Where do these guys come from? Breaking Down the D-League Draft

The idea of a chance is what binds the Development League together. A chance for players to show what they can do, a chance for coaches to prove their value to the organization, a chance for everyone involved to do whatever it takes to make it to The Association.

Chance is what connects the 125 players who were selected in last week’s D-League Draft. Regardless of the road they took to get there, everyone who reported to camp this week shares the crucial commonality of a chance. This is their shot, and they know it.

Though we’re dealing with the most beloved (if not tired) trope in all of sports, from a pragmatic standpoint, we know that not all of these guys will make it. Some will, but most won’t. It’s more likely for a player to give the D-League a shot then go make money abroad than it is for him to ever sniff an NBA roster. But still, that chance.

The question begs then, though all of the 125 may literally have an opportunity, which of them will actually get to the NBA? We try to answer after the jump.

To begin, let’s take a look at the most recent D-League Draft. The table below breaks down the number of players taken by classifying the last place they played basketball before turning pro.

2012 D-League Draft

Classification

Number of Players

Percentage of Draft

Mid/Low Major 66 52.8
NAIA 9 7.2
Big East 8 6.4
Division 2 8 6.4
ACC 7 5.6
Big 12 6 4.8
Big 10 6 4.8
Pac-12 6 4.8
SEC 5 4
Division 3 3 2.4
International 1 .8

 

There’s a lot we can learn from this. The two most striking elements are the diversity of leagues represented here, and the fact that over half of D-League draftees come from mid to low major Division 1 schools. To compare, the same information for the 2011 and 2010 D-League Drafts is presented below.

 

2011 D-League Draft

Classification

Number of Players

Percentage of Draft

Mid/Low Major 56 44.8
Division 2 17 13.6
Big East 12 9.6
NAIA 10 8
Big 12 8 6.4
Big 10 7 5.6
Pac-12 6 4.8
ACC 4 3.2
Division 3 3 2.4
SEC 2 1.6

 

2010 D-League Draft

Classification

Number of Players

Percentage of Draft

Mid/Low Major 59 47.2
SEC 13 10.4
ACC 10 8
Big 12 9 7.2
Division 2 8 6.4
Big East 7 5.6
Big 10 7 5.6
Pac-12 6 4.8
NAIA 3 2.4
International 2 1.6
Division 3 1 .8

 

Clearly, we’re not looking at a single-year fluke. Though it’s tough to pin down why so many low-tier Division 1 players become D-Leaguers, we can make some educated guesses.

First, it must be acknowledged that while more players get drafted from mid majors than high majors, the pool of mid major players is significantly larger. Even though it’s reasonable to conclude that players on high major teams are generally more talented than those on mid majors, the disparity between the number of potential draftees from each classification has to play at least a minor role in explaining why more mid major players get drafted.

It’s more likely, however, that a better explanation examines talent level rather than sheer numbers. Obviously, if the players in the D-League Draft were talented enough to go directly into the NBA, they would. What we see with guys who get drafted into the D-League are players who fit in to a sort of “sweet spot”: not quite enough game to jump straight to the NBA, but enough to show that they could potentially get there down the road. Division 1 mid majors are rife with these guys.

To illustrate this point, consider the 2010-2012 NBA Drafts (the same period of time which we used to examine the D-League Drafts).

2010-2012 NBA Drafts

Classification

Number of Players

Percentage of Drafts

SEC 31 17.2
Mid/Low Major 29 16.1
International 28 15.6
ACC 24 13.3
Big 12 23 12.8
Big East 22 12.2
Pac-12 11 6.1
Big 10 10 5.6
D-League 2 1.1

 

As expected, the proportion of drafted mid major players drops significantly, leagues like the NAIA and lower NCAA divisions disappear completely, and the major Division 1 conferences (along with international players) dominate. Clearly the mid majors are filled with players who can compete at the professional level, but few are ready to do so in the NBA immediately after college.

When it comes to making the NBA, it’s important whether you went to Duke or Duquesne. If the league’s job is to develop players, however, are guys from lower-tier teams ever prepared to make the jump?

The following table breaks down all the D-League players who received callups during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons by the last place they played before turning pro.

D-League Callups from 2010-2011, 2011-2012

Classification

Number of Players

Percentage of Callups

Mid/Low Major 26 41.3
ACC 7 11.1
Big East 7 11.1
Big 12 6 9.5
Big 10 5 7.9
SEC 5 7.9
Pac-12 4 6.4
Division 2 1 1.6
Community College 1 1.6
High School 1 1.6

 

Evidently, getting a shot at The Association is one thing, and getting there is quite another.

Though the table shows mid major players being called up more than any other classification, that doesn’t tell the whole story. In the D-League Draft, mid and low major players made up either a majority or a plurality of all players drafted. When it comes to callups, that’s no longer the case.

When you add up the callups from the high major conferences, you see that their players represent 53.9% of the callups over the most recent two seasons. This is hugely important when you consider that over the last three D-League Drafts, high major players represent only 34.4% of all players drafted. Even though NAIA and Division 2 or 3 players are getting their shot, they’re not the ones who get looks at the highest level.

The players who go to Division 1 schools did so because they were identified as having the most talent coming out of high school. In that sense, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise they’re also the ones who NBA teams feel can do the most to help them.

One of the principal narratives of the D-League  is the Rudy-esque feel good story – the 5-foot-8 point guard who was cut from his high school team, walks on at BFE State, and after countless montages showing how hard he works, makes a big time roster. And though we like to believe this is the case, it’s not really what’s happening.

The players who are making it to the NBA are largely guys with whom the basketball public is already familiar – they’ve played in the NCAA tournament, they’re accustomed to the big stage, and (most importantly) have the talent to develop into NBA players.

It’s nice that so many small school players get a chance. In truth though, that’s all they get.

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