The goal of the NBA draft for general managers is to not screw up the pick. Nothing is as embarrassing—or career killing for a GM—as picking a bust with one of the top picks. The best GMs also find valuable assets later in the draft.
On Thursday night, in one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, there seem to be two potential franchise changers at the top—Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker—and another, Joel Embiid, whom general managers may be wary of because of injury concerns. The fear for the Cavaliers and the Bucks is that they get it wrong and end up with the next Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant. Other teams with later picks will be putting in their work to find the gems in this deep talent pool.
These dilemmas are why NBA decision-makers, including commissioner Adam Silver, would love nothing more than for the NBA to up its age limit to 20.
While there's probably some luck involved in whether a guy ends up on the path of Durant or Oden—and which year you have that top pick is key too—it would be short-sighted to say that the intelligent people who make these decisions would not benefit from seeing these players in school for another year or two.
To prove as much, I studied the last seven drafts* to see if there was any sort of connection between when a player leaves school and how much success he has in the league. With some players like a LeBron James or a Durant, they are freaks and it probably would have never mattered when they came out. But for most, the data backs up why it would be smart for the NBA to make guys stay in school longer.
For this study, I picked out the top six (when applicable**) players using win shares from four different age groups (those who stayed one year in school, stayed two years in school, stayed three years in school and those who stayed four or more years in school) for each draft class.
*The reason the first draft affected by the age limit, the 2006 draft, was not included was because the best talents in that freshman class age group had the opportunity to leave after high school in 2005. That diluted the talent pool that year.
**There were only four freshmen in the 2009 draft and only five sophomores in the 2007 draft.
The results should go in the back pockets of the owners when they're negotiating with the player's union.
Experience Leads to Production
Now, when I give these numbers without any sort of explanation, the data would actually suggest the opposite of what anyone arguing for an age limit intends. The most productive players have actually been those who come out early.
|Performance of NBA players based off when they declare|
|Games Played Per Season||Win Shares Per Season|
|Stayed in school 1 year||59.6||3.24|
|Stayed in school 2 years||59.6||3.01|
|Stayed in school 3 years||57.2||2.74|
|Stayed in school 4-5 years||61.0||2.92|
Now, let's add one more row. The final row is the average draft position for each class. For any qualifying players who went went undrafted, I put in a 61.
|Performance based on college experience and draft position|
|Games Played Per Season||Win Shares Per Season||Draft Position|
|Stayed in school 1 year||59.6||3.24||12.8|
|Stayed in school 2 years||59.6||3.01||15.8|
|Stayed in school 3 years||57.2||2.74||22.2|
|Stayed in school 4-5 years||61.0||2.92||34.1|
Obviously, the most talented players available are traditionally the young guys who come out of school early, and on average, a high pick is bound to perform better than a low pick. Someone like Durant has a big impact on these numbers. The careers of players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett can be used against the age-limit rule and likely influenced the data enough in this study to conclude elite talents are better off skipping college altogether.
But when you take the superstars out of the equation, the numbers show that you get more bang for your buck and fewer busts when picking experience.
To prove as much, let's take any top-five players out of the data pool and see how the numbers change.
|Eliminating top-five picks|
|Games Played Per Season||Win Shares Per Season||Draft Position|
|Stayed in school 1 year||58.7||2.57||18.5|
|Stayed in school 2 years||59.0||2.63||18.3|
|Stayed in school 3 years||54.7||2.69||25.0|
|Stayed in school 4-5 years||61.0||2.92||34.1|
When you make it past the first few picks of the draft where the elite talents are taken—traditionally those top-five picks—these numbers suggest it's actually more worthwhile to take a chance on a college veteran than a younger player who has probably been labeled an "upside guy."
Age Matters with Fliers
That last point goes against how many view the draft. It makes sense to take a chance on a young player with potential rather than a senior who we pretty much know what he is by the time he finishes college, right?
That sort of logic is how you end up with a wasted roster spot. It's also the danger of letting players leave after one season. Sure, there's potential there that he could get better, but there's also the potential that he'll never develop, and he's a project for a reason.
It's also misguided to believe a senior is what he is once he gets to the league. When you were 22 and just out of college, were you as good at your job as you are now? Probably not.
Let's take a look at a few guys who were lower picks probably because most of the league was convinced they lacked "potential" and have proven to be valuable assets.
Mason Plumlee (22nd pick in 2013 draft): After making second-team All-American as a senior, Plumlee slipped to 22 in the draft. In ESPN.com's Chad Ford's breakdown, it read that one negative was Plumlee "doesn't play a key role on the offense for Duke." He averaged 17.1 points per game as a senior, but apparently those aren't the numbers of a guy with a "key role." Plumlee was one of the NBA's most productive rookies this past year, averaging 7.4 points and leading all rookies in win shares (4.7).
Jared Sullinger (21st pick in 2012 draft): Sometimes, NBA teams fall in love with athleticism, and for good reason, most of the best players in the league are phenomenal athletes. But some guys who don't wow you with their speed or jumping ability are still great basketball players, and that's how Sullinger should have been viewed after two All-American seasons at Ohio State. Instead, in addition to concerns with his back, another reason given before the draft that Sullinger might slide was his predraft agility tests. The back was a reason to worry. Sullinger had to have back surgery midway through his rookie season, but he returned with the same old-man, below-the-rim game that killed it in college. He played in 73 games this past season and averaged 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Draymond Green (35th pick in 2012 draft): Much like Sullinger, Green was just a below-the-rim guy who didn't do anything flashy but was productive. He won Big Ten Player of the Year his senior season and filled up the stat sheet across the board. He's been a stat-stuffer minus the scoring in two seasons as a part-time starter in Golden State, putting up solid numbers in the rebounding (8.4 per 36 minutes) and assist (3.0 per 36 minutes this past year) departments.
Kenneth Faried (22nd pick in the 2011 draft): Kenneth Faried played at a small school (Morehead State) for four years, but there should have been no denying that he was an elite rebounder. Faried led the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage as a senior and finished in the top eight in both categories all fours years of college, per kenpom.com (subscription required). NBADraft.net's scouting report read that Faried was undersized to play the 4 and "scouts are less likely to give credence to standout stats against lesser opponents." Well, he's continued to rebound at an elite level in the NBA, averaging 8.6 boards per game for his career. He also ranks second in win shares in his draft class.
Chandler Parsons (38th pick in the 2011 draft): Parsons was the SEC player of the year as a senior and a proven shooter with good size (6'9") who didn't put up huge numbers in college. Parsons' game was obviously appreciated by SEC coaches as he won player of the year averaging 11.3 points per game. He's one guy who, as a senior, you could say had upside because his game and numbers have improved in the league. He's shot 37 percent from three for his career and averaged 14.1 points per game.
Isaiah Thomas (60th pick in 2011 draft): Thomas was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 draft, yet he has more win shares (17.1) in his career than No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving. No team would make the argument that they would rather have Thomas, but his size wasn't an issue in three years at Washington, and it hasn't held him back much in the league. Thomas has averaged 15.3 points and 4.8 assists in three seasons for the Kings.
Danny Green (46th pick in 2009 draft): Green is a guy who didn't have the complete game in college but had one elite skill (three-point shooting). He has become an integral part of the machine in San Antonio as the Spurs' three-point ace. He's shooting 42.1 percent from deep for his career.
Mario Chalmers (34th pick in the 2008 draft): How does the most valuable player on a national title team fall into the second round? Good question. Chalmers has been to four straight Finals as the Heat starting point guard.
Joakim Noah (9th pick in the 2007 draft): Noah was a fairly high draft pick at ninth overall, but it's puzzling how he lasted that long. It's almost as though if a guy isn't an elite scorer, he doesn't get picked in the top-five picks. Defense is an important part of the game too, and Noah was Florida's defensive anchor for back-to-back championship teams. He's been the same for the Bulls. In a redraft of that class, he'd likely go No. 2 behind Durant.
Age Limit is Good for Everyone
You can throw out as many numbers and feel-good stories as you want, but the argument against the against limit is never going to change.
Once a player is 18, many will argue, he should have the freedom to do what he wants. But the NBA, like any professional league or business, has the right to put restrictions on who they employ. It's not a question of whether they can impose an age limit, only whether they can get the players' union to agree to such a change.
The argument against the age limit from the players' standpoint is all about money. It takes longer to get to that second contract the longer they're in school, and the second contract is where quality players get their market value.
But here's the kicker: If a player comes into the league unprepared to contribute, he may never see a second contract, and another year of seasoning could only add to a guy's value for those players who don't flame out. So theoretically, staying in school could net a larger second contract.
The best talents are likely to have long careers regardless of when they start—see Mr. Tim Duncan—and they're only going to benefit if they are better prepared when they come into the league.
So if the NBA decision-makers get their way and end up bumping the age limit to 20, that's just the NBA looking out for its self-interest, which is quality of play. They don't have to look out for the exceptions to the rule. They get to make their rules, and the results suggest it would be good for business to keep kids in school for an extra year.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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