Every year, when we wave farewell to NBA-bound players and begin to analyze the coming season's rosters, we cast our flailing glares at recruiting class rankings. You can't really blame us: Every year, there are at least a handful of truly elite freshmen, players who change their teams' seasons and their programs' trajectories in real and often lasting ways. There were few better examples of this than 2012, when John Calipari's loaded freshmen-led team put together one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the modern game.
But there is a big, big difference between that handful of elite freshmen and the rest of the top-100 recruiting rankings. Despite the attention we pay to the number of top-100 prospects in each recruiting class, and the high hopes every fan base has for every player with little "100" icons next to his likeness on recruiting sites, it seems we are at least slightly overrating -- and sometimes drastically -- overrating the latter.
Drew Cannon, Basketball Prospectus' resident data-driven recruiting expert, proved as much Monday, when he released his look back at the performances of his list of top 100 recruits in the class of 2011. The list isn't shocking, I suppose, but by the time you finish it, you walk away with a deeper appreciation for just how few players in the 2011 class truly made major, immediate impacts.
The vast majority of last year's freshmen -- all but the 22 players listed under "Effective Starters" and the five listed under "Elite" -- either barely cracked their team's rotation (and had varying success doing so) or languished on the bench for much of the season. As Cannon writes:
It's interesting to think about this list like so: A player ranked, say, No. 46 in high school, should perform at about the level of No. 46 on this list. (It actually works pretty well.) I think you'd find that, except for the fact that few people expect Nerlens Noel to be Anthony Davis, there are unreasonably high expectations for every single member of the Class of 2012 top 100. Fine, only please don't do that with No. 1. That just wouldn't be fair.
The No. 46 player in Cannon's list in the class of 2011 was LSU's Johnny O'Bryant, who had a nice season but ranked just No. 45 in Cannon's final appraisal. In 2012, the No. 46-ranked player in the ESPNU top 100 is Villanova commit Ryan Arcidiacono, the No. 6-ranked point guard in the class. The way Arcidiacono's strengths are discussed by scouts ("ultra skilled and super competitive with an exemplary feel for the game and unwavering confidence," "incredible passer who sees absolutely everything," "master of misdirection") might make you think he's a lock for Big East Freshman of the Year. More likely, he will have a season in the range of his ranking; more likely, he'll be a nice player in relatively marginal minutes as a freshman, with a bright future awaiting him in subsequent seasons.
There is always room for pleasant surprises in recruiting, just as there is always room for major disappointment. (Maybe Arcidiacono will be an immediate star, and I will have to learn how to spell his name without copy-paste by mid-December. It could happen!) But odds are, if your recruiting class doesn't contain one of the best 10 or (maybe) 20 players in the country, your team is focused not on the sexy one-year turnaround but rather on the far less sexy, but no less important, long-term improvement.
In short: College basketball is hard. Because a handful of elite freshmen have made it look so easy for so long, we -- and yes, I'm including myself here -- tend to forget that. But just because the game is easy for Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist doesn't mean it will be easy for players ranked well below them on the annual recruiting lists. Last season, as ever, was proof enough of that.