The NBA Draft: The Age Paradox

This post was inspired by James Brocato’s latest post at the Wages of Wins, concerning Ricardo Ratcliffe’s draft prospects.  Consider the following question.  Your draft board is topped by two players, and you cannot decide which one to pick.  They may or may not be of the same position or exactly the same type of player statistically, but they have approximately the same value right now.  Their personalities are approximately the same, as are their injury histories.  Furthermore, their career paths do not project to be to significantly different, and they would fill similar immediate roles.    However, one of them is older than the other.  Which one do you pick?  Assume that all judgments have been made based on careful statistical analysis.

Both choices have their obvious drawbacks.  The older player’s value is more of a known commodity, whereas the younger player may blossom beyond expectations.  On the other hand, either one of them could end up as a complete bust.  Which do you pick?

Well, let’s make it more specific.  Let’s say that they are both centers, but one is twenty-three and the other is twenty-one, and their statistics are the same.  Most people, using the conventional school of thought, will take the younger player.  However, in this instance, I would take the first player.

Let me explain why.  The first player is a known commodity.  He has almost began his peak, at age twenty-three.  Even though he would command a higher salary in Restricted Free Agency based on past performance, there would also be more peak years where he is under team control under the low(er) salary of his rookie deal.  Assuming that the peak covers ages 24-29, there are three peak seasons instead of one.

I understand that there are arguments to take the second player.  He is younger, so therefore he will probably have more trade value.  Granted, that is true in all likelihood.  However, acquiring players simply for use as trade assets is not necessarily a feasible strategy, at least not on a large-scale.  (Of course, that might be a strategy for a savvy, stats-oriented GM prior to a Moneyball moment where analytics use becomes mainstream, but let’s assume that we’re not using this strategy.)  Another point is that older players get more injuries.  However, the age difference would be slight, and I have not read a definitive, scientific article proving or disproving this.  So that is where I stand.

Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  If the age gap is more than three years, I would be more inclined to pick the younger player.  If the older player is older than twenty-three, I will take the younger player because the older player is likely to peak in his rookie year.  If one players plays center or point guard and the other does not, I will automatically pick the center or point guard, regardless of age, unless either a) the center or point guard is older than twenty-three, in which case I pick the other player or b) I don’t expect much from either player, in which case the decision is extremely tough.  I think that I may revisit this paradox in the future.  Thank you for reading; please comment with your opinions.

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