If Markelle Fultz is taken with the first pick in the 2017 draft, it will mark the second straight season in which the top player selected was not able to help his team advance to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Ben Simmons was drafted first and produced nary a point, rebound, or assist for the 76ers, so I think we can state with no small assurance that a player must play in the Big Dance in order to have a successful career. Perhaps that is what is called anecdotal evidence or possibly small sample size. Philadelphia clearly prefers players who do not play in their first year. Maybe part of the process is to follow the example of Blake Griffin by taking players such as Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Nerlens Noel who intern for a season to learn the ropes of making copies and making coffee for the boss. Since we have a two-year trend, I thought I would look back at the draft over the past 10 years and see how many players drafted in the first 15 selections had not played in the NCAA tournament and what, if any, effect it had on their career.
I should note that although Fultz clearly has the physical skills to play in the NBA, it is a concern that he was not able to help Washington be even remotely competitive. The Huskies only beat one team in the RPI top 150 – a Jan. 18 home date against Colorado – and were swept by both Arizona State and Washington State. Washington only won two conference games and Fultz was felled by a slight knee injury that kept him from playing in six of the team’s last eight games. The 6-4 guard had a very nice season, but the best players make their teammates better. Fultz did not. Of course, breathless draft wonks are claiming that he is the reincarnated Sidney Moncrief, but per my usual, I will take a wait and see approach.
2016: Marquese Chriss, forward, Washington Huskies – picked eighth
The Huskies are not unfamiliar with talented players who do not end their collegiate career with many wins. Chriss was the third-best scorer on a team that went 9-9 in the Pac 12 and was outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Suns were intrigued enough with the 6-10 forward that they traded a wad of picks, including the rights for Skal Labissiere on draft day. Chriss started 75 games for Phoenix and produced modest numbers (9.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 32.1% on 3-pointers). He is just 19 years old, so he has plenty of time to develop and could end up being a productive player despite his one-year collegiate career ending in the NIT.
2015: Cameron Payne, guard, Murray State Racers – picked 14th
Payne helped Murray State to a 29-3 record in the Ohio Valley Conference over two years, but the Racers were stopped short of the Big Dance. The team was undefeated in conference play in 2014-15, but were knocked out of the OVC tournament by Belmont. Murray State was sent to the NIT despite a 26-4 record. Over his two seasons in college, the 6-3 guard provided 18.5 points and 5.7 assists. He was selected by Sam Presti of the draft’s Midas touch. In his one and a half seasons with the Thunder, Payne was mainly known as Russell Westbrook’s pre-game dance partner and averaged 5.0 points as a backup point guard. He was sent to Chicago and did not factor into the Bulls’ loss to Boston in the playoffs. It remains to be seen if he has a place on a team that also has Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan, and Denzel Valentine on its roster.
2014: Noah Vonleh, forward, Indiana Hoosiers – selected ninth
Like Chriss, Vonleh was a power forward who showed some ability to stretch the court. He hit 48.5% of his 3-pointers, but only attempted 33 over his lone season with the Hoosiers. The 6-10 forward averaged 11.3 points and a team-high 9.0 rebounds, but the Hoosiers did not make the postseason after going for a Slurpee-like record of 7-11 in Big 10 play. Looking to corner the market on Indiana power forwards, the Hornets drafted Vonleh to play next to Cody Zeller. He only appeared in 25 games for Charlotte before being sent to Portland for Nicolas Batum. Vonleh has started 97 games for the Trail Blazers over the last two seasons, but has only produced 4.0 points and 4.5 rebounds. He hit 10 more 3-pointers at Indiana than he has through three years as a pro.
2013: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, guard, Georgia Bulldogs – selected eighth
I was skeptical about Caldwell-Pope in the run up to the 2013 draft. It wasn’t so much that he was unable to lead the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in two seasons, but I just didn’t see him being a starter in the NBA. I was wrong: he has started 274 games for the Pistons over the last four seasons. I would be hard-pressed to call him better than average and has only hit 33.4% of his 3-pointers. This is a problem for a shooting guard, particularly on a team doesn’t have much perimeter power. KCP has improved dramatically from the free-throw line and has hit 82.1% of his freebies over the last two seasons. Now, he just needs to take more trips to the charity stripe and take fewer 3-pointers.
2012: Damian Lillard, guard, Weber State Wildcats – selected sixth
Lillard is the first player on this list who spent four years in college. The Wildcats advanced to the postseason in each year of the point guard’s career, but played in the CBI and CIT once and NIT twice. Weber State only suffered 11 conference losses in Big Sky regular season play with Lillard, but they were never able to win the Big Sky Tournament. Lillard averaged 18.6 points over his career and topped out at 24.5 points as a senior when he hit 40.9% of his 3-pointers. The 6-3 guard’s scoring average has improved in each of his five NBA seasons and he scored 27.0 points in 2016-17 to lead the Trail Blazers to the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Had Lillard played at a school that received attention through the NCAA Tournament, he may have been drafted even higher.
2012: Mo Harkless, forward, St. John’s Red Storm – selected 15th
It may be that the Portland brain trust looks for players with no NCAA Tournament experience. We have covered 60% of the team’s starting lineup and Jusuf Nurkic never played college ball. Harkless spent one year with St. John’s and provided 15.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. He hit just 20.2% of his 3-pointers and his penchant for errant long-distance tosses has not abated in the pros. He spent three seasons as a sometime starter with Orlando before being sent to the Pacific Northwest for a top-55 protected 2020 pick (also known as “nothing”). The 6-9 forward is coming off his best season in which he averaged 10.0 points and 4.4 rebounds. Like many players on this list, he fits the profile of an NBA player athletically, but probably will never be better than slightly below average.
2011: Klay Thompson, guard, Washington State Cougars – selected 11th
The 2011 draft is a strange one: the top three players by total win shares were drafted 15th or lower (Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Isaiah Thomas). Thompson was drafted 11th by the Warriors after spending three seasons with Cougars, two of which ended in the NIT. Washington State had made the tournament in both the 2007 and 2008 seasons before Thompson arrived. The 6-7 guard put up decent numbers with 17.9 points and 39% of his 3-pointers as a Cougar, but he has bettered that long-distance conversion rate in all six of his NBA seasons. It helps to have Stephen Curry rather than Faisel Aden and Reggie Moore as a teammate, but it is apparent that Thompson has improved his game and landed in the exact right spot for his talents.
2011: Alec Burks, guard, Colorado Buffaloes – selected 12th
Burks was selected right after Thompson and has had not quite the same type of the impact as the three-time All Star. The 6-6 guard had a breakout season as a sophomore when he scored 20.2 points and grabbed 6.5 rebounds to lead the Buffaloes to the NIT. He was drafted by the Jazz as a bouncy guard who could attack the basket. Positional competition and a series of ankle injuries have limited Burks to reserve duty through six seasons. In his last three seasons, Burks has only averaged 33.0 games. If he could stay healthy, he could be an above average shooting guard even though he has had to split time with Rodney Hood.
2010: Paul George, forward, Fresno State Bulldogs – selected tenth
You can be forgiven if you didn’t actively follow George’s two seasons as a Bulldog. The squad was a basement dweller in what used to be the WAC. Clearly, it didn’t matter as George has developed into a top 20 player in the NBA. As a sophomore in 2009-10, the 6-9 forward averaged 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He served a two-year apprenticeship behind Danny Granger, then exploded onto the main scene in 2012-13 with 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. Those numbers look familiar. He lost a season to a compound fracture of his lower right leg, but has come back with two excellent seasons. The Pacers found a diamond in the rough in George: the best player in this post to go through the NCAA and not reach the Big Dance.
2008: Anthony Randolph, forward, LSU Tigers – selected 14th
There were no players selected in the first 15 picks of 2009 draft who did not play in the NCAA tournament, unless you count Brandon Jennings skipped the entire college experience. We almost made it through the 2008 lottery as well, but Randolph did not lead the Tigers to the Big Dance in his one year in Baton Rouge. The slim forward averaged 15.6 points and 8.5 rebounds for a 13-win team. After being selected by the Warriors in the 2008 draft, he made stops in New York, Minnesota, Denver, and Orlando through 2014. He has since moved to Russia and Spain to pursue his professional career. He averaged 7.1 points and 4.3 rebounds over six seasons and is the only player on the list to fall out of the NBA.
2007: Spencer Hawes, center, Washington Huskies – selected tenth
I remember being surprised when Hawes decided to go pro. The Huskies had a talented squad with Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter, but only won eight Pac 12 games. Hawes provided 14.9 points and 6.4 rebounds, which was enough for the Kings to pick him with the 10th pick. He began his career as a vagabond backup center with stops at six different teams. Hawes had a couple of seasons as an effective 3-point shooter with the 76ers and Cavaliers before falling off again. According to Basketball Reference, Hawes has earned over $45 million over his career, so in that way he has been successful.
2007: Rodney Stuckey, guard, Eastern Washington Eagles – selected 15th
After a decent 10-year career in the NBA, it is easy to forget that Stuckey was an absolute force in his two years with the Eagles. He averaged 24.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.8 assists over two seasons. Teams in the Big Sky could not match up to the 6-5 guard, but he never sealed the deal with a tournament championship before moving onto the NBA. Stuckey spent seven years with the Pistons before joining Indiana prior to the 2014-15 season. The Pistons won 60 games in his rookie season and made the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Celtics. Stuckey has only played in 11 playoff games since that point.
My guess is that you could take a grab bag of draft picks from any rationale you’d like and you could find certain patterns. Players who attended in college and did not play in the NCAA tournament have been a grab bag of players, but the same could likely be said of players who played for NCAA tournament champions or for big-time programs like Duke or Kentucky. Last year, I investigated the drafting of skinny players and that was also a mixed blessing. It is easy to take anecdotal evidence and try to prove a point, but it generally doesn’t work out that well.