In the age of one-and-done players, something pretty unique will happen on Thursday night. Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield, both college graduates, will be selected among the top handful of picks, which we haven’t seen in a decade.
Since the NBA instituted the current age limit, experienced college players and high school superstars have been replaced atop the draft with one-and-done supernovas. Including Ben Simmons, who the Philadelphia 76ers will take first overall, nine out of the last 10 No. 1 picks have left college after their freshman season. The only outlier? Blake Griffin, who the Los Angeles Clippers took first overall after two seasons at Oklahoma.
There have been 300 players drafted in the first round since the NBA instituted the 19-year-old age limit and only 55 spent four years in school -- three of which were redshirt-juniors* like Dunn. That’s an 18.3% rate, which is lower than the average for the five conventional routes – freshman, sophomore, junior, senior and international.
Even starker has been the lack of college graduates at the very top of the draft. The Charlotte Hornets took Frank Kaminsky with the ninth overall pick last June, marking the just the second time since 2006 that such a player was drafted in the single digits. In fact, since 2006, when teams were still adjusting to exactly what the new age limit meant, there have only be four graduates drafted tenth or higher -- Kaminsky, C.J. McCollum (2013), Damian Lillard (2012) and Jimmer Fredette (2011).
Pulling back a little further, we haven’t seen many seniors taken off the board in even the first half of the first round. There were five such players in 2006 -- Sheldon Williams (fifth), Brandon Roy (sixth), Randy Foye (seventh), J.J. Redick (11th) and Hilton Armstrong (12th) -- but there have only been 11 since. In 2013, only three seniors were drafted in the first round and it wasn’t until the 23rd pick that one heard his name called in the 2010 draft.
This year’s first-round class isn’t exactly flush with experienced talent, but Dunn and Hield are expected to be joined by Denzel Valentine, Taurean Prince and Brice Johnson among the first 30 picks.
“It could be,” Dunn said when I asked him if valuing upperclassman in the draft could become a trend in the NBA. “Me and Buddy Hield, we put in hard work and gave a lot of effort. We weren’t fortunate enough to be at that high level to come in and be a one-and-done. We had to put in our work and it’s starting to pay off. It shows that you don’t have to be a one-and-done in order to get to the NBA. You can take your time, improve your game, improve your maturity level, learn the game more and still make your dream come true.”
Dunn, who is entering the NBA with another year of eligibility left after taking a redshirt in 13-14, received his degree from Providence this month. His coach, Ed Cooley, pushed him to leave school last June despite what it would have meant for the Friars’ roster.
“He felt like I should have gone to the NBA last year,” Dunn said of Cooley. “A lot of coaches would have told me to stay, make the selfish move, but he actually told me to leave for the NBA. These opportunities don’t just come at any moment.”
Dunn and his family decided that returning to play another season at the college level, while also graduating, made the most sense for both his short and long-term future.
“I think me and my family were comfortable with the decision,” he reflected. “I got my college degree a couple weeks ago, my whole family was proud. I’m just trying to set the standard high for my family, let it be the norm to graduate from college. My sisters are up next to do that. Now I’m sitting in this seat talking to you guys, living my dream.”
Staying at Oklahoma for four years was the best path for Hield, but he was predictably blunt in saying that it’s not for everyone.
“There is value [in spending four years in college], but don’t get me wrong. If you are good enough to leave you can go [to the NBA]. If I could have done that, I would have left early too,” he said. “The value of the four years? I needed four years to get better. Sometimes people take longer to develop and that’s how it is. If you are good enough to go, I’m not against it.”
Players often need to stay in school out of necessity. Maybe they don’t like how low they are projected to go as underclassman, or they simply haven’t put together enough of a body of work to even merit being drafted at all. Denzel Valentine, who made huge strides from in his senior season with Michigan State, feels as though he’s better equipped to handle whatever is thrown at him than someone two or three years younger.
“I feel like I can come in and play right away,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of things this year -- I’ve developed, I’ve become comfortable. I know it’s going to be a new NBA game, but I’m going to try to adapt. I’ll figure things out as I have throughout my college career.”
Would things have played out differently if his breakout season came as a sophomore instead of as a senior?
“It is what it is,” Valentine told RealGM. “Sometimes this is the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes it doesn’t. All I can say is that at the next level, I’m going to handle my business. I’m going to come in and contribute right away.”
Unless we see changes to the current age limit, it’s unlikely this year will prove to be the tipping point in a trend towards drafting 22-year-olds instead of 18- or 19-year-olds. It will remain a situational case for both the player and the team drafting, but that doesn’t mean Thursday night wouldn’t be historic for upperclassman.
“We have more experience, we are tough,” Hield said of himself and Dunn. “Kris is a tough kid from a tough background. You know his story. He’s motivated and hungry, just like me. When you have guys that are hungry, you can’t go against them because they are self-motivated and driven. You want guys that compete every night and will come in and work right away. No disrespect to these younger guys, but I’d rather to safe with an older guy when you know more of what you are going to get.”
Acie Law. Al Thornton. Terrence Williams. Jimmer Fredette.
Those are of some of the seniors that have been drafted in lottery portion of the first round over the last decade. Young or old. Domestic or International. You just never know what you are going to get.
* In addition to players with senior eligibility, I considered three redshirt-juniors as four-year players in this data. Lillard, George Hill and Kelly Olynyk.