Before Steve Kerr Sends 19-Year-Old Players Back To College, He Should Try Some Academic Research Himself

Former NBA star Steve Kerr penned a lengthy, multi-sectioned argument in Grantland this week in which he not only defends the NBA's current ban on players under age 19 but pushes for the minimum age to be raised to 20. Forcing young people to spend more time as scholar-athletes, according to Kerr, would provide the league with better talent and allow players to develop more fully.

Unfortunately for Kerr, these are subjects that actual researchers have looked into, using actual data. In fact, the younger a player enters the NBA, the more successful he's likely to be. Let's get academic. Here's a breakdown of Kerr's claims, along with the studies that refute them (cited by year; see the bottom for the works cited.)

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Kerr's research question starts off on a bad foot:

Would the NBA's business be stronger by raising the age requirement?

This is a helpful reminder that Kerr, in addition to being a five-year college player whose pro prospects were nonexistent at 18 or 19, last worked in the NBA as an executive. But his following arguments, despite the "business" focus, show he's interested in the overall health of the NBA—meaning its teams, owners, players, and fans. That's good. But that doesn't mean his reasons for locking 18- and 19-year-old people out of the labor market are supported by the evidence.

1. Player maturity.

Kerr's arguments here are all over the place: The lack of college experience breeds "collective immaturity" and bad decision-making in the NBA; Dwight Howard's Orlando career has gone toxic because he didn't get "the backbone of a college education"; some player once asked him when Christmas break was. (Fun anecdotal fact: Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton both played college ball.) Kerr doesn't outright claim that players who enter the NBA straight from high school have more off-the-court issues than those who attend college, but if you're wondering: The incidence rate of off-the-court issues is unrelated to when a player enters the NBA. The short list of players who've run afoul of the law after going pro straight from high school includes Kobe Bryant (2004). As all of the studies concluded, NBA scouts and front offices have proven to be excellent evaluators of pro preparedness in regard to both on- and off-court maturity.

2. Financial costs.

Having an extra season to assess the potential of college players would cut down on the personnel mistakes that teams inevitably make in the draft, something that could potentially save the league tens of millions of dollars every year.

Draft mistakes are unrelated to the age at which a player enters the draft; regression analysis shows that NBA-caliber talent emerges at or around the age of 18, and

NBA team executives have, as a whole, accurately selected talented precocious players via the annual draft. (2011)

3. Player development.

Why should NBA franchises assume the responsibility and financial burden of player development when, once upon a time, colleges happily assumed that role for them?

(Beats me! Why should Southern farmers pay people to pick cotton?)

Garnett and Bryant needed the extra playing time (and added responsibility of carrying a college contender); meanwhile, LeBron and Howard were thrust into unfair positions as saviors of lottery teams, and after seeing how their careers have unfolded, maybe those burdens affected them more than we realized. Neither played a postseason game until his third season; meanwhile, Garnett didn't make it out of the first round until his ninth year, and Kobe didn't start logging big playoff minutes until his third season. You're telling me two years of leading elite NCAA teams wouldn't have been a better basketball/life/social/teamwork experience for those four guys?

This is exactly what Ryan Rodenberg and Jun Woo Kim of Florida State set out to study in their study of the on-court efficacy of the age eligibility rule in an article forthcoming in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis In Sports. (Ryan's actually in San Diego right now preparing to present the results at this conference.) The conclusions?

The results were consistent with our main analyses—players who moved into the NBA directly from high school generally perform better than players with a single year of college experience. We find no systematic evidence in support of the on-court efficacy of the NBA's age eligibility rule.

So, wrong again. Arguing about postseason success for an individual player of a team game is, put simply, ridiculous. Some of those straight-to-pro guys have collected a few MVP awards, too. Or is it specifically that going a few rounds in the NCAA tournament teaches you how to win multiple pro playoff series? Fine. So if Kobe had experienced the magic of March Madness, he'd have six NBA rings instead of a mere five?

4. Marketing.

I'll never forget watching the lottery in 1985, when the Knicks won the right to select Patrick Ewing with the first pick. NBA fans had followed Ewing for four years as he dominated college basketball at Georgetown; by 1985, they couldn't wait to see him on a bigger stage.

Non-academic note: The Knicks went 23-59 in Ewing's rookie year.

Even if Washington fans were excited to draft John Wall two years ago, and Cleveland fans were ecstatic about picking Kyrie Irving last year, none of them were actually thinking, We're back! Look out, playoffs!

Non-academic note: That is because they are Washington and Cleveland fans, respectively.

5. A sense of team

Late one night I was walking outside my hotel when I came across Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves, and Steve Smith, all talking animatedly, laughing and joking around.

Yes, Mateen Cleaves turned out well.

The imposition of the age eligibility rule has cost some NBA players up to $100 million (2004), and while jurisprudence (via the Clarett decision) and the current CBA mean the one-and-done rule isn't likely going anywhere, there is frankly no rational argument for increasing the age to 20. Players aren't any more mature, they aren't any better on the court, and their teams don't have more success.

References:

Michael A. McCann (2004) "Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft," Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 3, pp. 113.
Ryan M. Rodenberg and Kim, Jun Woo (2011) ''Precocity and Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence From Professional Basketball'', Economics Bulletin, Vol. 31 no.3 pp. 2185-2190.
Ryan M. Roderberg and Kim, Jun Woo (2012) "Testing the On-Court Efficacy of the NBA's Age Eligibility Rule," Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 1. (forthcoming)