Who knew Florida International was an NBA breeding ground?

Posted by rtmsf on April 21st, 2007

One of our spring rituals when the NBA playoffs arrive is to analyze the makeup of the teams through the lens of what colleges and conferences the key contributors passed through on their way to the L (assuming they went to college at all). There is talent on every team in the NBA, but it takes more than stockpiled talent to ensure success – experience, competent role players, solid team chemistry, and coaching all come into play. This exercise shows us where the best of the best in basketball are coming from. Are the big conferences over- or underrepresented – and if so, which ones? Which schools are consistently putting talent on the top NBA teams – who is missing? What about the foreign player invasion of the past decade – how is that playing out? To answer these questions and more, we’ll examine both the key contributors and the starters of each playoff team, to see if anything in the results surprises us.


The methodology used ensures that we only assessed key contributors on each playoff team. First, we only considered players who averaged at least ten minutes per game this season, figuring that a benchwarmer like Paul Shirley hasn’t contributed much toward the team’s on-court success. Second, each player must have played in at least half of his team’s games (if he was traded during the season, the games with the previous team were included as well). Finally, with respect to selecting starters, we only considered those who were projected to start for their teams during the playoffs (sorry Wiz duo Agent Zero and Caron Butler). This process left us with 168 key contributors and 80 starters spread over sixteen teams.

Analysis of Key Contributors (168 total)

  • The first surprise noted is just how many NBA playoff key contributors never stepped foot on a college campus to play NCAA basketball. Thirty players are foreign-born and did not attend an American college, and fourteen American players were drafted directly out of high school. This means that 26% of the key contributors in the NBA playoffs this year have no experience with Billy Packer, which is probably a good thing.

  • The next finding is that 94 of the remaining players who played NCAA basketball (124) went to a college within one of the so-called “Super Six” conferences (ACC – 20, Big East – 16, Big Ten – 12, Big Twelve – 14, Pac-10 – 15, SEC – 17). This means that over 75% of the college-trained players who are key contributors to NBA playoff teams went to a Super Six school. This provides some strong evidence for the idea that the big conferences consistently get the best players, doesn’t it?

  • The remaining players who played college basketball tended to go to a school within the “mid-major” conferences, which include the Atlantic 10 (6 players), Conference USA (4), Mountain West (3), Sun Belt (3), WAC (3), and the West Coast Conference (3). Only eight players went to a school outside of these twelve conferences, and three of those weren’t even Division I players – Ronald Murray (Shaw University), Ben Wallace (Virginia Union), and Devean George (Augsburg University). Notably absent in light of the last few years of success for its conference is the Missouri Valley, which has only one key contributor on a playoff team (Anthony Parker from Bradley).

  • There’s been a perception in recent years that talent among Big Ten schools is down compared with other conferences. Their twelve players as key contributors on playoff teams supports that contention. What is surprising is that the Atlantic 10 manages to have six players (half the Big Ten) as key contributors, although that league has been inarguably mediocre since its heyday in the mid-90s (UMass & Temple).

  • How about particular schools? Duke has been routinely lambasted over the years for having middling success in the NBA with its many all-americans, and there is some truth to that. But Coach K certainly puts guys into the pros that contribute on good teams, as exhibited by the school-most six players in the playoffs this year (Deng, Battier, Boozer, Duhon, Hill & Redick). Tubby Smith is another coach where perception may not meet reality in this regard, as Kentucky also has six key contributors this year, five of which were Tubby players (Prince, Walker, Hayes, Azubuike, Bogans, Mohammed). Connecticut also has six contributors, and it would have been seven had Caron Butler stayed healthy (Hamilton, Gordon, Cliff Robinson, Marshall, Marcus Williams, Boone).

  • North Carolina (Carter, Jamison, Stackhouse, Wallace, Haywood) and UCLA (Baron Davis, Kapono, Barnes, Ariza, Farmar) each have five key contributors this year; Arizona, Florida, Georgetown, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan St. and Texas each have three.

  • Noticing a trend here? You should, because the thirteen schools with at least three key contributors in this year’s NBA playoffs have accounted for 38 of the last 60 final four teams (63%) and 13 of the last 15 national champions (87%).

  • Florida International’s two players (Raja Bell and Carlos Arroyo) matches or exceeds each of these traditional powers – Syracuse (2), Cincinnati (1), Oklahoma (1), Ohio St. (1), Louisville (0) and Indiana (0). No way to explain that one.

FIU logo

Analysis of Starters (80 total)

  • Again, a quarter of starters (20) on playoff teams never stepped foot on a college campus, split evenly between high schoolers and foreign-born players.

  • The cream separates itself even more at this level, as 46 of the remaining 60 players (77%) went to Super Six conference schools. The ACC once again leads the way with thirteen starters, with the Pac-10 (8) and SEC (8) following up next. The Big Twelve (7) and Big East (6) provide several, but the Big Ten once again finishes last, providing only four starters on playoff teams this year.

  • The Atlantic 10 does the best of the mid-majors, providing just as many starters (4) as the Big Ten. The Sun Belt (2) and the WAC (2) are the only other conferences with multiple starters.

  • Only three schools – Duke (4), North Carolina (4), Arizona (3) – have more than two starters on an NBA playoff team. Considering the annual recruiting rankings of these schools, this should come as no surprise at all.

  • Several of the schools with numerous key contributors dropped off considerably when discussing starters – Kentucky, UCLA, and Connecticut each only have two starters, which may suggest that these schools’ strength is in their depth of talent rather than their superstars. 

  • Ben Wallace is the only non-Division I player who attended an American college who starts for a playoff team. 

  • Roughly a third of the high school or foreign starters are superstars (Kobe, T-Mac, Lebron, Dwight Howard, Amare, Nowitzki, Yao), whereas approximately an eighth of the NCAA players are superstars (VinSanity, Duncan, Iverson, Melo, D-Wade, Kidd, Shaq, Nash), suggesting that there is some value in drafting non-NCAA players, assuming your front office can isolate who is the next Kobe vs. the next Kwame.

Obviously, it appears that the correlation between top talent in college persists in the professional ranks. The true question, which is well beyond our scope here, is what factors and their weights go into determining when a player from a certain school or a certain conference will become a key NBA contributor, starter, or superstar. No doubt if we included the entire NBA under this analysis, we would see the same schools and conferences consistently rising to the top. We wonder, though, if there aren’t subtle differences between those schools who tend to put players on good teams vs. those that put players on bad teams. Over time, there may be some distinctions and conclusions that can be drawn – for example, whether coaching at the collegiate level can more readily translate to success, holding all other factors (most notably, talent) equal. At any rate, hopefully this analysis can provide a starting point for discussion of these issues.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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