Nature vs Nurture: The Odds of Playing College Basketball

tim_hardawayYou may have wondered how much nature matters in playing college basketball. For example, Michigan will feature Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, and Jon Horford against Kansas in their Sweet Sixteen game tonight. All three players had fathers who played in the NBA.

In addition, Duke benefits from the shooting of Seth Curry, who most likely learned his soft touch from his father. Dell Curry played 17 season in the NBA. The list of current college players with NBA genetics extends from Juwan Howard Jr. at Detroit to Shawn Kemp Jr. at Washington.

How much more likely are you to play in Division I college basketball if your dad played in the NBA? Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated proposed this question to me. We dug into the numbers to find out.

The odds of playing college basketball

There are 347 Division I college basketball teams. Each team offers 13 scholarships. Hence, there are about 4,511 Division I college basketball players this year.

How does this compare with the pool of young men that could potentially play? There are 1.5 million young men that graduate from high school each year. Since anyone who graduated over the past 4 years could play on a current college team, this gives a pool of 6 million young men that could potentially play college basketball.

With 4,511 rosters spots from a pool of 6 million, there is a 1 in 1330 chance that a typical high school graduate plays college basketball.

The odds of playing college basketball if your dad played in the NBA

To determine the number of current college players with a father that played in the NBA, we simply count all the players. These 22 players are listed below. Clearly, this is an underestimate, as we might have missed some players. In fact, Jon and I missed Glenn Robinson III, one of the most well known players, in our first run through this list.

We also need the total number of college aged men with fathers that played in the NBA. Finding this number requires knowing the number of boys fathered by NBA players between 1990 and 1994. With the social habits of NBA stars, this is impossible.

However, we can make an educated guess about the number of college aged men with fathers who played in the NBA. Wikipedia lists a total of 4,699 players in the history of the NBA. Let’s assume that 1 in 10 of these players had a child between 1990 and 1994, giving a pool of 470 college aged young men.

Now, let’s be honest. 470 is an absurd overestimate. In 1990, the NBA only had 324 players total. However, that’s part of our strategy. We underestimate the actual number of college players but overestimate the pool of young men. This gives us a lower bound on the odds that a child of an NBA players makes a college basketball team. With 22 players from a pool of 470, the odds are 1 in 21, significantly higher than the population at large. The real odds could be as high as 1 in 10.

With these odds, you are at least 62 times more likely to play college basketball if your father played in the NBA.

Genetics makes it at least 62 times more likely to play college basketball

This number is astounding. To put this in perspective, our analysis was sent to a professor in population statistics from a prestigious west coast university. Along with some minor edits, he told us about the following result from his research.

Calculations I published in 1988 indicate that the average American male is about 12 percent more likely to pursue his father’s occupation than any other. The probability was somewhat higher for highly skilled professions.

If your father was a computer programmer, you are more than a 1.12 times more likely to become a computer programmer. For playing basketball, the factor is at least 62.

Clearly, genetics matter, from height to quickness to vertical jump. Of course, these young men grew up in families seeped in basketball. Their fathers most likely taught them the skills they need to make it to the college level.

List of current college players

Please let us know if we’re missing a player with a father who played in the NBA. I just added Ohio State’s Shannon Scott last night while watching their Sweet Sixteen game against Arizona.

Thanks for reading.

Crowd Sourcing for More College Players

Of course we didn’t get all college basketball players during the 2012-2013 season with a father who played in the NBA. These are additional players pointed out by our readers in the comments.


  1. Manute bol’s son Madut plays for southern university

  2. Michael Israel says

    Nick Johnson is the son of Dennis Johnson of the Celtics and son of Joey Johnson who played at ASU

  3. Nice article, Ed. I wonder how the odds change if you consider whether the father played any professional sport. First person that comes to mind is Grant Hill who is the son of Calvin Hill who played in the NFL. I would imagine there are some current college basketball players that would fit in this category.

  4. Well I have to challenge one assumption, mainly that all high-school graduates have an equal chance of playing college basketball.

    A more realistic approach would be to trim the dataset, as in exclude people with excessively large BMI, below average height, physical disabilities or simply high school graduates that choose not to pursue college. I’m sure that you could refine the dataset even further with a more advanced analysis.

    Anyway, you’d probably still find a huge disparity, but the ratio would be considerably lower.

  5. A little late, but you forgot Roy Devyn Marble, for Iowa. his father, Roy Marble, played 2 years in the NBA after being Iowa’s all-time leading scorer.

  6. What about Larry Nance Jr. At Wyoming?

  7. What are the odds of playing college basketball if you are over 6’5″?

  8. Darrel Jordan says

    Gary Payton II plays at Oregon state just as his father did

  9. Nice article! I will say though one thing you may have miss calculated is that that training and coaching available to these athletes because of their parents plays a factor along with genetics. I personally think the genetics reflect on the body type that the NBA players need to be successful. This to me justifies more evidence than just being born with “better hands,

  10. AJ English III at Iona, one of the leading scorers in the country, father played in the NBA.

  11. You keep saying, “Genetics” make the difference, but that’s a bit misleading. Genetics are probably big, but being raised from infancy in a pro basketball environment, or even having the role model of your father, or the simple belief in yourself, could be a big part too. You haven’t proved whether nature or nurture was the answer at all.

  12. Jerry Eaves son Frank Eaves plays for Appalachian State University


  1. […] An article written by Stanford Ph.D., Ed Feng aims to pinpoint the role of NBA-genetics in college basketball. After some research and careful estimates, Feng concludes that high school basketball players with NBA fathers are 62-times more likely to play basketball at the collegiate level than players without NBA genes. Below is the excerpt explaining the numbers: […]

  2. Karl Jobst says:

    Karl Jobst

    Nature vs Nurture: The Odds of Playing College Basketball

  3. […] I played a sport my entire life—all through high school and all through college. So, what are my skills? What do I love to do? There is no doubt that I love basketball, but what will I love that employers will think I can be an asset to their company for? Each year there are more than 2,000 seniors that graduate from college who played basketball (Feng p. 4). However, only 60 get selected to play in the next level of basketball. According to the NCAA they stated that “According to the most recent Graduation Success Rate data, 82 percent of Division I freshmen scholarship student-athletes who entered college in 2004 earned a degree. In Division II, 73 percent of freshmen student-athletes who entered college in 2004 graduated’. There are so many student athletes whose dreams get crushed because of the small ratio of college players who get accepted into the professional league. Most student athletes put in tremendous amounts of hard work to perfect their skills for their sport, but still don’t meet the requirements of the professional league. I interviewed a former basketball player who played basketball in college. After graduation he asked himself, “What am I going to do? Basketball is my passion and has my heart. There is nothing else that I want to do” (Edwards). “I have been out of college for a year now and I still cannot find a job” (Edwards).  He believed that the school could have done a better job of helping graduating student athletes, since they know that their entire time had to be spent at practice, at the game, traveling, and anything else required for the sport. Naturally, it is challenging to get a job while being a student athlete. Regular students are more likely to have an increased chance to get into the working field because they had more time during college. This time is valuable because it allowed them the opportunity to obtain an internship and find ways to get part time job which they can highlight on their resume as acquired experience. But for basketball players and other student athletes, time is limited. Most times all they can put on their resume is that they have played for a university and can work extremely hard, but have no working experience. Athletics takes care of us athletes during the years we provide entertainment for the school, but perhaps it’s time for the school to step up and offer more activities and real world working experience to allow athletes a better visual of all that is needed to be successful in a career field after graduation.  Ed Feng give more details about the real odds about life college […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.