On the day he was selected in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft by the Warriors, former Villanova forward Eric Paschall was 22 years old with another birthday looming in less than five months. Most of the league’s teams make their choices on a policy of age over beauty, so he had to wait for 45 other players to be announced before hearing his own name.
On the day he was chosen to represent the league’s U.S.-born contingent during All-Star weekend in the annual Rising Stars game, he was 23 years old and averaging 13.5 points to rank sixth in scoring among all league rookies.
NBA teams are obsessed with the age of players when it comes time to conduct their annual draft each June, and the Rising Stars game offers one more piece of evidence that this approach to drafting might not always be best.
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The average age of the top 10 selections in last June’s draft was 19.5. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, given that some of the players chosen were Zion Williamson (18 at the time), Ja Morant (20) and RJ Barrett (19). However, when the Suns executed a trade with the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and a chance to draft wing Cameron Johnson — a player who was 23 (gasp!) on draft night — the move was met with a hysterical response.
This was not because of doubts about his ability. It was because he was, well, old.
SB Nation said Johnson didn’t have “enough upside to warrant a pick this high.” Bleacher Report called Johnson the “anti-upside prospect of this draft.” Sports Illustrated wrote, “He’s already 23 years old.” Nearly every piece of analysis acknowledged Johnson is an elite shooter, and nearly everyone cited reasonable concerns about his potential defensive issues and lack of great strength. The most common criticism, though, was Johnson’s age.
Paschall’s age was a factor in being selected in the second round, though he brought a lot of qualities the NBA covets: toughness, the ability to defend multiple positions, long-range shooting, a ton of experience winning. He is one of four players to make the Rising Stars game who spent four seasons in college. (Technically, the Heat’s Kendrick Nunn, who transferred from Illinois to Oakland, spent five.) Another three played three seasons, including Memphis’ Brandon Clarke, who likewise spent four years in college after transferring. Of the 21 players selected for the game, 12 played multiple seasons in college.
“It’s strictly the impact of analytics,” an Eastern Conference personnel executive told Sporting News. “So many teams moved to having data augment their decision-making, and age always comes back as the biggest predictor of success in the NBA. So now more younger guys come in, and there’s a deeper pool to draft from.
“On the surface, it’s a good idea, but the majority of guys just aren’t ready. So that’s why you see all these guys get traded.”
Is the NBA’s way of drafting working for the teams following that course? It would seem not. We are into the fourth season since the 2016 draft was conducted. Of the 30 players chosen in the first round that season, 20 already are no longer with their original teams. Eighteen of them have been traded. One was released outright. One was both traded and released.
Curiously, of the 10 players still with their original teams, only one played his rookie season as a teenager — Denver’s Jamal Murray — and the average rookie-year age of those players was 21.
A Western Conference personnel executive explained to Sporting News the primary reason teams are so fixated on drafting younger players is contract-related. If a selected player comes to be valued, then the team has — through the player’s rookie-cap years and subsequent free-agency advantages of the drafting team — the opportunity to comfortably retain that player for eight years.
For a team drafting the player at 19, that covers until he is in his prime NBA years. If he enters at 23, the control takes him into his 30s, when players typically decline.
“That’s the difference there. That’s the business element of the whole thing,” the personnel man said. “Our league is trending so young, every year a new guy breaks our record for the youngest player to wear our jersey. We find as a league, by the time you become a senior in college, we have you evaluated properly after four years, and if you are in the bucket of you-are-who-you-are physically, your game probably doesn’t have a ton more growth.
“All those things have to be evaluated on an individual basis. We try not to just give a young guy a pass. There are a lot of imperfect players and imperfect people, and you can’t just say he’s young.”
Not every front office person in the league agrees with that in principle, however. The Eastern Conference exec countered that there isn’t anything undesirable about controlling a player into this early 30s, especially given that a player who enters in his 20s is more likely to be physically mature.
The idea players are fully formed after extended college careers has been contradicted by the experience of myriad players in the past decade. Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Klay Thompson, Fred VanVleet, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard might seem like exceptions, but younger surprise successes such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine, Kelly Oubre, Steven Adams and Bam Adebayo are equally rare.
The reigning NBA champion Raptors defeated the Warriors with an eight-man rotation that included not a single player who entered the league as a teenager. Only three of the eight — Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard — entered at 20, and the average age in their rookie years was 21.5. The Warriors were slightly younger, with an average rookie-year age of 21.2 and two players — DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney — who entered the league as teens.
This is not to stay that players who enter as teens are not wildly successful. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are obvious examples of superstars who followed that course. They were extraordinary talents whose potential was clearly established. That’s why James was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft and Durant went No. 2 in 2007, directly after another teen phenom, Greg Oden.
That the league would assume players are done making major improvements by the time they turn 22 is unsupported by the facts. Lillard was chosen No. 6 overall at age 22 in the 2012 draft, averaged 19.0 points as a 22-year-old rookie and then increased his scoring average in four consecutive seasons. This year, as a 29-year-old, he is producing career-bests of 29.5 points and 7.9 assists per game. VanVleet was not even drafted after four years at Wichita State, which included a Final Four appearance his freshman year and an undefeated regular season as a sophomore. He averaged 2.9 points as a rookie. He is getting 18.0 points and 6.8 assists per game in his fourth season.
“Anytime you come to a pick in the draft, you’re always going to be faced with a choice. But forget potential vs. production. What you need to focus on first is talent,” Fran Fraschilla, who analyzes the draft for ESPN, told SN. “Buddy Hield was mocked as a pick, but he’s a very good NBA talent. I don’t want to say he’s a star, but the guy averaged 20 points on a near-playoff team. The factor that matters most is NBA talent.”
Hield is another who, although he entered the league at 24, nearly doubled his scoring average in his third league season.
What will Johnson become? He is averaging 7.7 points in 19.8 minutes per game and shooting 39.0 percent from beyond the arc. That’s within the same range as established stars like Lillard, Kemba Walker and Paul George.
“Cameron Johnson went 11, and what is the instant reaction from every single person watching, that’s in it? It’s like, ‘Wow, what the heck are they doing?'” the Eastern personnel man said. “Maybe they’re in a different cycle of a team, they don’t want to wait for a player to contribute, they want somebody ready to go and they can plug him in. It doesn’t happen anymore, so it shocks everyone when it does happen.
“That guy may be a good player. They might really need him. It’s easy to look at it in a vacuum. There’s more to it.”