The McDonald’s All-American Game and the Road to Success

By Alex Koenig

McDonald’s has every right to ask “Who’s Next?”

Ever since 1977, fast-food giant McDonald’s has annually held a game highlighting the top seniors, nationwide, in high school basketball. The 791 players who have played in this game hold in their ranks such basketball legends as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Despite these successes, high school basketball is full of stars who never realized their potential at the next level, such as 1st overall pick Kwame Brown or Sports Illustrated cover boy Sebastian Telfair. Likewise, there are many anecdotes of stars on the collegiate level who have never panned out in the league, such as Adam Morrison.  In recent years many players have foregone the rite of passage of college basketball and either jumped straight to the league or taken advantage of the “one-and-done” rule, putting more importance than ever on high school performance in the NBA draft process. But beyond the initial financial benefit (i.e. being a high draft pick), does being selected as a McDonald’s All-American actually mean you’re more likely to achieve success in college and the NBA? How rare is the “out of nowhere” NBA Star? In order to find out, I looked at the careers of the 791 McDonald’s All Americans since 1977, as well as those of the College All-Americans (1st, 2nd and 3rd team) and All-NBAers (1st , 2nd and 3rd team) who graduated from high school in, or after, 1977. See some interesting results after the jump.

Eliminating the 2009 and 2010 teams (because the majority of them are still in college) 59.1% of all McDonald’s All-Americans have played at least one game in the NBA. That percentage has jumped to 65.2% in the last decade, thanks in large part to so many teams taking a chance on HS players and the one-and-done rule. The 2004 game had a staggering 23 out of 24 players make the NBA with the only player not to make it being Jawann McClellan of Houston, Texas – he currently plays in the D-League. Furthermore, 42% of NCAA All-Americans were McD AAs in High School. 28 of those 153 (18.3%) players who were All-Americans in College and High School made at least one All-NBA team while in the league. Clearly these games are showcasing a lot of realized talent.

Being an NCAA All-American is an even greater indication of NBA success. 93.3% of All-Americans make it to the league. This makes sense because the level of competition in college is higher than in High School, so real talent will shine through.

This all shows that NBA teams will take a chance on you if you prove yourself at the high school and college level – big surprise – but what about achieving the highest level of success in the pro game, being selected to the All-NBA team. Of All-NBA players to graduate from high school after 1977, only 33 had not been distinguished as McD All-Americans in High School or NCAA All-Americans in college. After removing international players we are left with only 24 All-NBAers who played HS and College basketball in the USA and were not recognized as being the best at any level before the NBA.  Furthermore, since 2000, not a single first team All-NBAer fits this profile. In fact, in 7 of the last 9 years there were actually the same number or more McDonald’s All-Americans on the All-NBA team than college All-Americans. Before 2002 that had never happened before. This is largely due to the influx of straight to NBA High School players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Interestingly, only two McDonald’s All-Americans (Shawn Kemp and Chris Bosh) went to college and weren’t All-Americans, but went on to be All-NBAers – and one of their colleges was Trinity Valley Community College.

These numbers reveal a number of things about today’s high school basketball game. For one, they are a function of the increased proficiency of scouts and scouting services; in essence, fewer talents “slip through the cracks.” At the same time, it exhibits a higher “talent efficiency” as far as realizing ones own natural potential – something Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book “Outliers.” Which makes sense, considering being distinguished as one of the best in your field at a given time makes you an Outlier.

These numbers also show that, just like most institutions, the NBA is a faux meritocracy. The last player in to the McDonald’s All-American game probably doesn’t have much of an initial talent gap between him and the last player to be cut. In 2004, 600,000 boys played interscholastic high school basketball. From that number, it can be reasonably assumed that around 150,000 were seniors on the varsity level (as, generally seniors make up the bulk of varsity basketball teams). 24 of those 150,000 young men were invited to play an exhibition game in late March. 23 of them ended up being paid millions of dollars to play the same game. Each year the league welcomes around 60 new players (some don’t get signed, some sign undrafted) through the NBA draft. The media loves to glorify the “blue-collar athlete” whose work ethic makes up for his mediocre talent. Realistically though, the 149,976 high school seniors who ended their high school basketball careers with an invite-free trip to McDonald’s have about the same chance of making an All-NBA team as I do.

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