Why Is Indy Sending So Many to the NBA?

by Kent Sterling

There is a piece in today’s Indy Star by Jeff Rabjohns about how the city of Indianapolis is making it look easy for kids to make it to the NBA.  Currently, there are nine former Indy area players in the NBA, and the flow appears unlikely to stop anytime soon.

With the draft of Gordon Hayward, Indianapolis and Los Angeles are tied as the major metropolitan area with the most straight drafts with a first round pick.  Obviously, Indianapolis has a hell of a lot less kids playing basketball than LA, New York, Chicago, and 25 other cities.

Why are Indianapolis and the entire state of Indiana so prolific in sending kids to the league?  According to statistics Rabjohn cites, there are 550,000 boys playing high school ball, and the odds of any of them becoming NBA first round picks are one in 18,333.  The odds of a high school player moving on to D-1 college hoops is greater than 1-in-1,000.  In 2007, Indiana sent 50 boys into D-1 basketball.  With 400 teams playing high school ball, and an average of four seniors per team, Indiana sent 1-in-32.

That means that at least during that year, Indiana boys were roughly 30 times more likely to play D-1 basketball that kids in the other 49 states.  Seen from a different perspective, at an average of five freshman added to D-1 rosters of the approximately 330 D-1 programs in 2008, 1-of-every-33 kids who accepted an invitation to play college basketball came from Indiana.

So why does Indiana so disproportionately outnumber the rest of the country in sending boys to college and then on to the NBA?  In a phrase, greatness has begotten greatness.  In order to compete in basketball in Indiana, boys need to work.  In that 2007 class, all the way back to the fourth grade, teams played up to eight games a week with and against the best athletes in the state.  These team were also exceptionally well-coached.

Kids worked and worked to be able to compete against the state’s best teams, and when Indiana teams play in national tournaments, it was almost inevitable that Indiana teams would wind up facing each other in the semifinals or finals.

Those rivalries had one enormous, game changing effect.  They sent kids to the gym to work in isolation and then in groups with trainers.  In a fourth grade tournament in 1998, you could have found Eric Gordon (he played up on older teams most of the time), Jeff Teague, Nate Blank, Robbie Hummel, Scott Martin, Stephen Thomas, Ben Botts, Jake Kelly, Ryan Sterling, John Ashworth, and many others who are going to be college seniors this year or are already in the NBA.

If they weren’t in a tournament, they were working hard in a gym.  There are a dozen of places in Indianapolis with trainers who work specifically with basketball players.  Kids start working on skills before they turn ten, and the coaching is generally excellent.  And as all those kids get better, the others are compelled to work themselves.

The other reason is that the best athletes in other states play football.  In Indiana, the sport of choice is basketball.  Kids quit football to play basketball here, while basketball might be the third or fourth sport of choice for kids in other areas.

Whatever the reason, Indiana is crazy fertile when it comes to basketball players, and in five or ten years, watch the number of coaches from Indiana skyrocket.  The kids who could run complex motion offenses when they were ten in 1998 will be teaching college players to do it in 2020.

In the Star piece, Rabjohns commented that between Mike Woodson in 1980 and Rodney Carney in 2006, Indianapolis didn’t produce another first rounder.  Off the top of my head, and I’m no historian, I can think of five – Randy Wittman (Ben Davis), Ken Barlow (Cathedral), Greg Graham (Warren Central), Eric Montross (Lawrence North), and Alan Henderson (Brebeuf).  That’s not an oversight or blunder, it’s ignorance multiplied by laziness to the power of shitty editing.  Everyone makes mistakes, and Rabjohns does a good job covering AAU hoops, but Jesus.  Those five guys were really good.  Even though Barlow never played in the NBA – all he did was win championships in Europe.  He’s like Michael Jordan over there.  Writing without making a mistake isn’t easy, and calling out others only encourages people to pick me apart, but that is a big swing and miss from a guy who should know better.

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