The Weekly Nichols: How Do NCAA Statistics Translate to the NBA?

With the NBA Draft tonight, I often wonder how close the college game is to the professional one. It’s clear who the stars in the college game are. But are they just “built” for that style of play, or are they true stars who excel at any level (including the NBA)?

I have attempted to solve this problem by seeing how college stats correlate to NBA stats. To do this, I first took a large sample size of current NBA players’ career statistics and compared it with those sample players’ college stats. Everything was calculated on a per-minute basis. Once I had the stats, I ran a series of simple regressions to see how well the NBA numbers correlated with the college ones.

Below I have posted the R^2 values of the different correlations. R^2 basically says how well future outcomes are likely to be predicted by the model and can be thought of as a percentage. For example, if the R^2 of the correlation between college points per game and NBA points per game is 0.3405, then we can say that about 34.05% of NBA players’ PPG can be explained by their college PPG. The higher the R^2, the better.

Below are the R^2’s for the different correlations:

Points per minute: 0.3405

Field goal attempts per minute: 0.3522

Field goal percentage: 0.3436

Three-point attempts per minute: 0.6391

Three-point percentage: 0.7941

Free throw attempts per minute: 0.286

Free throw percentage: 0.7615

Rebounds per minute: 0.8312

Assists per minute: 0.8823

Steals per minute: 0.5981

Blocks per minute: 0.9327

Turnovers per minute: 0.4535

Personal fouls per minute: 0.4447

Those numbers are all higher than I expected before I began the study. Specifically, we can predict with pretty good certainty an NBA player’s blocks, assists, rebounds, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage based on their equivalent college statistics. Free throw attempts, points per game, field goal percentage, and field goal attempts are the weakest.

This all comes with one big caveat. The sample only includes guys that have made it in the NBA. The college stars that fizzled out at the pro level or the guys who NBA teams knew had no chance at the highest level before the draft were not included in this study. In other words, just because a guy is great in college doesn’t mean he will be great in the NBA. However, if he does make the NBA, we can somewhat predict how he’ll end up doing based on his college stats.