NBA Draft Prospects: College Career vs. Athleticism

Now that the NCAA season is over and the first round of the NBA playoffs has begun, most professional basketball fans are focused on the now rather than the future. However, plenty of GMs are spending their playoff time looking over film from this past college season, breaking down statistics and play styles to find their next potential franchise player. This year especially will feature one of the most interesting drafts in recent memory, with the Thunder receiving their first lottery pick since James Harden and the T-Wolves “earning” their 10th lottery pick in as many years.

When deciding who to pick, there are two popular stances to take: selecting a player based off of their performance at the previous level, or choosing someone with tremendous physical attributes that signal a promising “upside.” Admittedly, these aren’t the only factors teams take into consideration when drafting a top pick, but they’re the most observable traits to measure and analyze. Looking at the top rookies from the past three NBA seasons, what carries more weight: athletic traits or collegiate success?

DAMIAN LILLARD (2012)

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Combine measurements:

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
6’3″ 189 lbs 6’8″ 39.5″

Stats from last year in college (junior):

  • Weber State
    • Big Sky Conference
    • 25-7
  • Third Team All-American
PPG RPG AST TO FG% 3FG% FT%
24.5 5 4 2.3 47% 41% 89%

College or Upside?

Putting up numbers like this in 40 minute college games is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Conference and record aside, this man put up eye popping stats that are very rarely seen in Division 1. It’s not often that a player from a mid-major conference like the Big Sky makes it to any All-American team, and it would not have happened in 2012 without Dame’s disgusting performance his junior year. The 25 points a game and 89% mark from the charity stripe let me know Damian Lillard has had a pure shooting gene for a long time and simply knows how to consistently put the ball in the basket. Despite his surprisingly long wingspan for his size and impressive vertical, his college career, not his physique, was his most defining quality on his way to the NBA.

ANTHONY DAVIS (2012)

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Combine measurements: 

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
6’11” 222 lbs 7’6″ N/A

Stats from last year in college (freshman):

  • Kentucky
    • SEC
    • 38-2
    • National Champions
  • First Team All-American
  • National Player of the Year
PPG RPG AST BLK TO FG% FT%
14.2 10.4 1.3 4.7 1 62% 71%

College or Upside?

This is a very difficult call for anyone to make. It was a combination of skill, awareness, anticipation, length and height that ultimately established the Brow as the consensus #1 pick in the 2013 draft. Anthony Davis excelled on both ends of the floor and was a key piece to the puzzle on one of Kentucky’s greatest teams ever. Playing on a squad with five other players selected to the NBA, AD still stood out as their best player. Even without the furry eyebrow, Anthony Davis has a scary presence about him. The dude has some of the longest limbs in the country combined with the jumping ability and lateral quickness of an above average small forward. It’s unfortunate for us numbers geeks that he elected not to get his vertical measured at the combine, so we could really see just how amazing he is. Maybe the only thing more impressive than his physical characteristics, though, is his beautiful body of work in college. Averaging a double-double with almost 5 blocks a game, setting a school record for most blocks in a single season, was enough to earn him 2011 National Player of the Year. Shooting about 60% from the field and above 70% from the line had NBA scouts drooling over their clipboards, and every front office exec crossing their fingers for that first spot in the draft. Davis’ dominant one year in college may go down as one of the greatest ever in NCAA basketball. Crazy enough, I believe his college experience has an even bigger impact on his professional career than his freakish body. 

MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS (2013)

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Combine measurements:

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
6’6″ 184  lbs 6’7″ 41″

Stats from last year in college (sophomore):

  • Syracuse
    • Big East
    • 30-10
    • Final Four appearance
PPG RPG AST STL TO FG% 3FG% FT%
11.9 5 7.3 2.7 3.5 39% 30% 69%

College or Upside?

There is no doubt this Syracuse team would not have made it as far as they did without the fantastic play from MCW. He was a stat-stuffer all season long contributing in almost every aspect on offense and defense. His assist and steal numbers his last year ranked tops in the country, while playing in one of the most competitive conferences at the time. Still, he turned the ball over way too much as the primary ball handler, and shot pretty horrific numbers from the field and the free throw line. His scoring definitely needed some work, as did his decision making. What turned out to be his saving grace was his tall stature for a point guard and his ability to get where he wanted on the floor due to his size and quickness. Not known for his bounce, he posted over a 40″ vertical coming out of college, which is awesome when paired with his height. His lanky frame, innate jumping ability and NBA-ready body create a mismatch with almost everyone at his position, which is why his upside gets the nod in this one. 

VICTOR OLADIPO (2013)

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Combine measurements

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
6’4″ 213 lbs 6’9″ 42″

Stats from last year in college (junior):

  • Indiana
    • Big Ten
    • 29-7
  • First Team All-American
PPG RPG AST STL TO FG% 3FG% FT%
13.6 6.3 2.1 2.2 2.3 60% 44% 75%

College or Upside?

At first glance, the answer appears to be pretty clear. Victor Oladipo was the best guard for Indiana that year, helping his team regain state basketball pride while boosting them back into national spotlight. His rebounding numbers were especially great for a 6’4″ guard and his efficiency from the field surely played a big role in being honored to First Team All-American. However, it cannot be overlooked that Oladipo may have been the most athletic prospect coming out of this draft. Unsure about which guard spot would be best for him in the NBA, it was certain he had the physical tools to do well in the league. His insane burst and quickness made him an extremely dangerous threat going to the basket, while also making him one of the best defenders in the NCAA. Frequently overlooked are his wildly long arms for his height, which give him the ability to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. He also has some crazy hops that have been known to drop jaws even when he doesn’t exactly finish the play:

No question here. His upside was just too high.

NERLENS NOEL (2013)

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Combine measurements

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
7’0″ 206 lbs 7’3″  N/A

Stats from last year in college (freshman):

  • Kentucky
    • SEC
    • 21-12
    • Missed tournament
PPG RPG AST BLK TO FG% FT%
10.5 9.5 1.6 4.4 1.9 59% 53%

College or Upside?

It may be an unfair comparison, but Nerlens Noel definitely did not have the year Anthony Davis did at Kentucky. To his credit, Noel was a defensive juggernaut in the paint, as noted by his 4.4 blocks a game. He made it very difficult on opponents to get layups, which is not a skill that should be undervalued. However, his points per game were pretty pedestrian, and his rebounding was solid, but not outstanding. The fact that his team was Calipari’s only Kentucky squad to miss the tournament also means despite his injury, he just did not do enough to make a big impact. I think most would agree that his strength, height and long arms were enough for the Sixers to draft him in 2013, and even though he was injured at the combine, it was well known that Noel could leap as well. A team that expected his NBA career to be similar to his performance in college would not have drafted him in the top 10. Gotta think that his upside was the biggest reason why he was picked number .6 and why he’s been playing as well as he has.

ANDREW WIGGINS (2014)

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Combine measurements:

Height Weight Wingspan Vertical
6’8″ 197 lbs 7’0″ 44″

Stats from last year in college (freshman):

  • Kansas
    • Big 12
    • 25-10
  • Second Team All-American
PPG RPG AST TO FG% 3FG% FT%
17.1 5.9 1.5 2.3 45% 34% 78%

College or Upside?

Andrew Wiggins may be the best example in the last 20 years of picking a player based on his extraordinarily high athletic potential. If Wiggins were to have averaged a slightly above satisfactory stat line at Kansas, I still believe he would’ve been drafted first overall. Even with Jabari Parker exceeding his expectations at Duke, it would have been hard to pass up on the young Canadian. I remember a couple years ago, seeing videos of some 8th grade man-child jumping over kids and skying for rebounds left and right, and from that point on, Wiggins was on my radar.

As he grew, so did his ceiling. The 7’0″ wingspan and 44″(!) vertical speak for themselves, but just watching Andrew play, the game is pretty entertaining. The way he moves on the floor really showcases his physical abilities, and every game, he’ll have a few plays that make you question what’s possible on the basketball court. Wiggins has the chance to be one of the greatest athletes in any sport we’ve ever seen, and it has everyone in NBA on notice. One of the best upsides of all time. 

Final Verdict: Upside 

A player’s experience in college reveals a lot about how he plays, what kind of teammate he is, what areas he excels in, and showcases all types of other qualities. Reaching high levels of team and individual success in the NCAA can do wonders for prospects’ chances of being drafted. The quality of collegiate performance is huge for NBA scouts, general managers and owners when deciding who they are going to sign. Players like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love all had tremendous college careers that have quickly translated into what they’re doing in the NBA. Nonetheless, the professional game today has evolved into a much faster style of play, featuring some of the most ridiculous athletes of the century. To thrive in today’s NBA, athleticism and durability are pretty much necessities in order to consistently produce with the best. We are seeing a whole new breed of NBA players, like Russell Westbrook and Lebron James, who are making it impossible to survive on fundamentals and skill alone. The Tim Duncans of the league are quickly vanishing and giving rise to more explosive kinds of ballers, like Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo and Dwight Howard. The prototypical NBA player is one who is lean, muscular and quick, with the ability to jump more than 40 inches and reach close to 7 feet across. NBA coaches find ways to develop talent and fit it best into their systems: players with a lot of raw ability will have the potential to fit many different schemes and play styles. Athleticism reigns king, and ultimately is probably more predictive of performance.

by Amon Jones, Northwestern University

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