Recently I was listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast where he interviewed Charles Barkley. As an aside, I highly recommend listening to Simmons’ podcasts, especially this one. The founder of the now deceased Grantland is a sports genius and the conversations are always entertaining. Nonetheless, the two had a very interesting conversation about when to allow college basketball players to enter the NBA draft.
This got me thinking, “is college students entering the NBA before they graduate college a significant problem?” Thinking about this in normal life, there are serious costs to not having a college degree, especially if these players are not certain to succeed in the association. Additionally, as Simmons and Barkley point out on the podcast, potential NBA prospects are convinced by agents, who’s sole interest is in generating income for themselves, to enter the NBA draft. Thus, for the vast majority of prospects, their agents convince them of a fantasy. For this reason, the idea of having a college degree is necessary.
I will get to my proposed solution eventually, however, I first want to examine if prospects entering the NBA early is a problem. To do this, I have looked at the top-thirty players per minuets played in the 2011 NBA Draft. Afterwards, I examined their age when they were drafted and their Daily Real Adjusted Plus-Minus – otherwise known as DRE, Daily RAPM, and DRAPM – for the 2014-15 season (if you would like a breakdown of DRE, Nylon Calculus has posted one linked here, but it effectively takes a player’s plus-minus rating, adjusts it for other players on the court, and provides a number that calculates net points a player is worth over 100 possessions). Below is the chart that reveals said data and ranks players by age when they were drafted.
Figure 2 Stats via Nylon Calculus
I post this so you can play around with the data; however, a chart that breaks down DRE based on age bracket, and not individual players, is additionally necessary to truly understand the statistics.
Figure 2 Stats via Nylon Calculus
What Figure 2 shows is players who enter the draft at nineteen years old do substantially better than the rest of their class. This goes along with advanced statistics that show, due to the extra time a player will have with his NBA team, drafting younger benefits a franchise more than selecting someone who has played four years in college.
The dilemma occurs when you look at Figure 1 and the player-by-player data. For every Kawhi Leonard there is an Alec Burks. For every Kyrie Irving there are Cory Joseph’s and Brandon Knight’s. The corollary is also true, for every Reggie Jackson there is a Jimmy Butler. And while the max value of a player is more valuable at a younger age, that does not mean it is a statistical certainty. Thus, even when it is clear that they would behoove from staying in college, what convinces a somewhat talented 19 year old to enter the NBA draft? To delve into this question, let’s examine the story of Alec Burks.
To begin, Burks was 19 years old when he was drafted, and had been at college for two years. Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report wrote at the time of the draft that, “At just 18 years of age, still lacks upper body strength, but that should come as his body develops… He displays a solid shooting stroke, he still needs to gain consistency and range and become better at picking his spots and finding openings … Takes ill-advised shots at times, should look to be a more disciplined about taking outside shots while covered … Learning the nuances of moving without the ball, setting up opponents off of screens will come with experience …”
This quote demonstrates things such as upper body strength, shot selection, and ability to play off-ball were large weaknesses for Burks. These areas of weakness would all, outside of upper body strength, more than likely have been developed throughout his next year or two in college. So what caused Burks to declare for the NBA draft?
The reasoning can be seen via what occurred to Burks one-and-a-half years ago. In November 2014 Burks signed a four year, $42 million dollar extension on his rookie deal. This all occurred before Burks was even a notable player. Before the extension, over his three years in the association, Burks had started only 12 games, shot 44.2% from the field, had a 47.2% eFG%, had a PER of 14.2, had a VORP of .1, and had negative offensive and defensive Box Plus/Minus scores. Essentially, at best, Burks was a league average player. Nonetheless, the Jazz offered a fairly large contract, but why?
This occurs because of the NBA’s “rookie scale” contracts (for a full breakdown, see this link from RealGM) Effectively, first round picks have a set salary they receive, which at max is around $4.75 million per season. The team then has two guaranteed years and two option years where they can retain said player. But if a team does not want to risk losing the player after their fourth year they need to agree to a new contract, and generally do so sooner than later to avoid angering the players; hence why Burks signed his new contract after three years in the association. Because teams usually are unsure of the young player’s ability to reach their potential at that point, the organizations will overpay on a new contract. Consequently, the sooner a player enters the NBA the sooner they get access to large money following the end of their rookie contract.
In the podcast, Bill Simmons’ solution to this dilemma is to lower the rookie contract length by one year if a college player stays a second season at their university. I think this is a superb idea, however, it could be improved. The general guideline for entering the NBA should stay the same: you cannot enter directly out of high school. After that first year every additional season you spend in college and/or overseas should guarantee a reduction in the rookie contract by one season. And if you stay all four years, the rookie scale contract should be nullified. Thus, players that stay all four years in college, and possibly receive a degree, would be able to negotiate the salary and length of their rookie contract.
This solves three problems. First, it incentives students to get their degree and not be afraid to miss out on significant money. Secondly, it encourages raw prospects to stay in college, where they can develop their skills until they are athletically ready to enter the association, and thus increasing the quality of rookie play in the NBA. And finally, it will work to reduce outliers in Figure 1 – such as Alec Burks, Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph – and thus create more certainty of success surrounding the NBA draft. And while it does not prevent players from spending four years overseas, it is a better system than what we currently utilize.
With all of that said, this is a controversial topic. We would love to hear your opinions in the comments below!