Since Kevin Garnett began the current run of teenagers entering the NBA Draft in 1995, the media and the league itself have always regarded these players wearily. As the ranks of high schoolers in the draft continue to swell, with 13 declaring early this year, that weariness has turned into open opposition. That attitude was all too evident during ESPN's coverage of last Wednesday's Draft Lottery, with hosts Mike Tirico, Tom Tolbert, and Jay Bilas joining their guest, NBA commissioner David Stern, to recount the woes high-schoolers have brought upon the league.
I'm going to use these two articles, particularly the Kelley column, as a starting point to provide my own counter-argument. I want to emphasize here that I'm not singling out either author or Haywood; my concern is the bigger attitude, pervasive amongst older generations, that they represent.
"He was ready. But he believes, too many of the players in today's drafts aren't ready — either emotionally or fundamentally." - Kelley
Let's try to gauge the NBA readiness of high schoolers. What I've done is compare all the high schoolers selected since 1995 with the first player selected after them who would have been eligible for the draft had there been an age limit (for example, Peja Stojakovic is out), looking at minutes. In the cases where two high schoolers were selected consecutively, I used the comparison twice. Minutes are not, of course, a perfect proxy for performance -- the quality of the team also matters, and high school players might get extra minutes to develop them. It should, however, provide a rough guide for NBA readiness.
There is a pretty clear difference in the players' first seasons. The non-high schoolers averaged nearly twice as many minutes as rookies, 1546 to 789. What is actually more striking about the subsequent results is not the evident development of the high schoolers, who play 65% more minutes in year two and make gains in years three and four as well, but the non-development of the non-high schoolers. By year four, Reeves was slipping because of a back injury, Wallace had played 1,000 minutes for the last time, McCoy was virtually out of the league, and Fizer and Tsakalidis were bit players (Szczerbiak and Fortson both played reduced minutes because of injuries).
The two most important points: By year three, the high schoolers are playing almost the same amount as the non-high schoolers, and eight of the 22 high schoolers were productive regulars as rookies.
A third point worth making is that it generally does not take several years to figure out how good a high-schooler is going to be. The only players who didn't play 1,000 minutes in their second year to have success so far have been Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington (sorry, but I'm not putting Jonathan Bender in the successful category yet).
A fourth point is that the failures amongst teenage picks receive far more attention than others. The tragic nature of Leon Smith's breakdown in Dallas brought it attention, but as a professional basketball player, Smith has been more successful than the player taken after him, John Celestand. When was the last time you heard about Celestand failing to pan out? Sam Jacobson? John Wallace?
There is a point that the anti-high schoolers can make, and it's that as increasing numbers of high schoolers have declared for the draft, about the same number have been ready to play in the league. The others, like the four non-LeBron high schoolers picked last year, have not made immediate contributions. It remains to be seen whether they ever will.
"And if anyone needs proof, all he has to do is look at tapes of the train wreck that is the Eastern Conference finals. Sure the defenses of the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers have been fierce. But the offense has looked like so much statuary in a billionaire's garden." - Kelley
Okay, if there was one thing in Kelley's column that bothered me, it was this, a red herring of the highest order. High-school early entrants are responsible for the defensive mindset of the Pacers and Pistons?
Rasheed Wallace played two years at Carolina, so the only Detroit player who would even have been affected by an age limit is oft-maligned Darko Milicic, who has yet to play in this series. On the Indiana side, we have a trio of key high schoolers, O'Neal, Harrington, and Bender. One of these players, of course, was an All-NBA second-teamer, while one finished second in Sixth Man Award voting.
Together, O'Neal, Harrington, and Bender have played 30% of Indiana's minutes in this series and scored 39% of the Pacers' points. Their combined line is 39.6% from the field, 76.7% from the free-throw line, and 40% from downtown for a 46.8% true shooting percentage. The Pacers' non-high schoolers have combined for 32.0% from the field, 79.4% from the line, 24.7% from downtown, and a 41.5% true shooting percentage.
If early entry is the problem, what is one to make of Jamaal Tinsley (Iowa State '01) shooting 33.3%? Of Austin Croshere (Providence '97) shooting 26.9%? Of Jeff Foster (Southwest Texas State '99) shooting 25%?
"He'd fit right into the modern NBA," wrote Ryan of a college coach, "where most coaches are only happy if the other team has the ball. Offense, to them, is a nuisance, a quirky thing they can't quite control.
Blame the coaches who have their teams playing at a snail's pace and beating each other up instead of looking for easy baskets, not their charges.
"Then when the players do develop, they leave. Like Jermaine O'Neal did in Portland and Tracy McGrady did in Toronto." - Haywood
The case of McGrady would be a serious strike against high schoolers, except for this important point -- the rules have already been changed to prevent that situation from recurring. During the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, players were only tied to their teams for three years. Now, it's at least four years, with the team essentially guaranteed a fifth if it so desires -- a player cannot become an unrestricted free agent until after his fifth year, plenty of time for him to develop.
A bigger concern is that, as I explained in this recent column, it's important to get production while a player is on that rookie contract, when he is at his cheapest. However, I've already noted that the production difference during the first four years high schoolers are in the league doesn't appear that large.
As for the Blazers, they traded O'Neal for a 31-year-old center coming off of an All-Star appearance. Many felt Dale Davis might be the piece Portland needed to get past the Los Angeles Lakers and win a championship. That it didn't work out quite that well shouldn't be held against O'Neal.
"Haywood's case changed the league. It gave young players who were ready an opportunity to earn a living earlier in their careers. But the system is out of control. The league has gotten too young." - Kelley
You know, I was actually all prepared to give this point, but I decided I wanted to look at the numbers anyway, mostly because I can. There are to ways to study the average age of the NBA. One is to literally take the average of all players on rosters. I got this data from Patricia Bender, who has it on her Web site dating back to 1995-96. The other way is to find the effective age of the league by weighting each player's age by their minutes played and dividing by the league's total minutes played. I can do this going back basically as far as I want. Based on the results I found, I went back to 1985-86. The results are striking:
While the NBA's average age has declined dramatically, nearly a year on average from its modern peak in 1998-99, it remains higher than it was during any of the last four seasons of the 1980s -- the NBA's supposed golden age. I don't recall what little I read in the newspaper back then, but I'm willing to bet there weren't a lot of columns bemoaning the league's youth. Ironically, the two things that appear to be closely associated with age increases -- expansion (which occurred in 1989, 1990, and 1996) and the lockout (1999) -- are both also considered to cause worse play on the court. Funny, isn't it?
"Drafting a high-school player can be a simple task for an NBA general manager, at least for the ones who selected Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and LeBron James.
But it can also be a crapshoot. The Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards drafted Tyson Chandler and Kwame Brown, respectively, in 2001 and are still seeking consistency from them. The Indiana Pacers seemingly have waited forever for a contribution from Jonathan Bender, who was picked in 1999." - Juliano
Basically, Juliano appears to be arguing that it's more difficult to figure out how high schoolers will end up developing -- definitely a reasonable proposition. I do think, in this light, that the NBA's ability to sort out these players has been rather impressive. If you look at the picks in a single class, for example, I think the only case where you could even argue that a superior player was passed for another high schooler is Rashard Lewis going behind Al Harrington in 1998. (Of course, the trio of late first-rounders from last year has yet to sort itself out.)
Additionally, the NBA has generally not selected players without any NBA ability. Cisse and Young, of course, played a combined 25 minutes, but you can't have high expectations for players drafted in the middle of the second round or below. (Ignore for the moment that Young went directly ahead of Cuttino Mobley; that's a coincidence. The pick after both of them was NCAA star Miles Simon, who played four more minutes than Young as a rookie and likewise hasn't made it back to the NBA.)
Where I think this argument has a lot of merit is in terms of the relative value of high school picks to college and international players. Between 1995 and 1998, NBA teams were clearly cautious when it came to drafting teenagers, and the teams that passed up on Garnett, Bryant, and McGrady regretted doing so. As a result, teams started picking high schoolers much earlier -- too early in the case of Bender and the 2001 Draft. It appears there was an instant backlash to the four high schoolers taken in the 2001 lottery, and the talented Amaré Stoudemire was a steal in 2002.
Unfortunately, we can't really say whether high schoolers are under- or overvalued until after the draft, so it's a risky guessing game for GMs to figure it out. How important is it to guess right or wrong? Last year, I introduced a method for analyzing draft picks based on the overall quality of the draft class and the average value of the pick the player was taken with.
Following is the rating of the high school picks (the "rating" number is the player's adjusted career Value Over Replacement Player divided by the average of all the picks in that draft minus the expected multiple for that pick):
Player Draft Pk Rate
Kevin Garnett 1995 6 5.4
Kobe Bryant 1996 13 4.2
Jermaine O'Neal 1996 17 1.1
Tracy McGrady 1997 9 6.5
Al Harrington 1998 25 0.0
Rashard Lewis 1998 30 3.0
Korleone Young 1998 40 -0.2
Jonathan Bender 1999 5 -2.6
Leon Smith 1999 29 -0.6
Darius Miles 2000 3 -1.2
DeShawn Stevenson 2000 23 -2.2
Kwame Brown 2001 1 -2.6
Tyson Chandler 2001 2 -1.2
Eddy Curry 2001 4 1.5
DeSagana Diop 2001 8 -3.4
Ousmane Cisse 2001 46 0.0
Amare Stoudemire 2002 9 7.6
LeBron James 2003 1 10.5
Travis Outlaw 2003 23 -0.8
Ndudi Ebi 2003 26 -0.8
Kendrick Perkins 2003 27 -0.3
James Lang 2003 48 0.0
Average (1995-98) 2.9
Average (1999-2001) -1.4
Average (2002-03) 2.7
Through 1998, Young was the only player who hasn't outperformed expectations for his pick, while Garnett, Bryant, and McGrady all ranked amongst the best picks of the 90s. Since then, only Curry, Stoudemire, and James have. That's a dramatic juxtaposition (although it should be noted that as these young players develop, their scores will improve).
An age limit would almost certainly make life easier for NBA front offices. However, this is not the job of the NBA. Its role is to ensure a quality, economical product on the court, and the evidence does not indicate that high-school players are holding the league back in that effort. I always love it when people claim coming to the league early has hurt the development of high schoolers. Really, how much better could Garnett, Bryant, McGrady, and O'Neal be?
"The Page 23 Club"
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Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis.
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