Both Derrick White and Jaron Blossomgame have already celebrated their 23rd birthdays. Only in the modern NBA does that count as an ancient age to get started on your professional career. For the past decade, out of 60 total NBA draft picks a year, about 5-10 draftees a season turn 23 before playing their first rookie game in late October. Blossomgame will actually be 24 by the time the 2017-18 season gets underway.
You have to go back to the 2011 Trail Blazers, to find the last team since this year’s Spurs that spent multiple draft picks, and their only draft picks*, on 23-year-old rookies. And that was a total dud of a draft for Portland, spending their first-rounder on Nolan Smith, who only managed 84 career games, and their second-rounder on Jon Diebler, who never appeared in the NBA.
This is not to predict doom for the Spurs’ 2017 draft class. Far from it: the 2011 Blazers and the 2017 Spurs operate in entirely different basketball universes. Also there are nearly infinite reasons that a draft pick does or does not succeed, with age maybe being a factor, or maybe not.
It’s more instructive, I think, to look at the recent successes among 23-year-old rookies to see what they have in common. (And I’m not going to count making a brief NBA appearance as a “success.”) Ordered by their draft year, these players include: Malcolm Brogdon, Dwight Powell, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee, Chandler Parsons, Mike Scott, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll, Courtney Lee, Brandon Rush, and Carl Landry — all of these players did more than just make a brief NBA appearance.
No, not a lot of star power on that list -- but definitely a lot of productive rotation members for playoff teams. That’s a success for a draft pick at any slot.
There are very few 23-year-olds taken in the first round, and only a handful of them have definitely underwhelmed for their draft slot: C.J. Wilcox, Adreian Payne, Shabazz Napier, Ekpe Udoh, Wesley Johnson, and the aforementioned Smith.
While these sample sizes are too small to make any sweeping declarations about what will or won’t happen to White or Blossomgame, there are some patterns that show up among this group of players:
Big Injuries Happen
One of the reasons that Blossomgame was the second-oldest draftee this year was that he redshirted his true freshman season after breaking his leg as a high school senior. As a result, he was rusty for basically his entire first season of college ball. That year, Blossomgame only scored 8.4 points per 40 minutes, and on 39.5% field goal shooting. Even his free throws were off-kilter: Blossomgame left Clemson with a 72.3% career average, but shot only 59.6% that first year.
A small percentage of basketball players get sidelined for a full year due to injury. But, of the 12 excellent 23-plus draftees I mentioned above, a third of them saw an entire college season go up in smoke: Landry, Rush, Scott, and Brogdon.
Late Bloomers Happen
The story of White jumping from DII to the Spurs in about 18 months is an all-time great. As I first learned about White, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if successful NBA players could still come from such a slow early development track. Players like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Ben Wallace all came from totally microscopic schools, sure -- but isn’t that a relic of the pre-internet age?
Well, no. It turns out: there’s more than one example of successful NBA players who White was actually ahead of on a year-by-year basis. (And this is excluding the incredible cases of players who first came to the sport as teenagers, like Joel Embiid, Festus Ezeli, or Dewayne Dedmon). For instance: after Jimmy Butler’s freshman season, he was named the 127th-best community college player in the nation. Also: Jae Crowder went to not one but two community colleges before joining Marquette.
Probably the very best example of a slow developer comes from one of the 23-year-old draft picks: Carl Landry did not even average 10 points per game as a high school senior.
Think of all the thousands of high schoolers across the nation who average more, way more, than 10 points per game, who never got close to making the NBA. Landry, somehow, found a way past them all .
You Don’t Even Have to Score
White and Blossomgame didn’t have any problems filling up the hoop once they got to the height of their powers. In 2016-17, they averaged 22.0 and 20.5 points per 40 minutes, respectively (via Sports-Reference). Believe it or not, not every successful 23-year-old draftee was a reliable scorer -- even with, presumably, an age advantage over their amateur opponents. In his final college season, Dieng averaged 12.6 points per 40; Miles Plumlee averaged 13; and Parsons averaged just 13.2.
What gets hard to compute, then, is how well the 23-year-old busts did score as they wrapped up college. Of that group, Udoh was the only player to score less than 18 points per 40 as a senior. Plus, they did all that collegiate scoring with remarkably similar True Shooting Percentages as their more successful NBA counterparts.
What Does Winning Mean?
With the last two first overall picks coming from decidedly mediocre college programs, it’s felt more important than ever to figure out what securing team wins means for an individual college prospect.
If getting wins in college truly is important, that doesn’t bode well for White or Blossomgame, who played on teams that had 55.9% and 51.5% winning percentages last season. Plus, all of the successful 23-year-old draftees concluded their college careers by winning more than 60% of their games, with the closest call being Gibson’s 62.9% with the USC Trojans.
While Wilcox entered the NBA after just a 53.1% campaign with Washington, some of the other draft busts were part of truly elite programs. Napier won 80% of his senior games -- plus that national championship -- Johnson won 85.7%, Smith won 86.5%.
The boring answer is probably the correct one in this debate: it’s a team sport, and wins and losses can’t be laid at the feet of a single player.
While we can’t draw any conclusions about the future careers of White and Blossomgame from all this, San Antonio’s evolving approach to the draft reveals a couple of things. First, despite the Spurs’ uncommonly old draft, precedent exists for such players to find success in the league. Second, for the team that changed the NBA Draft with their innovative approach to unknown internationals, it looks like we’re seeing another stage of the Spurs’ pursuit of undervalued talent — this time with players ruled out by other teams for being too old.
This June, the Boston Celtics also spent two draft picks, both deep second-rounders, on elder prospects: Jabari Bird and 24.5-year-old Kadeem Allen, the oldest 2017 draftee. Making the Spurs and Celtics the first teams since the 2013 Minnesota Timberwolves — who drafted Gorgui Dieng and Lorenzo Brown — to spend multiple draft picks on 23-year-old rookies. Seeing as the Celtics had four draft picks, including the #3 overall pick on 19-year-old Jayson Tatum, it’s only the Spurs who made an exclusive investment in older players. And even that Timberwolves team also used their highest pick that season on 21-year-old Shabazz Muhammad.