If young Wolves become stars, how long will it take?


Wolves fans are as optimistic as they have been in years.  North of 15,200 don’t show up for a Wednesday post-draft scrimmage just because tickets are free. They show up because of the presence of two, or possibly three, potential stars on the roster who are all shy of their 21st birthdays: Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine.

Fans don’t expect the Wolves to make the playoffs next year.  And really, no one can even be sure any of the three will actually become stars.  But if they eventually do, how long should fans expect it to take?

I reviewed Basketball Reference to get a sense for how long it took the biggest modern NBA stars to develop their games.  To do this, I used Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a measure of a player’s overall performance.  PER is not a perfect metric, but a list of all-time PER leaders looks close to a list of all-time great players most fans would create.

A PER of 15 is average, while 20 or higher is very good.  Last season, 38 players posted PERs above 20, with Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Enes Kanter, and DeAndre Jordan among those just below 21.

LeBron James has posted 3 of the top 10 single-season PER scores in NBA history. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A PER of 25 or better is a superstar level, one that only nine players reached in 2014-15.  There have been 182 times in NBA history when a player has posted a PER of 25.0 or higher, with the 182 having been done by 51 different .  Most of those 51 are all-time great or near-great players.

The highest single-season PER of 31.82 was posted by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63.

The table below lists all players drafted between 1992 and 2008 with at least one season with a PER of 25.0-plus.*  For each player, the table includes:

  • The season number and age at which he first reached a PER of 20 or more
  • His career-peak PER
  • The season number and age at which he reached his peak PER
  • The season number and age at which he first posted a PER within 90% of his peak (which I arbitrarily define as “hitting his prime”)

Each column is then averaged.

PlayerFirst Season 20+ PERAge @ First 20+ SeasonPeak PERPeak SeasonAge @ Peak SeasonSeasons to Reach PrimeAge to Reach Prime
Allen Iverson22225.91030525
Alonzo Mourning12225.8829728
Amar’e Stoudemire32227.6625322
Chris Bosh32125.0725321
Chris Paul12030.0423322
Dirk Nowitzki32228.1827524
Dwight Howard32126.1725523
Dwyane Wade22330.4627324
Elton Brand12026.5726726
Grant Hill22325.5324324
Kevin Durant22029.8725624
Kevin Garnett32129.4927826
Kevin Love22126.9625322
Kobe Bryant42128.01027724
LeBron James22031.7624523
Russell Westbrook32229.1726726
Shaquille O’Neal12030.6726221
Tim Duncan12127.1727323
Tracy McGrady21930.3623623
Vince Carter22325.0324223
Yao Ming12226.5526425

We can make a few observations from these numbers.

First, these elite players generally had their first 20+ PER season very early, on average in their second seasons and at age 21.  All but one (Kobe Bryant) hit the milestone before his fourth season.  Only one (Tracy McGrady) reached it before age 20.

Second, these players reached their peak PER on average between their sixth and seventh seasons at about age 26.  And they reached their primes on average about two years prior to their peaks, in their fifth seasons at about age 24.

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Chris Paul and Vince Carter reached 25 the earliest, at age 23, but Carter never again reached that level. Allen Iverson was the oldest to first hit 25, at age 30.

What does all this mean for the Wolves?  Wiggins’ 2014-15 PER was only 13.9, with LaVine farther behind at 11.3.  To be fair, Wiggins’ performance increased significantly over the course of the season, and LaVine’s performance also jumped in March and April.

Again, assuming that Wiggins, Towns, or LaVine become the kinds of players who can reach the 25-plus PER marker, we should expect them to hit at least 20 PERs in their first three seasons, but not to reach their primes for several more seasons.  Each has a long way to go to show that they justify such expectations.

All data used in this piece are courtesy of Basketball Reference

* The 2008 cut-off point left Anthony Davis, James Harden, Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, and Hassan Whiteside off the list of 25-plus performers.  I chose it because none of these players has been in the NBA long enough to have a good sense of whether they have reached their peak level.  I chose 1992 as the other end of the cut-off because, honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to include 1991 pick Terrell Brandon, who posted an anomalous 25.2 PER in 1995-96, on the list.

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