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Hype Trumps Facts in High School Debate
By Kevin Pelton
May 1, 2004, 18:14
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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.

In last Sunday's sports section of my local paper, the Seattle Times, there were no less than two articles about the problems caused by the NBA's teenagers. Columnist Steve Kelley spoke with the man more or less responsible for high schoolers being able to enter the draft, Spencer Haywood, about his change of heart. There was also a syndicated article by Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer centered on 76ers coach Jim O'Brien's reticence to pick a teenager.

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.

    Player            Draft  Pk   Yr1   Yr2   Yr3   Yr4
    Kevin Garnett      1995   6  2293  2995  3222  2919*
    Kobe Bryant        1996  13  1103  2056  3109* 2524
    Jermaine O'Neal    1996  17   458   808   508*  859  
    Tracy McGrady      1997   9  1179  1813* 2462  3087
    Al Harrington      1998  25   262*  854  1892  1313
    Rashard Lewis      1998  30   238* 1575  2720  2584
    Korleone Young     1998  40    25*    0     0     0
    Jonathan Bender    1999   5   130   574  1647   819
    Leon Smith         1999  29     0     0   100     0
    Darius Miles       2000   3  2133  2228  2007  2079
    DeShawn Stevenson  2000  23   293  1134   760  2443
    Kwame Brown        2001   1   818  1774  2236     -
    Tyson Chandler     2001   2  1389  1826   783     -
    Eddy Curry         2001   4  1150  1571  2154     -
    DeSagana Diop      2001   8   109   944   730     -
    Ousmane Cisse      2001  46     0     0     0     -
    Amare Stoudemire   2002   9  2570  2024     -     -
    LeBron James       2003   1  3122     -     -     -
    Travis Outlaw      2003  23    19     -     -     -
    Ndudi Ebi          2003  26    32     -     -     -
    Kendrick Perkins   2003  27    35     -     -     -
    James Lang         2003  48     0     -     -     -
    Average                       789  1304  1521  1863
    Player            Draft  Pk   Yr1   Yr2   Yr3   Yr4
    Bryant Reeves      1995   7  2460  2477  2527  1151
    Steve Nash         1996  15   684  1664  2081* 1532
    John Wallace       1996  18   787  2361  1332*  798
    Danny Fortson      1997  10  1811  2323*  856   201
    Sam Jacobson       1998  26    20*  681    59     0
    Jelani McCoy       1998  31   543*  746  1143   104
    Cuttino Mobley     1998  41  2388* 2496  3002  3117
    Wally Szczerbiak   1999   6  2171  2856  3117  1836
    John Celestand     1999  30   185     0     0     0
    Marcus Fizer       2000   4  1580  1963   809   738
    Jake Tsakalidis    2000  25   947  1582   543   533
    Pau Gasol          2001   3  3007  2948  2458     -
    Pau Gasol          2001   3  3007  2948  2458     -
    Jason Richardson   2001   5  2629  2696  2937     -
    Joe Johnson        2001  10  1916  2255  3333     -
    Antonis Fotsis     2001  47   319     0     0     -
    Caron Butler       2002  10  2858  2029     -     -
    Dwyane Wade        2003   5  2127     -     -     -
    Leandrinho Barbosa 2003  28  1500     -     -     -
    Leandrinho Barbosa 2003  28  1500     -     -     -
    James Jones        2003  49    26     -     -     -
    Average                      1546  1884  1666   910
    * Pro-rated to 82 games because of lockout

    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%?

    Count me firmly alongside the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan in explaining this trend.

    "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:

    Year    EffAge   AvgAge
    2004    27.924   27.230
    2003    28.218   27.310
    2002    28.343   27.490
    2001    28.626   27.937
    2000    28.736   27.997
    1999    28.847   28.067
    1998    28.636   28.068
    1997    28.634   27.726
    1996    28.471   27.539
    1995    28.150
    1994    28.119
    1993    28.036
    1992    28.106
    1991    28.092
    1990    27.978
    1989    27.790
    1988    27.702
    1987    27.517
    1986    27.691

    For visual learners, here's a graph:

    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                       1.1
    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"

    One of the unfortunate things about this column is that, because of my schedule, I can't commit myself to a specific day or time for publishing columns. To help my readers, I've started an e-mail list. If you want, you'll receive an e-mail whenever a new column is up with an introduction to the column and a link. If you're interested, e-mail me at kpelton@hoopsworld.com and let me know. I will, of course, make every effort to protect the privacy of your e-mail address.

  • 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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