I was on ESPN.com today and realized that I hadn’t read TMQ in a bit. It turned out I only missed one article (when they come out once a week, you can miss only one and have it feel like it’s been a while). In last week’s article, TMQ spent a little time talking about the NBA. He probably could have saved himself the trouble. The majority of his NBA points relate to the problems caused by the current age restrictions for the draft; he would like them to be more strict. Teenagers, he says, “are immature physically and emotionally; they drag down the quality of NBA games while missing their opportunity to receive some education and improve in college” (actually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s claim). TMQ himself goes on to say “LeBron James was an exception; as a group, basketball players in their early 20s are much better performers than basketball players in their teens”. But is it true?
I got on wikipedia and found a list of NBA players drafted straight out of college. Then I cut it down to those drafted since 2000-2001, since that’s how far back the automated WP numbers go now (this post powered by Nerd Numbers). I should note to start that this excludes Rashard Lewis, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett from the list; you might call these players “successful”. Instead I have 30 players in my list. I used the automated site to get their WP48 for each year of their careers so far to try and see if these players are worse than typical players.
The first thing to note is that two of the players never made it into an NBA game. They were both drafted in the second round. For comparison, in the 2000 draft alone, 8 players never played in the NBA; 6 of them played in college, one was international, and the last was a community college player. So in terms of the minimal level of skill needed, the high school players look ok so far; they can get on the court. To give TMQ a better chance at being right, I’ll assume that the two guys who never made it would have had a WP48 of -.1 in their rookie season and never played again. For the rest of the players, I ignored minutes played within or across seasons, so some players may have estimates based on few minutes and any career averages or the like are not weighted by minutes played in a season.
In their first year, the high schoolers have an average WP48 of -.015. Again, this is unweighted for minutes, so it’s likely a low estimate since the better players would play more. However, it’s also true that the high school rookies play poorly; only 16 of the 30 have a positive WP48. But, 11 of these 16 are above the .05 level that I’ve seen attributed to rookies by Arturo and possibly other people. So if you’re a decent high school rookie, you’re a good rookie, if that’s a meaningful statement at all.
High schoolers may not be especially great to start, but they do get better. In year 2 the average high school WP48 is .0772, or closing in on an average player. You might argue that this big improvement (.0924 is quite a leap) is due to selection (only good players or players who showed improvement got to play), but only three players did not have a year 2; the two players who never played and another player who actually never played until his fourth year due to injuries (I made that his rookie year) and never played again due to injuries. So there isn’t a lot of selection going on; high schoolers just tend to get a lot better their second year.
What about year three? Again, there isn’t too much selection bias. Robert Swift missed the year due to a blown ACL. Ndudi Ebi was out of the league. And that’s it; everyone else (now 25 of 30 high schoolers) made it through at least three years. They improved by .0389 for an average WP48 of .116; the high schoolers are now above-average NBA players (average is .100) despite being at most 22 (if any of them were old high schoolers or born at a weird time).
All in all, I think the high schoolers in the sample are both subjectively and objectively pretty good. As I mentioned, three players (basically) never made it in the league. Another only lasted two years. One other player in the last high school draft class (Gerald Green) is out of the league, although he’s made some summer league teams. From 2004, only Robert Swift is out of the league and he’s had two major knee injuries. Darius Miles missed time and is now out of the league, also due to injuries. So 23 of the 30 players are playing this season, meaning they’ve all lasted at least five years. That’s a pretty good track record. These include Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James, Kendrick Perkins, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, Andrew Bynum, and Monta Ellis, just to pick some of the bigger names.
But who does TMQ focus on? He mentions Martell Webster as a marginal player who might have been better if he had gone to college. Webster has shown signs of being an average player and is still in the league, although he missed a year due to a stress fracture in his foot and is out this year with a bad back. He mentions a kid who went to Europe straight out of college and quit after not doing well; I’m not sure how the NBA was responsible for this. He mentions Sebastian Telfair and says that if he hadn’t jumped straight to the NBA, he might have matured instead of being a cruddy me-first player. I guess it’s possible, but jumping straight to the league didn’t hurt most of the other guys on the list. Finally he mentions Shaun Livingston as a guy who has bounced around and turned down a contract with the Wizards, presumably showing his immaturity. I think this is the worst example TMQ gives. Livingston was getting better with the Clippers, improving to a .112 WP48 in his third year, when he absolutely destroyed his knee to the extent that ESPN warned viewers of the graphic content of the clip (according to wikipedia). Not surprisingly, he had trouble holding a job after he recovered. But, Livingston was almost average again last year, and perhaps he turned down a contract with the Wizards but he did sign with Charlotte; I think at least some people would view that as a step up.
I think that we can agree that being drafted out of high school did not harm most, if any, of the people that were lucky to be selected. They might be worse than the rest of the rookie class in their first year, but they tend to improve quickly and are above average in their third year. At this point, they would be the same age as a rookie who played a few years of college; I don’t have the data, but I doubt that they are average players as a group. Maybe someone else in the network has some data on player quality by years of experience instead of years of age? Overall, however, I would conclude that high school players are not lowering the quality of the NBA, and I doubt that college players are much better if equated for years in the league.
Now it’s possible that TMQ is actually upset about the consequences of the NBA allowing players to enter after being out of high school for a year. A couple kids have gone straight to Europe; I’m sure countless others are built up with unrealistic expectations in both high school and college and they miss out on opportunities for an education both in basketball and in the classroom. But that is not the NBA’s fault. It is a consequence of people taking advantage of the NBA’s existence. Interestingly, TMQ doesn’t say anything about the NFL, which allows players to register for the draft once they have been out of high school for two and a half years. The NFL places a premium on size, strength, and the ability to learn a system and act in concert with 10 other players, so there is less of an incentive to try to leave early in the first place. But there is still undoubtedly some pressure for players to enter the draft as juniors instead of seniors. If the NFL decides that they are talented enough to make a team, I don’t see the problem; it’s the player’s choice to leave school or not and to finish his education later or not. I don’t see why it should be different for the NBA just because players can be competitive at a younger age.
As a final parting shot, TMQ refers to an article by J.A. Adande where he claimed that players will simply wait until their rookie contracts are up and then sign where they want, which is also when they’ll be better players. This will make the draft irrelevant. Adande says “Instead of hoping fortune smiles on you in the lottery, then hoping the top pick is as good as expected, you can just wait and make the safe purchase of an established superstar”. This is foolish for two reasons. First, picking out and paying for an ‘established star’ isn’t foolproof, as Atlanta and Joe Johnson have shown us. Yes, it has worked recently for the Lakers and Celtics, but presumably it won’t be often that teams will just start throwing away productive players like Garnett and Gasol.
Second, you can still get so much value out of a rookie’s contract that it is completely worth drafting as opposed to going to free agency. Using the automated site’s salary numbers, rookies have produced an average of 51.5 wins each year since 2000-2001. They have done this for an average of $62.1 million, meaning that on average rookies produce .82 wins per million dollars spent on them. All veterans, on the other hand, produce .73 wins per million. Rookies are more efficient producers of wins in terms of dollars because their salaries are capped; as long as they produce a certain number of wins per position in the draft, you’re making money hand over fist. You can also get a benefit on veterans due to the max contract, but players have to produce much more to hit that ceiling (here’s Dave Berri’s version from a couple years ago). Now, it’s probably true that most of that extra value from the rookies comes from the very few very good ones each year, but teams will (and should) still be happy to try to win the lottery to pick those good players because they could be the ones to get a Chris Paul, LeBron James, or Dwight Howard and not only get a shot at a championship but also underpay by tens of millions of dollars for a few years. You could even do well later in the draft with a David Lee and save $23 million four years later.
So, yeah, I was unimpressed with the level of NBA coverage from an NFL writer. I probably could have spent fewer words on it.