March Madness has ended and now we wait to see where many of these college stars will play next. Yes, it's time to think about the NBA draft.
Let's start by briefly looking back at the 2015 NBA Draft. From the top 10 picks, seven played NCAA basketball (the other three were international players) and they all played for teams that participated in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament -- a.k.a. March Madness. Five teams were represented: Duke (2 players), Wisconsin, Kentucky (2 players), Arizona and Ohio State. In total, of the 60 draft picks, 12 picks were players whose team (Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Michigan State) made it to the Final Four. So that seems to suggest playing in March Madness -- specifically the Final Four -- really helps a player on draft night. But looking at one draft doesn't establish a pattern.
To find a pattern let's start with a working paper by Ichniowski and Preston (I&P). I&P looked at whether unexpectedly good or bad performance by a player and their team have an effect on draft position. For this, they used mock draft data from before the tournament, mock draft data from after the tournament, and the actual draft to help determine if March Madness performance affects draft position. I&P found that unexpected March Madness performance affects draft decisions. More specifically, they consistently found that unexpected player scoring and unexpected team wins affected draft position.
We also have a paper by Berri, Brook and Fenn that looks at predicting the order of the NBA draft. For their research, they look at players who were drafted over a 15 year time span. Some of the factors included in their model are performance statistics, height, age, conference and player position. In order to see if the tournament has an impact on draft position, they also included variables for a Final Four finish and a championship win in the tournament before the draft. Their findings indicate that scoring more points, more assists, and more blocks all have a positive impact on draft position. In regards to March Madness, they find that finishing in the Final Four or winning the championship can have a large and statistically significant effect on draft position.
So, while some say that Villanova has the least NBA prospects for a championship team, if any Villanova players are drafted, their draft position will likely be positively influenced by their championship win. UNC, Oklahoma and Syracuse players who are drafted will also benefit from their team's’ Final Four finish.
So there you have it, research indicates that a team’s tournament finish can impact the NBA draft. But this story isn't just about men. Berri and Harris recently researched what factors from college impact a player’s WNBA draft position and included many similar factors as Berri, Brook and Fenn did in their NBA draft research. The WNBA draft research found some similar findings. Points and assists have a statistically significant impact on draft position as well as shooting efficiency and some conferences. In regards to tournament performance, a Final Four appearance also has a statistically significant effect on draft position.
Whether men’s basketball or women’s basketball, it’s clear that making it to the Final Four has an impact on the draft. Of course, this doesn't make complete sense. On the men's side, Kansas, Oregon, and Virginia were all #1 seeds that did not make the Final Four. The same story is told on the women's side. Baylor, South Carolina, and Notre Dame were also #1 seeds that didn't make it. As fans we all know why. The ‘Madness’ in March Madness is all about upsets. But why should someone evaluating a potential draft pick care if a player's team was upset in March? It's just one game. Certainly no one would suggest you could evaluate a player's professional prospects from just one game. But it appears people in both the NBA and WNBA are doing exactly that.
So March Madness isn't just entertainment for a nation. It also has a huge impact on where college players continue their career. Yes, it shouldn't. But the data says the madness continues well past March.