Virginia isn't a school casual fans often associate with the NBA draft. And with fair reason. Not that UVA has been a total stranger to the event, there are a number of schools even at the power-conference level with a much smaller historical participation in the event than UVA has. But at the same time, UVA's draft history pales in comparison to generational blue bloods like Kentucky, UNC, Duke, or UCLA.
Before this week, Virginia had 8 first round draft picks (counting the ABA) in its past: Barry Parkhill ('73), Wally Walker ('76), Jeff Lamp ('81), Ralph Sampson ('83), Olden Polynice ('87), Bryant Stith ('92), Cory Alexander ('95), and Justin Anderson ('15). That's over the last 40+ years, so we're talking every 5-6 years on average.
For comparison, our 8 historical 1st rounders are dwarfed by UK, UNC, and Duke, who have over 45 each in their annals.
Now, in the Holland and peak-Jones eras, it was a little more common, 7 over 23 years, which was more respectable. But the Jones era collapsed, the Gillen and Leitao eras never got their acts together, and Bennett arrived with a plan to spend his first couple years building a culture before trying to find pro-ready recruits to fit into it. Hence the 20-year gap after Cory's selection by the Spurs.
When you factor in 2nd and 3rd rounders (the draft shrunk to 2 rounds in 1989, but fewer teams mean 3rd rounders then were the equivalent of 2nd rounders in today's 30 team NBA), Virginia's number climbs to 23 draft picks in its history. Anything lower than that, and we'll ignore it as not really equivalent to what we're here to discuss today.
(Fun fact, Virginia's lowest draft pick? Chip Case in 1969, who was the 211th overall pick, going in the 18th round... to Baltimore! He returned to college and was RE-drafted in 1970 in the 3rd round ... by Buffalo. Go ahead, blow your kids' minds with that one.)
So let's talk modern era (I'll leave out Buzz Wilkinson way back in '55 as an outlier), and Virginia's NBA/ABA Draft history really begins in 1970 with Case's 2nd go-round. From then until the arrival of Bennett in 2009, so ~40 years, Virginia had 17 draft picks rounds 1-3, not even once every couple years on average.
But things started to change the summer of 2011 when Mike Scott got his medical waiver for a 5th year. He took over the ACC that year and played his way into the NBA's 2nd round in the 2012 Draft. Two years later Joe Harris would follow after a pair of all-ACC seasons, barely missing the 1st round cut-off. Justin Anderson left after a breakout junior season, becoming Bennett's first 1st rounder at UVA. All-American Malcolm Brogdon went early in the 2nd in 2016, and last year Devon Hall parlayed his all-ACC senior year into a 2nd round pick.
Which brings us to this year... De'Andre Hunter so impressed during predraft workouts that Atlanta fell in love and traded up to the #4 pick to ensure they got him. Ty Jerome, who started draft season projected as an early 2nd rounder, jumped up to a late first rounder. And Kyle Guy, who many wondered if he was too small to hear his name called, impressed enough teams that he ended up a 2nd rounder.
So since 2012, over the last 8 seasons (basically since Tony has had this program going), that's 8 Hoos who have had their names called, one a year. And no reason to think that rate won't sustain or even increase as Tony continues to bring even more top talent into Charlottesville.
But Tony getting players into the NBA at a clip we're not accustomed to is only the first half of what we need to talk about. The second part, and arguably the most important part, is WHO he's getting into the NBA Draft.
Let's start with the math. Every year 60 players get drafted. Maybe 10 of those spots will go to international prospects. Another 10 go to ready-made pros who were top 10 high school prospects and essentially just needed a college to camp out at for 9 months without getting injured. That leaves just 40 spots a year, some years even fewer, for domestic products who weren't total sure things out of high school.
The way the numbers generally work out is that a Top 10 prospect has about a 90% chance to get drafted, the rest of the 5-star (~Top 25) types get there about 60-75% of the time, the rest of the Top 50 kids are maybe 50/50 at best, and anyone after that is a huge longshot, especially the 3-star types.
Mike Scott came out of high school ranked 115th by Rivals, but went with the 43rd overall pick.
Joe Harris was Rivals' #119 high school prospect, but went with the 33rd pick.
Malcolm Brogdon was 104th out of high school, but drafted 36th.
Justin Anderson was the #35 prospect and went 21st.
Devon Hall was just the 122nd-ranked prospect but was the overall 53rd pick in the Draft.
De'Andre Hunter ended up as Rivals #60 prospect but elevated all the way to the #4 overall pick.
Ty Jerome was Rivals' #53 and turned into a first rounder with pick #24.
Kyle Guy was 43rd out of high school, and heard his name called with the 55th overall pick.
Heck, if you want, you can talk about a couple of similar success stories during Bennett's tenure at Washington State as well. Kyle Weaver arrived as a totally unrated recruit but went with the 38th pick, and Klay Thompson went from the #51 recruit to the #11 draft pick. I'm also tempted to include Marial Shayok, who was an unranked 3-star according to Rivals, spent 3 years in the Bennett program before unleashing that training on the Big XII and vaulting to be the #54 pick last night.
(We also aren't talking about players who went undrafted but did eventually make the show. At UVA that includes London Perrantes and Mike Tobey, each of whom did short stints in the NBA. But for Tony's WSU resume he also gets to claim big man Aron Baynes, who went undrafted but after starting his pro career overseas has built himself an impressive ongoing 7-season career in the NBA.)
That is a sustained trend, across a decade of players at multiple schools coached by Bennett, of players who were on basically no one's Draft boards coming out of high school who, during their time in Tony's program, developed so thoroughly that they often drastically exceeded any reasonable expectations. The low-ranked, sub-100th-ranked guys got their shot after exhausting their eligibility and have most all made the most of it once there. But the Top 50/75, 4-star types? Klay, Anderson, Hunter, Jerome, Guy... none of them needed 4 years, all were able to make the jump early, almost all ending up 1st rounders.
The bottom line is that Tony is at the forefront of college coaches when it comes to turning borderline high school prospects into NBA players. Sure, anyone can take a Top 10 5-star and babysit him for a season before moving him along and then bragging about another draft pick. But what Tony and his staff do, and do consistently, is special. With a baseline of talent to work with, and a player who's genuinely bought in to the hard work required in the process, Bennett's staff teaches players not just to score in volumes, but to do well all the other things that are important to NBA scouts and GMs.
At any given moment in a game, there are 10 players on the court. Only 1 is taking the shot. Getting off the shot is 10% of the activity going on. Virginia players hit that shot as well as anyone, but what sets UVA apart is that Tony is the best at coaching up a player's ability to excel at that other 90%.
Off-ball movement. Screen setting. Making the extra pass. Ball security. Rebounding. On-ball defense. Help defense and shot blocking. Screen defense. Foul discipline. Strength and conditioning. Toughness. Coachability. Continuity. (To say nothing of the character they bring to a winning locker room culture.)
These are all things Tony Bennett values and he drills them into his players, so that they're not just excellent shooters, but that they're complete players.
You know who else values these things? NBA coaches and scouts. A few still get seduced by the highlight circus shots or the crazy measurables/athleticism. But more and more NBA types are realizing that their rosters need to be filled by guys who aren't just scorers, but are complete players who find lots of ways to make their teammates better and help their teams win.
Last summer Tony secured the commitment of 4-star Argentinian center Francisco Caffaro from one of the NBA Global Academies. I'm convinced that when Caffaro started the process of looking at US schools, knowing absolutely nothing about D-1 basketball, his coaches at the Academy pointed him right at Tony Bennett. "You want to be a pro? Go put in a few years under that guy. He makes players that the NBA wants."
Which is why we're seeing players leave Charlottesville for the NBA draft more often than we've ever been used to, oftentimes before those players even exhaust their eligibility. The success of Tony's players once in the League only gives more and more credibility to those who come after them. NBA GM's want Tony Bennett players in their locker rooms, and that's why Tony Bennett players get drafted, even without the sure-thing pedigree their all-ACC peers arrive with.
So if a Top 50/75 player has the drive to make the League one day, then they should look long and hard at the proven results coming out of the Bennett systems, which now are too many to discount as luck or flukes. This is a statistically significant sample size. Heck, even the 5-stars who don't want to merely coast through their short college tenures, but instead actively challenge themselves to improve their all-around game, UVA is going to deserve their serious consideration as well.
And for Hoo fans who like seeing our favorite players move on to play on the biggest of pro stages? Get used to it.