In the 76 year history of the NBA, only 16 players who began their rookie season under the age of 20 have managed to average more than 10 points in a season. Of that group, four were taken in the 2018 draft - Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley, and Wendell Carter Jr. Tyler Herro seems likely to etch his name in this scroll at year’s end. The 20-year-old, who was still 19 on draft night, is lighting up basketball’s biggest stage, pouring in spectacular scoring performances and even flushing huge crunch-time shots.
Herro’s fellow draftees, Coby White, RJ Barrett, and now Zion Williamson are also on pace to accomplish this rare feat. In addition, a whopping 84 players entered the 2019 draft early. Needless to say that’s the most ever by an absurd margin. Still not sold on the youth movement? Well, in this year’s All-Star game there were five All-Stars 22 years old or younger. Nine of those players were 23 or younger. There’s so much special young talent in the league right now. This evidence begs the question, why now more than ever are young players entering the league and having immediate success?
The answer is layered and will require us to take a trip down the annals of hoop history.
After being selected in the third round of the 1974 ABA Draft by the Utah Stars, Moses Malone became the pioneer for players going straight from high school to the pros. He wouldn’t stop there. The future Hall of Famer would become the first teenager to be an All-Star, one of just two players ever.
The other attended Lower Marion High School. 72 days past his 18th birthday, Kobe Bean Bryant became the youngest player to appear in an NBA game. A record since broken by the likes of Jermaine O’Neal and Andrew Bynum.
Ok... What’s going on in the league!? How did these young player get so damn good haha. Where are the old vets that takes all the shots and young players have to wait their turn haha Luka is 20 years old ♂️— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 30, 2019
The exploits of Moses Malone and Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have been possible without Spencer Haywood who was the first to issue a major challenge to the NBA eligibility rule in 1968.
Rookies were plastered to the bench and rarely got playing time. Pat Riley himself developed a notorious reputation for not allowing rookies to be big part of the team. Fast forward to the 2019-20 season and the Miami Heat have not one, but two rookies carrying a heavy scoring load nightly. The provisions of the league have changed over the years but so has the culture. Young players are embraced and given a chance to prove themselves more quickly than in the past.
In Wisconsin, Tyler Herro was dubbed “the chosen one.” On Twitter he’s commonly referred to as “a whole bucket.” Herro walked into the Heat practice facility wide-eyed and eager to begin his NBA journey. I presume his heart palpitated when he was told he’d be guarding Jimmy Butler for his first day on the job. Talk about a reality check. Miami didn’t waste much time integrating its first-round draft pick into the culture of the team. Gone are the days in which rookies have to sit and wait to be a part of the action. Many times, day one, they are the main attraction.
On December 8th in his finest hour as a member of the Heat, Herro scored 11 of his 27 points in the 4th quarter and overtime - including a bomb from behind the arc to force a tie at the end of regulation. The youngster had a stoic look on his face as the shot went down. Ice in his veins. He was ready for the moment. The Chicago Bulls dared the rookie to make shots, leaving him open on several occasions.
“He’s got something to him, man. He can score the ball obviously, but he was getting everybody involved. He was defending tonight. We want him to continue to be that way,” Butler said Friday. “If he gets to handle it, if he doesn’t get to handle it — be that player.”
But why are players like Tyler able to transition effortlessly one year removed from high school prom?
Much has been made of the near-legendary status Zion Williamson earned playing the South Carolina high school circuit. The young man has one of the most ridiculous highlight mixtapes ever. After beginning the season on the bench with a knee injury, Williamson missed over 30 games. But immediately upon his return was given the keys to the franchise and stepped up like few I’ve seen. His confidence and physical dominance at the age of 19 are, and this isn’t hyperbole, truly unheard of.
Zion Williamson just became the youngest player to score 20 points in seven straight games. His finest hour may have come against the Portland Trail Blazers, a contest that saw him score 31 points along with 9 rebounds and go toe-to-toe with one of the game’s best in Damian Lillard. Since Zion starting playing this season the Pelicans have a top 10 offense and defense. Not to mention they are now vying for a playoff spot.
Other young players, fresh into the league like Trae Young are prevailing too. He recently became the second player in NBA history with 10 or more 40 point games in one season at 21 years old or younger - he joins LeBron James in a class of two. Days ago, Coby White joined Michael Jordan as the only rookies in Chicago Bulls history with back-to-back 30-point games. Williamson and White are the only rookies this season to have back-to-back 30 point performances. Both teenagers.
And it’s not just the teens. Overall there looks to be a shift in the league, seeing more and more young players getting an opportunity to compete early in their career. Three teams have a combined 13 rookies on their roster in Miami, Charlotte, and New York. Compare this to 2000-01 when all three clubs had a combined 5 rookies. For another example, see the Hawks who have played their rookies over 7,000 minutes this season. On that same Hawks team Trae Young, just in his second year is averaging 30 points and 9 assists per game. He now joins all-time great Oscar Robertson as the only players to average those marks in their second season. Luka Doncic, the Dallas Maverick star, became the youngest player to start an All-Star game in 15 years. He was the 9th youngest to ever play in the game and the 6th youngest to start.
How can this phenomenon be explained? Why are players as young as 19 coming into the league and balling out?
A more efficient talent pipeline
The modern era of basketball has seen the cultivation of a more viable ways to identify and groom future talent. With the NBA setting its focus on expanding globally, players are being both identified and nurtured for basketball eliteness earlier and more aggressively. This includes international camps, AAU leagues and a more structured international competition. Youngsters are playing more organized basketball earlier their lives and therefore sharpening vital skills which become the foundation of their games moving forward. Players with a stronger foundation usually emerge with more dynamic games.
Advancements in sports science, medicine & nutrition
What a difference even 10 years makes. Today, there is so much emphasis on innovative ways to incorporate sports science into everyday operation for NBA franchises. Just look to load management and other trends of the like. Organizations are investing more into the technology that will optimize player performance.
On the other side, players are investing more into their bodies - LeBron James is said to put over a million dollars into his body every year through personal trainers, nutrition and more. There’s no doubt we are seeing the best athletes to ever touch the hardwood in today’s game. In relation to young players, they’re seeing this application in the collegiate ranks.
Modern rules help with adjusting to physicality
The rules of today’s game are tailored to favor a more exciting television product. This means offense has become the overwhelming emphasis of the league. Changes likes this help younger and less physically developed players succeed earlier. The NBA moving away from hand-checking and defense impeding progress of motion and putting an emphasis on player movement and fluidity produces a game better fit for younger players.
Increased financial investment in young players
In 1984-85, the no. 3 overall selection Michael Jordan’s rookie salary was $550,000. This year, no. 3 pick R.J. Barrett is making $7.8 million. In 1995-96, the salary for NBA lottery picks ranged from $2 million to $730,000. This year that range is a whopping $8.1 to $2.2 million. As the league has become more lucrative, basketball’s young players are repeating the benefit. Because they’re making millions youngsters are expected to contribute sooner.
Phoenix Suns just became the first team in NBA history to have 3 teenagers on the floor at the same time.— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) October 27, 2016
Whether you think younger players are good or bad for the league, one thing is for sure - they will continue to enter the league more prepared to make an impact and play star instead of sidekick moving forward. The Association is in great hands. Tyler Herro, Zion Williamson and other great young players already appear to be franchise cornerstones. As the Heat look to be legitimate contenders this season, they will lean on Herro’s bench scoring to help in the playoff push.
Michael Kawaida covers the NBA for @SBNation | Follow him on twitter @michael.kawaida