Do NCAA Tournament Performances Predict Prospects' NBA Success?

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Do NCAA Tournament Performances Predict Prospects' NBA Success?
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Shabazz Napier, Scottie Wilbekin, Aaron Harrison and Frank Kaminsky have taken the college basketball world by storm this March, with each playing a key role in helping his respective team advance to the Final Four.

Should these monster NCAA tournament performances affect their NBA draft stock? Does a hot run through March Madness portend future NBA success?

A 2011 study from David Berri, Stacey Brook and Aju Fenn found that players who appear in the Final Four the year in which they are drafted go approximately 12 spots higher than they otherwise would have. The study also revealed that scoring totals, shooting efficiency, assists and blocks enhance a player's draft position, while rebounds and turnovers have no impact in terms of where players are selected.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Harrison is making himself some money this March.

A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Casey Ichniowski and Anne E. Preston echoes those findings. "Unexpected March Madness performance, in terms of unexpected team wins and unexpected player scoring" does affect draft decisions, Ichinowski and Preston found. However, "NBA personnel who are making these draft decisions are certainly not irrationally overweighting" prospects' tournament performances, they wrote.

Based on these two studies, it's pretty evident that unexpected NCAA tournament success does correlate to a higher draft position. But do players who spark their teams on Final Four runs have a better chance at a long-term NBA career than others? Or, conversely, are players whose teams flame out early from March Madness doomed to being professional journeymen?

Let's look at two subgroups of players—the top 10 players this year in terms of player efficiency rating and every Top Two pick from 2007 through 2012—to determine how much the NCAA tournament matters in terms of a prospect's long-term NBA future.

 

The PER Leaders

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Kevin Durant, this year's league leader in PER, absolutely beasted during his one year in college with the Texas Longhorns.

He averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 assists per game and maintained his dominant ways during the 2007 NCAA tournament, averaging 28.5 points, 8.5 boards, 2.0 steals, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 assists in two games.

USC blew out the Longhorns in the Round of 32, but the then-Seattle SuperSonics weren't deterred by Durant's early tournament exit. They selected him No. 2 overall in the 2007 draft, and now, six years later, he's the runaway favorite to take home his first regular-season Most Valuable Player award.

LeBron James, who ranks second in PER, skipped right from high school to the NBA. So, we'll be skipping right from him to Kevin Love, the former UCLA star who brought the Bruins to their third consecutive Final Four in his only season in college (2007-08).

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Love built upon an already impressive season—he averaged 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.4 blocks and 0.7 steals per game—with an even more dominant NCAA tournament performance. The UCLA big man posted per-game averages of 19.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.0 blocks, 2.2 assists and 0.8 steals while going 6-of-18 from three-point range over the Bruins' five-game run that year.

His NCAA tournament shot-blocking totals weren't indicative of his pro game, but everything else ended up right on point. After the Memphis Grizzlies drafted him fifth overall and sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves on a draft-night trade in 2008, Love has grown into one of the NBA's most consistent double-double threats.

The player who ranks fourth in PER this year, terrifyingly, is only 21 years old and in his second professional season. Many draft experts considered Anthony Davis, the former Kentucky Wildcats star, as one of the biggest "sure things" to come along over the past decade, and to date, he's proved those prognosticators eternally wise.

The Unibrow is one of only two players in the top 10 of PER to have won the NCAA tournament. Unlike Carmelo Anthony, the former Syracuse star who carried the Orange to the title in 2003 with little NBA-caliber help, Davis had multiple future first-round draft picks playing alongside him.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky center averaged an eye-popping 4.7 blocks per game that season, along with 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 assists. His offense appeared to lag far behind his defense, as evidenced by his 1-of-10 shooting night in the 2012 title game against Kansas, but his 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals more than made up for his quiet offensive output.

Throughout the tournament, 'Brow averaged 13.7 points, 12.3 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals and an unfathomable 4.8 blocks per game. If there was any doubt about his status as the consensus No. 1 overall pick leading up to March Madness, Davis swatted it away like an errant jumper.           

In the week leading up to the 2012 draft, ESPN.com's Chad Ford (subscription required) placed Davis sixth among the past 20 top overall draft picks. Two years into his NBA career, that ranking appears far too low, as his per-36-minute averages from his first two seasons blow Kevin Garnett's out of the water.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Early NCAA tournament knockouts don't seem to have adversely affected the NBA career of the "Point God" Chris Paul, who ranks fifth in PER this season. CP3 led his Wake Forest Demon Deacons to the Sweet 16 in the 2004 NCAA tournament as a freshman, averaging 21.0 points, 7.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds in his three-game tourney run.

He struggled in the Sweet 16 against the Jameer Nelson-led Saint Joseph's Hawks, however, registering only 12 points on 2-of-6 shooting and eight assists while picking up four personal fouls in 33 minutes.

As a sophomore, Paul couldn't outduel the Mike Gansey-led West Virginia Mountaineers in an epic double-overtime game in the Round of 32. Despite 22 points, nine assists, six rebounds and two steals from Paul, the Deacons fell, 111-105, to the Mountaineers.

Failing to make it past the Sweet 16 in two straight seasons didn't doom the diminutive guard to a lackluster NBA career, however. He currently leads the NBA in both assists (10.9) and steals (2.6) per game.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Next on the PER list is DeMarcus Cousins, who ranks last among the top 10 PER leaders in terms of average win shares per season (4.2). In his one season with the Kentucky Wildcats (2009-10), Big Cuz emerged as one of the most dominant interior forces in all of college basketball, averaging 15.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in only 23.5 minutes per game.

During the Wildcats' Elite Eight run in the 2010 NCAA tournament, Cousins averaged 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 26 minutes per game. He shot an astronomical 74.2 percent (23-of-31) throughout the tournament but had his worst game against West Virginia in the Elite Eight. He scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked zero shots and recorded five turnovers.

After Cousins, we reach the only other title winner in the top 10 PER leaders: Carmelo Kyam Anthony. As a freshman in the 2002-03 season, Anthony took his Syracuse Orange to the promised land, knocking off Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and the Kansas Jayhawks in the title game.

Craig Jones/Getty Images

Anthony averaged 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game throughout the tournament, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-16 shootings, 10 rebounds and seven assists against Kansas. He clearly established himself as an elite scorer in college.

If not for LeBron James declaring for the draft straight out of high school, Anthony would have been in the running for the No. 1 pick in 2003. Instead, Cleveland took James, Detroit selected Darko Milicic—a decision the franchise still rues to this day—and Denver fell into a franchise scorer in Anthony at No. 3 overall.

Russell Westbrook, who ranks eighth on the PER list this season, is the only player in the top 10 to have reached two Final Fours. His UCLA Bruins made the Final Four in 2006, the year before he arrived on campus, and he helped them go back-to-back-to-back the next two seasons.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Westbrook made a negligible impact as a freshman, averaging only 3.4 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.4 steals in nine minutes per game, as he found himself buried behind future pros in Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo. He finished with a total of 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting during UCLA's five-game tournament run in 2007, playing only 30 minutes in total.

Afflalo went pro following that year's tournament, opening the door for Westbrook to assume a role in the starting lineup. Despite playing out of position at the 2, he averaged 12.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds on the season and 13.4 points, 5.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds during UCLA's Final Four run in 2008.

Like Westbrook, Blake Griffin is one of the four players in the top 10 of PER to stay in college for more than one year. He averaged 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in 28.4 minutes per game for Oklahoma during the 2007-08 season, but he and the Sooners bowed out early in the NCAA tournament.

After posting only 12 points and four rebounds in Oklahoma's Round of 64 victory over Saint Joseph's, Griffin was held to eight points on 4-of-6 shooting and seven rebounds before fouling out in a 30-point loss to Louisville in the Round of 32.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Despite being projected as a top-five pick that summer, he returned to school for his sophomore season. That turned out to be a wise decision on Griffin's part.

He averaged a monstrous 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds in 33.3 minutes per game during the 2008-09 season and somehow even exceeded those eye-popping stats in the 2009 NCAA tournament. He posted per-game averages of 28.5 points, 15.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, including a massive 33-point, 17-rebound night against Michigan in the Round of 32, to propel Oklahoma to the Elite Eight that season.

The Los Angeles Clippers selected Griffin with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, and, despite him missing his entire rookie season due to a broken left kneecap, they haven't grown to regret that pick in the slightest. He's looked every bit a franchise superstar this season, vaulting further up the Most Valuable Player leaderboard by the week.

Last but not least, we arrive at Stephen Curry, who posted one of the most memorable NCAA tournament performances in recent history back in 2008. That year, Curry led his scrappy 10th-seeded Davidson Wildcats to the Elite Eight, upsetting No. 2 seed Georgetown in the Round of 32 and No. 3 Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 before falling to top-seeded Kansas by one possession in the regional final.

Curry took the nation by storm that year, averaging 32.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game over Davidson's four-game run through the tournament. He drilled an eye-popping 23 three-point field goals over that stretch (on 52 attempts, mind you), asserting himself as the most lethal scorer in all of college basketball.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Like Griffin, Curry decided that he had unfinished business in the NCAA tournament before turning pro. He returned to Davidson for his junior season and nearly doubled his assist-per-game averages, going from 2.9 in 2007-08 to 5.6 in 2008-09.

Unfortunately for the electric scorer, the Wildcats failed to qualify for the 2009 NCAA tournament, as the College of Charleston knocked them out in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals. That sent Curry and Co. packing to the NIT, where they'd meet their maker at the hands of Saint Mary's in the second round.

So, what to take from all of this? While many of the league's elite players made deep runs through the NCAA tournament, two of the best players—Durant and Paul—never advanced past the Sweet 16. Based on these 10 stars' experiences, an explosive March certainly seems to forecast NBA success, but a player who fails to make his mark during March Madness isn't necessarily doomed at the next level.

Here's a recap of the top 10 PER leaders, complete with the average number of win shares they've compiled per year over their respective NBA careers:

Avg. WS Pick No. Best NCAA
Kevin Durant 12.4 2nd, 2007 Round of 32, 2007
LeBron James 15.2 1st, 2003 N/A
Kevin Love 7.7 5th, 2008 Final Four, 2008
Anthony Davis 8.2 1st, 2012 Won Title, 2012
Chris Paul 12.6 4th, 2005 Sweet 16, 2004
DeMarcus Cousins 4.2 5th, 2010 Elite Eight, 2010
Carmelo Anthony 7.5 3rd, 2003 Won Title, 2003
Russell Westbrook 6.9 4th, 2008 Final Four, 2008
Blake Griffin 10.2 1st, 2009 Elite Eight, 2009
Stephen Curry 7.2 7th, 2009 Elite Eight, 2008

Basketball-Reference.com

Let's now dive into the second category of players: the top two picks from 2007-12.

 

The Top Two Picks from 2007-12

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We'll start with Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick from the 2007 NBA draft who led his Ohio State Buckeyes to the NCAA title game in his one and only season in college.

Oden emerged as one of the nation's most terrifying defensive players in the 2006-07 season, averaging 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks on the year. While the big man battled foul trouble throughout most of the NCAA tournament—he fouled out of Ohio State's Round of 32 matchup against Xavier and racked up four fouls in every contest from the Sweet 16 onward—he still managed to average 16.2 points, 9.2 boards and 2.2 swats per night in the Buckeyes' march to the title game.

Oden's 25-point, 12-rebound, four-block performance against the eventual national champion Florida Gators may have helped seal his case as the No. 1 pick that season, especially since Durant was eliminated from the NCAA tournament so early. However, chronic knee troubles derailed his NBA career, depriving the Portland Trail Blazers of the franchise center they believed they acquired on draft night.

Derrick Rose, who went first in the 2008 draft, likewise took his collegiate team all the way to the NCAA title game during his freshman season before falling short.

Sue Ogrocki

Rose hardly looked like top-overall-pick material throughout the Memphis Tigers' 2007-08 regular season, as he'd waver from a 25-point performance one game to only four points the next night. When the clock struck March Madness, however, Rose suddenly emerged as one of college basketball's most consistently dominant forces.

D-Rose averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists during the Tigers' six-game tournament run, including 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Memphis' Sweet 16 victory over Michigan State. The Tigers even had the Kansas Jayhawks on the ropes in the championship game, but a last-second three-pointer by Mario Chalmers pushed the game into overtime, where Kansas would emerge victorious.

After his hometown Chicago Bulls defied the odds and won the 2008 draft lottery, Rose's status as the No. 1 overall pick was a foregone conclusion. Despite his recent spate of injuries, the Bulls wouldn't regret that decision, as Rose ended up being the most productive Top Two pick from 2007-12 who isn't in the top 10 of PER this year.

Michael Beasley was Rose's only real competition for the No. 1 spot in 2008, as he finished with a freshman-record 28 double-doubles for Kansas State that year. "Super Cool Beas" averaged 26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game throughout the year, looking like the second coming of Kevin Durant, and didn't slow down once March Madness began. 

Orlin Wagner

Beasley averaged 23 points and 12 rebounds per contest in the Wildcats' two-game NCAA tournament run in 2008, but Wisconsin sent Beas and Kansas State packing in the Round of 32. While Beasley likely entered March Madness as the front-runner to be the top overall pick, Rose's ascendance during the tournament bumped him down to the No. 2 spot.

As it turned out, Beasley's regular-season and NCAA tournament performances predicted very little about his NBA career. After scoring 13.9 points per game on 47.2-percent shooting as a rookie with the Miami Heat, it all went downhill for Beasley, as his PER decreased in each of the next four seasons.

While Beasley will go down as a draft bust, he's nothing compared to the second overall pick the following year, Hasheem Thabeet.

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After failing to make the NCAA tournament in his freshman season and getting knocked out in the Round of 64 the next year, Thabeet and the UConn Huskies laid waste to their competition in 2008-09. The 7'3" Tanzanian served as a one-man defensive wrecking crew, averaging 4.2 blocks to go with 13.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game that season.

The Huskies rode Thabeet's rebounding and shot-blocking prowess all the way to the 2009 Final Four, but they proved no match for Michigan State. Over UConn's five-game tournament run, the gargantuan center averaged 12.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

He looked like a potential franchise centerpiece on the defensive end, which inspired the Memphis Grizzlies to select him second overall in 2009. However, he ended up being a massive bust at the next level, starting only 20 games in five seasons.

John Wall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, is the only other Top Two pick outside the top 10 in PER besides D-Rose who can unequivocally be considered a success this early in his NBA career.

Dave Martin

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Wall helped guide the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight during his only college season (2009-10). He was the head of the snake for that uber-talented squad, averaging 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game on the season.

During the 2009 NCAA tournament, Wall went off for 14.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game, looking the part of a franchise point guard in the making. The Washington Wizards ultimately bit the bullet, picking him first overall instead of Evan Turner, which turned out to be an astoundingly wise decision.

Turner, who swept the national-player-of-the-year honors during the 2009-10 season, looked like a can't-miss prospect offensively. He averaged 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game that year for the Ohio State Buckeyes, leading them to the Big Ten tournament title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Jeffrey Phelps

Tennessee knocked the Buckeyes out in the Sweet 16 that season, but it was hardly Turner's fault. He put up 31 points on 10-of-23 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists that night, finishing with tournament per-game averages of 21.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

"The Villain" posted a PER of 30.8 as a junior, per DraftExpress.com, significantly higher than Wall's 22.0 PER. Thus, when the Philadelphia 76ers selected him second overall in the 2010 draft, they had little reason to expect what would come next.

Turner failed to acclimate to the NBA game, as his glaring lack of athleticism routinely haunted him defensively. Through nearly four seasons in the league, he has still yet to post an above-average PER, per Basketball-Reference.com.

The next season's top overall pick, Kyrie Irving, hasn't been nearly as much of a lost cause as Turner at the professional level.

Irving missed the majority of his one and only season at Duke due to a severe ligament injury in his right big toe. In the two games before being sidelined indefinitely, he notched a total of 52 points on 14-of-22 shooting, (including 19-of-22 from the free-throw line), making his injury especially cruel for Blue Devils diehards.

Anonymous

The phenom freshman point guard returned just in time for the 2011 NCAA tournament, where he single-handedly attempted to will the Blue Devils into the Elite Eight. Despite a 28-point night on 9-of-15 shooting, however, the Arizona Wildcats ousted Duke in the Sweet 16.

The Cleveland Cavaliers weren't deterred by Irving missing most of the season, selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick as the heir apparent to LeBron James. While Irving has proved electric at times throughout his three-year NBA career, his defensive shortcomings continue to be a concern.

Derrick Williams, who went right behind Irving in the 2011 draft, can't say the same. Like Turner, he has yet to post an above-average PER through the first three years of his NBA career, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Jae C. Hong

Williams, like Turner and Beasley before him, asserted himself as a dominant scorer in college, averaging 19.5 points on 59.5-percent shooting as a sophomore in the 2010-11 season. In the 2011 NCAA tournament, he lit up Duke in the Sweet 16 to the tune of 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 13 rebounds, carrying Arizona into the Elite Eight.

The Arizona forward always looked to be an NBA tweener, however—not quick enough to play the 3 and not strong enough to play the 4. Lo and behold, that's exactly how his professional career has panned out.

Finally, Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the only player among these nine to have won an NCAA title before bouncing to the pros. He never looked like a player capable of dominating offensively in the NBA, but his defensive potential had general managers salivating.

Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists during the Kentucky Wildcats' run to the 2012 NCAA championship. Those statistics essentially mirrored his season per-game averages of 11.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Charlotte Bobcats, in desperate need of a franchise player, selected MKG with the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. If nothing else, they figured he could serve as a defensive stopper, capable of one day shutting down the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the world.

As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, "Kidd-Gilchrist has the tools to be an all-court stopper," but he's a "disastrously bad shooter." If he can't improve on the offensive end, "Kidd-Gilchrist tops out as a taller Tony Allen," Lowe opined.

Here's a recap of all the top two picks from 2007-12 outside the top 10 in PER, along with their average win shares accrued per season since coming into the league: 

Avg. WS Pick No. Best NCAA
Greg Oden 2.4 1st, 2007 Nat'l Final, 2007
Derrick Rose 6.0 1st, 2008 Nat'l Final, 2008
Michael Beasley 1.7 2nd, 2008 Round of 32, 2008
Hasheem Thabeet 1.0 2nd, 2009 Final Four, 2009
John Wall 4.4 1st, 2010 Elite Eight, 2010
Evan Turner 2.0 2nd, 2010 Sweet 16, 2010
Kyrie Irving 5.1 1st, 2011 Sweet 16, 2011
Derrick Williams 2.5 2nd, 2011 Elite Eight, 2011
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 2.3 2nd, 2012 Won Title, 2012

Basketball-Reference.com

As we've seen with these Top Two picks, NCAA performance is far less predictive than the top-10 PER players would lead one to believe. Turner, Beasley, Kidd-Gilchrist and Thabeet all dominated throughout their college careers and their final NCAA tournaments, yet none developed into an above-average NBA player. Meanwhile, Wall and Irving failed to advance to the Final Four, but both appear far more likely to have long, successful NBA careers than the aforementioned quartet.

 

The Verdict

Based on how former NCAA stars have fared in the NBA, it's rather apparent that success or failure during March Madness doesn't dictate whether a prospect will thrive at the next level.

That won't stop NBA front-office executives from overrating NCAA tournament performances, however.

Take Kentucky's Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, for example. Because the Wildcats have advanced to the Final Four, the twins, who were once seen as locks to return to Kentucky for their sophomore seasons, are now shooting up draft boards.

Steve Helber

"They are both likely first-rounders now because they have won," an anonymous NBA general manager told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman (subscription required). "That was the biggest knock on them." 

"They have changed my opinion," one assistant GM told Goodman. "Bad players don’t take their teams this far. As amazing as it seemed a month ago, these two have emerged as leaders of their team."

The NBA careers of Thabeet and Kidd-Gilchrist would beg to differ with the assistant GM's assessment. Or, as Peter May of SheridanHoops.com pointed out on Sunday, perhaps the March Madness performance by former LSU star Tyrus Thomas back in 2006 should serve as a cautionary tale to any front-office executive placing too much weight on NCAA tournament success.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Thomas helped the Tigers pummel Duke in the Sweet 16 that year with nine points on 3-of-5 shooting, 13 rebounds and five blocks. He one-upped himself in the Elite Eight to the tune of 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting, 13 rebounds and three blocks.

The Blazers and Chicago Bulls orchestrated a draft-day swap, in which the Bulls, who selected LaMarcus Aldridge second overall, would receive Thomas, whom the Blazers nabbed fourth. In the words of Gob Bluth, Chicago made a huge mistake. (Imagine an Aldridge-Joakim Noah frontcourt these days...)

So, ready to discount Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker because they didn't make it past the first round of the 2014 NCAA tournament? Ready to burn a lottery pick on a Harrison twin or Scottie Wilbekin? Do so at your own risk.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from either Sports-Reference.com or StatSheet.com. Win shares statistics are current through games played on Friday, March 27.

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