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Youth, Experience and Zhaire Smith

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What Zhaire Smith’s age says about his development and potential.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Texas Tech vs. Florida Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

You all know the key Zhaire facts. Most athletic player in the draft; some say he is, as of today, the most athletic player in the entire NBA, which is really saying something because, man, the NBA has some athletes! Shot for a very high 45% 3P% but on very low volume of only about one attempt per game, so he was only taking them under the best of circumstances. Not much of a ball handler, and he played mostly PF in college so he didn’t show much as a passer. Terrific on-ball defender with promise as a team defender. Great at capturing offensive rebounds and loose balls. Not tall for an SG; 6’4” in shoes which is traditionally SG height but these days there are more and more 6’6 and over SGs. But, super-long wingspan helps to make up for not being so tall. You know all that.

And you know even more about Mikal Bridges. Superb team defender, terrific distance shooter; tall and long. If he had great handles as well he’d be the whole package.

And you know that, while Mikal is the more polished player, some argue for Zhaire as a better prospect not just on the basis of his superior athleticism but because of the age gap. But despite the great frrequency with which the age difference has been discussed, it is my strong sense that people still deeply fail to appreciate the magnitude and importance of the gap. Casual fans probably think little about the ages of players or why they would matter. More sophisticated observers might think the age gap matters some and that it is probably around two years, since Mikal just finished his junior year while Zhaire was a freshman. But in fact Mikal Bridges is just shy of THREE YEARS OLDER than Zhaire Smith. Mikal was born in August of 1996, Zhaire in June of 1999.

Pause to roll that around in your mind a little. Three years. If you or someone you know well has children around 3 years apart, think about the developmental differences between those children. Zhaire played his entire college career while only 18 years old, and many of the statistics and film clips of him that we pore over were put up early in the season, not so long after his 18th birthday.

There are multiple reasons this is so important. The first is the one normally emphasized (though still not emphasized enough!), which is that playing at a certain level at age 18.3 indicates much more promise than doing that same thing at 18.6 or 19.1 or 20.4. The best research on this is from baseball, and the results are absolutely stunning. Here, I’ll quote from my favorite writer, Bill James, in his 1987 Baseball Abstract:

”Suppose that you have a 20-year-old player and a 21-year-old player of the same ability as hitters; let’s say that each hits about .265 with ten home runs. How much difference is there in the expected career home run totals for the two players?

As best I can estimate, the 20-year-old player can be expected to hit about 61 percent more home runs in his career. That’s right — 61 percent.”

Let me say that for a third time because it’s so incredible. Two players put up the exact same numbers. They are exactly equal as players. But one is a single year younger, 20 instead of 21. The younger guy should be expected to be on a completely different level as a ballplayer; 61% is the difference between a one-of-the-best-of-his-time 300-homer player and an all-time-great 500-homer man. It’s the difference between a solid regular and a major star, 20 homers for 10 years vs. 26 homers for 12 years. That’s the effect of a single year’s difference in age.

That study is from over 30 years ago so let’s look at more recent work. Here’s a quote from Bill’s disciple Rany Jazayerli:

“If there is such a substantial difference in the expectations between 20-year-old and 21-year-old players, it stands to reason that the difference between 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds would be even more massive. At such a young age, a difference of even eight or nine months — the difference between an 18-year-old born in September and an 18-year-old born in May — might move the needle.

The two best high school hitters ever selected with the first overall pick in the draft, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., were both 17 on draft day. Griffey was born in November, making him one of the youngest first-round picks ever. Meanwhile, the oldest high school hitter selected first overall, Shawon Dunston, already 19 at the time, spent his entire career leaving people wanting more.

No one would argue [against the proposition] that, all else being equal, a 17-year-old player is likely to develop into a better player than an 18-year-old player. Yet, given these and other examples, I wondered if the baseball industry as a whole has underestimated the importance of age. I wondered if, given two players taken at the same slot in the draft, the younger player returned greater value. In other words, even accounting for the fact that teams took age into consideration — presumably, a player who is particularly young for his draft class might get picked earlier — I wondered if those players were still undervalued.”

What Jazayerli found was stupefying: controlling for where they were drafted, very young draftees produced 117% more value, more than double the value, of older players. In other words, not only are younger players more valuable, over 32 years of baseball drafts the younger players were vastly more valuable even accounting for age adjustments made by general managers.

Sorry, I’m going to do one more baseball thing from the Jazayerli study. Each year for 32 years he picked the five youngest and 5 oldest draftees from among high school hitters. Since these are all high schoolers the age range is not that large, the young guys are generally around 17.5 while the old players are perhaps 19.0 or something. 160 young players and 160 old ones, 5 each per year for 32 years. The best young players include:

Johnny Bench, Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Eddie Murray, Jimmy Rollins, Danny Tartabull, Chet Lemon, Mike Scioscia

Even if you’re not a baseball fan you probably know enough to know that these are unbelievably good players, that Bench, A-Rod, Rickey, Yount, Jeter, and Griffey are among the very, very best to ever don spikes. For comparison (quoting RJ again): “The best players in the entire study selected from among the five oldest high school hitters in their draft class were Willie Wilson, Johnny Damon, and Richie Hebner.” Yikes! I mean, those are solid players, but they are the BEST from a group drafted just as high as the group with all the pantheon players. It’s really mind-boggling, enough to make you want to never again draft an older player.

Note, again, that we’re looking here at an age difference of only a year or two, vs. almost 3 years of age difference between Zhaire and Mikal. Or forget Mikal and just understand that Zhaire Smith is almost a full year younger than many players entering the draft after their freshman year (e.g. DeAndre Ayton or Trey Young), and almost two years younger than some (e.g. Josh Jackson last year). And that’s just comparing him to other freshman, not to the sophomores and juniors who are often drafted. So that’s the first point: younger players have vastly more development potential, and even people who think about that difference tend to massively underestimate it. And that’s over and above the general failure to recognize that the age gap here is not one or two years, but almost 3. Of course it would be better if I had some good basketball studies to cite here, rather than applying information from a different sport. I’m starting work on a small research project related to this issue and hope to have findings to post soon. (Meanwhile, if anyone knows of any existing studies of the age-experience-performance relationship, please share a link in comments.)

Finally, note that this study is an effective response to the usual appeals to authority we hear in sports debates. Most people would say that if two dozen general managers prefer other prospects to Mike Trout, and a stats-geek who works full time as a dermatologist thinks that Trout is better than he looks because he was only 17 at draft time while other draftees with slightly better stats were a year and a half older, well, the general managers are baseball experts and the dermatologist is just a clueless nerd. But Jazayerli, who in his day job is indeed a dermatologist, did the research to prove that GMs have been leaving enormous amounts of value on the table, in the form of players like Mike Trout, by underrating the importance of age. That doesn’t prove that Pat Riley and Ryan McDonough are making similar errors, but it does mean we cannot dismiss that possibility out of hand just because they are professional basketball executives and you and I and Rany are not!

A second factor is this: in general young players are better than their year-long statistics, because they are improving month by month. The older the player, the smaller this effect; it’s probably quite modest for 24-year olds and goes to zero at a player’s peak age, perhaps 27 or 28, after which it reverses. Zhaire Smith is an extreme case; in the first half of his one college season he really couldn’t shoot the three at all, and by the last third of the season he was taking two a game and hitting 50%, and now it’s several months later and Brett Brown says his shot is better still, as indeed we would expect it to be. In other words, it’s not just that we expect him to be better in the future than he is right now, though that is true. It’s that he is much better right now than his stats and film from last season imply, because those stats and that film were compiled at a time when he was meaningfully younger, and therefore less good, than he is now.

This effect is further magnified in Smith’s case because he was not a big high scool star (probably an additional consequence of his being so young for his class) and so didn’t get the elite AAU coaching and competition. Imagine a world in which Zhaire had entered first grade a year later than he did. Then his ability in his senior year of high school, for which he’d have been only 18 so still relatively young for his class, would have been the ability he demonstrated at Texas Tech, which is to say, stunning ability. That would have made him an AAU star, so he’d have been playing top competition and getting the very best coaching. Then his freshman college season would have been 2018-19, when he’ll be a lot better than he was last year. I actually think it’s likely he’d be a top-5 pick next year in that scenario. And that’s if he’d come to college one year later; it’s even more extreme if it had been two! As many of you know, the practice of holding back children in their preschool years so they can thrive academically and athletically, now very common among wealthy elites, is referred to jokily as “redshirting” the child. If Zhaire had been truly redshirted he would now, on approximately his 19th birthday, have just finished his JUNIOR year of high school rather than his first year of college. College scouts and NBA scouts alike would be looking at this kid, about to enter his senior year, and slavering over him. Instead he was pushed ahead a year relative to many kids these days; he was still 17 when his senior season of high school ended. This is relevant not only to basketball but to all aspects of life; if Zhaire were one or two years older he’d be more impressive in interviews as well; as fans we are comparing his seeming maturity to players who are much older than he is. Clearly Mikal Bridges is an intelligent and composed young man, and perhaps even three years from now Zhaire will not match that composure. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he did, people grow up an awful lot between 18 and 21!

This is the point where, in an ideal world, I’d do a statistical analysis of Zhaire’s game. Unfortunately the on-off stats I most believe in are not available for college players, or at least not available to me. The closest we have is Box Plus-Minus (BPM) which is an estimate of a player’s on-off stats computed using box-score stats. Zhaire’s BPM is excellent at +12. That’s not a typo, while star NBA players offer BPMs around +3 or +5, higher numbers are possible against college competition. As a point of reference, the best college season I know of was Anthony Davis’ complete domination at Kentucky; he posted a BPM of 18.7. But +12 is really terrific, well above the numbers delivered by the stars of last year’s draft, such as Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and our own prodigal son Markelle Fultz.

Mikal’s BPM was similar at +13. So if this were our only measure of ability we’d have an intense preference for Z; despite being three years younger he nearly match Mikal’s superb BPM performance. The same can be said of other combo metrics; Mikal had an Ortg-Drtg of a fantastic +36, Zhaire was almost as good at +34. Same story with Win Shares per 48 minutes. Basically, if we believe these sorts of stats, Mikal was just a little better last year; given that players advance more from 18 to 19 than they do from 21 to 22, we’d expect them to perhaps be similarly good as soon as next year. That is, according to these metrics, which are far from perfect, all three of them tell the same story which is probably worth something: 19-year-old Zhaire will probably be about as good at basketball as 22-year-old Mikal. Which of course suggests that Zhaire will have a far, far better career when all is said and done, and also that there won’t be a heavy short-term price to pay for that long-run benefit. That last point is important; NBA teams don’t have permanent rights to players, so even if you could, today, draft an 18-year-old whom you knew for sure would be an All-Star at 28, that wouldn’t necessarily be a great pick. The drafting team gets the player very cheap for 4 years and at a fair-market price — unless the player is worth more than the max, which is very rare on a second contract — for 4 years more. Don’t misunderstand me; next year Zhaire will be eight or nine years away from his peak year; he probably won’t be a star, or even a positive player, in 2018-19. Few rookies are. But I am saying that some pundits are assuming Mikal will help his team a lot more next season than Zhaire, and I actually don’t see much evidence to support that.

I’ll just add that team performance is consistent with what the individual statistics are telling us; Villanova was a much better team but Texas tech made it to the Elite Eight and gave Villanova a decent game even though Mikal was joined by three other drafted players and Zhaire very much wasn’t. So Zhaire is not a case of a guy who’s individual numbers impressed while his team disappointed. Rather, he took a team of which little was expected and brought them close to the very top of college hoops.

Of course, all this analysis is player-vs.-player and ignores the fact that we received a valuable unprotected 2021 Miami draft pick in the trade. I discussed that subject at length in my previous post. My point here is about Zhaire the player. The statistics suggest he was better last year than most writing about him implies. Moreover he is already a lot better than his average play over the course of last season. And he is so young that we should anticipate rapid ongoing improvement. As we learned from the Markelle Fultz saga last year, you really never know what’s going to happen. But I think Sixers fans should have extremely high expectations for Zhaire as we look ahead.