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Saturday, July 14, 2007
Amir Johnson and NBA Players who Skipped College

John Infante, a law review student at Indiana University School of Law, e-mails me a great point about Amir Johnson, the last high school player selected in an NBA draft (Johnson was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the second round, 56th overall, of the 2005 NBA Draft; the NBA and NBPA then collectively-bargained that, beginning with the 2006 NBA Draft, players must be at least 19 years old on December 31 of the year of the NBA draft and that at least one NBA season has passed from when they graduated from high school, or when they would have graduated from high school, and the NBA draft.):
Prof. McCann,

I know this is a topic you're very passionate on, so I thought I would pass on this little tidbit. Amir Johnson holds the distinction of being the last high school player drafted, assuming the age limit isn't going anywhere. He was drafted 56th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2005. Had he attended Louisville, where he signed an letter of intent, and come out this year, he would have been a consensus lottery pick, and possibly a clear 3rd overall behind Oden and Durant.

Yesterday, Amir signed a 3-year, $11 million guaranteed contract with Pistons. Coincidentally, that's about what a top 5 pick makes during his rookie contract. But instead of spending two years playing for free in college, Amir has pulled in over $1 million in salary over the last two years, been able to focus exclusively on his game, gotten instruction from NBA coaches and one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in sports, Arnie Kander, and gotten more acclimated to the NBA lifestyle (although most of his time was spent with the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBDL).

I know you are fond of saying the reality is that for every Korleone Young, there are two Kobe Bryants. Look like Amir might be ready to start the path to being compared to the later, rather than the former.

John Infante
Indiana University School of Law
Indiana Law Journal
Indiana University Division of Recreational Sports
Excellent analysis by John, who has much more on his blog, Taco John. In addition, and as I empirically examine in my law review article on high school players and the NBA Draft and other work, high school players in the NBA average more points, rebounds, and assists than the average NBA player or the average player of any age group within the NBA. Those numbers not only reflect the play of superstars like Lebron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Amare Stoudemire, but also very good (if not great) players like Al Jefferson, Jermaine O'Neal, Rashard Lewis, Al Harrington, Eddy Curry, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, and Josh Smith, as well as productive role players like DeSagana Diop, DeShawn Stevenson, and Kendrick Perkins.

High school players who made themselves eligible for the draft were also far more likely to be drafted, and to be drafted in the first round, than college underclassmen or college seniors (my favorite response to that is "but they are a small sample size!" -- well that's the whole point. Only 36 made themselves eligible for the draft from 1995 to 2004--30 of whom were drafted--indicating that they only tended to do it when it made sense). They are also one of the least likely cohorts to get in trouble with the law.

It's also commonly assumed that high school players struggle in their first NBA season; unfortunately for the NBA, that's true of most rookies. Moreover, think about all of the college juniors and seniors who were drafted high but ended up playing poorly in the NBA. Rafael Araujo, Trajan Langdon, Ed O'Bannon, Mateen Cleaves, Kirk Haston, Brandon Armstrong, Marcus Fizer, Dahntay Jones, Marcus Haislip, Reece Gaines, Mike Sweetney, Luke Jackson -- this list could go on and on and on. These players were twenty-one- or twenty-two-years-old when they entered the NBA. They had played three or four years of college basketball where they had excelled. They had attracted the keen interest of NBA scouts. And yet they proceeded to flop or disappoint in the NBA. Would an arbitrary age floor of nineteen- or twenty-years-old have stopped any of them from being drafted? Nope. Too bad the NBA couldn't create a rule that protects teams from drafting these guys.

Also highlighting John's remarks above, high school seniors who declared for the draft positioned themselves for free agency at earlier ages in their NBA careers (look at what it did for 27-year-old Rashard Lewis and his recently signed 6-year, $126 million contract with the Orlando Magic, which followed a 7-year, $60 million contract that he signed at age 23 with the Seattle Supersonics (he opted out of its last two years), and for Kevin Garnett, who, when all is said and done, may end up earning over $300 million as an NBA player). No, money isn't everything, but it seems to matter a lot in this country, and I suspect it would matter a lot to us if we were potential NBA players, especially when we would always be one basketball injury away from pursuing the kinds of jobs we actually have.

Of course, the bigger point isn't that players should skip college, it's that they should have that option, just like the one enjoyed by baseball players, hockey players, tennis players, boxers, actors (see this week's People Magazine cover story), musicians . . . the list goes on, except it doesn't include, for one reason or another, basketball and football players. And that brings to mind a legal question: should veteran players, who seemingly have a stake in preserving jobs for themselves and other veterans, be able to collectively-bargain away the employment rights of players not yet in the league and who have no seat at the bargaining table? I know veterans have that capacity, but should they? Why or why not?


That's a smokin' post, right there. David Stern thinks he's doing the right thing, I'm sure, but his actions fly in the face of facts, a common occurence in almost any large corporation that has lost touch with it's constituency.

The NBA is facing falling ratings and revenues, and Stern cannot seem to figure out how to bridge the gap from Jordan to now. Preventing potential employees from a job does little to improve the game, but at least he's doing something, right?

Anonymous John J Perricone -- 7/14/2007 2:47 PM  

Isn't the plan effectively giving the NBA free marketing from the college game. I don't follow basketball very closely and I haven't heard of Amir Johnson, but I have heard of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. I am assuming those two players have endorsement opportunities far and beyond anything that Johnson is going to command this year.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/14/2007 4:24 PM  

In terms of the 19 year age limit, we, obviously, take a long look at the effects of the player, but the point of the limit, I believe is to protect the team, from drafting on potential. In a league, where free agency is rampant, teams should be drating on how they fit with the team, instead of the potential fo the player, which the team would be able to tell of when the player would be exposed of in college.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/14/2007 10:28 PM  

Professor McCann,
Don't unions essentially always protect the interest of their current members against potential members?

Blogger Ben -- 7/15/2007 12:40 AM  

Thanks for these comments.


I agree completely. David Stern has pursued a number of policies that don't seem supported by empirical data or even common sense, and while they might appease certain fans, at least initially (I know there are some fans, whatever their motivations or biases, who really like the age limit and dress code), I don't think they do much to help the game or attract new fans. Stern has done well marketing the NBA to foreign markets, but I question how well has done so to our market.

Anonymous 1,

In terms of Greg Oden, I think he was a big name long before he showed up at Ohio State. In fact, there were ESPN and HBO specials of him while he was a high school junior. Kevin Durant seems like a better example of a player who improved his name recognition by starring in college, although we'll never know if he would have received similar acclaim had he directly entered the NBA and done well. But more generally, I don't think the NBA sells its players based on their college acclaim; I think they sell them based on those players' NBA performance and how well their NBA teams play. If Kevin Durant stinks next year, I don't think Seattle fans will be buying tickets because he was good at Texas. Just the same, if Acie Law ends up as Rookie of the Year, I don't think Hawks fans will be buying tickets because he was also good at Texas Tech.

Anonymous 2,

I understand the premise and logic of your point, and many have brought it up, but where is the statistical support for it? Where is the evidence that college seniors, as a group, do better immediately in the NBA than other groups entering the league? Along those lines, why protect teams from the very players who appear to be safest bets? Moreover, why protect teams when they aren't required to "draft on potential"? Some teams seem to draft to fill need, and usually do when their general managers will lose their jobs if their teams have another lousy year.


You are correct, unions of all kinds protect the interests of their own members over those of future members. And, for many good reasons, courts have accepted that. But I wonder if that system is good with pro sports. That is, why are sports leagues and players' associations largely treated as legal equivalents to companies and unions in traditional collective bargaining relationships? Why does the law treat the Ford Motor Company, one of many automakers, roughly the same as the NFL or the NBA, neither of which have a rival, or why millionaire NFL and NBA players, whose careers tend to last just four or five years, are treated akin to Ford assembly line workers, who might work for forty-five years and never earn what some NFL or NBA players earn in one year? Could the law not adjust to the different settings, or is there too much risk of unintended consequences?

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/15/2007 9:20 PM  

It seems that it works all for all parties involved. The NBA protects itself from bad investments in too-young players, the NCAA heightens its marketing machine with the best young talent coming to a college near you, and the players have at least one year to hone their skills and boost their marketing potential.

Blogger Jarrett Carter -- 7/16/2007 2:26 PM  


Thanks for your comment. I agree that the age limit works great for the NCAA and colleges since they can generate a ton of money from those players (see Mark Alesia study, linked on the side bar).

I don't agree, however, that it works well for the NBA (see data above and in the empirical studies cited).

And I vehemntly disagree that removing the option of high schoolers to enter the NBA works well for them. Why shouldn't they be able to decide, on their own, what it is in their best interests? They are mature enough to enlist in the United States Armed Services, from which they may kill or be killed, but they are not mature enough to dribble a basketball and cash a paycheck at the same time? I agree that some may prefer to go to college in hopes of improving their marketing potential and skills (while hoping that they don't blow out a knee a la Randy Livingston, under-perform, or play for a college coach who doesn't best utilize their skills), but others may prefer to directly enter the NBA and hone their skills there, playing and practicing against the world's best players, under the guidance of pro coaches, trainers, and dietitians, all the while earning a lot of money that they can use for themselves and loved ones.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/16/2007 4:29 PM  

Prof McCann,

Good stuff as usual, but again, I think you are glossing over the marketing aspect of the age limit. The age limit is not about what is good for Amir Johnson, its about what is good for the league that offers Amir Johnson the opportunity to make his money.

The bottom line is the league is driven by stars and personalities, not uniforms. There are no pinstripes in the NBA, look at the lack of popularity of legacy clubs like Boston and NY that happen to be terrible right now.

JR Smith, Al Jefferson, Amir Johnson, Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and any HS player not named Kevin Garnett (who had buzz because he was the first) is infintely more valuable to the league if they have a college career behind them. People know who they are, they are more interested in their careers, and have more of an affinity for the league. which increases the value of the league, and in effect, helps all the players.

I'm happy for Amir Johnson, but I care much more about the long term vlaue of the league and the assets that make it up. Anything that increases an assets value is a positive.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/18/2007 7:14 PM  

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