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The Case for ... Getting Schooled


ONE HEADLINE THE NBA hopes you'll note from last week's draft is the large number of international prospects who were chosen. Like his predecessor, David Stern, commissioner Adam Silver is ambitious to grow the game globally. To Silver, seeing a record 14 foreign-born prospects selected in the first round—and 26, also a new mark, of the 60 picks—was surely an opportunity to rejoice. To others, it became the latest chance to bash college basketball.

For years the deriders have looked for signs of the college game's decline. In 2008, when Brandon Jennings decided to spend a season in Europe rather than at a U.S. college, he was presented in outlets like The New York Times and ESPN as a pioneer, blazing a new path to the NBA. Yet in the years since only Emmanuel Mudiay—who signed with SMU before he deferred to play in China in '14—has followed the same route. In 2010--11 there were 376 foreign-born players competing in Division I basketball. Last season that number was 506. That growth is due at least in part to the brighter spotlight that shines on college players, the better for NBA scouts and decision makers to see them.

Since 2006, when the NBA began requiring players to be at least 19 in the calendar year of the draft and a year removed from high school, 660 players have been selected. Of those, 521—an average of 47.4 out of 60 picks each draft, or 78.9%—have come from the NCAA. Though the 44 college players selected this year were the fewest ever, 11 of the 14 lottery picks were collegians. The NCAA remains the clearest path to the NBA.

That's true even when players don't need to go to school to catch the league's attention. Number 1 pick Ben Simmons, a native of Melbourne, Australia, was already starring for his national team as a high school sophomore. Because he would turn 19 before the end of the year in which the draft was held, Simmons could have declared for the 2015 draft if he had stayed Down Under. Instead he came to the U.S. for his last three years of high school before spending a season at LSU, for whom he averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds. Similarly Jamal Murray, who turned 19 in February, would have been eligible for this year's draft even if he hadn't reclassified and graduated from high school in '15. The Ontario native opted for Kentucky, where he set a Wildcats' freshman record by averaging 20.0 points per game before becoming the No. 7 pick in the draft, by the Nuggets.

For many prospects, college hoops remains the only realistic route to the NBA. Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, the No. 6 pick, by New Orleans, grew up without a developmental system in his home country of the Bahamas. He came to the U.S. for college, where he went from being a 23.8% three-point shooter as a freshman in 2012--13 to a 45.7% marksman as a senior in '15--16, as well as the Wooden Award winner as national player of the year. Jakob Poeltl, the No. 9 pick, by Toronto, became the first Austrian-born NBA player—after spending two seasons at Utah. Domantas Sabonis (left), the No. 11 pick by Orlando, was born in the U.S. as the son of Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis but raised in Spain. He was a three-star recruit when he arrived at Gonzaga in '14 but muscled his way into the lottery after two strong seasons—and a memorable 19-point, 10-rebound performance in this year's NCAA tournament against Poeltl's Utes., a leading draft site, has already released a mock draft for next year; 23 of the 30 first-round picks and 45 out of 60 selections overall are projected to come from the college ranks, including expected No. 1 Harry Giles of Duke. So if you're hoping to get a glimpse of tomorrow's NBA stars, there's no need to relocate to Europe. Just turn on your TV (or phone or laptop) from November to April and give it the old college try.

Eleven of the 14 picks in this year's lottery came out of U.S. colleges, a reminder that the NCAA is still the surest path to the NBA.