More on age limits

Kevin-Durant35

The more the question of age limits is debated, the more the conversation deteriorates. Now we have people actually defending the proposition that forcing players who clearly intend to go pro to go instead to college for a year (or two) – when their presence on campus as students is an obvious sham – will actually make them better human beings. Good grief. The premise of much of this ridiculousness is the conflation of being a good coach who can win lots of games with being a “molder of men” who teaches people how to live a righteous and upstanding life. It’s absurd.

But for now, I just want to focus on another aspect of the debate – that the one and done rule is hurting the NBA. Proponents of increasing the age limit claim that players who have only been out of college for one year aren’t mature enough, physically or emotionally, for the rigors of the NBA season. This, in turn, is bringing down the overall quality of play in the NBA.

In light of these claims, I looked at the 2014 all-star rosters. Because Kobe was a voted starter but couldn’t play due to injury, there are a total of 25 players deemed all-stars this season. Being designated an all-star doesn’t prove you’re a great player. But it certainly reflects popular sentiment – including among coaches and players – about who the great players are. And I think it’s fair to assert that if you are an all-star, very few people could reasonably claim that you are bringing down the overall quality of play in the league.

So, I wondered, how much time did each all-star spend in school before turning pro.

Here are the top-line numbers (number on the left is years in college), followed by some comments:

0 – 5

1- 8

2- 6

3 – 4

4 – 2

To sum up, fully 13 of the 25 2014 all-stars (including Kobe), played one year of college ball or less. To put this another way, proponents of raising the limits believe that half the all-stars were, by definition, not mature enough to enter the league when they did and would have been better off spending more time in college than they did. Of course, just because a player is great now, doesn’t mean he was great when he first went pro, you might object. But who is seriously going to argue that Kevin Durant would have been greatly served by learning at the feet of Rick Barnes for another season, or Kevin Love at Ben Howland’s? John Calipari is a great college coach but, seriously, you really want to tell me that John Wall’s career trajectory would have been fundamentally different had he played another 35 games in college for Coach Cal? It’s doubtful that Calipari himself believes that. Kyrie Irving played a grand total of 11 games in college. That doesn’t seem to have translated into a detriment for the NBA (I’m leaving aside whether some players on this list are overrated. *No one* I’ve heard supporting an increase in the age limits doubts whether any of the players mentioned here are worthy NBA players).

Of course, the cohort of players who came into the league before the 19-year old age limit came into effect – LeBron, Dwight Howard and Kobe – can’t seriously be argued to have brought down the quality of play in the league, or deemed too immature to have broken into the league when they did. It should be noted that I counted two other all-stars as having no college experience – Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki. Parker had just turned 19 when he was drafted by the Spurs in 2001. In 2001, it was possible to draft 18-year old players, and the Washington Wizards chose one of them, the infamous Kwame Brown, with the first overall pick. But as I said yesterday, teams have always made awful mistakes with players of varied ages in the draft. And can someone say with a straight face that it was critical for his development that Parker got that extra year playing French ball? Likewise, Nowitzki came into the league at age 20 from the world renowned German leagues. Other one-and-done all stars this year include Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh and ‘Melo.

At the other end of the spectrum, those all-stars who spent three and four years in college include Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Joakim Noah. That’s a fine group of players. But where is the large cohort of guys who are absolutely flourishing in the league because they had more time to grow and mature in college?

Yes, there are examples of young players who didn’t pan out. But the truth is that only a relatively small handful of players are going to leave college after one year because most players in that position wouldn’t get drafted – at least not in the first round, where the guaranteed money is – in any event. Among those who do come out early, a very significant proportion not only manage, but thrive. There are two others players who did not make the all-star team who deserve honorable mention here – Andre Drummond and De’Andre Jordan, because each is an emerging superstar. Both left college after one year.

Of course, Lebron wasn’t Lebron in his rookie season, nor was KD the KD no one can guard today. But on the day that each entered the league, they raised the level of play in the league. So did Love. And Howard. And Parker. And so on. If you are going to assess fairly whether an entire category of player – 18 and 19 year olds – improve or detract from the quality of play, you need some compelling evidence to make your case. I’ve not seen any presented.

The NBA’s owners may sincerely believe that they will be improving the overall product if they start barring players under 20. But they will be sincerely mistaken.

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5 comments

  1. (same comment as on WoW)

    Not arguing on the merits, but on the methodology.

    Taking all stars and showing that half of them had less than 1 year of college, therefore people with 1 year-or-less of college aren’t bad for the league, is a very specious argument.

    They are all stars. No one would dispute that they are the successful cases. So this post amounts to demonstrating that players can be successful, if you condition on the fact that they are sucessful!

    It’s like saying it’s easy to win the lottery, by considering a sample of … lottery winners. They all did it!

    A more serious methodology would be to look at the career of NBA players with or without college experience, and see if the college produced some significant gain (in performance on the court or in bankrupcy rate within 10 years of leaving the league or in kids out of wedlock or whatever).

    If you search for NBA bankrupt players list, you see:
    Charles Barkley (3 years at Auburn)
    Kenny Anderson (2 years, GATech)
    Latrell Sprewell (4 years, 2CC, 2 Alabama)
    Derrick Coleman (3 or 4 years, Syracuse)
    Scotty Pippen (4 years, Central Arkansas)
    Antoine Walker (2 years, Kentucky)
    Jason Caffey (4 years, Alabama)
    Eddy Curry (YEAH, NO COLLEGE!!!!)
    Allen Iverson (2 years, Georgetown)

    which means that: well, an extra year of college didn’t help these guys too much. But also being an All Star seems no guarantee about being ready to handle money (and/or fame), I’m pretty sure except for Caffey and Curry, they were all All-Stars (including two league MVP). There is one Michael Jordan who squandered a ton of money (All Star, league MVP, GOAT) but I guess he just had too much to hurt himself too much

    1. Ced,

      Thanks for the comment. Your bankruptcy mini study is great. It’s something I was going to look at.

      As for the all stars, a few points:

      1) yes, it was a very quick and dirty look at success. But the point is that it’s not just that well, look, some 0s and 1 s were all stars. In fact, the 0s and 1s might actually be an unusually successful cohort. (And I should have noted, since plenty of people want guys to have to stay in school three years, almost all the all stars would be drawn from a group of players who are being deemed presumptively unready to play in the league *at all* when they first entered).

      2) those pushing for raising the limit are insisting that those younger players aren’t merely worse *on average* when they first enter the league. No, they are saying that those players are so bad when they first enter, such a detriment to the league, that they must be barred altogether until they are older. Over half the all stars came into the league early *and* every single one of them quite obviously improved the level of play in the league on the day they entered it, not just years later. So, it’s not just that I found some successful cases. A large proportion of the most successful come from a cohort that we’re now hearing really hurts the league. I have some evidence that that is wrong on the upper end of the playing spectrum. I see none presented that the cohort is hurting level of play overall at the other end. So, you’re right. The issue deserves more systematic study. But I don’t think that’s been done at all. Those insisting that we raise the limit certainly haven’t presented any.

      3) those 13 are, by the way, a pretty high proportion of all 0s and 1s in the league. It’s just not the case that most players want to go into the draft as soon as possible. Only a small subset do this and, it appears, they may succeed at disproportionately high rates. Whatever else this means, it simply doesn’t lend any support to the claim that, as a group, they are hurting the league.

      It’s the over-the-top claims, unsupported by evidence, for how bad these players are for the NBA that I’m taking issue with.

      1. Andrew, You’re raising a good point here. The obsession with how a player “looks” is, as Money Ball nicely captured, a good way to get player evaluation wrong.

  2. This goes into people’s poor decision making skills. Money now is worth more than money later. I have always thought but athlete aren’t surrounded by the best support systems, sold on the college route, kids like the pampered attention they receive from college coaches, etc. I’m surprised leagues outside of the US aren’t taking these kids at younger ages and developing them. The evaluation system in sports is so inefficient. Watching a youtube clip of a guy or him running through cones is not the best way. The proof is in the production.
    This should give you guys a clue about how inconsistent the scouting is in basketball. Wade was the 103rd ranked player in the 2000 high school class but Deshawn Stevenson was the 7th ranked player. Stevenson went pro out of High School and Wade went to college. Chris Duhon was also tied at 7th and went to Duke. College does wonders for NBA players though.
    Bad player evaluation starts early. This is how players go undervalued. Scouts have to stop watching the game as much and look at the numbers. I didn’t have to watch a game to know that Anthony Davis was the best player in college his one and only year at Kentucky. Eventually I will exploit the league. ,

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