When a program the caliber of Louisville is accused of facilitating a six-figure payment from Adidas to the family of then-recruit Brian Bowen, people are right to wonder whether there's a better way for college basketball to procure its talent. Accordingly, an NBA rule change to allow players to enter the league directly from high school, a partial retreat from total amateurism by the NCAA, or greater freedom of movement for transfers have all been advocated on the grounds that the resulting markets for talent would function in less nefarious and putatively more natural fashions.
Nevertheless, a better argument for change may be looking us in the face in the Bowen case itself. It might make perfect sense for Adidas, a company with over $22 billion in annual sales, to front $100,000 or so to a charismatic performer such as Bowen in order to forge a relationship and wall off competing brands.
It made far less sense, if any, for Louisville to (apparently) think the No. 14-ranked freshman in the nation would really be so good on the court in 2017-18 as to justify risking all that has ensued. If Bowen is any indication, one-and-done-track freshmen are benefiting from a perceived value they would be unlikely to generate on their own in pure performance terms.
I pulled the data from the last decade of college basketball, a time period that has coincided with the reign of the one-and-done system. I found that the top freshmen really do perform better in their initial college season than other first-year players do, but a first-team all-major-conference player will, on average, outperform that elite freshman by a factor of about 5 percent in terms of offensive rating.
But this difference in performance is actually greater than 5 percent. All-conference players are more efficient while carrying heavier workloads on offense than one-and-done freshmen carry.
*First team all-major-conference stats from 2016-17
All other stats from 2006-07 to 2016-17
Player data: kenpom.com
Naturally summarizing a player's worth through his offensive rating and workload has its limitations. These metrics measure performance on offense alone, and certainly it's possible for an elite freshman and/or an all-conference performer to achieve his lofty status substantially through defense. In fact, I'll be watching Texas closely this season to see if Mo Bamba, for example, does precisely that.
Still, these numbers speak to a common-sense point, one that perhaps bears repeating. We make a big deal out of one-and-done-track freshmen because we assume they'll be outstanding at college basketball. But in the open talent market being advocated by some observers, the highest value would be attached, of course, to players who already are outstanding at college basketball.
Anthony Davis notwithstanding, the best individual seasons in the game over the past decade have tended to be recorded by more experienced players. This is hardly surprising. We know freshmen are playing a sport in which an 18- or 19-year-old's performance will continue to improve measurably. So whether your season of choice is Stephen Curry in 2008-09, Kemba Walker in 2011-12, Doug McDermott in 2012-13 or Buddy Hield in 2015-16, it's no mistake that all of the above were either juniors or seniors at the time.
None of which is to say that elite freshmen are being overrated. Actually, you can make a case that evaluations of high school recruits are better than they've ever been (where "better" is synonymous with "in sync with the NBA"). Rather, the performance wrinkle here is simply that the top freshmen so often leave. In the one-and-done decade, nearly 70 percent of all prospects ranked in the top 10 nationally out of high school have played no more than one college season.
Karl-Anthony Towns, for example, really was as great as evaluators said he would be, and in a previous era he'd be entering his senior season right now. But Towns is long gone, along with his shot at reigning as the most accomplished veteran in the college game.
Now that status has instead fallen to a Bonzie Colson or a Grayson Allen or some other such graybeard. Colson and Allen aren't as good as Towns would be, of course, but such veterans still stand an excellent statistical chance of outperforming the vast majority of even the highest-rated freshmen this season.
We should remember, then, that the other reason we make a big deal out of freshmen (and, to a lesser extent, transfers) is merely that they're islands of variability in a sea of roster continuity. Then again, if there were a Premier League-style transfer window for college basketball, and first-team all-conference returnees such as Ethan Happ or Yante Maten were conducting negotiations with Duke or Kentucky, we would, quite rightly, be just as invested in their near futures.
Freshmen hold the potential to bring exciting change to any college team, and we're right to make a fuss over them. However, in a properly functioning talent market -- even one with one-and-done still in place -- freshmen would not necessarily be the highest-value targets for savvy coaches mindful of both performance and history.