The All-Four-Year Team: Sticking around college forever isn't an NBA death sentence
"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: taking a look at the NBA's best four-year college players and how they stack up against the preps-to-pros, one-and-dones and international players in the league.
Previously: The All-Grateful Team | The East's All-Letdown Team | The All-Atrocious Team | The All-Ignored Team | The All-Stocking Stuffer Team | The All-Recalibration Team | The All-Payday Team | The All-Gridiron Team | The All-Sanctioned Team | The All-Dunk Contest Team | The Non-Champions | The All-Gold Strike Team | The All-Tank Team | The All-Bullseye Team
Two thoughts came to mind when last week's Sports Illustrated -- the one with Creighton's Doug McDermott re-creating a classic cover in homage of Larry Bird -- arrived in my mailbox. First: Life is so good right now for the All-American, who is about to enter NCAA tournament play after leading the nation in scoring. Second: Will it all be downhill from here?
Rather than being a badge of honor, the "four-year college player" tag is almost a scarlet letter in NBA circles these days. The last four-year college player to be drafted No. 1 overall was Kenyon Martin in 2000. Six of the last seven No. 1 picks were one-and-done, attending college for only the mandated minimum of a freshman season, and the seventh was Blake Griffin, who stuck around for all of two years at Oklahoma. In fact, McDermott has played in more college games (143) than the last four No. 1 overall picks combined (Anthony Bennett, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and John Wall played 123 games total).
It's been three years since Jimmer Fredette was the last four-year player to create major national hype in advance of the draft. The BYU scoring sensation was selected in the 2011 lottery, but he toiled in Sacramento for two-plus season while one-and-done players like Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins emerged as the team's go-to options. When the Kings drafted the one-and-done Ben McLemore in the 2013 lottery, the writing was on the wall for Fredette, who was released by Sacramento before he could even complete his third season. He was promptly signed by Chicago, primarily because they needed a fill in for their injured superstar, the one-and-done Derrick Rose.
You get the picture, and you also get why this isn't the prettiest picture for McDermott. Meanwhile, DraftExpress.com's latest mock draft has McDermott going 10th behind seven underclassmen (six of them freshman) and two international players, and there are only two other four-year players slated to go in the first round.
Although the NBA's tanking teams are smart to target the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker on the basis of their athletic tools and upside, it would be incorrect to assume that just because McDermott and other upperclassmen are missing from the top tier that they don't have a home in the NBA. In fact, while the league's most recognizable stars -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard -- are all preps-to-pros or one-and-done players, there are a lot of talented four-year college players that have carved out livings and earned individual accolades at the next level.
Here's a look at the 77 players who have made the last 10 All-Star teams from both conferences. The four-year college players -- Tim Duncan, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Grant Hill, Josh Howard, David Lee, Damian Lillard, Steve Nash, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Roy and David West -- compare favorably to most of the other groups when it comes to total All-Stars, even if they don't boast the number of repeat and perennial All-Stars. Click to enlarge.
There is a more significant separation when we look at All-NBA First, Second and Third Team selections over the last 10 years, as Duncan, Lee, Nash and Roy are the only four-year players to make that cut. Again, the distribution would slant even more strongly against the four-year players if repeat appearances were taken into account, as preps-to-pros or one-and-done guys like James, Durant, Bryant, Howard and Anthony have been "pencil them in" selections for years. Click to enlarge.
Surveying the lay of this land makes this much clear: the path to superstardom is extremely rare for four-year players, but perhaps we underrate their impact on the league. To investigate this further, The Point Forward will construct the All Four-Year Team, a 12-man roster of NBA players who made it through their senior years in college. That team will then be compared to similar teams comprised of Preps-to-Pros, One-and-Dones and International players to determine how the McDermotts of the league stack up against their professional colleagues.
The All Four-Year Team
Damian Lillard, Blazers | Weber State | 2012 No. 6 pick
David West, Pacers | Xavier | 2003 No. 8 pick
Tim Duncan, Spurs | Wake Forest | 1997 No. 1 pick
George Hill, Pacers | IUPUI | 2008 No. 26 pick
Jeremy Lin, Rockets | Harvard | undrafted
Wesley Matthews, Blazers | Marquette | undrafted
David Lee, Warriors | Florida | 2005 No. 30 pick
Roy Hibbert, Pacers | Georgetown | 2008 No. 17 pick
What this team might lack in top-to-bottom star power, particularly at the wing positions, it makes up for with virtually every other desirable quality. The immediate takeaway is how they are a collection of circular pegs that fit circular holes. Each of the five starters is a natural fit at his position, with a skillset that more than meets the demands of the modern game.
Hand in hand with the fit issue is the overall level of polish. Duncan's technical skill would stand out from any group, but he's joined by both Lillard and West, two All-Stars who are both very comfortable in their own skin.
The overall roster is balanced well on both sides of the ball, including stoppers in Duncan and Hibbert, plus versatile, multi-position defenders in Collison, Green and Matthews. Effort level, focus, and team-first attitude will never be questions with this group. Let Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau loose with this group and they could be a truly potent defense.
Finally, there's a general sense of reliability, which starts with Duncan -- the paragon of dependability -- and continues with the likes of Lillard, who plays huge minutes and has yet to miss a game during his NBA career, and Parsons, who is among the league's leaders in miles run this season, according to SportsVU. Lee and Hibbert also qualify as workhorses.
Throw these guys together and give them a two-week training camp, and there seems little doubt they would gel into a team capable of 60+ wins. Lillard, Hill and Lin would need to step up as scorers, with an All-Star in Lee providing some punch off the bench, but outgunning a team with interior defensive stalwarts like Duncan and Hibbert would be a tall task for any opponent.
The All Preps-To-Pros Team
Kobe Bryant, Lakers | 1996 No. 13 pick
LeBron James, Heat | 2003 No. 1 pick
Dwight Howard | 2004 No. 1 pick
Josh Smith, Pistons | 2004 No. 17 pick
Kevin Garnett, Nets | 1995 No. 5 pick
Tyson Chandler, Knicks | 2001 No. 2 pick
The NBA's window for players jumping straight from high school opened with Garnett in 1995 and ended with the 2005 draft, which was the last before the implementation of the current one-and-done rule. A few scattered players -- Jennings, Jeremy Tyler, etc. -- have bypassed the NCAA to play their gap year in professional leagues overseas since then, but those guys have proven to be the exception rather than a regular occurrence.
Enough time has passed that the preps-to-pros crop has thinned considerably, as guys like Tracy McGrady, Darius Miles and Eddy Curry have all left the league, while others including Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O'Neal, Andrew Bynum and Amar'e Stoudemire have seen their effectiveness wane under the pressure of Father Time and/or injuries.
This squad has two A-list foundational rocks -- former No. 1 overall picks James and Howard -- and then a bunch of question marks, including Bryant, whose perennial All-NBA status has been thrown into question by recent injuries. Are there enough basketballs to keep everyone satisfied? How many score-first players can one roster support? How many team psychologists can one team require?
Proponents of the college game might well point to Jennings, Ellis, and the Smiths -- four players who have dealt with inefficiency issues and questions about their decision-making over the years -- and wonder whether they would have developed differently had they been forced to participate at the NCAA level prior to making the jump. At the same time, it should be noted that James, Johnson, Garnett and Chandler have proven to be as selfless as even the most devout floor-slapping Dukie.
Even as a bulk of its roster approaches 30, this team has plenty of athleticism and high-end scoring potential. Perimeter shooting and defense-first mindsets, particularly in the backcourt, are weak points, but James is an expert in covering up flaws and turning average teammates into short-term stars. If ever a group needed a Zen Master, though, this would be the one.
The All International Team
Tony Parker, Spurs | 2001 No. 28 pick
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks | 1998 No. 9 pick
Manu Ginobili, Spurs | 1999 No. 57 pick
Nicolas Batum, Blazers | 2008 No. 25 pick
Boris Diaw, Spurs | 2003 No. 21 pick
Serge Ibaka, Thunder | 2008 No. 24 pick
Pau Gasol, Lakers | 2001 No. 3 pick
Nikola Pekovic, Timberwolves | 2008 No. 31 pick
Going the international route in the draft is a thrilling hit (Parker) or miss (Jan Vesely) proposition for NBA executives. Much of the attention goes to the busts, but the list of hits above is further evidence that the world's best rivals the domestic elite.
Much like the All-Four Year team, this squad might lack a bit of highlight reel oomph at the three but otherwise has all the bases covered. There are at least two first-ballot Hall of Famers (Parker, Nowitzki), multiple Defensive Player of the Year types (Marc Gasol, Ibaka) and two additional multi-time All-Stars (Pau Gasol, Ginobili) who are headed to Springfield in this mix.
Playmaking is surely this team's strongest suit: between Parker, Dragic, Rubio, Ginobili, Diaw and the Gasols, there are plenty of guys whose vision and creativity can create nightmares for defenses. Nowitzki's shot-making, Ibaka's growing offensive game and Batum's ability as a spot-up shooter would combine to make this team uniquely balanced.
There's more than enough versatility on hand as well. Batum's ability to defend guards theoretically allows for a bigger look in the backcourt while Diaw, one of the league's most unique players, presents match-up problems on a nightly basis. Ibaka can be used as a small ball five to open driving lanes for Parker and Dragic, or he can flank Gasol or Pekovic in a larger orientation. Imagine Spurs coach Gregg Popovich mixing and matching five-man lineups with this collection of talent; that's a great recipe for a daydream.
The fundamental question here is whether the team-based approach preferred by this squad would be capable of sticking with a team that funnels its attack through a James or a Durant. We're conditioned to believe that the answer is likely "no," but this is a group absent any red flags other than the age of Ginobili, Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. In a seven game series, they would be a tough, tough out.
The All One-And-Done Team
John Wall, Wizards | Kentucky | 2010 No. 1 pick
Kevin Durant, Thunder | Texas |2007 No. 2 pick
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks | Syracuse | 2003 No. 3 pick
Kevin Love, Timberwolves | UCLA | 2008 No. 5 pick
Anthony Davis, Pelicans | Kentucky | 2012 No. 1 pick
Derrick Rose, Bulls | Memphis | 2008 No. 1 pick
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers | Duke | 2011 No. 1 pick
Mike Conley, Grizzlies | Ohio State | 2007 No. 4 pick
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors | USC | 2009 No. 9 pick
Chris Bosh, Heat | Georgia Tech | 2003 No. 4 pick
DeMarcus Cousins, Kings | Kentucky | 2010 No. 5 pick
Andre Drummond, Pistons | UConn| 2012 No. 9 pick
To no one's surprise, the best has been saved for last. Constructing a quality team out of one-and-done players isn't exactly a daunting mental puzzle, even if big names like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Joakim Noah, LaMarcus Aldridge and others didn't bail on the NCAA as soon as possible. The entire roster -- 1 through 12 -- is composed of franchise players, All-Stars and All-Star candidates (now or in the future), a product of the NBA's system that has required the very best high school athletes to intern for a season at the collegiate ranks.
Whereas the All Four-Year Team members generally fit tidily into conventional positions, the One-And-Done's starters are oozing with talent that can't be stuffed into a box. Durant, Anthony and Davis are all capable of playing multiple positions, boasting versatile games and elite athletic tools that require constant attention, while Love can pound you on the glass or stretch defenses out to the arc.
Wall is more prototypical, at least if you opt for the modern definition of an attack-mentality point guard rather than the old-school distribution-oriented floor general. The same goes for Rose, the obvious starter if he was healthy, and Irving too. The depth has the point guard position has certainly increased in recent years, and the one-and-done players are leading the charge.
Much like USA Basketball's senior national team, which includes many of these names, I'm not even sure where you would begin to gameplan against a team comprised of one-and-done players. The offensive pressure would be constant at the point of attack, there are plenty of shot-creators and knockdown shooters, there are bigs of various sizes, lengths and skillsets to match-up against anybody, and there is skill, skill, skill everywhere. This super team would certainly be capable of erasing the 1996 Bulls' 72-win season from the record books, possibly with ease. I'd tap Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to get the most out of this group, as he has proven that he can make superstars mesh during the "Big 3" era in Miami. If he's not available, there's always John Calipari.
If we were to throw these teams into a Final Four, I'd present the following seedings based on top-down star power...
No. 1 All One-And-Done Team vs. No. 4 All Four-Year Team
No. 2 All Preps-To-Pros vs. No. 3 All International
I don't see a blowout happening in either game, but I'd pick the One-And-Dones to take care of the All-Four Year Team on the basis of their pure firepower. That said, I don't see the All Four-Year Team going quietly by any means. In the other bracket, I like the All International Team to spring the upset, as I think their roster provides a better degree of overall consistency. Picking against James is tough -- even in a purely hypothetical context -- but there are just so many guys on his team capable of self-sabotage.
In the championship game, I'll go with the chalk: The All One-And-Done to prevail over the All-International Team in a hotly-contested championship game. We've seen in recent World Championships and Olympics events that Spain, France and others are capable of pushing the USA's best, but the thought of 10 top-five picks on the same team is just too much. What's the takeaway for McDermott and the other seniors in this year's class? That there is a wide swath of land between the "absolute best players in the world" and "role guys just trying to get by," and that land is often occupied by four-year players who enjoy long, productive careers, and even occasionally hit the All-Star threshold. It might not get any better than posing on a national magazine cover flanked by cheerleaders just like Larry Legend, but that doesn't mean the 2014 draft needs to be the beginning of the end for McBuckets.