The more the question of age limits is debated, the more the conversation deteriorates. Echoing Jerry West, Charles Barkley said the other morning that the quality of play in the NBA is "the worst it's ever been." And the number one reason for that, he asserted, is all those guys coming into the league who've played zero or one year of college ball (the NBA no longer allows players to enter the league straight out of high school, but we've still got some chumps from the old days who did it, like Lebron, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard).
Proponents of increasing the age limit claim that players who have only been out of college for one year aren't mature enough, physically or emotionally, for the rigors of the NBA season. This, in turn, is bringing down the overall quality of play in the NBA.
In light of these claims, I looked at the 2014 all-star rosters. It's a quick and dirty method, I acknowledge. A serious, systematic study would look at the performance of all players in the league after some set period of time to see how their eventual performance correlates with the age at which they entered the league. But the league's all-stars are, as a group, the highest profile players in the NBA and, according to fans and coaches, the best. They don't tell us everything we need to know about the level of play in the league, but looking at all-star rosters certainly tells us a lot about who is playing the game at the very highest level.
Because Kobe was a voted starter but couldn't play due to injury, there are a total of 25 players deemed all-stars this season. Being designated an all-star doesn't prove you're a great player. But as I just said, it certainly reflects popular sentiment -- including among coaches and players -- about who the great players are. And I think it's fair to assert that if you are an all-star, very few people could reasonably claim that you are bringing down the overall quality of play in the league.
So, I wondered, how much time did each all-star spend in college before turning pro.
Here are the top-line numbers (number on the left is years in college), followed by some comments:
0 - 5
3 - 4
4 - 2
To sum up, fully 13 of the 25 2014 all-stars (including Kobe), played one year of college ball or less. To put this another way, proponents of raising the limits believe that half the all-stars were, by definition, not mature enough to enter the league when they did and would have been better off spending more time in college than they did. Of course, just because a player is great now, doesn't mean he was great when he first went pro, you might object. But who is seriously going to argue that Kevin Durant would have been greatly served by learning at the feet of Rick Barnes for another season, or Kevin Love at Ben Howland's? John Calipari is a great college coach but, seriously, you really want to tell me that John Wall's career trajectory would have been fundamentally different had he played another 35 games in college for Coach Cal? It's doubtful that Calipari himself believes that. Kyrie Irving played a grand total of 11 games in college. That doesn't seem to have translated into a detriment for the NBA (I'm leaving aside whether some players on this list are overrated. *No one* I've heard supporting an increase in the age limits doubts whether any of the players mentioned here are worthy NBA players).
Of course, the cohort of players who came into the league before the 19-year old age limit came into effect -- LeBron, Dwight Howard and Kobe -- can't seriously be argued to have brought down the quality of play in the league, or deemed too immature to have broken into the league when they did. It should be noted that I counted two other all-stars as having no college experience -- Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki. Parker had just turned 19 when he was drafted by the Spurs in 2001. In 2001, it was possible to draft 18-year old players, and the Washington Wizards chose one of them, the infamous Kwame Brown, with the first overall pick. Of course, teams have always made awful mistakes with players of varied ages in the draft. And can someone say with a straight face that it was critical for his development that Parker got that extra year playing French ball?
Likewise, Nowitzki came into the league at age 20 from the world-renowned German leagues. Other one-and-done all-stars this year include Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh and 'Melo. Who can argue seriously that any of these guys hurt the overall level of play when they first turned pro. And Bosh -- what a terrible ambassador he's been for the NBA.
At the other end of the spectrum, those all-stars who spent three and four years in college include Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Joakim Noah. That's a fine group of players. But where is the large cohort of guys who are absolutely flourishing in the league because they had more time to grow and mature in college?
Yes, there are examples of young players who didn't pan out. But the truth is that only a relatively small handful of players are going to leave college after one year because most players in that position wouldn't get drafted -- at least not in the first round, where the guaranteed money is -- in any event. Among those who do come out early, a very significant proportion not only manage, but thrive. There are two others players who did not make the all-star team who deserve honorable mention here -- Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan, because each is an emerging superstar. Both left college after one year.
Of course, Lebron wasn't Lebron in his rookie season, nor was KD the KD no one can guard today. But on the day that each entered the league, they raised the level of play in the league. So did Love. And Howard. And Parker. And so on. If you are going to assess fairly whether an entire category of player -- 18 and 19 year olds -- improve or detract from the quality of play, you need some compelling evidence to make your case. I've not seen any presented. But let me put this more strongly, because supporters of the age limit aren't simply arguing that, on average, guys who entered the league after 0 or 1 year in college aren't as good as guys who've had more time to mature. Instead, they are arguing that this group of players -- those under 20 -- is so *bad,* such a detriment to the league, so unable to handle the basic challenges of NBA life, that they should be barred altogether from the league.
That's a pretty high hurdle to clear if you're going to change a rule to bar legal-age adults -- men old enough join the United States Armed Forces -- from playing in the NBA because you think, without any apparent systematic evidence, that they are killing play in the league.
The NBA's owners may sincerely believe that they will be improving the overall product if they start barring players under 20. But they will be sincerely mistaken.
Check out my musings about ESPN and other sports media at the ESPN watch.
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