Maps on Maps on Maps: A Geographic Survey of the NBA | Blue Chippers

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If Blue Chips is anything like real life, we know a couple of things about college basketball recruiting: (1) teams scour the country (and increasingly, the world) looking to bring the best high school ballers to their campuses, (2) there are few (if any) limits to what they will do to land the big fish, and (3) Nick Nolte (or is it Gary Busey) is both the last and first person you’d ever want to share an ice cream cone with.

With the relatively recent installation of the NBA’s age requirement, kids hoping to play in the NBA have to feign a year’s semester’s worth of interest in earning a college diploma. In this installment, we’ll join them on a nationwide campus tour, taking a closer look at the 404 current NBA players that actually went to college in the U.S. and the 126 colleges they went to.

And while it may sound counter intuitive, for a prominent high school basketball player the process of picking a program is likely somewhat similar -- on a individual level -- to what leads anybody to choose a college. Like many of us, they send out feelers -- in their cases, highlight videos -- to schools they are interested in. They then make a choice (usually with the help of their parents) based on the schools that strike the best balance of opportunity (for their parents) and enjoyment (for them) in the future.

That is probably where the similarities end, however. For example, in my younger days, I applied to ten schools. Four of them accepted me. One of them gave me money. Luckily, the one that gave me money was also the best of the four (according to U.S. News and World Report, at least) and was also my favorite: Far enough from home to avoid weekend visits from the folks, but close enough to home for weekend trips to the folks (read: laundry, food, liquor cabinet, cable TV).

Now, it’s very likely that if I would have been one of the best high school basketball players in the country, I would’ve faced a much more challenging decision. Money, as was the case with me, would no longer be an issue as I’d probably get a full-ride scholarship no matter where I went. Also, as I worked my way up to being the Big Man on Campus, I’d probably have a lot of fun no matter where I went.

But fun would be half the equation, as my ultimate objective would be to choose a school that, first, gave me the best shot of being a high draft pick, and, second, offered me the best infrastructure for improving my game. Sure, college basketball programs are ranked every year, but their capacity to fulfill each player’s objectives is tricky to pick apart.

Which is why it’s less than a shock (as has been the case with most of our studies) that in terms of quantity, the entities at the top of the list are those you would expect just by guessing. Like California’s dominance in overall player production, perennial powerhouses from power conferences like the ACC, SEC, and Big East have produced the most current NBA players.

Kentucky, the all-time winningest program and defending national champions, tops the list with 22 alumni in the NBA; though that number is slightly skewed by the fact that six of them were drafted this past year (but we won’t hold it against them). Second on the list is the only private school to make the top 12: Duke, with 19 players.

Which makes the fact that aside from Marquette, the top 14 player-producing schools have earned a one-seed in the tournament at least once in the last 10 years hardly surprising. In fact, 10 of the top 14 have been in the NCAA championship at least once over the past decade.

But does that mean that Kentucky is where aspiring young players should go to maximize their earning potential? Not necessarily. In order to analyze that, we need to take a look at a couple of different factors, starting with the total salaries earned by each school’s alumni during the 2012-2013 NBA season.

Duke tops that list with alumni earning a total of $81.4 million this year, a full $17.7 million more than Kentucky alums. There are several small surprises -- like how much money UConn grads make on average ($6.3 million) and Marquette’s high position on both lists despite a lack of on-the-court success from the program-- but the only “big” surprise is how far North Carolina drops, from third place in terms of number of players to ninth place in terms of those players’ gross salaries.

This probably isn’t, however, a coincidence. North Carolina, even with its well earned reputation as an elite program, has a tendency to produce a lot of busts and even more players who fail to live up to expectations and draft positions. Brandan Wright, Marvin Williams, Brendan Haywood, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter are just some of the former Tar Heels in the league right now who rode a pedigree from North Carolina to mediocrity -- or in the case of Vinsanity, soul crushing existential disappointment -- and an even more mediocre paycheck.

In Chapel Hill, gone are the days of James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Rasheed Wallace, replaced by the Joseph Fortes, Rashad McCants, and Sean Mays of the college basketball world. The Michael Jordans of the world now find themselves going to new schools that offer the right mix of prominence and pedigree of North Carolina, but without the media scrutiny that comes with playing on Tobacco Road. And the situation doesn’t seem to have an upward earning trend, as players like Ed Davis and Tyler Hansborough have seen their play likely preclude them from “hitting it big” when their rookie contracts expire.

Which is where UConn and Florida -- they of the $6.3 million per player class -- come in. Florida has its spectaular back-to-back national championship teams to thank for much of their modern success in the NBA, with big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford leading the most recent charge of NBA stars from Gainesville. But, it’s not just them as Matt Bonner, Chandler Parsons, David Lee, Udonis Haslem, and Mike Miller have had their fair share of success in the NBA, with the latter two winning a championship in-state with the Miami Heat.

UConn has also done well for itself over the last decade and a half as Ray Allen, Caron Butler, Rip Hamilton, Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor, and even Ben Gordon have had lucrative and accomplished careers that, for the most part, still appear to be going strong. And young guards Jeremy Lamb and Kemba Walker seem to have an extremely bright future.

Given this information, a few things become clear. For instance, if you are an elite player looking to make serious money at the next level, North Carolina should probably no longer be at or near the top of your list, but if you are simply looking to get in the league on name prestige alone, that might your best bet. Also, depending on how you feel about climates, UConn and Florida both afford recruits and equal chance to make a really good living in the NBA.

But what about those among us that want to make the real big bucks. You know, Maybach money. Where should they go?

One of the more straightforward ways of looking at that would be to look at average alumni salary, by school. This is skewed, however, as some of the top average salaries come from schools that have only one or two players playing in the NBA. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, not everyone can earn max contracts and if you are good enough to be recognized while going to a small enough school, chances are you are good enough to get a pretty hefty payday at least once in your career.

One way to view this information is graphically, but to do so in a way that doesn’t skew it towards anomalies from small schools is to look at the entirety of these data points on a scatterplot. With a scatterplot, we get a much better idea of how salaries are distributed throughout the league, as well as among the schools who produce them. Another thing of note is that both the highest and the lowest average salaries come from schools with just one player in the league. Additionally, we should mention that high-earning players like Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant all of whom jumped directly from high school, are not on this list. But, ultimately, as the number of players increases, the range in average salaries hones in on the neighborhood of $3–$4 million.

Another way to look at these data is to look at average player salaries across schools producing one player, two players, and so on. This, if you were looking to maximize both your earning potential and potential of making it to the Association, would be the chart you’d want to look at.

Which is why it’s not surprising that the chart confirms Florida’s positions as one of the best “bang for your potential buck” schools in major college basketball. And from a professional perspective one of the schools that scouts should be looking at when deciding between similar players from different programs. That’s because schools like Florida (and Connecticut with its 12 players) have proven time and again that they are just big enough to be seen by everyone, but not so big that skills are overrated by players on the pedigrees from the school producing the players. Additionally, the chart introduces a fun little fact, which is that average salaries are about $3 million per player for schools producing just one player AND Kentucky, which produced 22 players.

And, because this is fundamentally a map making exercise, here is another heat map. This map builds on what we showed yesterday about where players are produced from a hometown perspective, but also shows even more intensity in the areas that have consistently produced the most talent (outside of that elephant in the room: Louisiana).

The map shows four general hotspots. On the west coast, there’s a hot spot in central/southern California, primarily thanks to (in order) UCLA, USC, Stanford, Fresno State, and Berkeley. In the middle there’s a bit of a hot spot in and around Kansas, Kanas State, and Missouri. Then, further east, two hot spots converge. One has its core in Northern Kentucky, based on players from Kentucky, Louisville, and Cincinnati. From there it extends northwest, catching several Big 10 schools up through Wisconsin. The other has its core in eastern North Carolina, based on players from Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest. From there it extends northeast, catching the ACC and Big East schools up through New York.

Ultimately, even given all this information, it’s difficult to say whether joining forces with other stars at the college level increases the odds of getting drafted, or increases salary potential. The one obvious take-home message is that colleges with successful basketball programs produce a lot more NBA players than their competitors, which probably explains why they’re so successful in the first place.

Aside from that, potential pros should probably not spend too much time trying to pick the perfect university for maximizing earning potential. Too many factors are involved, and while the expansion of television coverage has made the story of rookie sensations from small schools -- like Damien Lillard’s journey from Weber State to starring for the Trailblazers -- much more likely, the numbers shown in this article cannot be said to represent a totally comprehensive economic analysis, and should not be used to guide anyone -- or their parents -- in their recruitment decisions.

Even if that were possible -- which is hard to say -- given the recent surge from schools like UConn and Florida as well as the fluid state of coaching in the modern game, such fluctuations are much more the norm than the exception. As is, though, they ought to give you plenty of background if you’re trying to impress some folks during a game.

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