Players may need coaches and colleges less than we think

Correct response of Division I head coaches and the NCAA to this graphic: Uh-oh.

Proper response of Division I head coaches and the NCAA to this graphic: Uh-oh.

The evergreen topic of the NBA’s age limit has popped up again in the news, as it is wont to do every couple of years. Whenever this discussion recurs, it’s informed and to a certain extent framed by two implicit assumptions:

1. Player development is a gift waiting to be bestowed by wise college coaches if only blue-chip Division I programs can get the nation’s best young prospects in-house for a season or, even better, two.

2. College ball and the NBA together comprise a closed-loop pipeline that elite players will always have to navigate, international prospects and the occasional Brandon Jennings notwithstanding. 

And by “framed by” I mean I’ve long made these assumptions myself, and written accordingly. We all have. Here’s NBA commissioner Adam Silver giving voice to assumption No. 1: “If those players had the benefit to play for some of these great college coaches for longer periods of time, I think it would lead to stronger college basketball and stronger NBA ball, as well.”

Similarly, here’s Jay Bilas phrasing assumption No. 2 with laudable concision: “Clearly, an increased age limit will benefit college basketball by keeping marquee talent in the college game for a longer period of time.”

However in an excellent piece at ESPN Insider this week  (disclosure: I work there too), Kevin Pelton pulled together data suggesting that assumption No. 1 may be empirically incorrect. If that is so, assumption No. 2 may be less secure going forward than previously thought.

Kevin looked at the year-to-year improvement recorded by one-and-dones like Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and compared the amount of development these stars exhibited to what was posted by 14 elite players who chose to stay in college for their sophomore seasons: Greg Monroe, James Harden, Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Cody Zeller, and others. He found the 18 players that turned pro after one season of college ball showed a larger year-to-year improvement in individual performance. Even more suggestively, Kevin’s initial research suggests the resulting gap in performance might be somewhat durable — players like Barnes and Sullinger may continue to pay a price in early-career NBA performance for that “lost” year where they stagnated as sophomores.

Keep in mind the relative talent levels of these two groups is not at issue. Obviously any population of players that includes the likes of Rose and Davis is exceptional. But what Kevin looked at was the amount of year-to-year improvement that each player charted on top of a preexisting (amazing) level of talent. And while one could hypothesize that players as incomparable as Davis are incomparable in part because they have some innate ability to develop so quickly, the likelihood that your non-Davis slow-development cases will reveal themselves only in sophomore college seasons and never in rookie pro seasons is small.

Kevin’s data is preliminary, but at first blush it did strike me as possessing retrospective explanatory value. Every time a one-and-done-level freshman opts out of the draft, it’s a huge story. We quite naturally assume that the player in question will dominate and terrorize the rest of Division I as a sophomore. We even name such players unanimous preseason national POYs.

But have these sophomore seasons ever lived up to the expectations? That’s not rhetorical, by the way; I’m throwing the floor open for nominations. What has been the single best sophomore season we’ve ever seen from a player that could have gone in the first round after his freshman year?

It’s very normal for people over 25 to think they’re absolutely indispensable to the development and nurturing of people under 25. In this sense coaches and those of us who cover them form an alliance of the smugly senescent. But maybe sustained competition against the best players in the world is superior to any coaching.

When Mark Cuban says the NBA Development League would be better than Division I for elite players both financially and developmentally, we laugh. For now, we’re right to laugh. As it happens not every top prospect is trapped in a hand-to-mouth existence, and social capital matters to all of us, 18-year-olds included. Whether it’s fair or correct there is a stigma attached to the D-League. For the time being it will remain more impressive to tweet that you’ll be playing for Duke next season than for the Idaho Stampede.

However the key words there may be “for the time being.” For 30 years the NCAA has been able to cruise serenely and imperviously through an otherwise hazardous and shifting sports media landscape because the men and women in Indianapolis own the rights to what may fairly be termed the perfect TV product. (Well, perfect except for the 17,312 late-game timeouts.) There are only a few of you out there passionate enough about college basketball purely as a sport to land on the personal WordPress blog of some ESPN guy, but there are tens of millions adults in the U.S. and abroad who went to college. If their team is still alive in March there’s a fair chance they may watch a few minutes of that game. And the tournament’s single-elimination format focuses all of those eyeballs with an efficiency that advertisers adore.

Can those structural essentials ever change? Of course. All structural “essentials” in sports media change if you wait long enough. And one way this equation could change would be if the NBA somehow developed a truly viable minor league.

The tournament’s qualitative greatness derives from many sources, and one of them is seeing players who know they’ll never get the slightest whiff of the NBA competing against sure-fire lottery picks. In between these two poles there are a large number of players who aspire to prove that they’re good enough to land an NBA roster spot. Most of these players are quite mistaken, of course, and indeed the math here is brutal. Still, Damian Lillard did happen.

In the era when the best young players went straight from high school to the pros, we saw that Division I hoops can always withstand the loss of the tiny sliver at the top — the LeBrons, Kobes and Kevin Garnetts. But if a much larger aspirational queue of wanna-be’s and indeed might-be’s were ever to migrate to a professional minor league, that would be a different matter entirely. If I’m the NCAA, I’m reading Kevin’s research as yet one more incentive to consider the benefits of putting the organization on a reality-based footing for the first time in its history.

Alternate post title: “Do Coaches Matter?” Before it’s all said and done Kevin may be to theories of player development what Judith Rich Harris has been to theories of child development. Salute.