The case for one-and-dones
When discussing the age-limit rule, consider the case of Jonny Flynn.
Back in 2009, Syracuse's sophomore point guard played 67 minutes in a six-overtime win over UConn in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. That was followed by another thrilling overtime victory the next day to earn a trip to the Big East championship. Shortly after Flynn's impressive tear that won him Big East tournament MVP without his team winning the title (Louisville ended up winning), Flynn and the No. 3 Orange reached the Sweet 16 before eventually falling to Blake Griffin and the second-seeded Oklahoma Sooners.
It was one of the most captivating few weeks of basketball we had seen from a college player in some time, all broadcast on national television. And a couple of months later, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Flynn with the sixth pick of the 2009 NBA draft, ahead of Stephen Curry (No. 7 pick), Ty Lawson (No. 18) and Jrue Holiday (No. 17). Five years later, Flynn is out of the NBA.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has suggested that an additional year in college will give NBA teams an extra year of information and ability to evaluate prospects. And the logic seems sound. After all, it stands to reason that more information can't be a bad thing.
But then we look at the facts. Since the 2005 age-limit rule went into effect that essentially forced players to wait a year following high school -- most often playing one season in college -- NBA teams have been twice as likely to draft a sophomore bust than a freshman, one-and-done bust. Turns out there are more Flynns than Anthony Bennetts. Not only that, but there are more Kevin Durants (stars who left as freshman) than there are Russell Westbrooks (stars who left as sophomores).
If one-and-dones have been the far safer bet, then why are we trying to keep them out?The DRAFT Initiative
History repeats itself. Back in 2009, I systematically studied the NBA draft by looking at the yield of each draft pick selected since 1989 using John Hollinger's EWA metric (explained here). One of the key findings of the DRAFT Initiative study was that high schoolers outperformed every other draft class on average across their first five years in the league. The savvier, more mature players simply didn't measure up to the preps-to-pros prospects.
It ran counter to the conventional wisdom, but what we found looking at 20 years of data was that high schoolers were more likely to become stars in the league than any other player pool. For the purposes of the study, players with a yearly EWA of less than 1.00 were considered backups (we called them "scrubs" back in 2009 but that seems a bit harsh). Players with a yearly EWA between 1.00 and 5.00 were considered solid performers. Players with a yearly EWA between 5.00 and 10.00 were considered stars. And players with a yearly EWA greater than 10.00 were considered superstars.
As the study found, 31 percent of high schoolers drafted in the first round went on to become stars in the NBA, more than three times as often as college seniors. The high school talent pool produced superstars at an 18.3 percent clip compared to just 7 percent of college freshmen, less than 2 percent of college seniors and 5 percent of international players. Furthermore, 39 percent of the high schoolers didn't pan out, the exact same rate that college seniors flubbed at the next level.
When it came to high schoolers, the risk was worth the reward. But why didn't it seem that way?
Our minds can play tricks on us. Anecdotally, we remember the draft blunders of Kwame Brown, Jonathan Bender and Darius Miles, who all flamed out after coming out of high school. They stood as irrefutable evidence that 18-year-olds had no business in the NBA. We were told they were too raw, too immature, too unpolished.
But then there's LeBron James. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Garnett. Dwight Howard. Amare Stoudemire. Tracy McGrady. Global megastars, the faces of the NBA, all of whom came out of high school.
And that's just looking at the first round. We've heard the cautionary tale of Korleone Young, who came out of high school only to land in the second round and last just three games in the NBA. Young stood as Exhibit A on why skipping college and going straight to the pros could be a very bad idea. But then there's Monta Ellis, Rashard Lewis, Amir Johnson and Lou Williams, all high schoolers who fell to the second round and still enjoyed long, successful careers in the league. Why don't we hear more about those stories of redemption?
Despite all of the evidence that high schoolers were doing just fine in the NBA, the 2005 collective bargaining agreement set out to ban them from the league until they were 19. Now the NBA wants to push the limit even higher and a familiar tone has returned in 2014: The one-and-dones are too raw, too immature and too unpolished for the league. Is it true?DRAFT Initiative reboot
What we've come to learn is that the age limit is essentially an attempt to legislate the risk out of the draft. Flynn represents a key problem for those who advocate that more years means more certainty: sometimes an extra year or two doesn't give us more information; rather, it provides more fodder to fuel our cognitive biases.
Looking at lottery picks since the age-limit rule went into effect in the 2006 draft, the longer a player stayed at school, the worse he tended to perform in the NBA. As mentioned at the top, one-and-dones have fared very well in the league. Of the 34 one-and-done lottery picks since 2006, just six have become backups (think Xavier Henry and Austin Rivers). Keep in mind, Nerlens Noel is included in this "backup" group even though he hasn't played yet. On the other hand, a total of 12 have gone on to become stars (think Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Anthony Davis). Look at those names. That's an incredible hit rate.
But the interesting thing is that more college experience only tends to muddle the picture. Of the 29 sophomore lottery picks selected over that time, more than a third (11) have been backups (think Harrison Barnes, Meyers Leonard and Patrick O'Bryant) and nine have become stars (think Westbrook, Griffin and James Harden). Even if we adjust for draft slot (a No. 1 lottery pick has vastly higher expected return than a No. 13 lottery pick), we find that one-and-dones still edge out the sophomores who came into the league with more tape for scouts to watch.
And the deeper we go, the less predictive it becomes. Did three years at college help teams gauge the proper value of Hasheem Thabeet (No. 2 in 2009), Evan Turner (No. 2 in 2010), Adam Morrison (No. 3 in 2006), Wesley Johnson (No. 4 in 2010) or Thomas Robinson (No. 5 in 2012)? Hardly. Looking at college seniors, the picture doesn't get any better. For every Damian Lillard, there is a Shelden Williams and a Hilton Armstrong.
Looking at the data, Silver's stance that an extra year of scouting will help teams get closer to the bull's-eye doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And as fellow Per Diemer Kevin Pelton illustrated on Tuesday, sophomores who returned to school only improved marginally on average, a far cry from the notion that another year at college dramatically boosts draft stock and NBA preparedness.
In the end, drafting players is hard work. But it isn't made any easier with age limits ostensibly implemented to protect the NBA game. In reality, the age limit attempts to protect NBA teams from themselves. And it doesn't really work, as Flynn, Thabeet and Morrison have demonstrated. Even with an extra year of data, teams strike out on sophomore draftees more often than they do with one-and-dones.
While Silver seems determined to raise the age limit, we should speak up for the prospects who have historically proved they can play in the league at a young age. NBA teams don't need an age limit; they need a mirror.