NBA's age limit, Greg Oden NBA draft, Kevin Durant NBA draft

Your crime is time: 18 and going pro

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Due to the league’s new age limit, several high school players who might have otherwise gone pro – Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, just to name two – are now playing at the college level. To be eligible for the NBA Draft, the rule states that a player must turn 19 in the calendar year of the draft regardless of nationality. American players must also be one year removed from the graduation of their high school class.

NBA commissioner David Stern originally wanted a 20-year-old age limit, but relented as part of the negotiations of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. Stern believes the rule will have a positive effect on the NBA by raising the overall maturity level of the league.

This made me wonder – how have high school players fared in the NBA? We all know about KG, Kobe and LeBron, and some of us have heard the cautionary tales of Korleone Young and Lenny Cooke, but what about the group as a whole? How have they performed in comparison to the rest of the league?

This question led me to an interesting paper written in 2004 by Michael McCann, a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School. At 87 pages, it’s quite detailed, but McCann makes a compelling case against an age-limit in the NBA. Part of this case is the relative success of those players that have gone directly from high school to the Association.

In his paper, McCann broke down each of the draft picks from 1975 to 2003. For my purposes, I threw out the two high school players drafted prior to 1995, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby, who were both drafted in 1975. Before you Moses Malone fans fire up Outlook, he participated in the ABA Draft, not the NBA Draft, so I excluded him as well. I am interested in examining how high schoolers are performing in today’s league, not one 30 years old.

McCann put each player into six categories: superstar, star, serviceable, fringe, minor leaguer and bust. I added a seventh category – starter – because there’s usually a substantial difference between a starter and a bench player. Here’s a definition for each along with a list of those high school players that qualify:


LeBron James
The case against an age limit:
LeBron James

These players are widely regarded as one of the Top 15 players in the league.

Kevin Garnett (drafted 5th overall in 1995 by the Timberwolves)
Kobe Bryant (drafted 13th in 1996 by the Hornets, traded to Lakers)
Tracy McGrady (drafted 9th in 1997 by the Raptors)
LeBron James (drafted 1st in 2003 by the Cavs)


While these players are not generally considered among the league’s elite, they are usually the best or second best player on their team.

Jermaine O’Neal (drafted 17th in 1996 by the Trailblazers)
Rashard Lewis (drafted 32nd in 1998 by the Supersonics)
Amare Stoudemire (drafted 9th in 2002 by the Suns)
Dwight Howard (drafted 1st in 2004 by the Magic)
Josh Smith (drafted 17th in 2004 by the Hawks)


These players have earned spots as starters for their respective teams, but we can always name at least two or three better players on their team.

Al Harrington (drafted 25th in 1998 by the Pacers)
Tyson Chandler (drafted 2nd in 2001 by the Clippers)
Eddy Curry (drafted 4th overall in 2001 by the Bulls)
Kwame Brown (drafted 1st in 2001 by the Wizards)
DeShawn Stevenson (drafted 23rd in 2000 by the Jazz)
Shaun Livingston (drafted 4th in 2004 by the Clippers)
Al Jefferson (drafted 15th in 2004 by the Celtics)
J.R. Smith (drafted 18th in 2004 by the Hornets)


Darius Miles
The case for an age limit:
Darius Miles

These players may start in a pinch, but they usually come off the bench.

Jonathan Bender (drafted 5th in '99 by the Raptors, traded to Pacers)
Darius Miles (drafted 3rd in 2000 by the Clippers)
DaSagana Diop (drafted 8th in 2001 by the Cavs)
Travis Outlaw (drafted 23rd in 2003 by the Trailblazers)
Kendrick Perkins (drafted 27th in 2003 by the Celtics)
Sebastian Telfair (drafted 13th in 2004 by the Trailblazers)
Dorrell Wright (drafted 19th in 2004 by the Heat)


These players don’t receive regular minutes and usually fill the last few seats on the bench.

James Lang (drafted 48th in 2003 by the Hornets)
Robert Swift (drafted 12th in 2004 by the Sonics)

Minor Leaguers

These players declared themselves eligible for the NBA Draft, but have since left the league and are now playing professional ball elsewhere.

Korleone Young (drafted 40th in 1998 by the Pistons)
Leon Smith (drafted 29th in 1999 by the Spurs, traded to Mavericks)
Ousmane Cisse (drafted 47th in 2001 by the Nuggets)
DeAngelo Collins (undrafted in 2002)
Lenny Cooke (undrafted in 2002)


These players went undrafted or have fallen out of the league, parts unknown.

Taj McDavid (undrafted in 1996)
Ellis Richardson (undrafted in 1998)
Tony Key (undrafted in 2001)
Ndudi Ebi (drafted 26th in 2003 by the Timberwolves)


The draft class of 2005 has not had enough time to develop. In a year or two, I’ll revisit this piece and classify each of the players. Thus far, Andrew Bynum and Monta Ellis have enjoyed the most success, though Martell Webster and Gerald Green are getting some minutes this season.

Martell Webster (drafted 6th in 2005 by the Trailblazers)
Andrew Bynum (drafted 10th in 2005 by the Lakers)
Gerald Green (drafted 18th in 2005 by the Celtics)
CJ Miles (drafted 34th in 2005 by the Jazz)
Ricky Sanchez (drafted 35th in 2005 by the Trailblazers)
Monta Ellis (drafted 40th in 2005 by the Warriors)
Louis Williams (drafted 45th in 2005 by the Sixers)
Andray Blatche (drafted 49th in 2005 by the Wizards)
Amir Johnson (drafted 56th in 2005 by the Pistons)

I removed the high school players and classified all the remaining college and international players from each draft into the top four categories, figuring that if a team lands a starter it would generally be considered a success. The results are interesting:

All Players (1st & 2nd Round) College &
C&I% High School HS%
Superstars 13 2% 4 14%
Stars 33 6% 5 17%
Starters 58 11% 8 28%
Serviceable 101 18% 6 21%
Fringe, Minor Leaguers & Bust 347 63% 6 21%

Over the last 10 seasons, 59% of high school players that were selected in the draft turned out to be superstars, stars or starters, compared to just 19% for college and international players. There were six high school players who declared themselves eligible, but were not drafted. Even if those numbers are included in the success rate, it’s still far more likely for a high schooler to achieve stardom than for a player coming out of college or from the international game.

Of course, it’s not really fair to include all college players from a given class considering that high school players are rarely taken in the second round and very few second round picks turn out to be legitimate ballers. When the second round is removed, the numbers do change.

1st Rounders Only College &
C&I% High School HS%
Superstars 12 4% 4 16%
Stars 29 10% 4 16%
Starters 52 18% 8 32%
Serviceable 67 23% 6 24%
Fringe, Minor Leaguers & Bust 130 45% 3 12%

Still, 64% of the high school players selected in the first round turned out to be superstars, stars or starters, while the same could be said for only 32% of college or international players. From these numbers, it’s clear that high schoolers are capable of developing into stars. But they don’t always succeed right away. Let’s take a look at the rookie year of each of our stars and superstars:

Kevin Garnett 28.7 10.4 6.3 1.8
Kobe Bryant 15.5 7.6 1.9 1.3
Tracy McGrady 18.4 7.0 4.2 1.5
LeBron James 39.5 20.9 5.5 5.9
Jermaine O'Neal 10.2 4.1 2.8 0.2
Rashard Lewis 7.3 2.4 1.3 0.2
Amare Stoudemire 31.3 13.5 8.8 1.0
Dwight Howard 32.6 12.0 10.0 0.9
Josh Smith 27.7 9.7 6.2 1.7

Just five of the nine high schoolers who went on to be stars or superstars played more than 19 minutes a game in their rookie year, and a veteran player could have put up the numbers that Garnett, Stoudemire, Howard and Smith posted in their rookie seasons.

(LeBron is another story.)

In general, I think the new age limit will help the league. With one year at a major college program, pro prospects should learn a lot from a quality coach while getting a feel for playing in front of packed arenas, friendly or unfriendly. But most importantly, they’ll get to play. Certainly, a few prospects will struggle in their freshman season and will realize that they need another year of seasoning before they’ll be ready to play professional ball. The only real risk is injury, but I doubt guys like Oden or Durant are having any trouble getting through to Lloyd’s of London if they want to buy some reasonably priced personal injury insurance.

Other than Jermaine O’Neal, who implied that the age limit was racist, few current NBA players have openly criticized the rule. But O’Neal might be one of the best examples of how the limit will help the league. He was drafted by the Trailblazers straight out of high school in 1996, but wasted away in Portland for four years. In his fifth season, after being traded to the Pacers at the age of 22, he blossomed into a 13/10 guy and the next season, began a run of six straight seasons where he averaged 19+ points and 9+ rebounds. Many criticized the Trailblazers for making the trade, and their mishandling of players over the years certainly justifies that. But they held onto O’Neal for four years, and he still didn’t produce. If he had spent a year in college, would he have blossomed for the team that drafted him instead of the team that traded for him?

There’s a simple reason why there aren’t a lot of current NBA players complaining about the rule: it benefits them. By making each class wait a season before joining a league, it extends the career of a veteran. While there are exceptions, most high schoolers aren’t ready to play in the NBA at the age of 18, so the quality and maturity of the game should increase.

Is the rule fair to Greg Oden or Kevin Durant or any other high school phenom? Not really. There’s certainly a “right to work” argument that can be made on their behalf. If they’re good enough to earn a living in the NBA (and go to war for their country), why can’t they play? Thus far, no one has put up much of a stink. I think most players realize that while the rule is currently hindering their cash flow, it should pay off at the end of their career.

Now is the rule good for college ball?

That’s another story.

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