College basketball fans define themselves almost as much by what they are as what they are not -- namely, fans of the professional game. But for all the shared denial about the quality of the NBA, or its defense, or whether NBA players take too many steps, there can be no denying the long shadow the league casts over all things college hoops.
This has usually, if not always, been the case since the Toronto Huskies first met the New York Knickerbockers in Maple Leaf Gardens, but it has accelerated in the modern post-Michael Jordan era as the NBA's global popularity exploded and salaries and shoe contracts came along for the ride. Since 2006, the NBA age minimum has compelled the best young prospects to play at least one season in college. Where college coaches used to do everything they could to keep stars in school, some have ingeniously made a fast path to the NBA draft the biggest selling point on offer.
The shadow doesn't stop at the elite. Every year, hundreds of high school prospects enter college with one goal in mind, no matter how mathematically improbable. Every year, a few dozen players leave school early to chase their dream whether they're ready or not. Every year, Nike and Adidas pour millions into grassroots basketball, peddling exposure and influence to thousands of kids on the off-chance one of them is the next LeBron James.
Frankly, the shadow has never been longer.
It is no surprise, then, that we're keeping track. In the modern game, draftees are more than a point of pride, more than barometers of longevity or strength. They're currency.
Then, after players are drafted, a funny thing happens: The analysis stops. Players are drafted or they aren't; the program has done its work or it hasn't; and we all turn to the next crop of talented guys. College fans don't spend much time tracking the larger trajectories of former draftees' careers. (OK, OK: Wake Forest fans may occasionally rent a highway billboard to lament the descent of a program that unleashed insurance agent Chris Paul and basketballing replicant Tim Duncan into the world. That'll happen.) But more often than not, college fans don't care. Why would they?
That got us thinking: What if we did care? What if we ranked schools based not on how many players they sent to the draft, but on how good those players' careers were? Forget sheer quantity; let's focus on quality. What would those rankings look like?
So that's what we did. With the help of caffeine, our editors, a daunting all-time NBA draft results spreadsheet and too much time spent looking at career splits, we ranked the top 20 programs by what we're deciding to call "NBA pedigree."
What does "pedigree" mean? That's part of the fun, of course, figuring that out. But our methodology isn't all that complex. It's almost entirely based on the careers of former collegians drafted since 1989, the start of the two-round era (before then, it was seven rounds, and 10 before that, and 21 before that). It's a combination of the performance, longevity and legacy NBA fans discuss when they debate the greatest players of all time.
Which college program has borne the most great players in the modern draft era? Does having one or two Hall of Famers and not much else lend a program more "pedigree" than one that has produced a spate of average 10-year pros? Which do we value more, and why?
These are the questions we'll attempt to answer in the coming weeks, as we count down to the June 27 NBA draft. Each day, in ascending order, we'll dive into one team's best NBA players drafted since 1989. We'll account for the legacy of retired players and active veterans; and we'll look ahead at young players whose career stories are yet to be written. We start today with Myron's look at No. 20 Syracuse.
I can't predict you'll agree with our rankings or our reasoning, but that's to be expected. (NBA people can't agree on the top five players in the game today, let alone the best ever.) That, too, is part of the fun. And that's one prediction I'm willing to try on: This is going to be fun.