The college basketball player’s guide to getting paid

The research behind this article comes from David Berri, Stacey Brook and Aju Fenn in their paper: From college to the pros: predicting the NBA amateur player draft.

The other day while I was bashing Mark Cuban for exploiting the players, I realized this blog may be no better. Our assessment of players is often performance based, we want them to win our team games, make it to March Madness and bring home a title. College players though, are focused on getting to NBA teams and getting paid. Today I’d like to offer some free advice to college players looking to get drafted and how to maximize their NBA value.

Pick the right conference

The NBA requires you wait a year to enter the league and the NCAA is one of the most common places to stay put. NBA decision makers have a bias towards certain conferences.

  • Atlantic Coast Conference +10.4 draft slots
  • Big East +9 draft slots
  • Pacific 10 (now 12) +9.1 draft slots
  • Big 12 +8.7 draft slots
  • Conference USA +8.6 draft slots
  • Atlantic 10 +7.4 draft slots
  • Mountain West/Western Athletic +6.9 draft slots
  • Big Ten +6.2 draft slots
  • South Eastern Conference +5.5 draft slots

All things being equal it’s in your best bet to head to the Atlantic Coast. There is no love for the SEC relative to the other conferences. When picking a place to go just be aware you’re changing your draft stock.

Get the right stat line

Here are the basic strategies for getting the ideal stat line in college. I’ll explain the rational in a second.

  • Shoot as much as you can. Efficiency helps but not enough for you to care.
  • Wrack up the blocks
  • It’s ok to foul, just make sure you’re getting blocks and steals.
  • It’s good to pass but nowhere near as good as shooting
  • Don’t worry about rebounding or turnovers

When it comes down to it there are only seven stats you need to worry about and three of them relate to scoring. Each of these is listed based on standard deviation (e.g. an increase of 4 points per 48 minutes is a one standard deviation increase over average.)

Good stats:

  • Points Every four points per 48 minutes gains you 6 draft spots
  • Blocks Every block per 48 minutes gains you 3.9 draft spots
  • Assists Every 1.25 assists per 48 minutes gains you 2.2 draft spots
  • Two point shooting % Each increase of 5% gains you 1.9 draft spots
  • Steals Every 0.6 steals per 48 minutes gains you 1.4 draft spots
  • Three point shooting % Each increase of 17% gains you 1.3 draft spots

Bad stats:

  • Personal Fouls Every 0.8 fouls per 48 minutes costs you 2.5 draft spots

Use that list as an easy reference for raising (or possibly lowering) your stock.

How to handle March Madness

Alright here’s your ticket for some major draft stock. Making it to the Final Four is worth a cool 12 draft slots. If you’re lucky enough to win it all it’s worth another 8 (total of 20). I’d almost say it’s worth considering sharing the ball some to help this goal. However, in a single elimination tournament with lots of randomness I say stick with scoring. Just be aware if you get super far you’ve just upped your stock. This stock value disappears if you re-enter school so if you hit the promised land you should get yourself an agent as soon as possible.

The Draft: Enter young and not as a shooting guard

The draft is a tricky beast. There’s a lot of stuff to consider here. I’ll do my best to guide you through it. First off, be aware that barring stats, here’s what NBA teams are looking for:

  • Young Players Every year you age costs you 6 draft spots
  • Tall players Every inch taller you are gains you a draft spot
  • Not shooting guards Being listed as a shooting guard costs you 5 spots.

Obviously you can’t control height. That said, it is in your best interest to enter the draft as early as possible and not as a shooting guard. There’s more behind entering as early as possible too. The NBA salary scale works entirely on seniority. The more years you’ve been in the league, the more you are eligible to earn. Additionally players earn Bird rights for staying with a team for three years (and these usually transfer in trades), which allow them to offer better contracts. It is entirely in your best interest to get on a team as soon as possible.

The Draft: the second round is your friend

This is going to sound counter-intuitive. First off, this advice is not for top draft prospects. If you’re going in the top of the first round then your goal should be to get as high of a draft pick as you can as the salary you will get paid is directly tied to it. However, if you’re in the 20-40 range the truth is you want to be drafted in the 2nd round. Let me give you a few examples.

2001 Draft Salary comparison

  • Gilbert Arenas (Round 2 pick 2) – $119.9 career earnings thus far
  • Joe Johnson (Round 1 pick 10) – $109.4 career earnings thus far
  • Tony Parker (Round 1 pick 28) – $82.5 career earnings thus far

2002 Draft Salary comparison

Agent Zero has earned more than the overpaid Johnson and Finals MVP Tony Parker. Boozer earned almost as much as the biggest international first round pick of all time and until this season had out-earned Stoudemire (the 2003 Rookie of the Year, who was also a seven time All-Star and five time All-NBA player). A first round contract is marginally better than a second round contract to the tune of around a few million dollars your first two seasons. Your next two seasons (and possible a third if you want to leave the team but know they’ll match any offer for you) it’s an anchor on your pay. You likely won’t be in the league that long (most recent averages have been around 6 seasons) so minimizing your time frame in a rookie contract is your best bet.

Thanks to Evan for pointing me at the Gilbert Arenas Provision, which does alter this a bit. I’ve added an explanation of the Gilbert Arenas Provision from Larry Coon’s FAQ below.

The NBA in an attempt to make sure teams could match offer sheets to talented second rounders put a limit on salary options. A second rounder can only sign a contract at the league average in their third season and with a standard 8% raise in their fourth season. Recently the league average has been close to $5 million and an 8% raise brings that close to $5.4 million for year four. All in all this means as a second rounder you can in theory make around $10.5 million in your third and fourth year in the NBA. Note that no player in the first round outside of the top 2 picks will make as much in their third and fourth season should their team accept their options.

I want to be clear this is a gamble. Getting into the second round lowers your shot at getting played. At the same time, it opens up your shot at getting much better career earnings. Just be aware in both the first and second round scenarios if after two seasons no teams want you, then you’ll be done regardless.

What to do with your money

Hopefully I’ve given you good advice on how to maximize your value in the NBA. I’d like to give a little more advice on what to do with your money. Getting to the NBA is literally winning the lottery. Even at the worst salaries you’ll get paid far more than a full ride scholarship to any of the best schools in the nation. How big of a jackpot you will get varies though. Lots of randomness can shorten your career. My advice is to get a good accountant and lawyer the minute you get signed and start hoarding your money. Take a lesson from John Stockton and shop at Costco or Jeremy Lin and save on expensive New York rent and crash on a friend’s couch. If your NBA career doesn’t pan out then you have a good chunk of change to use to go back to school or do something with. Also the “magic of compound interest” means the earlier you start saving the better off you’ll be. There’s other consideration such as how to deal with family members, friends and investing. I’ll trust you talk to your accountant and lawyer on that one. Anyway, good luck in the draft and with your contract and feel free to e-mail me if you’re an NBA prospect in search of more advice.



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