Would You Rather Have NBA's Youngest or Oldest Player at Each Position?
The best NBA players tend to occupy a sweet spot between youth and experience. Still peaking athletically but seasoned enough to master the mental rigors of basketball played at the highest level, these guys, usually in their mid-20s, have it all.
If you're building a team or simply projecting who'll perform best next season, they're the ones you want.
Anything before or after that mid-20s prime is about concessions. A kid who jumps out of the gym may not be able to stop his head from spinning on defense. The old dude who reads the floor perfectly needs to get his joints greased up enough to move.
Looking only at next season, we'll measure the clueless youths who'll bounce around like they're filled with diced-up Superballs against the geriatric vets who might or might not explode into a cloud of dust if they try to grab a rebound without several hours of pre-emptive massage.
Which would you rather have for next season: the youngest player at each position or the oldest?
Oldest: Jason Terry, Milwaukee Bucks, 39
Terry is strictly a shooting specialist but slots in here because he played 58 percent of his minutes at the point last season. Currently drawing interest from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Gery Woelfel of the Journal Times, Terry could also return to the Bucks after the team freed up a roster spot by stretching Spencer Hawes.
Limited in his contributions, Terry hit 42.7 percent of his threes last year. No active player has more made treys, and only Ray Allen and Reggie Miller are ahead of him on the all-time list.
Terry does one thing really well and hurts you in most other areas. He also probably can't be counted on for more than the 18.4 minutes per game he logged in 2016-17.
Youngest: Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks, 19
Born July 28, 1998, the Knicks rookie is a full 60 days younger than top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who checks in as the second-youngest point guard this year.
Ntilikina has a relatively unobstructed path to major playing time in New York. Ron Baker and Ramon Sessions stand between him and a starting role. Though it's always difficult to guess how well rookies will adjust to the heightened competition of the NBA, it's safe to assume Ntilikina will spend a significant portion of his age-19 season thoroughly overwhelmed.
He has the size and feel to contribute, though. And he profiles as a disruptive defender who should force turnovers and clog passing lanes at 6'5" with a 7'0" wingspan.
It's not always a great sign when Phil Jackson champions your selection because of the way you fit into a system (read: triangle offense). But at least it means you can probably do a little bit of everything.
If Terry could do enough on defense to stay on the floor and offer higher scoring volume, he'd be a real weapon. But if I'm picking a player for next year, I need someone who'll do something on both ends and produce over a larger sample of minutes.
Deep breath...give me the kid.
Oldest: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs, 40
Argentina is a developed nation with emerging tech sectors and a refined culture, but it is also home to an ancient ritual few know of.
It is said adolescent boys are made to watch Manu Ginobili whip nutmeg passes through defenders' legs and dunk on players half his age, and this teaches them what it means to be a man. It's a time-honored rite of passage.
Also, many smaller rural villages baptize babies only with water drawn from the tap of Ginobili's childhood home. Every child so blessed automatically becomes left-handed and three times as competitive.
If you actually care more about basketball than Manu apocrypha, Ginobili was the only guy in the league last year (of any age) with an assist percentage over 20, a steal rate over 3.2 and at least a 39.1 percent conversion rate from deep. He remains special as he enters his fifth decade of life.
And you can't necessarily assume the reason he plays just 18.7 minutes per game is because he can't do more. The Spurs manage his minutes as carefully as anyone's, but in the seven regular-season games in which he played at least 24 minutes, Ginobili combined to shoot 13-of-28 from long range. That's 46.4 percent, which tops his overall figure on the year.
If you need him to play a bigger role, he can do it.
Youngest: Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder, 19
Ferguson's peers rated him the second-most athletic and third-best shooter among incoming first-year players in the NBA's annual rookie survey, which...sure. The rookies voting in last year's survey also thought Kris Dunn would win Rookie of the Year, so, at the risk of emphasizing a point that should need little underscoring, teenagers have bad judgment.
Ferguson does, too. Nothing major—all he did was needle the Thunder after Klay Thompson torched them in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City subsequently drafted him anyway.
Potentially an end-of-bench option but more likely a frequent visitor to OKC's G League affiliate, the rookie has a long way to go after skipping college and spending last year playing professionally in Australia.
I will do anything necessary to celebrate Manu. Full disclosure: I'd take Ginobili over several All-Stars this year. I am clearly not reasonable about him, but I feel pretty safe taking him over a 19-year-old made up of nothing but question marks.
Winner: As if there were any doubt. Ginobili.
Oldest: Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings, 40
This would have been easier if we were using Carter's age-38 or -39 seasons, in which he played only about 16 minutes per game and wasn't a frightening shooter from deep.
But then, at 40 last year, Carter had to go and hit 37.8 percent from three-point range while playing solid defense in 24.6 minutes per game. While it's hard to expect that again, it's not unreasonable to think he might produce 20 league-average minutes per game in his 20th season.
That might be all it takes to win this.
There's immense value in a two-way stalwart with smarts, a willingness to play the role his team needs and enough outside shooting to make a difference against any defense. Even if Carter's the oldest guy in the NBA, it'll take an exceptional teenager to outproduce him next year.
Youngest: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics, 19
So let's just ask: Is Tatum exceptional?
The best answer is probably "not yet."
A blue-chip prospect the Celtics believed in strongly enough to draft third overall, Tatum has ultra-advanced individual scoring skills. Deft footwork, a smooth mid-range game and unteachable post-up feel make him a one-on-one problem for defenders of any size.
But one-dribble pull-ups from 19 feet are out of favor. And even post-ups are less efficient than the shots most smart offenses hunt. That means Tatum might be the kind of player who looks dominant individually but doesn't help you win.
Born March 3, 1998, he's got a long time to improve.
For now, though, he'll likely be a substandard defensive player who has little trouble creating bad looks on offense. That "something out of nothing" knack is valuable, but it won't be enough to erase all the scouting takes on Tatum's one-dimensional game.
B/R's Jonathan Wasserman said it way back in July: "He's a one-on-one stud—occasionally to a fault. Though praised for his ability to create and score against set half-court defenses, he's knocked for relying on low-percentage looks and a tendency to halt ball movement."
Tatum will be an offensive weapon who should develop other skills. But expecting him to produce at a league-average rate this season is a mistake.
Oldest: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks, 39
There are two Dirks in Basketball Reference's database: Nowitzki and Minniefield. The latter played three seasons in the mid-80s and is currently 56 years old.
I'm honestly not sure which Dirk would win a footrace held today.
Immobile as he may be, Nowitzki can still fill it up. He averaged 14.2 points in 26.4 minutes per game in his 19th season. No longer a full-time offensive hub, he's still dangerous enough in the mid-post and as a spot-up shooter to require special attention. Smaller defenders are still toast when he catches the ball at the elbow.
If you are under 6'10", Nowitzki will still flamingo-legged fallaway your ass into next Tuesday.
Defense is a massive challenge for Nowitzki these days, and he spent 50 percent of his 2016-17 minutes at center because even the most lumbering 4s were too quick. (He slots in here as a power forward because he's spent 69 percent of his minutes at that spot during his career.)
Good news for Nowitzki's chances to win this matchup, though: Young players—big men especially—are generally bad on D as well.
Youngest: Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns, 19
Our first non-rookie and the youngest second-year player in the league, Bender is here because Harry Giles and Tony Bradley (both younger) aren't positionally certain yet. They look like centers for now, and Bender spent 69 percent of his minutes at the 4 last year.
And he played those minutes poorly!
That's to be expected for a teenager, and it's encouraging to note Bender's year-over-year summer league statistics reflect improvement.
With Bender, everything is still speculative. Can his loping stride and surprising court vision make him a playmaking 7-footer who thrives in transition? Might he one day defend three positions ably? Can he become a three-point shooter worth running at, and can he attack those closeouts with conviction?
The answers fall somewhere on the "maybe to probably" spectrum, but we won't get clarity for several more years.
Nowitzki's more certain and projectable contributions make him the easy choice.
Oldest: Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat, 37
Haslem, 6'8", definitely plays center, having logged 97 percent of his minutes at the position last year. It's just that he so rarely plays at all. He saw the floor for just 130 minutes spread over 16 games.
To be fair, he's not really on the roster to play. He's a locker-room leader of the highest caliber—one revered enough to win the Heat's Teammate of the Year award.
Back for one more season at the veteran's minimum, Haslem's role could become almost entirely ceremonial. Miami has Hassan Whiteside at center and added Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo to the 5-spot rotation.
Youngest: Ike Anigbogu, Indiana Pacers, 18
Born October 22, 1998, Anigbogu will be the only 18-year-old in the league when the 2017-18 season tips off—if only for a week or so. The only active players who started their careers at a younger age are Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Amir Johnson and CJ Miles.
Anigbogu is an exceptionally raw prospect out of UCLA who, at this point, is little more than a lob threat with the physical tools to become an active interior defender. He's too underdeveloped to do much on offense, and it may be two or three years before he gets enough reps to properly harness his athleticism and convert into defensive productivity.
But could he play more than Haslem's 130 minutes? Sixty-seven first-year players did that last season.
And might he score more than the 31 points Haslem managed? Sixty-nine rookies did it a year ago.
With the bar to outproducing Haslem set so low, Anigbogu should be more valuable on the floor this year. So with apologies to the sacredness of locker-room leadership, I'm taking the teenager over Haslem.