Saatchi Gallery - Young & Old (via Flickr user vintagedept)
Saatchi Gallery – Young & Old (via Flickr user vintagedept)

As the Spurs and Heat prepare to do battle in Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals, the dramatic discrepancy in age between each team’s anchor is a popular topic. You have the just entering his NBA middle age LeBron vs. old man Duncan. At nearly 40 years old, Duncan’s geriatrics is not in much dispute.

The 29-year old LeBron is a harder fish to tackle.

Yes, he’s just 29 and typically in NBA history that’d be considered at the apex of his prime. An NBA star smack dab in the middle of his NBA career. But a 29-year old NBA player in 1990 was likely to just be in his 7th season. LeBron is currently in his 11th. He’s racked up over 33,000 minutes in the regular season and another 6500 or so in the playoffs.

LeBron is a physical marvel, even freak, in many ways but in this he is not alone. In the last two decades, young stars – not just superstars or surefire Hall of Famers – are increasingly passing absurd minutes played marks by the time they’re 30 years old.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at basketball-reference, here are the most minutes played by NBA/ABA players under the age of 30…

Under 30 minutes played

Looking at these top 15 players two themes stick out. 1) to get into the top in this exercise you have to either skip college or just play one season in the NCAA and 2) this happened a lot more frequently in the last 20 years.

Nine of the 15 players here began playing in the last 20 years, including seven of the top 10. Of those nine players from the last 20 years, five had no college experience whatsoever (KG, Kobe, LeBron, Dirk, and Rashard Lewis). The other four (Marbury, Walker, Joe Johnson, and Mike Bibby) all had just one year of college ball.

Observing the six other players who began playing pro ball prior to 1994, they largely uphold the rule of thumb established above. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas – although starting their careers in the very early 1980s – played just two years of college basketball. And of course, Moses Malone went straight from high school to the ABA.

The other three players logged significant college time. Julius Erving had three seasons at UMass before jumping to the ABA. And our 1960s titans Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain also crack the list. Oscar played all four seasons of his NCAA eligibility at Cincinnati. Wilt meanwhile abandoned Kansas after just three years, but was still barred from the NBA, so he played a season for the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the NBA.

This minutes played story is part of a larger context, which will likely see players over the ensuing seasons steadily replace numerous all-time records for aggregate stats thanks to laxer NBA draft eligibility rules – barring any CBA nonsense on age restrictions.

The per game numbers, however, will still fall to the previous generations. For example, check out top 15 players under 30 years old in minutes per game (minimum 20,000 minutes player)…

MPG under 30Checking out this second table, only three players from the last 20 years crack the list. That’s a stark contrast to the previous table. Sure enough the only players to appear on both these lists are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and… LeBron James.

Yeah, LeBron’s gonna be setting all kinds of records pretty soon. Admire the greatness while it lasts and before some upstart player 20 years from now re-writes the record book.