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NBA Teams Love Young Lottery Picks. These 3 ‘Old’ Players Might Change Their Minds.

A typical NBA draft prospect’s scouting report is likely to include a few common attributes listed as strengths: “athletic,” “long wingspan,” “playmaker.” One characteristic that rarely appears as a strength? “Old.” 

It’s no secret that over the years, NBA teams have selected fewer and fewer players who spent four years at a U.S. college, prioritizing upside and raw potential over experience. If we define “old” as college players who were drafted at age 22 or older and “young” as college players younger than 22, NBA teams have moved away from drafting older players in the lottery en masse. 

During the 1995 draft, when Kevin Garnett became the first player in 20 years to go directly from high school to the NBA draft, teams took five old college players and seven young college players in the lottery, with Garnett the sole draftee without college experience among the first 13 picks. By the end of the “prep-to-pro” era, the 2005 draft, just one old college player was taken in the lottery, next to nine young college players and two high schoolers. During the ensuing “one-and-done” era,1 when prospects have been banned from entering the draft right out of high school, teams didn’t turn their focus back to those older college players; out of the 186 former college players who were drafted in the lottery, just 22 were 22 or older on draft night.

Not only have NBA teams eschewed spending their precious lottery and first-round picks on older players at the college level, but the older players who have been drafted have fared worse in the NBA than their younger contemporaries. The average older college player drafted in the lottery from 1995 to 2005 has compiled 32.1 win shares in his career, while the average younger college lottery draftee has amassed 51.4 win shares.2 

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Amid this backdrop are three older prospects in this year’s draft who are all currently projected to be selected in the late-lottery range: Corey Kispert, Davion Mitchell and Chris Duarte. While none is expected to dominate at the next level, and the ages of all three have been a topic of conversation, each has an NBA-ready skill set to potentially justify his selection in the face of what history has told us about selecting such geezers.

Kispert, who is slotted in at No. 11 on ESPN’s latest mock draft, was one of the main cogs in Gonzaga’s historically potent offense last season. The 6-foot-7 forward had a senior campaign for the ages: He was one of just 23 Division I players since the 1992-93 season to average at least 15 points per game while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range on six or more attempts per game.3 That was good enough to finish with the ninth-best offensive rating in the country, according to KenPom, along with West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors and a consensus All-American nod. Kispert’s beneath-the-hood stats also bode well for his pro prospects. On spot-ups and transition opportunities, which made up just over half of his actions last season, Kispert generated 1.28 and 1.55 points per play according to Synergy Sports, which placed him in the 95th and 97th percentiles in Division I, respectively. And despite a reputation as a long-range savant, Kispert feasted on twos as well, shooting more than 10 percentage points above average both at the rim and outside the restricted area, according to CBB Analytics.

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Mitchell put together a memorable March Madness for the Baylor Bears that culminated in a thumping of Kispert’s Bulldogs. Though Mitchell shot at nearly the same rate as Kispert from long range, knocking down 44.7 percent of his threes, his game is more predicated on the defensive end than is Kispert’s. At a rugged 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Mitchell makes up for his lack of height with an energetic, hustling defensive intensity. Mitchell allowed just 0.57 points per play when defending the pick-and-roll, good for the 81st percentile, and when Bears’ opponents got out in transition, Mitchell often recovered spectacularly. On the other end of the floor, Mitchell showed significant growth in his ability to run an offense. As a redshirt sophomore in 2019-20, Mitchell dished out 3.8 assists per game with a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. But as a junior, Mitchell became one of the premier point guards in the land, posting 5.5 assists per game with a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio while taking — and making — more threes than before.

At 24, no prospect from this draft will put the age test to the case more than Duarte. The 2020-21 Jerry West Award winner started his career at a junior college in Florida before joining the Oregon Ducks for the 2019-20 season. Much like Kispert, Duarte excelled from deep on relatively high volume (42.4 percent on 5.5 attempts per game) while also finishing efficiently inside the paint, shooting at least 6 points above Division I average both inside and outside the restricted area. At 6-foot-6, Duarte has the size to shoot over smaller guards while also taking bigger players off the dribble on switches. He’s in the 94th percentile in terms of generating points on spot-ups, 94th percentile as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, 92nd percentile in transition opportunities, 84th percentile off screens and 79th percentile in isolation. He’s in the 95th percentile on catch-and-shoot jump shots and in the 94th percentile shooting off the dribble. While he struggles as a playmaker (2.7 assists per game vs. 2.3 turnovers last season) and as a defender (below average defending the very actions he excels on offense, according to Synergy Sports), Duarte’s unassailable shotmaking could make him a tantalizing option at the end of the lottery, regardless of his age. 

There is no shortage of young prospects — whether college freshmen, international players or athletes who went the route of the G League — available in Thursday's draft, and history tells us that they will likely outperform college veterans at the NBA level. But for their part, Kispert, Mitchell and Duarte should be able to provide the things on Day 1 that seem to run in short supply every NBA postseason: shooting, defense and more shooting.

Each player’s journey looks a little different from that of their blue-chip brethren who’ll be in the draft’s green room. Kispert rode the bench as a freshman, Mitchell transferred and sat out a year, and Duarte had to work to find a stage. Now, each late-blooming collegiate star has the chance to make his mark on the biggest stage of all.

"They can talk about my age,” Duarte said. “Hey man — everybody's got a different path. I had to go to [junior college] for two years. I had to reclassify a year in high school because I came here without knowing the language. I'm here and I'm ready."

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  1. Starting with the 2006 NBA draft and continuing to present day.

  2. Average career value drops quickly with each draft pick, so selection bias could be a factor here.

  3. Among players who qualified for the points per game leaderboard.

Santul Nerkar was a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.