The Brice Johnson-Jerami Grant Conundrum: How Important Is Age In the NBA Draft?

I make a concerted effort to at least attempt to cover both college basketball and the NBA here at Palestra Back. I think over the last year or so I’ve had varying success doing so. I’ve continued to be committed to writing about both levels for a variety of reasons. I may have my preferences, but at the end of the day, I still enjoy both forms of the game. The contrasting elements of the two variations of the sport make each seem special and make them more fun. A low level Division I game that caps off around 80 points can be just as fun as an NBA game that easily tops the over.

Enjoying both makes the crossover between the two much more relevant. This is never truer than during the draft evaluation process.

I love the NBA Draft. Hell, I’ve attended the NBA Draft, more than once. The skills required to try to correctly predict or forecast a player’s future when making such a leap from one level to the next can seem daunting.

That issue has potentially grown this century, with more and more players declaring for early entry into the NBA Draft. Drafting high schoolers was a crapshoot and the results were often messy, but most teams and fans at least recognized the risks involved.

Now, thanks to the age limit, every player entering the NBA draft has either played in college or in a lesser professional league. For execs, fans, and the media alike, this allows more opportunities to see draftable players against higher level competition. Without the age limit, Ben Simmons would just be an Australian kid with YouTube highlights to you and I. Now, ESPN has done all but figure out a way to stream LSU games into your subconscious while you sleep.

So at least one year in school provides us with an unquestionably better perception of a player’s capabilities, but does staying in school have the same affect?

Anecdotal evidence would argue the contrary, with stories like the Harrison twins sliding out of the first round and scouts watched them struggle more and more often in their time at Kentucky.

But when a player plays well, even dominant, the results are varied. Adreian Payne was a good player until his senior year, when he averaged 17 and 7. Scouts wondered if he had made a leap or simply was picking on younger players. Payne has bounced around the NBA, yet to make an impact. Jerian Grant heard the same sorts of criticism entering lats year’s draft, but has impressed thus far.

Perhaps the most interesting case study then is comparing two players of similar skill sets, ages, and circumstances, but who made opposing decisions about entering the draft. The current best model for this would be North Carolina big man Brice Johnson and current Sixer and brother of the aforementioned Jerian Grant, Jerami Grant.

via USATSI
via USATSI

Johnson and Grant both began their college careers in the 2012-2013 season. Their official heights and weights differ by just one inch and 18 (somewhat dubious) pounds. Despite the fact that Grant feels like a veteran on the young pup Sixers and Johnson still feels like a kid playing for Roy Williams, the two are the same age (21). Grant was born just 3 months prior to Johnson.

Who, right now, has a better chance to be the better NBA player?

Grant is in his second NBA season, seeing significant minutes and developing his game (he’s added at least some sort of outside shot after missing all of a whopping five three point attempts his final season with the Orange).

Johnson is playing, at times, excellent basketball. He scored 39 points and grabbed 23 rebounds against a team, who despite defending Johnson like a high school JV team, was actually the Florida State Seminoles.

As an NBA GM, which of those two is more impressive? As a fan, which is more intriguing? The question essentially becomes whether or not their situations have dictated their current success levels, and whether or not their chosen situation will continue to affect their level of future success. It’s basically the basketball version of nature versus nurture.

Every player is a special little snowflake, but the moment their sophomore seasons concluded, Johnson and Grant had quite a few similarities. Size, skills, and production all mirrored each other. Here are their stats from that season:

jerami vs brice

Grant saw more playing time, but Johnson was a tad more efficient. All in all, similar profiles. Here now, are their stats from this year, and to equalize in some way, let’s go per 100 possesions:

brice and jerami now

Unsurprisingly, Johnson has been much more productive for a good college team than Grant has for a terrible NBA team.

Which is more impressive? Which appears to have a brighter future? Could a present day 21 year old Jerami Grant post similar numbers in college? Would Brice Johnson be as effective for the Sixers as Grant? If Grant could re-enter this year’s draft, would he be selected before Johnson? Or if the Sixers could trade Grant for the rights to Johnson, would they?

That’s a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers to (though if pressed I’d answer them: Johnson/Grant/Yes/No/Yes/No, even if some of that feels hypocritical).

The takeaway (don’t worry, this won’t just be a pile of questions and I don’t knows) is how important age is when drafting. If you see the stats above and think Jerami Grant, who starts in the NBA, albeit for the Sixers, would also be dominant if still playing college, you’re finding the value of upside. People hear that word and just think it means athleticism or flashiness, but taken at face value, it means exactly what it should. How far is that player capable of growing?

Brice Johnson grew into a guy who can post a 39 point-23 rebound performance, but who still can’t shoot a jump shot. In fact, Johnson has played 93 percent of his minutes at the 4 or the 5. He’s a 6’9 player who can’t play on the perimeter, a rarity in today’s NBA.

Grant, on the other hand, has played 24.6 percent minutes at the 3 spot (and still uses his size to collect those 3.1 blocks per 100 possessions). Sixers fans sit around asking if he can become the next Thaddeus Young, if not more. Johnson supporters would hope he can become Amir Johnson or Taj Gibson (which ain’t bad?).

Staying school won’t kill Brice Johnson, but it makes things murkier, as it does for most returning upperclassmen. It throws a wrench in their resume.

Buddy Hield scored 46 points against the #1 team int he country on the road…but he’s a 22 year old 6’4 shooting guard.

Kris Dunn, who I love like a first born son, has looked fantastic all season…but has only made relative strides from his junior to senior years, and will turn 22 in March.

As every middle aged woman in your office will remind you every time you find yourselves around a cake, age is just a number. But for NBA draft prospects, it’s a number that matters nearly as much as any other.

**

Header images via Gerry Broome (AP) and Bill Streicher (USA TODAY Sports)

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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