Through 44 games of the 2016-17 season, Buddy Hield is averaging 9.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.6 threes in 20.2 minutes of action. Extrapolated to per 36 minute data, the averages look better: 16.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.9 threes. In comparison, Jamal Murray’s numbers are extremely similar: 14.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 threes. So, which player would you prefer if asked today?
There is no escaping the reality that the NBA is a star-driven league. Without “stars”, the odds of winning a championship are small. This is the nature of basketball — the limitation of having just 5 guys, as compared to say American football (where you can have as many as 11 players on the field each time, with the ability to switch whole lineups during possession changes), makes singular talents crucial to a team’s success.
This is why teams, in search of these singular talents, go through great lengths to position themselves to acquire such talents. Whether it’s from a superb courtship during free agency, hoarding prized assets in the form of draft picks and young talent in hopes of a trade, or the old fashioned way, bottoming out in the standings to rise in the lottery.
Here, we’ll try to delve into the lottery, practically the only way a small, non-glamorous market (such as New Orleans) can acquire the highest level of talent.
Age is just a Number
A quick gander at the league today and you’d be quick to point out that talent is drafted young. The list of rising talented bigs such as Karl-Anthony Towns (drafted at 19.6 years old), Joel Embiid (20.3), Nikola Jokic (19.4) and Myles Turner (19.3) would seem to confirm it. Even a quick look at the current MVP race, where there’s an almost unanimous Top 5 of James Harden (19.8), Russell Westbrook (19.6), LeBron James (18.5), Kevin Durant (18.7) and Kawhi Leonard (19.9), makes you believe this to be true. Our very own Anthony Davis was drafted as a 19 year old. How valid is the simple age argument though?
(Note: I used WS/48 as a substitute for a player’s impact on a team. It is by no means perfect)
As you can see, it doesn’t really seem like the case. Since the start of the lottery era, most of the talented players are drafted “old” — with most of the draftees being somewhere north of 21 years old. Karl Malone (21.9), Tim Duncan (21.2), Gary Payton (21.9) and Steve Nash (22.4) are a few of the names who were drafted “old”. But this has changed over the years. The increasing attention being given to high school training, thanks to AAU basketball, has given rise to more one-and-done (or two-and-done) players that eventually become good NBA players.
There’s a clear trend: talented players are getting drafted younger and younger. This is partly because of the AAU, but also to the increased patience of most organizations and the NBA. Organizations are investing more and more time to development: getting better, specialized coaches, the rise of the D-League (you know, the development league) and many more.
What does it mean for Buddy?
Does this mean that drafting Buddy Hield, who was already 22.5 years old on draft day, versus Jamal Murray, who was 19.3 years old at draft, was a mistake?
On first glance, it would seem like it. If history is any indication, the Pelicans made a big mistake. There’s only about a 1 in 10 chance that Buddy becomes a good NBA player. Compare this to drafting a 19 year old, like Murray, where the odds are much better (about a 1 in 5 chance). That’s almost twice the odds, a huge difference in the quest for talented players.
What’s more, there’s a clear trend between draft age and the number of good players. Players who are drafted young have a higher chance of becoming good, compared to their older counterparts. One part of that is career longevity:
On average, players drafted “young” start earlier, get more NBA reps and, thus, get more NBA level training. That’s an important part that doesn’t get talked about as often: the training done in the professional league is better and more efficient than their collegiate counterpart. Murray, at 19, is getting the highest quality of attention in terms of his training. Buddy, at 19, was still an incoming sophomore at Oklahoma, trying to judge the responsibilities of a student-athlete.
In reality, the answer is probably more complicated. Career progressions are different as bigs often take longer to produce, especially in the modern era of basketball, where guards, especially attacking guards, are more likely to make waves as soon as their rookie season. There’s also the question of physical measurements; I remember reading that players with a longer wingspan have a greater chance of becoming a better player (Buddy has a 6’-9.25” wingspan vs Murray’s 6’-6.5”).
The league indeed is getting younger and younger: the mean average age of the draft has steadily gone down, hitting it’s youngest point in the 2016 NBA draft with a mean average age of 20.95. Compare this to celebrated 2003 draft — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade — where the mean average age was 21.28. Filter the results down even more to just 1st round picks — guaranteed contracts — and the trend becomes clearer: the mean average age of 1st round picks in 2016 was 20.49 versus 20.99 in 2003.
This, of course, doesn’t mean Buddy is doomed to wind up a failure. Plenty of older players entering the league have found success, most recently the Splash Brothers (Curry & Thompson) and the mini-Splash Bros (Lillard and McCollum). The more important thing, moving forward, will be to monitor the focus and improvement in his development.