable NBA players who were drafted in 2005: Devin Harris, Wisconsin
The 2004 tournament was extremely short on NBA talent, though unlike the previous year, most of the future pros advanced deep into the tournament. Nelson led his St. Joseph’s team to within two points of the Final Four, and Gordon and Okafor both played for the champion Huskies. Harris was the other good NBA player in the tourney, though his Badgers only made it to the second round.
If you had success in this tournament, chances were that you would go on to find at least a modicum of success in the NBA—unless you went to Georgia Tech. Of the Yellow Jackets team that advanced to the national title game, only Jack has had a decent pro career. Most of the other stars of the tournament enjoyed at least limited success in the league, though at this point in time, the draft was dominated by high schoolers and foreigners, so it was harder for collegians to get drafted. Only 15 of the 29 first round picks in ’04 played college ball. Nonetheless, 2004 was a year in which tournament success and pro success were highly correlated.
Other NBA Pros
As noted above, the ’04 draft was held at the peak of the high school/foreigner craze, so there weren’t a ton of other NBA pros selected in the draft behind those that had success in the tournament. With a smaller draft pool, if you went to college, GMs wanted you to prove your worth in both the regular season and the tournament.
This was a year in which most of the top teams relied on a couple of standout players, who were then drafted highly and went on to have solid NBA careers. The one exception was a deep Georgia Tech team short on individual stars. While this was a formula that allowed them to achieve great success in college, the Yellow Jackets lacked a superstar, a fact that was affirmed when no one on that team managed to excel as a pro.
So what have we learned after this five-year journey through the NBA tournament? Here are the most important points.
-Look for successful pros on Final Four teams that rely on two or three players; not five or six. Teams like ’04 UConn (Gordon and Okafor) or ’08 UCLA (Love and Westbrook) are capable of producing multiple quality NBA players. Other good teams that clearly rely on one player accompanied with solid supporting casts (think ’08 Memphis with Rose, or ’07 Georgetown with Jeff Green) also seem like successful systems for cultivating NBA pros. In addition, players from small schools who lead their teams deep into the tournament despite a lack of supporting cast (like Curry in ’08 or Larry Bird in ’79) will usually find success in the NBA.
-Deep teams that have great tournaments usually lack future NBA stars. ’04 Georgia Tech and ’05 North Carolina are the main prototypes of this model—they found success because college teams could not find an answer for every threat these teams held. But in the NBA, everyone was good in college, so this depth is neutralized. The ’06 and ’07 Florida teams are an anomaly here, so an exception should probably be made for teams that win multiple titles (the UCLA teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s also had great depth, but, like Florida, were bolstered by the help of several future NBA stars).
-Players who succeed in both the regular season and the NCAA tournament will generally perform well in the pros as well. The main exception here is Oden, though of course his case is a bit different because of his injury problems. Likewise, you’ll want to beware of players who look good in a couple rounds but only rise to prominence in the tournament (think Kevin Pittsnogle in ’05, or Gordon Hayward/Jacob Pullen last year). If the only notable stretch of a player’s college career is three weeks in March, it may be worth questioning why the player did not stand out before then (unless it’s a Carmelo-type evisceration of the rest of the field, as was the case when he led Syracuse to the title in ’03).
-The last, and most important point, is that there are exceptions to every rule. The games of March Madness are famous for their unpredictability, so we should not expect to determine which tourney heroes will succeed in the NBA in such a setting. Drafting will always be an inexact science, no matter if the league is football or basketball, real or fantasy. Though it is important to remember that in basketball, more than most other sports, true talent is usually pretty evident due to the fact that there are only 10 players on the court at a time. That’s why once-in-a-generation talents like LeBron pan out, and why almost any NBA superstar that went to college is chosen within the first 10 picks—the really great ones stand out. The tournament can help to sort out which pros will become key role players or bench guys, but when the truly great ones come along, you’ll know.