Thursday, June 26, 2014

College Majors and College Degrees for the 2014 NBA Draft Prospects

To complete my various posts related to the NBA and college degrees this week (see herehere, and here), it's time to take a look at the 2014 crop of NBA prospects

It should come as no surprise that most of the top talents in the draft don't have a college degree. The reason is simple: it makes little sense to stay in school for four years while the NCAA, your conference, and your school all make money from your basketball ability. If you are talented enough to be a first round pick in the NBA and get a guaranteed three-year contract worth millions, you should probably get out of the NCAA ASAP. If a college degree is important, there is always time to go back after (and even during) your NBA career.

Fitting in with recent precedent, this year only four of Draft Express's top 35 prospects can claim to have a college degree. But if the likely first-round picks are set aside, the number of college degrees ticks up quite a bit. Over half (thirty-eight in all) of Draft Express's prospects ranked from 36-100 have college degrees. And many of those prospects who do not have a degree are international players who did not attend an American college. In short, college players who are not locks to be a first-round pick often stick around for four years, get their degree, and then hope for a shot with an NBA when it's all done.

Of course, the transition from college to the NBA was not always set up this way. Originally, the NBA's rule was that rookies could not play in the NBA until their college class graduated. For example, when Wilt Chamberlain decided in 1958 to forego his senior year at Kansas, he had to wait a year -- even though he was drafted by Philadelphia through the NBA's territorial rule -- before he could enter the league.

Since players had to wait four years after high school graduation anyway, most stayed in college and got their degree before they entered the league. Those who did not generally had only a couple courses left to complete for the degree. This was the situation for Chamberlain's rival big man, Bill Russell. Russell planned to finish his classes at San Francisco during the summer after his first NBA season. However, when San Francisco made it clear that Russell would have to pay for the courses himself, he left the school, never to return (and never to receive his degree).

So what caused the NBA to change its policy?

Spencer Haywood in action with the Sonics.
As with many of the NBA's transformations, some credit goes to the ABA. In the late 1960s, the upstart rival to the NBA took advantage of the NBA's four-year rule, and allowed its teams to sign players before their college class graduated. After two years in college, Spencer Haywood took advantage of the ABA's policy and signed  in 1969 with the Denver Nuggets. He won both the ABA's Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in his first season. Claiming that his contract was fraudulent, he then signed a contract with the NBA's Seattle Supersonics before the 1970-1971 season. Since Haywood was not yet four years removed from this graduating class, the NBA sued to keep Haywood out of the league. Haywood fought the NBA in court, eventually winning a 7-2 decision before the Supreme Court, clearing the way for what became known as the NBA's "hardship rule" (for more on Haywood, check out this nice, short blog post).

According to the NBA's hardship rule, college underclassmen could enter the NBA draft if they could demonstrate a (usually) financial need. By 1976, that rule was scrapped in favor of an "Early Entry" rule in which any college underclassmen could declare for the NBA draft. Although any underclassmen could enter the draft, in reality it was usually only college juniors who took advantage of the rule, at least until 1995. And during that time, the vast majority of NBA players played all four years in college. Of the NBA's 458 total first-round picks made from 1976 through 1994, the breakdown went like this: 372 seniors, 65 juniors, 17 sophomores 2 freshman, 2 foreign players.

1995 however, was truly a watershed. To wit:

  • It was the first year in which college juniors did NOT outnumber other early entry players. 
  • It marked the beginning of the infusion of straight-outta-high-school players (KG was drafted in 1995). 
  • The following year (1996) was the first year in which college seniors were NOT the majority of first round picks. Other than 1997, college seniors have not constituted a majority of first round picks in any draft since. 
  • The average age of first-round picks in the draft had never dipped below 22 until 1996. By 2004, the average age had dropped to 20.5.     

In short, the post-1995 NBA Drafts were very different (and much younger) than the pre-1995 NBA Drafts.

There are multiple reasons for this. Certainly, the infusion of money into the league, advances in scouting (in which international players and high school players came under the microscope), and other developments all helped.

But a sometimes overlooked reason seems to me even more important: the implementation of the rookie salary scale in 1995.

The $100 million man
In the years immediately prior to 1995, the soaring costs of rookie contracts became a concern for NBA owners. The last straw came in the form of Glenn Robinson's $100 million contract (over 13 years) in 1994. To limit Robinson-like contracts, the new collective bargaining agreement for 1995 set up a rookie salary scale and limited rookie contracts to three years. The slot in which a player was drafted locked him into an already agreed-upon amount of money. Owners were saved from themselves. One of the unintended consequences of this decision was that prospects had a new incentive to leave early, and at the same time teams had a new incentive to draft underclassmen (or high schoolers).

For a detailed version of why this was so, check out this paper. I'll just summarize it here:

1) When high draft picks were signing massive long-term contracts, NBA teams wanted to be certain that they were getting a proven commodity. Drafting high-risk players with potential, like a high schooler or college freshman, and giving them a guaranteed ten-year deal was not a smart move.

2) At the same time, if college players realized that their rookie contract would last for most of their career, they would want to prove themselves in college until they were sure that they would be taken as early as possible.

The elimination of long-term, high-salary contracts for rookies beginning in 1995 changed the landscape in two ways:

1) Since every rookie drafted in the first round was going to be on a three-year deal at a fixed rate, basketball prospects had even greater urgency to get into the draft as soon as possible. The younger a player was when they finished the three-year deal, the more earnings potential they would have over the span of their careers. Their big contracts would be their second or third contracts, not their first.

2) Teams also became more likely to draft younger players. Since they knew that they would be paying rookies an affordable salary for no more than three years, they could take a (relatively) unproven player with much less risk. And the new CBA implemented in 1999 only increased the incentives for teams to draft high-risk, high-reward (read: younger) players. It added a fourth-year team option to rookie contracts, and it strengthened the "Larry Bird rule" in which teams could pay their players more than other teams once they hit free agency. Thus, if a rookie became a star by their fourth year in the league, a team had an excellent chance of keeping them beyond their rookie contract.

Now, I'm obviously making some generalizations here. Younger players were not always the players with the highest potential (see: Tim Duncan). But with the new incentives in place, the overall trend was that teams became less likely to draft proven college commodities with less potential. Instead, it made more sense for them to draft whoever had the most potential. Meanwhile, it also made more sense for players to enter to draft earlier than ever before. The NBA Draft's youth movement had arrived -- thanks in no small part to Spencer Haywood and Glenn Robinson.

But back to the 2014 NBA Draft. I've already mentioned that only four of the top thirty-five draft prospects have college degrees. They include:

Doug McDermott - Marketing
Adreian Payne - Interdisciplinary Studies (in social science)
Russ Smith - Communications
Shabazz Napier - Sociology

Other borderline first-round/early second-round prospects with degrees include:
C.J. Wilcox - Sociology
Cleanthony Early - Sport Management
Patric Young - Communications
Josh Huestis - Psychology
Deonte Burton - General Studies
Dwight Powell - Science Technology and Society
Joe Harris - Sociology
Markel Brown - Education
Jordan Bachynski - Business Communication

The degrees above fit into what I found in my previous posts from this week. Communications, business, and sociology were the three most popular degrees among NBA players in the past, and here we have sociology (3), communications (2), and business (2) as the only degrees with multiple players. Sadly, the only prospect with a history degree this year (Melvin Ejim) is a borderline second-round pick at best.

Since most of the prospects do not have college degrees, it might be useful to also look at the declared majors of underclassmen who did not graduate. In an NBA Draft loaded with freshmen and international players, it's no surprise that many of them do not have a declared major at all. For example, eleven of Draft Express's top fourteen prospects were either freshman or playing internationally last year. Of those freshman, it appears that only Noah Vonleh declared a major (communications).

Among prospects in Draft Express's top 100 who declared a college major before entering the draft, here is how it breaks down (for majors with more than 1 player):

1) Sociology - 14
2) Communications - 9
3) Business - 7
4) Sport Management - 4
4) General/Interdisciplinary Studies - 4
6) African American Studies - 2
6) History - 2
6) Education - 2
6) Family Science - 2

For comparison's sake, the top seven desired categories of majors for the rest of the American population (per a 2011 Georgetown University study) went as follows (the number on the right is the number of 2014 NBA prospects who fit within the category).

1) Business - 7
2) Education - 2
3) Humanities and Liberal Arts - 5
4) Engineering - 0
5) Health - 1
6) Social Sciences - 18
7) Communication and Journalism - 9

As you can see, the sixth and seventh most popular degree categories for the general population are the first and second choices for this year's crop of NBA players. And to make sociology, the most popular major for NBA prospects, stand out even more: there are actually two social science degrees (economics and political science) that are more popular in the general population than sociology.

So why is sociology so popular? Plenty of answers have been given. Since this post is already long enough, I'll let you check those out yourself (short answers: clustering, it's flexible, it's easy, it's practical). In the meantime, shoutout to the humanities prospects:

Kyle Anderson (African American Studies)

Joe Harris (Sociology, minor in religious studies)

James McAdoo (History)
Melvin Ejim (History)
Andre Dawkins (African American Studies)

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