From 1991 to 2006, there were 1,098 players who made their debut in the NBA (according to data at Basketball-Reference.com). By my count, 327 of these players were never drafted. This works out to an average of about 20 such players each year.
Just last year, 27 players (again by my count) debuted in the NBA without first being drafted. For many of these players, the stay in the NBA is quite brief. Specifically from 1991-92 to 2005-06, 300 players embarked on a career in the Association. For 128 – or 43% — this career lasted only one year. And 79 of these players played less than 100 minutes (which includes 23 who played less than 10 minutes).
Many undrafted free agents simply make a brief appearance, get their name listed at Basketball-Reference.com, and then go on to some other career. For some undrafted players, though, a lengthy career does result from the initial try-out. And it’s these lucky few we wish to talk about today.
From 1991-92 to 2005-06, there were 29 players undrafted players who played 100 games and averaged 20 minutes per contest. In other words, there are about two players each year who are undrafted and yet go on to become regular members of a team’s rotation.
When we examine the career performance of these players – reported in Table One – we see that Ben Wallace is easily the most productive undrafted player from the past 16 seasons.
Ben Wallace has now played 11 NBA seasons. In these eleven seasons he has produced 176.6 wins and posted a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) of 0.348. Obviously the strength of Big Ben’s game is not scoring. He only averages 6.6 points per game. No, Wallace’s game is about rebounds and blocked shots. His ability to secure missed shots, thus either ending the opponent’s possession or allowing his team’s possessions to continue, is the key contribution he makes to his team’s success.
Wallace is not the only productive undrafted player. Next on the list are Brad Miller, Bo Outlaw, and Darrell Armstrong. Jose Calderon – whose career just began in Toronto – is already 5th on this list. In all, eight of the 29 players listed have a career WP48 above the average mark of 0.100.
What stands out when you look at this list is not just who is productive and who is not, but who the un-drafted tend to be. The scorer vs. role player story has been told frequently in this forum (with this column being the best explanation of the distinction). An average NBA player will score 0.400 points per minute. Scorers can be thought of as players who exceed this average, role players are those who do not.
When we look at the productive undrafted players we see that everyone, except Brad Miller, is clearly a role player. And Miller just makes it over the 0.400 bar.
In The Wages of Wins we defined scorers as players who average 0.500 points per minute. When we adopt this stricter standard we see that none of the undrafted players listed in Table One fits the WoW definition of a scorer. In fact, if you look at the 300+ undrafted free agents since 1991, only Trevor Ruffin (point guard for Phoenix and Philadelphia in the mid-1990s) managed to eclipse the 0.500 mark in scoring per-minute. Yes, only one undrafted player in 16 years managed to score one point every two minutes played.
When we look at the scoring rates of the undrafted a clear lesson is learned. Players who do not hear their name called on draft night should abandon their dreams of being the next Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson. To earn the NBA paycheck these players are going to have to contribute to team success is some way other than scoring.
Of course just because these players are not the primary scoring option on their teams it doesn’t mean they don’t contribute. When we look at all undrafted free agents, we see the same average productivity that we see in second round picks. Both post an average WP48 of 0.066. The implications of that equality should make for a good story on another day.