Should NBA Teams Be Drafting “Older” Players?

Teams may want young stars with world-beating talent, but they’d be smart to look for steady contributors.

Professional athlete is the only job – other than Silicon Valley entrepreneur – for which 27-year-olds are considered aging and 37-year-olds ancient. At no time is the major leagues’ preference for youth more evident than during the NBA draft, when potential reigns over resume like Tracy McGrady over Shawn Bradley. This reflexive age-ism makes sense during the first dozen picks: When a player’s ceiling is perennial All-Star, it’s wise to gamble on the upside. But as the draft progresses and Wiggins, Parker, Embiid, and Exum exit stage left, NBA teams might want to consider giving the old guys a second look.

By old we mean the not-exactly-elderly 22- and 23-year-olds who spent the last few years showing what they can do at the college level. Ironically, it’s that abundance of information about these players that dooms them. NBA teams know what they’re capable of and the unknown potential of an unpolished 19-year-old is almost too enticing to pass up. Here’s some unsolicited advice to NBA front offices: Instead of reaching for the stars outside of the lottery, go with the guy you know can contribute.

That’s what the Nets did last year with the 22nd pick. Rather than gamble on an unknown quantity, they selected Duke center Mason Plumlee. Immediately after the draft Sports Illustrated said “the fact that he’s 23 raises questions about whether there is more upside to tap.” All Plumlee did last season was lead rookies in player efficiency rating. Is there more upside than the 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per 36 minutes he posted last season? Maybe not, but we’re guessing the Nets are fine with that.

Going into the 2012 draft, Michigan State senior Draymond Green was, at 23, one of the oldest players hoping to hear his name called. When he finally did, 34 players had already been taken, including fellow power forwards and sophomores Perry Jones III and Royce White. Green played significant minutes his rookie year and his role increased this past season as he logged 32 minutes per game in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Jones, who’s 18 months younger than Green barely plays for the Thunder, and White, a year younger, is out of the league.

Let’s go back to 2011 for one more example. With the 38th overall pick, the Rockets took senior swingman Chandler Parsons, a starter on last year’s 54-win team. With the 35th and 36th picks, the Kings and Nets took Tyler Honeycutt and Jordan Williams respectively. Each is two years younger than Parsons and each has done precisely squat in the NBA.

That leads us back to this year. When looking at the prospects in tonight’s draft who are most likely to be overlooked, three names jump out: Adrien Payne, Cleanthony Early, and Russ Smith. All three played four years in college, all three led their teams deep into the NCAA Tournament and all three are 23 years old – a year older than two-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving. Let’s be clear: none of them will be as good as Kyrie Irving, but what they can be are solid role players and reliable contributors in the NBA. That’s what GMs should be after in the middle of the draft: professional athletes.

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