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5 Players Under 25 Who Are Already Past Their Prime

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2017

5 Players Under 25 Who Are Already Past Their Prime

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    The NBA is a rough league, and for the most part, once players hit their 30s things start to head downhill. Obviously, there are a few exceptions. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant have retained their killer effectiveness late into their careers. But even they have shown signs of decline over the past handful of seasons.

    Of course, it’s not a revelation that as players get to the wrong side of 30, their skills start to diminish.

    But in some cases, NBA players’ skills don’t erode slowly as they get older. And sometimes, the decline begins well before anyone expects. Players whose games survive on athleticism are particularly prone to a relatively early decline, while a devastating injury can knock years off of a player’s peak, too.

    Nothing lasts forever, but sometimes, fate snatches away a few prime years from young players that otherwise would have enjoyed many more peak-level seasons. For these rare cases, their career years come and go prematurely, often in their early 20s. And while other players go on to deliver on the promise of their first few seasons with a normal career arc that takes them through their late 20s, these guys put up a few good—and in some cases, great—seasons before their skills disappear.

    These guys will probably still go on to have long careers, but their best seasons are already behind them.

    Here are five players under the age of 25 who are already past their prime.

Tyreke Evans

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    Evans burst onto the scene in 2009-10 and posted a phenomenal rookie season. He averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds as a 20-year-old. Evans primarily played point guard in his first season, and his exceptional size for his position (6’6” and 220 pounds) made him an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses.

    He used that size to dominate around the basket and draw fouls at a high rate. Evans shot almost seven free-throws per game that year. Toss in a solid 46 percent from the field and 1.5 steals per game, and it’s easy to see why he easily nabbed the Rookie of the Year award.

    But Evans’ numbers declined across the board in each of his next two seasons. The Kings took the ball out of his hands in the middle of the 2011-12 season, thinking he’d rediscover his form, but his poor outside shot was even more exposed when he was asked to score more often on the catch.

    Now, at age 23, Evans is looking to reverse a three-year downward trend. But his bad habits seem to have increased as he’s aged, which is a troubling sign. According to ESPN’s John Hollinger, Evans “still doesn’t run back on defense, while offensively he tends to pound the ball and settles too easily for jumpers.”

    Surrounded by a terrible team and individually trending the wrong way, Tyreke Evans won’t see another season as good as his first one. At just 23, he’s past his prime.

Jeremy Lin

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    Whether or not you agree that Jeremy Lin has already had his best statistical season, there’s no question he’s already enjoyed his most notable one.

    Lin, now a Houston Rocket, captured the attention of the entire sporting world during a February run with the New York Knicks that saw him average 20.9 points, 8.4 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.1 steals in 14 games. Linsanity swept the nation.

    But Lin regressed during March as his field-goal percentage dropped and his turnover problems persisted. Still, he ended the season with respectable averages of 14.6 points and 6.2 assists. Because he’s due to get consistent playing time for a terrible team in Houston this year, it’s possible that Lin’s per-game averages will be in the neighborhood of what he did in New York.

    But if you think he’s ever going to sniff a PER of 19.97 again, you’re dreaming. Lin’s suspect outside shot and ghastly ball security make it highly unlikely that he can repeat his per-minute production of 2011-12. Lin probably proved last year that he belongs in the NBA, but saying he’s anything more than an end-of-the-bench player simply ignores the very real evidence that he’s got serious skill limitations.

    Lin is a joy to root for and has earned the league’s respect by playing with a terrific motor. But he’ll never recapture the magic of his February run and there’s little chance he’ll be an above-average player going forward.

    At age 24, we’ve definitely already seen the best of Jeremy Lin.

Blake Griffin

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    Blake Griffin has endured three knee surgeries since he entered the NBA, with the first being significant enough to cost him his entire rookie season. Persistent knee problems would be an issue for any young player, but for Griffin, they’re potentially catastrophic.

    Nobody in the history of the NBA has been able to play with Griffin's athletic ferocity for more than a handful of years. It's simply impossible to remain as strong and springy as Griffin for very long. Age will eventually get to Griffin—and the trio of knee surgeries might mean it catches up to him sooner than later.

    Griffin has tossed up two phenomenal years for the Clippers, but he’s done it with athleticism unprecedented for his size. What happens when his knees no longer allow him to simply jump over and through the opposition? With virtually no post moves and a career free-throw percentage below 60 percent, Griffin could struggle mightily if he loses his bounce.

    And forget about turning into a jump-shot artist. Last year, Griffin made just 27.7 percent of his shots from 10-to-15 feet and 37 percent from 16-to-23 feet. He’ll need a mechanical overhaul in his shot before those figures change.

    Griffin is just 23 years old, but his specific style of play doesn’t lend itself to longevity. As gravity starts to kick in, Griffin will struggle to adjust. And considering just how spectacular his first two seasons were, he’s unlikely to reach those heights again—especially as his hops disappear.

O.J. Mayo

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    Like Tyreke Evans, O.J. Mayo may have shown us his best as a rookie. After averaging 18.5 points, 3.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds in his first year, Mayo hasn’t improved. In fact, he’s done the opposite. Here’s Hollinger’s take:

    It's been four years, and Mayo has hardly improved since his first day in Memphis—in particular, the outside shooting stroke that seemed so promising his rookie year has failed to progress. Mayo's 3-point and free throw marks have been on a steady southward trajectory since his rookie season, which is troubling because his best hope of becoming a star was as a Reggie Miller-type shooter. That's not happening.

    Mayo’s in Dallas now and is slated to start for the Mavs at shooting guard. That could help his overall numbers, as he was relegated to the bench in his final two years in Memphis. But there’s simply no reason to believe he’ll improve his efficiency or outside shooting.

    Plus, Mayo simply hasn’t ever had anything more than average NBA athleticism. So as he ages, he’ll find it increasingly difficult to draw fouls—something he’s terrible at already—and create space for his jumper.

    He’ll continue to be a solid backup-level combo guard in the NBA, but at 24, Mayo has already started to head downhill.

Derrick Rose

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    This one is the easiest to predict and the saddest to accept.

    During his brief career, Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose has proven himself to be a uniquely humble man, a committed winner and a spectacular talent. He's the total package—the best the NBA has to offer.

    Which is why it's so devastating that his prime is already behind him.

    Part of the reason why we've already seen the best of Derrick Rose is that he's already reached the highest level of NBA stardom after winning the NBA's 2010-11 Most Valuable Player award. In other words, it would be hard for him improve on being, by definition, the best player alive.

    But, obviously, the other factor that affects Rose is the gut-wrenching knee injury he suffered in last year's playoffs. Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the Bulls' first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Naturally, his team suffered without him, falling to the eighth-seeded Sixers in six games. For Chicago fans, losing that series felt insignificant in comparison to losing Rose, as there hasn't been a more hard-working, beloved Bull since No. 23 was collecting rings.

    Rose is rehabbing with the tenacity everyone would expect, but his return is still up in the air, with Chicago GM Gar Forman only able to say that Rose might return sometime this season.

    Even after Rose eventually returns, he's in a somewhat similar position to Blake Griffin, in that he depends heavily on his athleticism to be successful. Rose relies on his otherworldly ability to power into the lane, stop on a dime and aggressively elevate at the rim. If that leaves him, he won't be the same player he was.

    As unfair as it seems, Derrick Rose is past his prime at the tender age of 24.

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