With all the talk about the players a program "needs" in order to win the national title, one intrepid UK fan took his numbers seriously, compiling a thoroughly interesting list of top recruits and their career trajectory.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith has been lambasted by his critics for what they call substandard recruiting. It's true that, with some exceptions, Smith has succeeded primarily on the backs of top 100 recruits rather than top-25 kids. In particular, Smith's inability to land -- or, arguably, his unwillingness to cater to -- players assigned the honor of McDonald's All-American has rankled a section of the UK fan base whose personal pride seems grounded, in part, on crowing about Big Blue recruiting.
Aside from such personal satsifaction, there is value in the McDonald's list. After all, these are ostensibly the country's best and brightest basketball youngsters, a who's who of who's next. And with the exception of Maryland in 2002, every national champion in recent memory has had at least one McDonald's awardee. Last season, Florida's Corey Brewer was the latest add to this list.
From a recruiting standpoint, attracting Burger Boys (as such recruits are affectionately known) can have other, less tangible results. While Big Blue fans may think of Kentucky as a no-brainer choice for recruits, few seem to realize that your average 16- or 17-year-old kid dreams not of cutting down the nets after a Final Four, but rather of blinging it out in a new Escalade after the NBA draft. Thus, for college recruiters, advertising your former players' NBA profiles is as valuable, if not more, than talking about your conference titles, graduation rate and national championship resume.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the big-rep McDonald's All-Americans lead the charge when it comes to making State U. an NBA brand. One Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony can mean more in recruiting than five Lonny Baxters. It's advertising, plain and simple. I won't rehash my arguments that Tubby's reluctance to "sell" himself and the program has made his job tougher in this regard. But he (or someone in the Athletics Department) seems to have gotten the message, evidenced by the Big Blue Madness video apperances of former Cats and recognizable NBA faces Tayshaun Prince (Pistons), Nazr Mohammed (Pistons) and Chuck Hayes (Rockets).
But given that Smith has generally eschewed the Burger Boy for the diamond in the rough, what effect has this had? Smith has had seven of his Kentucky recruits appear in an NBA game, the same as Kansas and two more than North Carolina over the period of Tubby's UK tenure. They are Rajon Rondo (Celtics), Hayes, Prince, Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels, Keith Bogans (Magic) and Villanova transfer Michael Bradley. Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner and Scott Padgett appeared in the NBA but were recruited by Rick Pitino.
Curious about what the relationship might be between McDonald's All-Americans, NBA success and college recruiting at a few of the top NCAA programs was, Mr. Kerry Hayes (located here via Cats' Pause message board), dived into the numbers and came out with a thorough and interesting look at what became of the "next big things" after high school. The answers may surprise you.
For instance, just 36% of the Burger Boys since the 1997-98 season (Tubby Smith's era at UK) have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Overall, 52% -- just barely over half -- have played in an NBA game. Bear in mind that this also includes the many prep-to-pros kids who never played a minute of college hoops like LeBron, Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry, to cherry pick just a few.
Mr. Hayes also looked at how Kansas, Duke, Louisville and North Carolina fared in both recruiting the top players and in sending them on to the highest professional ranks. Tubby has recruited seven McDonald's kids (Prince, Bogans, Stone, Carruth, Morris, Rondo and Crawford) in 10 years at the helm. In that time, the UK coach has had four players drafted, counting Bradley, who moved on after two seasons in Blue. Duke had 14 players drafted over that time, Louisville just two (Garcia and Gaines). UNC had seven selected by the NBA, four in Matt Doherty's 2002-03 class alone.
What does this all mean for UK? It's hard to say. Clearly, having NBA caliber talent is a pre-requisite for NCAA success. But the argument that Kentucky does not have, or has not had, enough NBA talent to succeed is a little misleading. Principally, this is because the labels affixed to the top tier of high school recruits are no guarantee of NBA-level success. For example, Chuck Hayes starts for the Houston Rockets. He was a top-50 kid, but was not graced with the love by the Golden Arches. If the numbers hold, for every Chris Thomas (Notre Dame, no NBA) and Casey Sanders (Duke transfer, no NBA) there are two Erik Daniels or Gerald Fitches, players who earned their way into the league not because of high school success, but because of collegiate development.
This isn't to imply, however, that your chances improve if you're NOT a McDonald's All-American, nor that a coach is better off avoiding the hyped kids. Not at all. The 52% NBA appearance rate among the 200 Burger Boys over the last 10 years is far and away higher than that of the general recruit populace (probably in the realm of 1-2% tops).
But it does shoot some holes in the idea that without such names your program is doomed to second citizen status, and that NOT being named to a mythical team (such as current UK frosh Derrick Jasper (RSCI #52), Perry Stevenson (#57) and Jodie Meeks (also #57)) cuts your chances of making it to the next level.
Many thanks to Kerry for his hard work. It makes for a great analysis and look at the labels in basketball recruiting, and the way that hoops fans stick to them, regardless of their overall value in reality.