Why Age Matters in the NBA Draft

It’s draft week!  Given that the NHL draft spans two days, there are four straight days of draft results this week.  The NHL expansion draft kicked off draft week with a flurry (or should I say Marc-Andre Fleury?) of trades as teams fought to retain core players and give the Vegas Golden Knights expendable pieces and future assets.  Due to many of these transactions, the Golden Knights have three first round picks and three second round picks to use today.

In order to be selected in the NHL draft, players must be at least 18 years of age at the start of the next season and have graduated from high school.  All drafted players are all in the same grade year or birth year.  A player who goes undrafted does not reenter the draft in future years but is free to sign with a team of his choosing at any point.

Unlike the NHL, the NBA, which held its draft last night, requires players to be 19 years old at the start of the following season and one year removed from high school.  Also unlike the NHL, once players meet these minimum requirements, player can choose to enter any NBA draft.  Typically, players enter the draft after either their first, second, third, or fourth years of college, though they could wait even longer.  I’m planning on entering the draft next year, but my contacts in the Ieague tell me no team will draft me in the first round since the only basketball film of me are my community rec games from elementary school.

The 2017 NBA draft was the first draft in which the first five players selected were freshmen.  In addition, 16 freshmen and only two seniors were selected in the first round, which are also both records.  While this draft is young, it’s not as young as people think, and certainly not young enough to further propel the discussion of ending the one and done era.

In fact, 2017 wasn’t even the youngest draft during the one and done era.  The table below shows the average of each draft from 2006 to 2017 (the one and done era) by round.  Note that for the 2006 to 2016 drafts, I excluded players who have not played at least 10 games in the NBA.  This primarily excludes international players drafted late in the second round who teams stash in Europe (known as drafting and stashing) as they hope they develop in Europe.  If they don’t develop, they’re erased from everyone’s memory, except Fran Fraschilla’s memory, of course.

While 2017 was a very young first round with an average age of 20.25, the last three drafts and the 2008 draft were all younger.  A lot of people focus on only the lottery picks, but I’m sitting here scratching my head (not because of lice) at what all the hoopla is about.  The first round is actually getting older since the 2014 draft, which featured one and dones Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid, and the forever young Australian, Dante Exum.

Additionally, the second round of this draft was considerably older than last year’s with an average age of 21.73.  The second round of the 2017 NBA draft was the oldest second round since the beginning of the one and done era.  The Celtics bucked the norm and took a 24 year old shooting guard with the 53rd pick.  I highly doubt he makes the Celtics, but they had to draft someone.

If we analyze this from a basketball perspective, it makes sense that the first round is younger than the second round.  The best players enter the draft and make millions of dollars as early as possible.  Would you wait if a $1.5M plus salary awaited you?  Additionally, teams covet players with upside and potential.  Why be risk averse and use a top pick on a safe player with a low ceiling?  Why not take the player with the highest ceiling possible?  Personally, I want franchise difference makers with top picks.  Plus, teams have more flexibility to develop these players as they now can send players to the G League without playing with one fewer roster spot.

In the second round, college players with high ceilings are no longer available.  Teams are forced to either draft established college players (e.g., Draymond Green or Malcolm Brogdon) or take flyers on international players (e.g., Marc Gasol or Manu Ginobili).

Age has a huge impact on the NBA draft.  A lot of upside, maybe incorrectly, is baked into how old a player is.  Teams convince themselves that since a guy is only 19, he has plenty of time to fix the uneven jump shot or to understand how to play team defense.  It’s great for teams to reassure themselves this way, until three years go by, nothing changes, and the guy is a 22 (only 22!) year old bust.

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