Want to Make it in the NBA? Start at the End of Tobacco Road –West End

Want to Make it in the NBA? Start at the End of Tobacco Road –West End
Nov 09, 2006, 03:23 am
Heather N. Allen, Ph.D.
Paul Gearan
Senior Consultants
Rexer Analytics

There have been many great college basketball programs over the years; UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Indiana have all had their day. Some have been great for years, even decades at a time. When it comes to impact on the NBA, however, one program clearly stands apart from the rest. Two schools, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UCLA, have developed the most quality NBA talent over the span of the 60 years of league history, and over the last 25 years the Tar Heels have left the Bruins far behind. Carolina has had more first round draft picks than any other program (beating out archrival Duke for the honor), and the second highest number of draft picks overall (behind UCLA). Those draft picks have gone on to consistently meet or beat expectations for their performance in the NBA. As icing on the cake, Carolina has also had more former players develop into winning NBA coaches than any other college program, and in this regard there is not even a close second.

[Full Disclosure: The fact that the first author attended graduate school at UNC while her husband attended Duke has no impact on the veracity of the evidence that follows. The marital bragging rights that ensue are merely a happy by-product for the first author.]

The Players

In nearly 60 years of NBA drafts UCLA, North Carolina, and Kentucky clearly stand apart, with the greatest number of drafted players participating in at least one professional game. Among all college programs, only UCLA and North Carolina boast more than 10 All Stars. UNC has three NBA players enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, and Billy Cunningham. Those three will obviously be joined shortly by a guy named Michael. UCLA, on the other hand, gave us Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, and Bill Walton. In terms of general impact on the history of the NBA, UCLA and UNC stand head and shoulders above the rest. (Duke, by the way, has yet to see an NBA player enshrined in Springfield).

Table 1: Player Success of Drafted Players (1946 to present)
School # Drafted Players (at Least 1 NBA game)at Least 1 All Star Team# in Hall of Fame

68 15 3

North Carolina
67 14 3

61 10 3

52 6 2

St. John's
48 8 1

Notre Dame
475 0

46 8 2

45 7 0

42 5 1

39 4 1

Carolina’s program has also stood the test of time. While the caliber of UCLA players in the NBA has certainly waned in the past 20 years, Carolina’s program has grown in strength. The 2005 draft yielded only one UCLA player, Dijon Thompson, who was drafted late in the second round and has already washed out of the NBA. That same draft however, produced four first round UNC draftees (tying a record set by Duke in 1999), at least three of whom appear to have promising futures in the NBA.

Measuring Recent Success

In previous work examining all the first round draft picks from 1980 to 2001 (the results of which and specific methodology of player outcome ratings are contained in a previous article which can be found here, player outcomes were rated on a seven-point scale with the following categories:

7. Superstar (top 10-15 player in the league)
6. All-Star caliber player
5. Solid starter
4. Marginal starter/Top bench player
3. Solid bench player
2. Barely in league/End of bench player
1. Out of the NBA

For the purposes of this article, each player’s actual five-year outcome was compared with his “predicted” outcome - that which would be expected given their draft position. For example, the average outcome of the first pick in the draft is an “All-Star caliber player,” the 14th pick a “Marginal Starter/Top Bench player,” and the 30th pick a “Barely in league/End of bench player.” In essence, it would be inaccurate to ever label the first pick in the draft an “unexpected gem” when he should become a star player, or the 30th pick a “bust,” when he is likely a hanger-on at best. The following five categories were generated from this predicted versus actual comparison using the 7-point scale above:

1. Unexpected Gem
– Player ends up being two or more levels higher than their draft position would predict (e.g., Tony Parker selected at 28 [Expected = category 2] but whose actual outcome is an All Star caliber player [category 6]);
2. Positive Surprise
- Player ends up being one level higher than their draft position would predict (e.g., Jalen Rose selected at 13 [Expected = category 4] ends up being a solid starter [category 5] by the time he reached his fifth season);
3. Expectation Satisfier
- Player ends up being at the exact level their draft position would predict (e.g., Shane Battier selected at 6 [Expected = category 5] ends up being a solid starter [category 5]);
4. Disappointment
- Player ends up being one level lower than their draft position would predict (e.g., Eddie Griffin selected at 7 [Expected = category 5] ends up being a marginal starter/bench player [category 4]); and
5. Bust
- Player ends up being two levels lower their draft position would predict (e.g., Marcus Fizer selected at 4 (Expected = category 5) ends up being a solid bench player [category 3]);

North Carolina had the most first round draft picks over the 22 years examined (see Table 2), followed by - you guessed it - those other Tobacco Road denizens, Duke. However, the outcomes of these elite college players could not be more different. Whereas only 2 of the 20 Tar Heels selected (10%) were busts (J.R. Reid and Joseph Forte), 6 of the 15 Blue Devils (40%) significantly underperformed (Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley, Trajan Langdon, Cherokee Parks, William Avery, and Roshown McLeod). Certainly Hurley’s career-altering car accident skewed his outcome, but even if he is excluded, one out of every three first-round drafted Blue Devils ends up a bust.

Table 2: Five-Year Player Success Rates of First Round Draft Picks (1980 to 2001)

Total First Round Picks Unexpected Gem Positive Surprise Expectation
Disappointment Bust

North Carolina
20 3 3 9 3 2

15 0 4 4 1 6

14 0 8 3 2 1

Georgia Tech
13 1 4 4 3 1

13 2 3 5 2 1

12 3 3 4 2 0

11 0 2 2 1 6

10 2 2 5 1 0

10 3 1 1 5 0

10 1 1 5 3 0

Notre Dame
10 3 4 1 2 0

10 0 2 3 4 2

10 2 2 2 2 2

On the positive side, UNC has had 3 players who were unexpected gems: Michael Jordan (whose slip to #3 put him in the solid starter expectations and, of course, he became slightly better than that), Vince Carter, and Rick Fox. Duke, however, has not had a single unexpected star, with Grant Hill and Elton Brand being the best players Duke has produced over the period examined, but both were drafted very high (#1 and #3 respectively) thus they simply met expectations.

Alabama and Notre Dame also deserve special mention here. Fully half of Alabama’s 12 first round picks from the period studied performed at levels above what might be expected from their draft position. Three of those (Buck Johnson [at least for a short window around his fifth year], Latrell Sprewell, and Gerald Wallace) - all picked late in the first round - can be classified as unexpected gems. For Notre Dame, 7 of the 10 first round picks exceeded expected outcomes in their fifth year, with Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka, and Bill Hanzlik all climbing into the gem category.

Hanging out with Duke at the other end of the outcome spectrum are Louisville and Syracuse. Each of these programs has seen about 60% of their first rounders fail to meet expectations, with not one unexpected gem to be found in the bunch. Louisville has had an amazing 6 of their 11 first round picks stumble as unmitigated busts: Pervis Ellison, Felton Spencer, Lancaster Gordon, Clifford Rozier, LaBradford Smith, and Kenny Payne.

The Coaches

The NBA has a long tradition of former players crossing over to coach NBA teams. In this arena, once again, Carolina thrives. Indiana University actually has the greatest number of ex-players who have been head NBA coaches, with a whopping twelve. North Carolina, with 5 NBA coaches among their alums, comes in at number two.

However, those Hoosiers have only steered their teams to victory in 42% of the games they have coached. Apart from the brief coaching careers of Steve Logan (2-1) and Dick Van Arsdale (14-12), the only Hoosier with a winning coaching percentage is Isiah Thomas (131-115), and the good money says he may be back in the red after the current season (unless, of course, Isiah fires himself first).

The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have seen great coaching success. While Bones McKinney (10-25) had to rest on the laurels of a good nickname rather than his coaching resume, the other four Tobacco Road prodigies have forged a Carolina legacy that includes almost 2,900 wins and a 58% winning percentage. Larry Brown, George Karl, Doug Moe, and Billy Cunningham have all had winning coaching careers. While other successful programs were either one-man shows (Kentucky: Pat Riley) or had coaches who were more appropriately described as descendants of the Celtics dynasty (San Francisco and Holy Cross), North Carolina boasts 4 coaches with over 400 wins, and 3 of the 20 winningest coaches in NBA history. No other college boasts more than a single coach in the top 20. Only USC even approaches Carolina’s success, with 3 coaches achieving over 250 wins each, all with winning percentages of 54% or better, and 3 NBA championships. Even there, the USC coaches total only slightly over a third of the number of wins that the Tar Heel alums have recorded.

Table 3: Coaching Success of Former Players (1946-47 through 2005-06)

Ex-players who coached at least 1 NBA game Regular Season Wins Regular Season Losses Regular Season Win % Playoff Wins Playoff Losses Regular Playoff Win % NBA Championships

(Armstrong, Buckner,
Carter, Frank, Leonard,
Logan, Schaefer,
Smart, Thomas, VanArsdale, Wittman,
729 1,006 42% 17 31 35% 0

North Carolina
(Brown, Karl, Moe, Cunningham, McKinney)
2,886 2,095 58% 258 245 52% 2

(Casey, Barker,
Issel, Riley)
1,386 883 61% 180 116 61% 5

St. John's
(Levane, Loughery,
Dick McGuire,
1,037 1,381 43% 25 58 30% 0

San Francisco
(Cartwright, Farmer,
KC Jones, Russell)
915 650 58% 115 84 58% 4

(Hannum, Sharman
1,031 769 57% 107 83 56% 3

Holy Cross
(Cousy, Heinsohn,
673 560 55% 63 47 57% 2

West Virginia
(Schaus, Thorn,
475 361 57% 41 52 44% 0

(Kerr, Phillip,
110 210 34% 1 7 13% 0

Seton Hall
(Fitzgerald, Sadowski, Wanzer)
103 146 41% 0 2 0% 0

Santa Clara
(Feerick, Hale,
91 111 45% 3 7 30% 0

Ohio State
(Cleamons, Jent,
49 110 31% 0 0 NA 0

Duke, you ask? No former Blue Devil has ever been the head coach for even a single NBA game.

Game, Set, Match: Chapel Hill.

Note: Data for this article was compiled from,, and DatabaseBasketball(2.0). The authors would like to thank all those involved with developing and maintaining those resources and making them available for public use.