NBA Veterans: Is It the Years or the Mileage?

Andrew UngvariSenior Writer IFebruary 28, 2008

One of the most memorable lines in movie history comes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marion, says to Indiana Jones, "You're not the man I knew ten years ago."

Indy replies, "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

In 1995, Kevin Garnett became the first high school senior in 20 years to bypass college and jump directly to the NBA. It hadn't happened since 1975, when Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were drafted by the 76ers and Hawks, respectively.

There were a few players, like Shawn Kemp and Lloyd Daniels, who had enrolled in college but never played collegiate basketball before being drafted, but Garnett was the first since '75 to make the immediate jump.

Garnett's currently in his 12th season in the NBA and has shown very little drop-off in how effective he is on the basketball court. Even though his averages in points and rebounds are a little off from last season, that can be attributed more to the talent that now surrounds him in Boston more so than the fact that he's a year older.

A year after Garnett's historical leap, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal followed him to the NBA. Although O'Neal's career has been sidetracked the last two seasons because of various injuries, it's safe to say that Bryant is still in the prime of his career.

While Garnett won the MVP award for the 2003-2004 season, both he and Bryant are considered leading candidates to win the award this season since both have led their teams to the best record in their respective conferences up to this point in the season.

It will be interesting to see, in the next couple of years, if it's the years or the mileage that determines when those NBA players who made the jump straight from high school start to show a dramatic decrease in production.

Tim Duncan, for example, played four years at Wake Forest before entering the NBA. Even though he's been in the NBA for two fewer years than Garnett and one fewer year than Bryant, he's a month older than Garnett and more than two years older than Bryant.

Has Duncan's production decreased at all? I don't think so, considering he won his fourth championship ring this past season and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

To date, Garnett has played 177 more regular season games in his career than Duncan has but Duncan has played in 91 more playoff games than Garnett.

Since both men are very similar in size and both are in optimum shape, the two will serve as the perfect comparison for which is more telling, the years or the mileage.

Hakeem Olajuwon, although heavier, was similar in size to both Garnett and Duncan. He came into the NBA in 1984 at the age of 22. He left the University of Houston after his junior season but he redshirted his freshman year so he'd been there for four years.

Olajuwon played 18 seasons in the NBA, retiring at the age of 39. If you take a close look at Olajuwon's career numbers, you'll notice the steep drop-off in his numbers that occurred from the 1996-1997 to the 1997-1998 season. He missed 35 games due to injury. Even though he was playing only two fewer minutes per game that season, his averages in rebounding stayed the same but his points per game went from 23 to 16.

The following season (1998-99), at age 36, the Rockets added Scottie Pippen to the team. Olajuwon's points increased to about 19 per game and he had appeared in all 50 games that season. You can make the case that the lockout provided Dream with a longer off-season with which to fully recover as well as a shorter season to keep his averages up. It was also the last good year that he'd played.

During the last three years of this career, Olajuwon never missed fewer than 21 games because of injuries.

So if you were to use his last productive and complete season as a barometer, then we're talking about his 13th season when he was 34.

Duncan turns 32 in April. Garnett turns 32 in May. Keep your eyes on these two over the next three seasons—how they're able to perform and what type of drop-off they experience will determine a lot in trying to settle the years vs. mileage debate.

Will it be the 35-year-old Garnett with 15 years of experience or the 35-year-old Duncan with only 13?

It's a much different story when you talk about guards than it is when you talk about bigs. The closest collegiate contemporary you could compare Kobe to is Vince Carter.

Carter entered the league two seasons after Kobe did. Carter and Bryant are the same height and Carter weighs about 20 more pounds than Bryant. Both players started out as high-flyers and have become much more perimeter-oriented as their careers have matured and injuries have taken their toll

Carter played three years at the University of North Carolina and is 18 months older than Bryant.

It's extremely tempting to try and compare their numbers to those of Michael Jordan, but at the same time, it would be irresponsible considering Air Jordan left the game still peaking at age 34 before resuming his career at 38.

The better comparison would be Clyde Drexler, who entered the NBA after three years of college ball and retired after 15 seasons at age 35.

Drexler experienced the biggest drop-off in his averages between his 9th and 10th seasons at the age of 30. His points per game dropped by about five to 19 per game and his shooting percentage went from 47 to 42. His three-point percentage went from 34 to 23 percent.

His numbers did increase the following season to about 22 points per game on 46 percent shooting, 36 percent from behind the arc.

But the following three seasons, Drexler missed 30, 20 and 12 games due to injury. He retired with very respectable numbers in his final season but injuries had clearly taken their toll and Drexler decided not to return for the lockout-shortened season of 1999.

It was at age 33, in his 13th season that Drexler missed those 30 games and his durability became an issue. It wasn't so much about how productive he could be when playing but how many games he could actually play.

Kobe will be 30 when he begins his thirteenth season next fall. Carter will turn 32 next January in the middle of his eleventh season. 

Over the next two seasons, how those two compare to Drexler will give us an idea of how the mileage vs. years debate relates to wing players.

Between 1995 and 2005 a number of players made the jump directly from high school. Some of the more notable names are Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, Al Harrington, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.

Since the NBA decided to no longer allow it, all of the players who would have made the jump have had to attend colleges. Most of them will only go for one year. So whatever the next couple years tells us about the high school kids from 1995 and 1996 will probably apply to the one-and-done college kids as well.

As a die-hard fan of the NBA, I would love it if all of those guys were able to play into their late 30s. We can only hope that Father Time is as big a fan as I am.