In the NBA Draft world, we are all looking for data points and ways to gain an advantage. Part of that is finding trends over time that bear out consistent results. For example, it's pretty well accepted at this point that teenagers who have success in the highest leagues of Europe will enjoy NBA success. The translatability of what they do is really high.
We're all constantly looking for more areas that can have a high correlation (or even a causation) for bountiful NBA careers. What statistical indicators are meaningful? What body types or physical attributes lend themselves to success?
For a long while, I've been fixated on another concept: which college basketball programs are reliable in churning out NBA-caliber products? This can come in multiple forms: programs who usually hit on their star recruits, programs who excel at developing role players for the NBA that consistently outperform their draft position, and programs who teach the game in a way that easily translates to the style that'll suit a player in the NBA. As I've thought about this over the years, I've realized that a focus on coaches, not necessarily programs, is just as important. Look at the coaches who recruit and develop talent and have a consistent track record of success.
The inverse of that might be just as important: which programs are ones to avoid? If I were an AAU coach or a handler trying to help steer D1 kids to the right program to prepare them for the NBA, these would be the coaches and programs I'd want to avoid. What they do is either too geared to the college game, their skill development system hasn't tended to churn out pro-ready guys or there are simply too many misses on their track record to trust.
From an NBA or pro scouting standpoint, these are general trends that we've noticed, not necessarily indictments that say every player who comes out of said program is starting from a disadvantage. It's worth watching and evaluating every player individually -- that's always a fundamental tenet of hoops. Instead, we're using this to try and articulate reasons we've seen why other guys have failed, what they all have in common (time spent under the same coach) and how if we see those same flaws again from a prospect, it might be worth considering the prior results from players in their same shoes.
It's hard to know if what I'm doing here is developing bias (which is harmful) or using historical data and outcomes to wisely predict which situations to avoid in the future. There's a follow-up conversation to be had about how to responsibly use this information, but I do believe it is informative and worth noting nonetheless.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse (and that 2-3 Zone)
The long list of Syracuse guys who haven't panned out in the NBA is notable. Over the last 20 years, only two guys by my estimation -- Carmelo Anthony and Jerami Grant -- have outperformed draft status and signed a starter-level contract on their second deal. Consistent lottery disappointments such as Dion Waiters, Wesley Johnson, Jonny Flynn and Michael Carter-Williams can find homes in the NBA but rarely live up to their draft spot.
Even the late first-round hasn't been safe for Orangemen. Tyler Lydon, Malachi Richardson, Chris McCullough, Tyler Ennis and Fab Melo have all been taken in the second half of the round in the last decade; only Ennis made it to his fourth year in the league.
So what is the ultimate cause of such a consistent disappointment? It's hard to ignore the common link of Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense, a unique tool they use to win games in college but that ultimately does little to prepare them for the rigors of NBA basketball.
The opposition to the zone from a pro prospect system isn't purely about defense. Sure, they're behind others by not learning high-level help defense concepts within a man-to-man system. But they also don't go against a high-caliber man defense in practice on a daily basis. What they can get away with on offense, therefore, is really different. Boeheim isn't a fantastic offensive coach; instead he's leaned into specialty shooters the last few years to outshoot opponents. Rarely do his players leave college with a great amount of offensive polish.
What Boeheim looks for on the recruiting trail sounds good for NBA teams in theory: long, athletic wing/ forward types who can cover a ton of ground on the baseline of that 2-3 zone and are mobile enough to contest on the perimeter. They always have solid rebounding numbers, too. When those guys enter the league, they tend to be so raw that finding them minutes to develop is difficult. The clock is ticking faster than ever for NBA teams to develop guys, and a year spent in the Syracuse system simply doesn't do enough to get them on the front end of that learning curve.
Bill Self, Kansas (and Illinois) - Point Guards
Coach Self's resume:
Coach Self is a fantastic, fantastic coach. He wins games, coaches stingy defense and helps develop big men for the NBA at a high rate. So many of his centers and bigger forwards have enjoyed sturdy NBA careers, particularly as role players. Sure, there are occasional misses like Thomas Robinson or Cole Aldrich, but the success of guys like the Morris Twins, Joel Embiid, and even Darrell Arthur make that come out in the wash.
Most of Self's first-round picks have slightly underwhelmed, though. That is evident in the backcourt. Kelly Oubre Jr, Devonte Graham and Mario Chalmers are the main hits, while plenty of other names have flamed out -- particularly those who are defensive-minded.
Over his 20 years, here are the guards Coach Self coached/ recruited that played in the NBA:
Other than Deron Williams, pretty much all the lead guards have underwhelmed in the league. It's hard to find a common link between them all, but many of them who are defensive-minded or facilitating guards (such as Taylor, Miles, former Jayhawk Sherron Collins or 2020 entrant Devon Dotson) simply are drawn to Self -- and he drawn to them -- because of their mental makeup as opposed to their skill. Devonte' Graham even feels like a bit of an outlier: he was the only high-volume 3-point shooter of the group. Even the offensively talented guys, like Josh Selby or Dee Brown, didn't last in the league.
In the NBA, especially at the point of attack, skill matters on the offensive end. The college game, when playing with stud big men like Self does, is made easier on point guards. Kansas has long used the hi-lo attack, something they're getting away from a bit more in favor of wing-heavy lineups. That doesn't alleviate the lack of development trajectory amongst their point guards in my eyes.
When it comes to guys like Devon Dotson or Marcus Garrett the last two years, Self's track record winds up hampering their upside in my book. It feels like I've read this chapter before: tough, defensive-minded guard from Kansas struggles to consistently score at a high level, never figures it out enough to carve out NBA role. That's not a guarantee against these guys, but when the film reinforces some offensive concerns, I tend to move away from giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Rick Pitino, Louisville - wings
Since landing at Iona, this section may not be as relevant. One thing is certain: Rick Pitino can coach his ass off. He's a hell of a motivator, games manager, tactician and developer of talent. He's sent tons of skilled guards to the league and has functional, productive bigs in his time.
Since leaving Kentucky, he's struggled to develop the same track record with wings. At Louisville, the following are 6'5" to 6'10" wings who played in the NBA:
All four were early in his career, and all four underperformed for their draft stock. Garcia put up a solid career, but Clark and Williams failed to translate what they did to the league. I'm not sure if I have a hypothesis for this other than thinking that Pitino is so good with guards and bigs that everyone else in the middle gets overlooked or forgotten.
Matt Painter, Purdue
Since 2005, Matt Painter has graced the sidelines in West Lafayette. He's a big culture, toughness, grind-you-to-death guy. It's the perfect fit for the Boilermakers, who have a niche within a talented backyard, can appeal to the grit of city kids nearby and helps them establish an identity within the Big Ten. Frankly, it's why Painter is so successful.
He's come out a lot as an anti-NLI guy as well as being critical of other one-and-done trends. It feels a little self-serving, though it's again on-brand for the culture he thrives on at Purdue. Needless to say, it likely means there won't be many high-profile names or one-and-done guys choosing his program in the future.
What that means is that high-skilled upperclassmen are the Purdue guys likely to turn pro. They need to come into the league with a tad more seasoning in order to get onto draft radars. Unfortunately over the last 15 years, we haven't seen many gain that level of seasoning. The off-ball screening motion, long possessions and grinding defensive style haven't consistently translated to a more free-flowing, pace-centric NBA.
Carsen Edwards, Vince Edwards, Caleb Swanigan, AJ Hammons, Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, and E'Twaun Moore are the drafted players from Purdue in the last decade. Moore is the only one to sign a second contract.
While I usually don't make that much fuss about this, it's an important data point to be aware of when evaluating a guy like Jaden Ivey. Does it necessarily mean Ivey will disappoint or should be moved down draft boards? Absolutely not. But expecting improvement to his game that makes him more pro-ready might be a stretch. He'll be back as a sophomore, though I'm not overly optimistic that he begins running lots of PNRs where he hits step-back 3s or reads help defenders with the floor spread in a way that gives increased faith in his pro trajectory.
The small sample size guys
In order for this study to bear out, it has to be done over an elongated period of time. Coaches need to be at high-level schools where the talent they're coaching/ recruiting is pro-worthy. They need to be there for a long while: long enough to see how many of their former guys wind up signing second or third contracts in the league. They also need to have enough players go that route to eliminate the small sample size dilemma.
We'll look at a few coaches who haven't gotten off to the best start in terms of their pro-level talent with a quick hypothesis as to why...
Ed Cooley, Providence
NBA players: MarShon Brooks, Ben Bentil, Ricky Ledo, Kris Dunn
Hypothesis: Flex Offense
Coach Cooley has long been a toughness coach who runs the Flex offense, emphasizing mid-range and finishing through contact over jumpers from deep. Over the last five years, Providence has been near the bottom in 3-point attempts per game:
Mike White, Florida
NBA players: Tre Mann, Scottie Lewis, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, Dorian Finney-Smith
Hypothesis: Skill development
For some reason, Coach White has been at Florida for six seasons and yet to have a successful claim to his credit. He's had highly-touted recruits (like Robinson and Lewis) who haven't turned into great NBA level talent. Other guys he's recruited haven't worked out: Andrew Nembhard transferred, Omar Payn hasn't developed and Samson Ruzhentsev didn't play well as a freshman. If I'm a general manager, I'd be alright waiting for someone else to prove that Mike White guys are prepared for the league.
Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech (2016-present) and Memphis (2009-16)
NBA players: Josh Okogie, Marques Georges-Hunt, DJ Stephens, Adonis Thomas, Will Barton, Elliot Williams
Pastner's track record of coaching in high-level programs but not churning out high-level talent remains a head-scratcher. Will Barton was strong for him, and Pastner inherited Barton from former coach John Calipari. Other than his success, everyone else has been on the fringes. Does Pastner deserve some credit for his development as an assistant under Cal and Lute Olsen? Sure. But his 11 years as a head coach haven't brought the same level of success.
Chris Beard, Texas (2021-present) and Texas Tech (2017-2021)
NBA players: Jahmi'us Ramsey, Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Zhaire Smith
Hypothesis: Practice structure/ defensive emphasis
Chris Beard is a psycho. Full stop, a winning-mentality, toughness zealot who runs hyper-competitive practices at the neglect of skill development. This is a tough hypothesis to make though, as mitigating factors in the Zhaire Smith situation (injury/ health) and the lack of time to bear out the predictions on the others makes it tough. Additionally, a move to Texas changes the caliber of athlete he'll recruit, putting him much more firmly in the mix for top-ten kids annually. I'm not saying to hold off on Longhorns there in the future, just that I am skeptical of what he does in practices to get his guards the skills necessary to thrive in the NBA.
Other names we're skeptical of: Johnny Dawkins, Jerod Haase, Chris Mack, Cuonzo Martin, Frank Martin