NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Pavel Podkolzin. Mouhamed Sene. Oleksiy Pecherov. Any of these foreign names ring a bell? What about former high school NBA prospects Robert Swift, Ousmane Cisse, or Leon Smith? No?

pecherov draft 300x224 NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Remember me? (Oleksiy Pecherov)
Photo Credit: misterirrelevant.com

If they do, then you are a die hard NBA fan and follow the NBA Draft very closely. If not, then don’t feel bad. Not many people remember these players, mainly because they never made much of an impact in the NBA. Some of them never even made it to the NBA.

As most of you know, there are three types of players an NBA team can draft: college, high school, or international. As you can see by some of the names above, plenty of players don’t pan out. College, high school, and international NBA prospects all have very different paths to the NBA. Here we test to see if one type of group “busts” at a higher rate than any other.

First, let’s examine each type of player:

COLLEGE PLAYERS

ducan wake forest NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Generally, college basketball players are considered the “safest” picks in the NBA, especially if they stayed in college all 4 years. These players are believed to have the most experience against top competition, and have matured both physically and mentally. Recent players like Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Danny Granger all stayed in college for all 4 years and have had great NBA careers.

College basketball players also get the most exposure out of the 3 types of NBA prospects because college basketball is the most popular in the United States. Scouts can easily access the players to see them in person compared to just watching film on players in Europe or elsewhere. Obviously teams have international scouts, but it is very expensive and difficult to scout players that play in a different environment and a different style game.

College players also have the advantage that they have been scouted since they were in high school, if not younger. Every college player was at least scouted enough to earn a college scholarship (most cases, anyway). Therefore college players have been in the public eye for much longer than international or high school players. Even small school prospects can get a lot of exposure if the circumstances are right. Stephen Curry from Davidson carried his team to the Elite 8 and became a household name. It helps that he was an unbelievable talent, but it still shows that if you are a good player in college, people (and scouts!) will usually notice.

INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS

First off, to answer your question, no, we aren’t talking about the anthem. Fans generally dislike it when their teams draft international players. For whatever reason, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they usually have no idea who the player is, unlike the college stars we know and love. Kostas Papanikolaou, who was drafted in the 2nd round by the Knicks in this year’s draft, may or may not make a significant impact in the future. Despite not knowing what is in store for his future, Knicks fans have already shown their feelings for the selection:

Another gripe fans have against drafting international players is that there is a high probability they won’t see that player actually playing for their team for a few years, if ever. The “draft and stash” mentality has been common for many teams lately, however I have had a hard time of finding a successful example. I define draft and stash as a situation when a team drafts a developmental player, usually in the 2nd round, and that player goes abroad or plays in the NBA D-League to play for at least a year. If anyone knows of any successful draft and stash players, please post them in the comments.

ginobili NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Manu Ginobili
Photo Credit: Getty Images

It seems that many international players, especially those chosen late in the second round, are drafted solely on the basis of height and potential. Even though many of these international players haven’t made much of an impact on their teams in Europe or elsewhere, many NBA front offices for some reason think that they will be able to contribute in the NBA.

Generally international prospects start playing professionally as early as age 16. The good thing about this is that international players can adjust to basketball becoming their full time job at a younger age, as well as devote more time to developing their skills. Americans are forced to go to school through high school, which could take away some development time.

There are many European leagues to play in, however the level of competition can be debated. The style of play in Europe is different than the NBA, which could make the transition to the NBA difficult. Being a star in a European league doesn’t guarantee success in the NBA.

International players also have to overcome some culture shock if they want to make it in the NBA. Some players come from places that are very different than the United States, so things like learning English and adapting to American culture could also be a tough transition for some players. Also, many players don’t even want to play in the NBA. International players may be comfortable playing in their home country where they are considered heroes compared to being a no name international guy coming off the bench in the NBA.

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS

Typically high school players are welcomed to NBA teams with excitement. Potential is usually the headliner when these kids enter the draft. Many times high schoolers will come in with a lot of hype, especially when they can really “wow” the crowd in high school. Please see Sebastian Telfair, Brooklyn. He had a documentary made about his senior year of high school and his decision to enter the NBA Draft. If you want to check it out, it is called “Through the Fire”.

sebastian telfair cover NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Telfair was on the cover of SI while he was in high school
Photo Credit: Deuce3 Photography

Since 2006 the NBA has required players to be at least 19 years old and/or 1 year removed from high school. The debate on whether that rule is just can be saved for a different day.

When high schoolers were allowed to go straight to the NBA, the reason for doing so was sometimes called into question. Some players grew up in poor families and thought that they needed money for their family immediately and couldn’t waste any time in college. Other players just think they are ready for the NBA when in reality they aren’t. Much like the international players who have to adjust to American culture, high schoolers have to figure out how to be mature and responsible with the sudden rush of fame and money.

High school players get their best competition in the off-season during the AAU circuit. AAU teams are usually a collection of players from a certain city or state that play against other teams of the same kind. The AAU circuit is usually made up of the best high school players in the nation. Although AAU is good competition, and some of the best players in the country regardless of age play there, it can still result in players getting false judgements about how good they are.

AAU games have the reputation of being similar to the NBA All-Star game: a whole lot of “me” play and not a lot of defense. This is because many players know college scouts are watching and everyone wants to show off their game rather than play within the team. Please see a recent Jay Bilas tweet:

With the introduction of the three types of players out of the way, let’s dig into the numbers that answer the question, “Does one type of player bust more often in the NBA?”

THE NUMBERS

To define “riskiness” I will refer to my work on the biggest NBA Draft busts. There I used the statistic called Win Shares that attempts to quantify how much a player contributes to his team winning. I used data from NBA Drafts 1979-2009 in order to determine what a draft “bust” meant numerically. Having the data, I calculated each overall pick’s average Win Share production per 82 games (AKA per season). I then compared each individual player’s output to the average to see if that player was above or below average.

Please refer to the other post or the Win Shares link for a little bit more explanation. One main difference for this analysis, however, is that I used the top 60 draft picks in each draft rather than just top 30. The hope was that using 60 draft picks per year would increase the sample size and therefore increase the validity of the numbers.

shelden williams draft NBA Draft: Do International Players Bust More Than College Players?

Poor Shelden
Photo Credit: thescore.com

I set the “bust” barrier as a player having at least a Win Share per season 50% worse than the average. For example, in the 2006 NBA Draft, Shelden Williams was drafted 5th overall by the Atlanta Hawks. He currently sports a 1.71 win shares per season. To compare, the average win shares per season for all number 5 picks from 1979-2009 was 4.5 win shares per season. Therefore Shelden Williams is considered a bust because his win shares number is 61.9% less than average.

Since I am comparing statistics to the pick average, there is potential for numbers to be skewed by a few outstanding picks at low numbers. Even though we have around 30 samples for each pick (older drafts only had 58 overall selections), there is still room for the numbers to be abnormally high or low due to certain players. Most notably, Michael Jordan has skewed the 3rd overall pick because of his record setting career. On the other end of the spectrum, Darko Milicic AKA “The Human Victory Cigar” has marred the #2 overall pick forever. To account for this, I calculated the “average” as a 5 pick weighted average.

For example, when calculating the #8 overall pick, I gave the #8 pick a weight of 0.4, then weighted the #7 and #9 picks 0.2 each, and then weighted the #6 and #10 picks 0.1 each.

After reviewing the sample sizes, I decided to throw out high school NBA players because there have only been 37 high schoolers to jump to the NBA from 1979-2009. College and international players have sample sizes of 1,576, and 168, respectively. Therefore I decided to compare these two groups as they have the samples big enough to make a real conclusion.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers:

Type# of Busts# of PlayersBust %
International9916858.93%
College780157649.49%
High School123732.43%

As you can see, it appears that international players flop more often than college players. But is this difference significant?

VERIFYING THE NUMBERS

I performed a difference between two population proportions hypothesis test for you stats nerds out there to verify that this difference is significant. After running the test, we can conclude that, on average, international players “bust” at a higher proportion than college players do.

If you want more of the numbers that went into the calculations, just ask and I can edit the post to include more.

CONCLUSION

So there you have it. Proof that, on average, international players have a tough time living up to their draft position expectations.

Combining the analysis with the numerical proof, there is sound reasoning that college players are the safest picks in the draft. I guess fans do have a reason to boo emphatically at the draft when their team drafts a Kostas Papanikolaou.

Do you have any comments on the analysis? Any other reasons for international players busting more often than anyone else? Please post any thoughts, critiques, suggestions, or ideas in the comments.