The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament got under way yesterday, but what once was a key pre-draft showcase now seems the exclusive territory of second-round hopefuls and future D-Leaguers. The tournament is for the top college seniors, but seniors have become decreasingly relevant in the draft. Even the most highly regarded seniors are now staying away from Portsmouth, yet the more significant development is the lack of highly regarded seniors at all.
The No. 1 senior on Jonathan Givony's DraftExpress board is Duke's Mason Plumlee, whom Givony ranks 13th overall. C.J. McCollum of Lehigh is the top senior for Chad Ford of ESPN.com, and he likewise checks in at No. 13 on Ford's overall list.
In 2006, the first year of the NBA's current age limit eliminating high schoolers from the draft, the Hawks took Duke senior Shelden Williams fifth overall. He was the first of three consecutive college seniors taken in that draft, and a total of eight went in the first round. Since then, only one senior has been drafted in the top 10: Jimmer Fredette, who went 10th overall to the Kings in 2011.
The past 15 drafts show a steady decline in the number of seniors drafted in the first round each year, and that's also reflected in the draft position of the highest senior selected. Nearly half of the first-round picks from 1998 to 2000 were seniors, as were two of the three No. 1 overall selections in that span. Since then, no senior has gone higher than Williams at No. 5 in 2006. Fredette was the only senior to become a lottery pick in the past three seasons.
The "one-and-done" eligibility rule, which sees many top-ranked prospects spend one year in college before entering the draft, is an easy target for explaining why fewer college seniors are picked, but the number of first-round seniors was dwindling even before 2006. Underclassmen have, for years, taken advantage of the opportunity to jump to the NBA as soon as they're deemed ready by scouts and executives, who in turn continue to draft them. Players and teams alike perpetuate the phenomenon.
Here's a look at the number of seniors taken in each draft since 1998, with the highest senior picked in parentheses:
- 2012: 4 (Tyler Zeller, 17th)
- 2011: 7 (Jimmer Fredette, 10th)
- 2010: 5 (Trevor Booker, 23rd)
- 2009: 6 (Terrence Williams, 11th)
- 2008: 5 (Jason Thompson, 12th)
- 2007: 6 (Acie Law, 11th)
- 2006: 8 (Shelden Williams, 5th)
- 2005: 9 (Channing Frye, 8th)
- 2004: 4 (Rafael Araujo, 8th)
- 2003: 9 (Kirk Hinrich, 7th)
- 2002: 7 (Melvin Ely, 12th)
- 2001: 5 (Shane Battier, 6th)
- 2000: 11 (Kenyon Martin, 1st)
- 1999: 12 (Wally Szczerbiak, 6th)
- 1998: 13 (Michael Olowokandi, 1st)