Examining Bloodlines in the NBA

The Van Arsdales

The Van Arsdale Twins

After both NBA Summer Leagues and the signings of all major free agents (except for Nikola Pekovic, likely to re-sign with the T’Wolves), the NBA is officially in a lull. There are no steroid controversies (MLB), no lockout threats (NHL) and no desperate measures to avoid folding as a league (WNBA). Since there isn’t much action in the NBA, I’d like to explore a topic that peaks my interest – the relevance of family genetics in the NBA.

Starting with a real world example…

If your mom, dad or close relative works on Wall Street, you can most likely follow in their footsteps – that’s just how the business world works. I know, I know – not everyone whose dad works on Wall St has the same career aspirations. Some want to be musicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, actors, hipsters etc. I’m just saying that if your pops works for a big bank on Wall Street, you have the genetic in” to the finance world in NYC.

But that’s not how professional basketball works… right? With the exception of Coby Karl or Luke Walton, NBA dads can’t just hook their sons up with an NBA roster spot (Coby and Luke weren’t very good – look at their statistics). However, NBA fathers can pass on their 99th percentile athletic genes to their kin.

Diving into secondary research

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:

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…

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 player 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.”

Now, this is simply a numerical estimate of the chances of the son of an NBA player playing college basketball, and it doesn’t consider other variables like preferential treatment etc. But let’s not get nitpicky – the point of Feng’s article is that Shaquille O’Neal’s kids have a higher chance of playing college basketball than Lil Wayne’s.

But before we get to the numbers, I want to point out a few interesting items.

A fun tidbit about NBA twins

After they were selected back-to-back in the 1965 NBA Draft, Dick (10th) and Tom (11th) Van Arsdale became the first twins to ever play in the NBA. Back in ’65 there were only 9 teams, so the Van Arsdale’s were actually second-round picks.

Decades later, Markieff and Marcus Morris were selected with the 13th and 14th picks of the 2011 NBA Draft, making them the first twins ever to be selected in the first round, and first twins selected back-to-back since the Van Arsdales. In between the Van Arsdale Twins and the Morris Twins were three other notable sets of twins: the Grant twins (Horace and Harvey, drafted in 1987 & 1988), the Collins Twins (Jason and Jarron, drafted in 2001), and the Lopez twins (Brook and Robin, 2008).

The NBA relative list

I’ve compiled a list that consists of all of the brother-brother/father-son, and a few notable cousin combinations that played in the NBA since the league’s inception in 1947. It’s a pretty comprehensive list, but undoubtedly I’ve missed a few.

Estimates and conclusions

The list has 90 pairs of relatives with shared NBA blood. 24 of the 90 pairs have at least one active professional basketball player that has played in the NBA. 6 pairs of brothers will be active NBA players in 2013-2014.

If I counted all of the relatives of NBA players throughout history who have brothers that played or currently play overseas, I would estimate that list would be about 20% larger – let’s round it to 110 pairs. Of the 90 pairs, 10 have 3 relatives and 1 has 4 relatives. The Jones brothers Wil, Major, Caldwell, and Charles Jones all went to Albany State and all played in the NBA. The Murphy family  could be the next family to have 4 immediate family members to make it to the NBA. The father, Jay Murphy, played in the NBA for 4 years, his wife played professionally overseas, the oldest son Erik just signed with the Bulls, Alex is a former top-recruit and redshirt Sophomore with Duke, and the youngest, Tomas, is a 6’7” incoming high school freshman, who is already making a name for himself in the AAU circuit.

Back to the numbers – like Dr. Feng I’m going to underestimate, and say that there are 220 total players in history that have immediate or close relatives that also played or play professional basketball. In the history of the NBA there have been approximately 4,700 players, meaning that about 4.7% of NBA players have a relative in professional basketball – about 1 in 20. That means that in every NBA game, on average, at least 1 player’s father/cousin/brother played or plays professional basketball. I didn’t look into the other sports, but professional basketball seems to be a type of unique genetic fraternity.

I understand that it’s common for family members to take an interest in similar professions, but when that profession happens to have just 450 total jobs, it’s not easy to just enter the “family business.”  Ultimately, the chances of making it to the NBA with a NBA-genes aren’t guaranteed, but they’re a hell of a lot better if your last name is Zeller, Plumlee or Murphy.