Analysis: Draft’s youth trend leaves NBA lacking

UNLV's Anthony Bennett waves after being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA draft Thursday, June 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
UNLV's Anthony Bennett waves after being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA draft Thursday, June 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Perhaps it is appropriate that this was Commissioner David Stern’s last NBA draft.

Stern obviously enjoyed it, playing with the Barclays Center crowd during several light moments — “I can’t hear you,” as the ever-present boos rained down — and looking like a man who knows he has done his job over a 30-year career.

The mess Stern inherited is well-documented: a league-wide drug problem that had to be addressed and a disconnect between fans and players that had to be bridged. Stern had a plan to clean up the league’s image as well as better market its players, and it proved wildly successful.

That’s why Thursday night was so interesting. It brought another draft — the foundation of the league — with yet another crop of not-ready-for-prime-time players waiting to be plucked.

Remember when fans waited eagerly to see which player their team would select, providing all the hope and promise of a season better than the one before? Well, all fans except the Clippers’ back in those days.

But all that Stern built through the draft looks increasingly threatened, and there seems to be little that can be done about it. It doesn’t appear that the National Basketball Players Association will ever sign off on increasing the age to be draft eligible. And there’s certainly a market for that young talent.

Each year, NBA teams prove that market exists as they draft young and inexperienced players, with only a few who can help their new team significantly. That has led to an erosion of talent, and the league helped create the problem by over-expanding in the 1980s.

For years now, players have come into the league needing to develop on the court. And with regard to Stern’s great marketing plan, few players have accomplished much in college and thus have not built much name recognition.

Try to market that.

As the draft inched closer this year, Pelicans coach Monty Williams did not seem impressed, even after his team brought in some of the year’s top talent for workouts.

“These guys are mostly 19- and 20-year-olds,” said Williams, a former NBA player who was a first-round pick in 1994 and played nine years in the league. “You won’t know for a couple of years what types of players they will be. It’s a new deal now. I just remember when guys coming out were more ready to play.”

Said General Manager Dell Demps: “There are two kinds of players — those who can help you now, and those who will help you down the road.”

Most of the ones who can help now — such as last year’s Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Damian Lillard — stayed in college for more than one or two years.

This year, it was evident how much the pool of experienced talent has eroded. There were 16 college freshmen or sophomores selected in the first round, including 10 of the first 12, and there were five foreign players of like age chosen. In the second round, there were three more freshmen or sophomores picked and one foreign player of that age.

It made for the most unpredictable draft ever, with a stunning pick at No. 1 — UNLV’s Anthony Bennett. There were 14 trades involving picks as teams jockeyed for position. Not that many picks will even come close to being good players this season.

There used to be leagues such as the Continental Basketball Association and the United States Basketball League, both now defunct, that gave undrafted college players a chance to develop their skills and unsigned veterans a place to stay sharp and in shape until the next opportunity arrives.

The influx of young, inexperienced talent led to the founding of the NBA Development League. Started with eight teams in 2001, by 2005 it had expanded to 15, each serving as a farm team for one or more NBA squads.

By 2011, nearly a quarter of all NBA players had spent time in the D-League. And last season, of the 16 D-League teams, 11 were single-affiliated or owned by an NBA team.

After LeBron James had an excellent game against New Orleans this past season — one of many on his way to being selected MVP for a fourth time — Williams was asked to compare James to Michael Jordan, considered by many the best ever.

To Williams, there was no comparison.

“Jordan played against men,” he said. “LeBron is playing against young boys.”

And the youngsters just keep coming, with no end in sight.