What Happens to the McDonald’s All-Americans? (Part I)

I have to say that I’m fascinated by old high school recruiting lists. There’s something about looking back with the benefit of hindsight at the talent scouts’ evaluations of teenage players that’s always been very compelling to me — mainly because I usually end up asking the question, “How did they get it so wrong?” or, “Whatever happened to that guy?”

Now, I’m not saying the evaluators are always wrong, or even that they have a horrible success rate when it comes to identifying top prospects. What I am saying is that the cases of correctly predicted NBA-caliber talent in 17- and 18-year-olds are, at least to some degree, “boring” when compared to the incorrect predictions. Because by definition, once you’ve been identified as a top prospect, it’s only a surprise when you fail to meet that expectation. For instance, the fact that LeBron James was rightly pegged for NBA superstardom in high school isn’t anywhere near as interesting (to me, at least) as the idea that Kelvin Torbert was considered the best college recruit in the Class of 2001.

So what eventually happens to you if you make the McDonald’s All-American Team? I mean, obviously some McDonald’s alums go on to lead productive NBA careers, but it’s no guarantee of success at the college level, much less the pros. Although the players that make up the All-American rosters are theoretically the 24 best high school senior ballers in the United States, how many ultimately become first-round draft picks?

Since the first McDonald’s team was selected in 1977, 767 players have been chosen as the cream of the HS basketball crop for their senior season, and 363 (47.3%) have been picked in the NBA draft. Of course, that’s a misleading rate — obviously the class of 2008 (much less 2009) couldn’t have been drafted yet because of the NBA’s age restrictions, so let’s limit the sample to McDAA’s between 1977 and 2004, giving all players 4 years to get drafted (although, oddly enough, no one from the class of 2004 was drafted in 2008).

When we do that, the success rate changes to 332/647, or 51.3%; of that 647-player sample, 238 were drafted in the first round, which represents just 36.8% of the All-Americans. I don’t know if that sounds particularly low to you, but the closest analogue I could think of in another sport was the MLB draft: similar to the NBA, the most talented players are identified at age 17/18, but have to make it through various checkpoints over the next handful of years before playing in the Show. 55% of MLB 1st- and 2nd-round draft choices (essentially the baseball equivalent of McDonald’s All-Americans) eventually make it to the majors; likewise, 53% of McDAAs eventually play at least 1 NBA game. So basketball certainly isn’t alone in its success rate.

But what happens in the intervening years that causes roughly half of the most talented players in the country to drop off of the NBA’s radar? Well, in the next series of posts, I’m going to look at historical McDonald’s All-American rosters, sorting players by their Win Shares, and try to see what separates the successful prospects from the not-so-successful ones. Stay tuned…

About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on March 11, 2009, in History, Prospects. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Interesting article. But I don’t think that first and second round draft picks in the mlb are a true analog, seeing as many of them are college players who’ve played at a higher level. It would be conflating the mcdonalds all-americans with the college all-americans.

    (also, there are many players very successful in high school or college sports whose games aren’t built for the big show. think eric crouch. but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t good in college)

  2. While perusing the list, I came across five players who played in the NBA but have no links on their names (two are NBA rookies this year that Justin probably hasn’t caught up with yet, but there are older players from the ’70s and ’80s). I sent the info in through the feedback page, but this may throw off Neil’s numbers a little bit. One of the players is a member of the 2004 team who was drafted in 2008 (Malik Hairston).

    Another oddity is that there is at least one player on the list who was a 1st round pick but never actually played in the NBA: Ken Barlow. Barlow was drafted 23rd overall by the Lakers in 1986, then had his rights traded to Atlanta on draft day in what was probably a pre-arranged deal. He signed to play overseas, and would never play in the NBA.

    There’s more to the story, however. Barlow became involved in a dispute with Atlanta concerning whether the Hawks had made sufficient effort to sign him. This wasn’t all in Barlow’s mind; the Hawks appear to have had no particular use for him and presumably took him just because he was the best player available when their pick came up. Barlow asked the Hawks to relinquish his rights, but they refused. They seemingly didn’t want to spend a roster spot on him, but didn’t want to just give him away for nothing. The Hawks reportedly tried to trade Barlow’s rights during both the 1986 and 1987 off-seasons, but couldn’t work out a deal they liked. Barlow eventually became involved in legal action challenging the validity of the NBA draft and salary cap.

    Atlanta finally traded Barlow’s rights to Golden State during the 1987-88 season in exchange for Chris Washburn. IIRC, a Warriors official would later say the team had no special interest in Barlow but was really just trying to unload Washburn. Barlow played for Golden State’s summer league team the following offseason but was apparently hampered by injuries and did not get an invitation to trianing camp. He went back overseas and I’m not sure if ever made a serious attempt to get into the NBA after that.

  3. Great stuff, MCT. I’d heard Barlow’s name before in relation to the Washburn trade, but I always assumed he had a career-ending injury or something, not that Atlanta simply didn’t want him. It’s pretty messed up that they basically cost him his career by hanging onto him with no intention of playing him.

    And, yeah, the numbers are probably off a little based on weird circumstances where guys were drafted but didn’t play, or went by a different name during their McDAA days, etc. I’m just going to go class-by-class and sort by Win Shares, so if you see more data discrepancies, definitely let us know.

    Re: Cormac – You’re right, the MLB draft isn’t a perfect analogy, because they’re not all high-schoolers, I was just trying to find some frame of reference in another sport for comparison’s sake. There really isn’t a great analogue in any of the other big 3 pro sports: hockey is a lot like baseball, a mix of college kids and teens, but the top teenagers play for junior teams that act as a feeder system to the NHL, so it’s not really comparable; meanwhile, football’s draftees are all college players. But the important thing to take away from all this is that it’s basically a 50-50 crapshoot as to whether or not one of the 24 best high school basketball players is going to stay in that elite group after 4 years have gone by.

  4. One huge factor in this though is that the selection process is highly political meaning that these aren’t actually the top 24 players in the country, or even a legitimate attempt at such a task. Committing to elite schools like Duke, UNC, or UCLA improves your chances of being picked dramatically. Examples off the top of my head include James Keefe in 2006, Larry Drew Jr. in 2008, and the Wear twins this season.

  5. The Hawks defintely jerked Barlow around a bit, but I don’t know if you can put the blame entirely on them. Barlow chose to fight the system rather than work within it. Then once he’d been overseas for a couple of years and gotten established over there, it seemed like he was comfortable where he was, and he stopped trying to get another shot at the NBA. I think if Barlow had really been determined to make it to the NBA, it would have happened eventually.

    I guess it’s also debatable how good of an NBA prospect Barlow was. I can’t imagine that some NBA team wouldn’t have given a #23 overall pick a fair shot sometime in the first few years after he was drafted. But the fact is, he was the second-to-last pick in the first round, so he was hardly a can’t-miss prospect. The Warriors didn’t seem that impressed with him after they got his rights. Again, I guess once he had been out of sight for a couple of years, Barlow just wasn’t a hot enough commodity for NBA teams to go to much effort to lure him back.

    It’s too bad Barlow’s relationship with the Hawks deteriorated the way it did, setting in motion the events that prevented him from getting his shot at the NBA right away. By the time he got free of the Hawks, his window had closed, for a combination of reasons, some probably the Hawks’ fault, some not.

  6. Professional basketball is truly a business! Yeah, Ken Barlow made a choice not few men could make at 21 years old. As a result, most don’t know, he went to Europe and played 16 years winning 12 championships. Winning mutliple championships in Italy, Greece and Isreal. Ken Barlow is an honest strong man who would not be pimped by the Atlanta Hawks. For the record, they drafted Dallas Comegys another forward the very next year. Kept him through about 10 games and released him. They had also drafted Cedric Henderson another forward in the same year as Barlow. Hence, the Hawks were consistent in drafting forwards and low balling them with contracts.If you check the history, the Hawks never got any better and they expoited many prospects in the process. Ken Barlow, however, made a great career in European hoops…maybe not the standard that most Americans live by for pro hoops…but check the record…he beat most of those Europeans that were beating the USA in the Olympics

  7. Can you tell me where is Cedric Henderson who played for the Atlanta Hawks 1986? I’m a old friend that have been searching for him for a long time.

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