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Should I Stay or Should I Go? The NBA Draft Hopeful's Theme Song

This is a post that's been rattling around in my head for a couple of months now.  I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with it, but just bear with me and we'll see where we end up.

With two weeks to go before the NBA Draft, it occurs to me that the Clippers have all the makings of a case study in the age-old draft question:  should I stay or should I go?  Two players from the high school class of 2007, one entered the draft in 2008 while the other entered the draft in 2009.  Staying in school could not have worked out much better for Blake Griffin: he won the Wooden Award and he's the presumptive number one pick.  Meanwhile, DeAndre Jordan slipped all the way into the second round in 2008.  So the message is clear right?  Stay in school kids.  And eat your vegetables.  And don't talk to strangers. 

Let's crunch some numbers, just for grins.

There's no way to know for certain where Blake Griffin would have been drafted in 2008.  At the time he withdrew, he was usually described as a 'Top 10 pick' or 'Lottery pick'.  And if anything you would expect his draft stock would have risen with combine results, interviews, etc.  Comparing him to who actually was drafted, it's hard to imagine Milwaukee taking Joe Alexander (a 6'8" athletic freak) if Griffin (a 6'10" athletic freak) had been on the board.  But for argument's sake, let's slot him at the end of the lottery, 14th pick in the 2008 draft.  The 14th pick in 2008, Anthony Randolph, will make $8,243,791 in his first four years in the league before he is eligible to re-sign assuming the Warriors picks up their options.  The first pick Derrick Rose, on the other hand, will make $22,547,148 in the first four years.  So, Blake Griffin made himself a LOT of money - like over $14M - by staying in school, right?  OU blog Crimson and Cream Machine said at the time "This was the better choice for Griffin. Sure, he’s passing up on a huge payday but in return he’ll get an even bigger one in the future."  Hold up, not so fast.  Because you can't ignore the fact that Griffin made zero dollars in 08-09 playing in Norman (this isn't USC, right?)  So you have to look at the five years starting then to get a truer picture:

The table below accumulates Blake Griffin's projected annual NBA salary from June 2008 until June 2013.  The Stay? column is approximately what he will be making, since he stayed in school last year.  The Go? column is an estimate of what he would have made had he entered the draft in 2008.

Year Stay? Go?
08-09 $0 $1,709,280
09-10 $4,822,800 $1,837,560
10-11 $5,184,480 $1,965,720
11-12 $5,546,160 $2,911,231
12-13 $6,993,708 $13,758,000
Total $22,547,148 $22,001,791


Seriously, I didn't know where this was going until I typed the data in that table and added it all up.  I suspected, but this is more fascinating than I thought.  First of all, some explanation. 

  1. I'm using the actual salary data for the 2008 14th pick Anthony Randolph in the 'Go' column.  That's the last pick in the lottery, where we're assuming for the sake of this argument Griffin would have been drafted.  Drafted sooner, he makes more.  Drafted later, he makes less.   (I'm guessing he would have been drafted sooner.)
  2. I'm using the actual salary data for the 2008 first pick Derrick Rose in the 'Stay' column.  Normally, those salaries go up year over year.  AS IT HAPPENS, it's going to go down this year because of the economy and it's effect on NBA revenues, which triggers changes in everything from the salary cap to the mid level exception to rookie contract amounts.  So in fact, he WON'T make as much as Derrick Rose, but that would have been difficult to foresee in his decision making in 2008.
  3. I'm using Chris Paul's max extension amount for the first season of the 2012 contract.  This assumes a lot of course.  It assumes he plays like a maximum contract player.  In that case, we would expect his 12-13 salary to in fact be even higher, since again all of these salaries trend up over time, the current recession notwithstanding.  So best guess, if he really is a max worthy player, he would make MORE in the first year of his 12-13 contract. 
  4. Going forward from that point into years 6 and beyond, we can assume that the amounts would be roughly equivalent.

And don't forget, he would also be eligible to start making endorsement deals a year sooner as well.  In the end, it's pretty clear to me that even in this wildly best case scenario for staying in school (he played great, he improved, he avoided a deep draft and entered a bad draft - it just doesn't get more favorable), he'll likely come out financially behind for his career.  He'll be a ridiculously wealthy man either way, don't get me wrong.  But the financial case is pretty interesting, nonetheless.

Let's look at the other side of the stay in school coin - DeAndre Jordan.  With DJ, the unknowns are much more daunting.  We know he slid in the 2008 draft, all the way into the second round.  We know that the 2009 draft is not nearly as deep as the 2008 draft.  It's not unreasonable to assume that if he'd had a stellar season at A&M, he would be neck and neck with Hasheem Thabeet as the best center in the 2009 draft.  He's just as long as Thabeet and he's more athletic.  He's not as good a defender right now, but he has the potential to be better on offense. 

Since he's a case study for 'stay in school', let's say DJ would have been the fifth pick in the 2008 draft.  It's a stretch, but let's just look at the numbers in that case.  The fifth pick in 2008, Kevin Love, will make $14,812,701 over the first four years of his rookie contract.  Jordan, being a second round pick, had to settle for three unguaranteed years starting at the rookie minimum of $550,000 for a total of $2,140,809 in his first NBA contract.  Whoa.  $2M versus almost $15M.  Guess he should have stayed in school.  Jonathan Abrams of the New York Times came to that conclusion in March.  Again I say, not so fast.  Let's look at the five year plan.

I've already stated that there are a lot of unknowns here.  The biggest is, what kind of pro will DeAndre Jordan be eventually?  And there's a corollary: which choice was better for his development?  For 2013 DeAndre Jordan, would 2008 in College Station have been better than 2008 in Playa Vista?  You can't really answer that question.  We'll call it a wash for now, but I suspect being on an NBA team (practicing against NBA competition, working out in NBA facilities, being coached by NBA coaches) would be better for the future NBA player.  At any rate, the real question is, what does Jordan's NEXT contract look like?  The Clippers locked him up on the cheap for three years.  But because he came out a year earlier AND his deal is a year shorter than a first round contract, he'll have two extra years on a new contract to try to recoup some money.  So that $13M he supposedly left on the table?  If he plays himself into an MLE deal in the 2011 off-season (certainly within the realm of possibility for a player of his physical potential), suddenly he's recouped about $12M of it.  If he can get an even bigger contract (and looking at a guy like Sam Dalembert you can't rule it out), he could easily come out ahead over those crucial five years.

My point is, when Dick Vitale says this guy or that guy or the other guy should have stayed in school, maybe he's right for the kid's personal development, maybe he's right for the kid's social life, maybe he's right for the kid's education (though I seriously doubt that).  But he's almost NEVER right for the kid's pocket book.  Even when it seems like a complete disaster like DeAndre Jordan or Rashard Lewis ("omg, they were projected lottery picks and they fell out of the first round!"), it's still the right financial decision if you're good enough to get paid to play basketball.  Lewis looked really sad in the green room back in 1998 - and he'll be the 10th highest paid player in the league at the age of 30 next season. 

Everything pre-supposes that you can play, and the simple fact is we don't know what might have been.  Would Gerald Green have learned something in college that his NBA coaches didn't have the time or patience to teach him?  Did he cost himself money by entering the draft too soon?  Or did he make more money than he would have otherwise, as pro scouts had more time to find out what a knucklehead he was? 

The simple fact is, there are only very few cases you can point to and say, "That guy cost himself a lot of money by entering the draft too soon" or "That guy made himself a lot of money by returning to school."  DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are two of the best cases you can possibly make for those scenarios, and neither of them is as clear cut as some would have you believe. 

On the other hand, there are any number of cases where you can say, with very little doubt, "That guy cost himself a LOT of money by waiting" or "That guy made himself a LOT of money by coming out."  Joakim Noah would have been drafted higher in 2006 than he was in 2007 - he actually HURT his draft stock by returning to school.  Shaun Livingston would not have been drafted at all had he injured his knee at Duke instead of in the NBA. 

Of course there are other factors.  Joakim Noah professes to have no regrets, and I believe him.  His final year in college went awfully well, with a second national title.  And as he says, he comes from a very wealthy family and he's got plenty of money - he was having fun at Florida and didn't want to stop.  That's a great decision for him.

I'm not anti-college.  Far from it.  My dad was a college professor, practically my entire family is in academia.  But growing up pretty close to Pepperdine basketball, I also know that the vast majority of these guys aren't college students.  They're basketball players.  If they want to get a college degree, they can do that after they join the NBA too.  That's fine.  But if they're good enough to get paid to play basketball, it's in their financial interests to start getting paid sooner rather than later.

I'm just saying, if someone says it pays for these prospects to go back to school, don't be so sure.