BOSTON -- The NBA has become a young man’s game and nowhere is this more noticeable than at the top of the NBA draft board.
We’ve seen in recent years where basketball potential that’s packaged in a teenage body has trumped the production of a more seasoned college player who is often seen as being close to reaching his basketball peak than a still-developing teen who is often described as having "tremendous upside."
Look at the 2016 rookie class, one in which top overall pick Ben Simmons’ next game for Philadelphia will be his first in the NBA. Meanwhile Milwaukee second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon (a senior out of the University of Virginia) logged more minutes (1,982) than every first-year player except Lakers wing Brandon Ingram (2,279).
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The Celtics are likely to add their two cents to the go-young narrative next month when they are expected to use the top overall pick to select 6-foot-4 guard Markelle Fultz, who, by the way, celebrated his 19th birthday on Monday.
Fultz isn’t all that different than what seems to be the common thread that binds teams in recent years when they have the top overall pick in hand.
As much as teams will talk about adding impact talent through the draft, there’s far more interest paid to what a player might do down the road as opposed to what they can do right now.
“Young and talented,” said one scout. “It’s the best and worst of our game right now.”
With that youth comes the ups and downs that every player experiences when they come to the NBA, whether their college basketball career consists of five months or five years.
But with young players, the promise that their seemingly advanced skills will only enhance their play down the road, is among the many reasons why the top of most draft boards in recent years is so green.
Of the top-five projected players in next month’s draft -- Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk -- all spent just one season in college.
Junior small forward Justin Jackson of national champion North Carolina is expected to be the first upperclassmen selected, and he’s likely to be chosen in the mid-teens of the first round.
The first seniors expected to be drafted are guard Josh Hart, Valparaiso big man Alec Peters and Colorado guard Derrick White who all have a draft range of late first-round-to-early second.
Last year, a pair of seniors -- Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine -- were taken in the lottery (top-14) with the 6th and 14th picks, respectively.
Celtics big man Amir Johnson wasn’t even a first-round pick, but he came into the league straight out of high school and knows from first-hand experience how hard it is to make an impact right away coming into the NBA as a teenager.
“We can’t all come in like Kobe or LeBron,” Johnson, a late second-round pick (56th overall) by the Pistons, told CSNNE.com earlier this season. “The game is faster, the players are better, more athletic. It sounds like a cliché, but the NBA really is a grown man's league. You really do have to grow up pretty fast. Otherwise, you ain’t gonna be around too long.”
Johnson, who just finished his 12th NBA season, soon figured out what he does well at this level and has consistently found himself in situations where teams try to tap into that.
But his first few years in the NBA, the Pistons weren’t in a rush to get him major minutes because he was so young and raw.
However, because the league is becoming so much younger, players are getting more opportunities to make an impact right away in part because their talent relative to the league, is better suited to get on the floor sooner rather than later.
That’s why teams are more focused on locking up the best young talent in the college and international ranks, as quickly as possible.
We’ve seen this play out with the number one overall pick in the last decade.
Since the 2007 NBA draft, eight of the 10 players selected No. 1 overall were teenagers (19 years old) on draft night. The remaining two, Anthony Bennett (2013) and Blake Griffin (2009), were 20 years old when they were the top overall pick.
The teenage movement versus the 20-something club was a bit more balanced in the draft classes 2000-2006.
Of the seven players picked, only three were teenagers: Kwame Brown in 2001 (19 years, 3.6 months old), LeBron James (18 years, 5.8 months old) in 2003 and Dwight Howard (18 years, 6.5 months old).
And if you look deeper into the draft classes dating back to 1985, the first year of the draft “lottery,” it’s clear that NBA teams see age as a number; one that they’re OK with getting smaller when it comes to who they draft.
“You’re always looking for the best talent that fits in the direction you and your head coach have for your team,” said an NBA front-office executive. “If he’s 19, 20, whatever, that doesn’t change. But obviously, when you draft a teenager you do so knowing that his learning curve might be a little longer than say, a 22-year-old. But does that make the 22-year-old the better pick? No, not really.”
In the last 10 NBA drafts, the No. 1 overall pick has been 19 years old eight times with the lone exceptions being Anthony Bennett in 2013 and Blake Griffin in 2009, both of whom were 20.
The age-old question -- how young is too young? -- is one that has at times divided this league.
In 1971, Spencer Haywood sued the NBA in a case that opened the door for players to enter the NBA straight from high school.
That path was later blocked by a new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the player’s union in 2005 which forbid high school players from turning pro straight out of high school. Instead, they had to be at least 19 years of age and be one year removed from their high school graduating class before they could draft-eligible.
The rule change was intended to force high school stars to spend at least one year in a college, something most of the top prep prospects do now.
But there were some prep standouts like Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay who took their talents overseas out of high school rather than spend one year in college, and then entered the NBA draft the following year.
Both Jennings (10th overall in 2009) and Mudiay (7th overall in 2015) were lottery picks when they entered the draft.
But even with a year of professional basketball under their belts overseas, they still came into the NBA as teenagers with a lot to learn.
That’s not going to change, regardless of how young they are or how much experience they have at the college level or overseas.
It’s all about talent and potential, two things that seem to be coming in a younger package with each passing draft ... especially at the top.