Career NBA: The Road Least Traveled

Author and artwork: Patrick Rhodes

The bell rings – time to go to practice. Jarnell Stokes heads over to the gym, changes, and starts warming up with his teammates. It’s his Junior year in high school. The Memphis, Tennessee native has a lot on his mind; soon he’ll have to make a choice – a choice which will affect his future. Sitting on his table back home are basketball scholarship offers [1] from the universities of Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Memphis, Mississippi and Tennessee.

It’s quite rare for a high school athlete to receive a sports scholarship to even a single college, much less multiple schools. As we’ll come to see, he’s quite the statistical outlier in the world of basketball. Most do not play beyond high school. Those that do rarely possess the world-class talent to play in the NBA (National Basketball Association). That being said, what are Jarnell’s chances that he could make a career playing in the NBA?

High School
In the United States, professional basketball enjoys great popularity, ranking in the top five most popular sports [2] as of 2014. Just about any kid playing basketball in high school wants to play professionally. Unfortunately, he is competing with the approximately 540,000 other high school players [3] all thinking the same thing. Nearly every gym in nearly every school is filled with these young men pushing themselves, feverishly honing their skills in hopes of getting an offer from a university (which, for most, is the first step of many to make it to the NBA).

Organizations which rate high school basketball players – such as ESPN and Rivals – produce detailed reports on the top prospects each year.

Few – about 1 in 30 seniors [4] (3.3%) – will have demonstrated the elite skills required to receive offers from NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) member institutions (see Figure 1). Out of those, fewer still might have an offer from a school with a strong basketball program. And only a handful of those will receive offers from more than one prestigious school. In other words, only the best of the best will be able to pick which schools they want to attend (on scholarship, that is).

Figure 1 

In Stokes’ case, his outstanding play in high school put him squarely into the ‘best of the best’ category. As a result, he was a consensus top-20 prospect [5] and became one of those rare stars to receive multiple offers as noted above.

Decision Time
Jarnell sits down at the kitchen table and reviews the offers in front of him. There are three that really interest him, for different reasons. Kentucky, of course, is known for getting players into the NBA quickly. Memphis offers an elite program as well, not to mention he’d be playing for his hometown school. The problem with both Kentucky and Memphis is that he wouldn’t be able to play immediately due to his current situation in high school. He transferred high schools over his junior season and was declared ineligible to play his senior year, thus he elected to graduate immediately and begin his college career ASAP. Because of that and other NCAA rules, Kentucky and Memphis didn’t have a scholarship available for him, but Tennessee did.

The NBA requires that players be a minimum of 19 years old in the year they would be drafted. That rule was implemented in 2005 after a string of high school players skipped college and entered the NBA directly, causing appreciable debate.

He fills out the paperwork, informs Cuonzo Martin (Tennessee’s then-head basketball coach) and schedules a press conference at a local restaurant. That week, he makes public his decision and by January 2012 he was playing for the Volunteers as a freshman.

At the University of Tennessee, Jarnell has an immediate impact. He averages 25 minutes a game in his freshman season [6], often hitting for double figures in scoring. Over the next three years, he would help Tennessee average over 20 wins a year. In his junior year, he would lead the team to the ‘sweet 16’ in the NCAA tournament. Life is good and he’s thinking about the NBA.

By this time, the word on Stokes is that he is a possible late first-round pick in the NBA. When that kind of buzz surrounds your name, that’s when you typically decides to leave college and enter the NBA draft. 

There is considerable controversy surrounding the ‘one and done’ issue in college basketball. Many of the best players opt for the NBA after only one year in college.

Since Stokes wanted to play right away (as mentioned above), he chose Tennessee. While he had a great career there, he might have made a better choice by sitting out a year and attending either Kentucky or Memphis. Both of those programs have sent many players to the NBA over the last twenty-five years – far more than Tennessee [7] (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 

Why is this important? Because players who can succeed at elite college programs are generally thought of as having a better chance to handle the pressures of the NBA. The competition at those prestigious schools is fierce, helping to prepare those players for the maximum level of competition in the pros. Of course, this isn’t always the case – there are examples of elite NBA players who have come from smaller colleges (and some straight from high school such as Kobe Bryant). That being said (and as noted above), most elite NBA players come from respected schools.

The Draft
It’s 2014 and Jarnell has declared for the draft after spending three productive years at the University of Tennessee. As Adam Silver (the NBA commissioner) rattles off name after name during the first round of the draft, he waits anxiously. 

Unfortunately, the first round goes by without Jarnell’s name being called. Nevertheless, he is selected early in the second round as the 35th overall pick [8] by the Utah Jazz. As is common among draftees, he is traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. This is great news for the young man, since he’ll get to play ball in his hometown of Memphis.

Why is it so important to be selected early? History shows us that the NBA is quite adept at evaluating talent. Of course, anyone can point out examples counter to this statement, but overall they tend to make accurate selections. There is an excellent analysis regarding the impact of first-round players vs second-round players (as well as undrafted) in the NBA over at Crabdribbles. In that article, they work with NBA players that play ‘significant’ minutes (described as those that average 25 minutes per game). Eighty-two percent of those players were drafted in the first round. Out of that eighty-two percent, over half of those players were drafted in the lottery. The data spans a period from 1999 through 2013, so it’s a relevant sample (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 

In a nutshell, if you want to play significant minutes – thus receiving a higher salary, enjoying a longer career, etc. – then you should be good enough coming out of college to warrant a first-round selection. Sure, some second-rounders have made large impacts in the NBA, but they are the exception rather than the rule. As stated above, the NBA is pretty good at evaluating talent.

Over the summer preceding his first year in the NBA, Jarnell Stokes was able to negotiate a three-year contract with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. In fact, two of the years are guaranteed – a rare feat for second-round picks. Starting out, he’ll make US $725K in his first year rising to US$845K in his second year. His dream is becoming a reality.

First-round picks are offered scaled, guaranteed contracts. Second-round picks have to negotiate whatever contract they can get. 

Now we come to the crux of the situation: Will Stokes be able to make a career out of the NBA?

Let’s define ‘career’: Over the last twenty years, the length of the average career in the NBA is about 6 years [9] (using data for all players from 1990-2010). This is actually an improvement from the early years (1940s and 50s) of the NBA where the average career length was less than half of that. There are many reasons for this: injuries, ability, salary issues and personal issues to name a few. For purposes of this article, we’ll use 6 years as having made a ‘career’ out of the NBA. For Jarnell, that means he would have to play in the NBA from 2014 through 2020. I’m not even saying he has to start or get ‘significant’ minutes or even play in every game. He just that he has to survive for six years on an NBA roster, even as a bench warmer.

Figure 4 


As of February 13th, 2015, Jarnell Stokes is still in the Grizzlies organization. Unfortunately for him, he has seen very little playing time, averaging only 5.6 minutes per game when he sees the court at all. Often, he will sit the entire game. Even worse, he has been sent down to the NBA ‘D’ league (development league) multiple times – a sure sign that he is struggling with life in the NBA. If that isn’t bad enough, he was suspended while in the ‘D’ league for fighting with a teammate. At this point, Stokes’ NBA career is in serious jeopardy. He’s down, but not out – yet.

So, will he make it six years (a ‘career’)? Rather than randomly selecting players, let’s find those who started in similar situations. Using the same date range (1990-2010), we’ll select players who were 2nd round picks that averaged less than 6 minutes per game during their rookie season. That gives us a well-defined and complete sample consisting of 95 players. To narrow it down even further would be beyond the scope of this article.

Approximately 16% of players in similar situations to Jarnell make it 6 years or more in the NBA [10] (see Figure 4). Therefore, I’m giving him the same odds. In other words, in six parallel universes, Jarnell Stokes makes a career out of the NBA in only one of them. I, for one, hope that we are in that particular universe and the kid makes it.

Life in the NBA is tough for marginal players such as Jarnell Stokes. They are constantly getting shuffled between the NBA “D” league (development league), European pro teams, Asian pro teams, etc. However, they must endure it if they hope to play in the richest, most talent-laden basketball league in the world: the NBA. Stokes has already overcome the most ominous hurdles just to get this far, being one of those 0.03% of high school players who realize their dream. Now that he’s in, he has roughly a 16% chance to make a career out of it. Whether or not his name will be added to the litany of players who obtain – yet cannot sustain – an NBA roster spot remains to be seen. It’s a perilous journey; indeed, it is the ‘road least traveled’.

1.  ESPN, Jarnell Stokes – Basketball Recruiting – Player Profile (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

2 Harris Interactive, As American as Mom, Apple Pie and Football? (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

3. NCAA, NCAA Recruiting Facts (last accessed February 12 ,2015); available from

4. NCAA, Estimated Probability of Competing in Athletics Beyond the High School Interscholastic Level (last accessed February 12 ,2015); available from

5. ESPN, Jarnell Stokes – Basketball Recruiting – Player Profile (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

6., Jarnell Stokes Stats (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

7.  SB Nation, Duke is Tops in NBA Draft Production Over the Past 25 Years (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

8., 2014 NBA Draft (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

9. Weak Side Awareness, Average NBA Career Length for Players – Details (last accessed February 12, 2015); available from

10. (2015). Player Season Finder [Data File]; available from