The Prep To Pro Problem

Should NBA players be allowed to come out of high school?

Is a question that comes up every couple of years and always causes vehement arguments from both sides.

On one hand there are the capitalists who believe that it is an infringement on one civil liberty to deny these high schools graduates entry into the league.

On the other hand there are the people of yesteryear that believe that a player has to go through a right of passage before they are allowed to enter the promise land.

With the release of Jonathan Abrams incredible new book Boys Among Men, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about this moral chasm.

Personally, I feel as though the argument presented by the capitalists is good enough to allow high schoolers to jump straight to the NBA. But, I believe there is a better system that could be put in place which is more socially optimum.

Each NBA player firsts starts out as a young kid with talent and drive who plays very well as a kid; he is then rewarded by being selected to their respective AAU and high school team. Afterward, they go to (insert high profile college here), don’t attend any class and play some terrible college basketball.

After this they are drafted by an NBA team who tries to answer a simple question “is there talent worth their attitude?”.

After they figure that out, the team hopes he falls to them at their allocated slot (iffy), they hope their personal and basketball related evaluations were accurate (more iffy), and they hope that their health scan results are accurate (even more iffy).

Oh, and did I mention that all of this is dependent on pure luck that comes with a bunch of bouncing ping pong balls?

There has to be a better alternative to a system in which the goal of every team is to try to find some light in the dark and then make a guess on the future of a player.

Luckily there is a system which has been going on across the Atlantic for the better part of a century. This method consists of acquiring talent at a young age, moulding that talent according to the mantra of the team and then watching as that player rises up the ranks till they reach the first team.

This, of course, is the academy system.

In this piece, I’ll hopefully convince you guys that adopting such a system in the NBA wouldn’t be as crazy as it sounds.

In my quest to do so I am going to look at this from a social point of view, a teams point of view and then ultimately a league-wide view.

The way it works: 

Each NBA team would be required by the league to have a youth program in which they run. This youth program would consist of multiple youth teams in which players move up based on a function of skill and age.

When a team selects a player, they seek permission from their parent or guardian. The NBA team is now fully responsible for the child’s education, shelter and most importantly development.

If a player is good enough when he is 18. He is able to move into the D-League for a year or jump straight to the NBA depending on a teams discretion.

To ensure parity and the continuity of the absurd draft teams can choose to hold a maximum of two to three of their teams prospect with the rest being draft eligible.

Even if the NBA is not paying these kids anything, they are still in a much better place physically and emotionally when compared to some of the upbringings of NBA players. They are fed, schooled and housed which unfortunately is something all to unfamiliar to some of these young players. They are also shielded from the malevolent outside influences like shady AAU coaches, crime and drugs.


Team Perspective:

Improved drafting:

Obviously, the only way this rule gets instituted is if it benefits each NBA franchise. Let’s not be naive here, the only reason players aren’t allowed to jump from high school to the NBA is not because of morality but because it’s not in the best interest of the team to take a chance on an unknown commodity. The longer players in college, the more information a team can compile on him and, therefore, the more educated the NBA draft pick is.

However, there still isn’t perfect information for the NBA teams to exploit. There are still a variety of character or basketball deficiencies that can only be noticed when following a person up close for a multitude of years.

The only way in which teams can do this is if they have their prospect up close and personal for years before they get to decide if they want to invest their future in this prospect.

Medical and Player Development Advantages: 

This would also allow a team better look in the evolution of the medical history of a particular player. Imagine for a second that Joel Embiid played for the 76ers youth teams and they have an in-depth look at his history of health. They would have been better aware of his fragility and, therefore, might not have taken him with such a high pick.

Conversely, think of the case of Myles Turner. He grew up his entire life running in such a way that maximise his injury prospects, and his form was only corrected before the NBA draft. His whole life he accumulated unnecessary wear and tear as a result of this and may have suffered considerable damage to his lower extremities. If he played for an NBA academy, his poor form would have been noticed and corrected at a much earlier age.

Furthermore, a lot of kids develop a lot of terrible nutritional habits that hamper them for life. We don’t have to look further than Dwight Howard whose favourite food is Skittles and Derrick Rose that has a Skittles dispensary in his house.

What’s up with these guys and Skittles?

It is also worth noting the effect of the grind that some of these players are exposed to at such a young age. They play tons of AAU games during the summer and their basketball offseason. Which tremendous amount of stress on players. This is one of the reasons that was speculated that last year’s rookie class suffered all these devastating injuries. In Europe where academic rain supreme, players are protected from themselves and are not over exerted by coaches who are only looking to exploit them.

If you look at the way academies are run across Europe the emphasis is not on winning and playing games but on practise and player development. At every stage of a basketball players life, from when they are kids to when they go into the hall of fame the emphasis is put on winning and not developing the best talent. The AAU coach does not want to develop you as a player he just wants to win the most amount of games possible, ditto for every other coach a player will ever encounter.

This is in stark contrast to the way it should be. Players should be allowed to fail in a practise setting and learn skills that they can later take into the NBA. This trend of games over practice can even be seen in the NBA where the gruelling NBA season just doesn’t allow sufficient practise time.

Switching to an academy system would be the best way to improve the average talent level in the NBA as a whole and rookies in particular. On average, most rookies are bad NBA players because they are still trying to get acclimatised to pro style offence and defence and all the ins and out of becoming a pro. So making them get used to all these different aspects at a younger age will allow younger players to contribute fast and thereby making the rookie scale contract an ever better return on investment.

Furthermore, rookies will be better NBA players once they get older because they are fundamentally sound, and their game is complete. There is a reason all European players are good at passing, shooting, dribbling and other basic basketball stuff. This is because throughout their lives the emphasis was put on the development of skills and not on winning meaningless games. Imagine if Elfrid Payton was taught at a young age proper shooting form and didn’t have to struggle in his first couple years due to his lack of outside touch.

The last thing I would add would be that teams would be able to breed a particular kind of player. The Spurs would put emphasis on ball movement and team play. The Rockets would make everyone shoot 3’s. You would get more heterogeneity in the league, which is always a good thing.

At the end of the day going to college may develop you as a person, but it doesn’t develop you as a basketball player.

Effect on parity: 

Also, this would help increase parity in the NBA, which is one of Adam Silver’s primary goals as commissioner.

Think about this from the point of view of a small market team who are always forced to overpay mediocre talent in free agency to lure them to their city. Isn’t said team better off focusing all of their resources toward their academy system to ensure that they have a steady pipeline of players and aren’t forced to really on the randomness of the lottery?

Also, if you think about it, an academy system sounds expensive, but it is the cheapest way to consistently find talent. If a youth player doesn’t work out, he can always be sent home with little cost. As opposed to the current system where teams can only cut bait after they’ve used their draft slot and invested a ludicrous amount of time and money into a prospect.

The best way to bridge the divide between rich and poor teams is to make them adopt academies. There is only so much money a team can spend on an academy and after awhile serious diminishing marginal returns begin to set in.

The counterargument to this point would be that the best team will always acquire the best talent so adopting this system would make parity worse in the long run.

My retort to this would be that basketball evaluation is a very inexact science. Karl-Anthony Towns was the 9th highest rank high school prospect, and Harrison Barnes was 1st (in different years obviously). In addition to this, it doesn’t matter the level of talent you have; it’s how you develop it. Kawhi Leonard would not be the MVP candidate that he is today (at least this soon) without the Spurs development team, specifically the shot doctor.

Another advantage of this system is that it promotes players staying in small market teams, which is a big emphasis of the new CBA agreement. Imagine if Wiggins was a graduate of Minnesota’s academy. Thanks to all the years he spent in that city he would have developed a bond with its community, and more importantly, they would form a bond with him. This would make players more likely to stay and not hold the franchise hostage.

The Social Side: 

Abrams in his book basically tells us the story of all the NBA players who attempted the big jump from the prep to the pros. A definite pattern can be extrapolated when trying to figure out why some players made it and why others didn’t.

Obviously, talent matters more than everything else, but it’s not the end all be all. For each Lebron James phenom, there is a Lenny Cooke.

Most players who succeeded in the NBA from high school did so because they had present parental figures (or people who filled that role), were not forced into declaring due to financial reasons, were sheltered from extreme tragedy and were not being exploited by people they knew.

The best example of this would be Kobe Bryant.

He was not only a supremely talented player, but he also had two active and present parents, they were rich, he could have gone to college if he wanted to and he lived a very sheltered privileged life.

Obviously, like in any trend, there are outliers like Amar’e Stoudemire, who filled almost none of the categories highlighted above yet still managed to be an MVP candidate.

But for the most part, this relationship holds.

So the obvious advantage of switching to an academy system would be that these kids are being sheltered from all the negative of the outside world whether it be violence or drugs.

They can focus on basketball, with people that have their best interest at heart and is not trying to exploit them. This will only lead to better emotionally able players.

Macro effect: 

Removes luck:

At the end of the day the NBA, more so than every other league, comes down to luck.

“We all think we’re geniuses. It’s Luck in my opinion, a lot of times”-Masai Ujiri (Boys Among Men).

In 1997, the probability that Spurs would get the 1st pick in the draft was a measly 21.6%.

Which at first glance sounds like a lot right?

But a better way to look at it would be that they had a 78.4% chance that they wouldn’t get the first selection.

That means in 78.4% of all scenarios the Spurs don’t get their greatest player in franchise history. They are never a dominant team. Pop is just another good coach, if that.

But because they were “lucky” we like to give them all the credit in the world for their accomplishments. People in the NBA don’t like to admit to the inherent survivor bias when analysing exploits. This is because we as humans love a nice narrative and love to find a pattern even when there is none.

So the Spurs pattern goes something like this:

-Have your best player go down with an injury which would sideline him all year and plummet out of playoff contention

-Get the first pick with only a 21.6% chance

-Draft a player that you were reportedly trying to trade

-Let him turn out to be the best power forward of all time

-Surround him with good players

-Hope that the Celtics don’t take Tony Parker even though he was already given a Celtic hat to wear

-Get the best player in Europe in the second round of the NBA draft

Clearly I am understating the importance of skill in that summary. The reason the Spurs are still dominant today is because they were always mavericks looking to exploit every market inefficiency. But, if they didn’t get lucky they would be nowhere right now.

So instituting a system which limits the prevalence of luck would allow us as fans/ wannabe analysts to better understand who are the good teams with good institutions and who are the trash teams who just got lucky.

Think about how the Cavs lottery winning streak. There was a 0.61% chance that they would get all those picks and that 0.61% is what got them back Lebron fucking James back.

From a purely statical perspective, there has to be a sort of anti-Cavs who kept getting screwed over by the draft. The 1997 Celtics come to mind. Or even imagine if the 76ers got Wiggins and Towns, we would be talking about Philly as a resounding success as opposed to the mess that it is today.

Even though this is one of the minor reasons for altering the draft system it’s still a very important thing to consider.

Removes tanking: 

This is also the perfect solution for tanking as it completely removes the incentive of picking that high in the draft. Although there still would be some, teams are more likely focus on developing their players instead of tanking.

At the end of the day I feel as though this is a solution to a lot of the problems which are going on in the NBA. Lastly, I feel that the only reason this movement hasn’t caught on is because the inertia is too great.


Hope you guys learned a thing or two

Shami out

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