Being a professional athlete is simply different. They spend the entire bulk of their careers operating at peak physical perfection and constantly worry about the potential of a career-ending injury. Even the athletes who are lucky enough to stay healthy and fit throughout their career know that they are rapidly cruising towards retirement, which for many happens long before they officially reach middle age.
So in this short-lived professional life, when do NBA players hit their prime? And how fast to they decline? Here’s what the numbers say.
When is the prime of most NBA players?
Obviously, the age when one NBA player is in their prime differs from when another player hits their peak. Genetics, metabolism, training, current and past injuries, and mental attitude play key roles in when each NBA player peaks.
However, researchers who looked at the lifetime careers of several NBA players and studied when each player was in their prime have determined that the time of prime NBA player performance is when they’re 27 years old. It’s humbling to think that these players are just a decade or so out of high school when their careers peak.
The prime NBA player age does fluctuate … a little
The data that indicates NBA players are in their prime dates all the way back to the 1946-47 NBA season. While there have been times when the prime NBA player age has gone up a little bit, those seasons have been exceedingly rare. The few times when the bulk of NBA players were in their prime at 30 was the 1996-97 followed by the 1997-98 season.
These days the NBA is only getting younger. Teams are constantly looking for the next great young talent. Young players are more moldable and have smaller salaries. Older veteran players are usually only coveted when they are on expiring contracts. Aside from that, most teams see them as a waste of cap space.
Does turning 28 mean your career is over?
Just because an NBA player has reached their 28th birthday it doesn’t mean their career is over. It may not even mean they will slow down. There are some players who will peak when they’re older than 27, just like there are some players who will peak before they hit that birthday.
That being said, there are very few players who have excelled in the sport who have also passed their 30th birthday. A good example of this can be seen when you look at the history of the NBA All-Star games. These games are designed to highlight the best and brightest players each season. There have only been about 12 players to have ever appeared in the NBA All-Star game after passing their 35th birthday.
Why do NBA players peak so young?
To most of us, 27 seems like a young age to hit your prime which makes it natural to ask why NBA players peak so young, but when you look at the prime age in comparison to other sports, it’s not so young at all. Most ice skaters, swimmers, and gymnasts start worrying about whether they’re too old to be competitive when they are still in their early 20s.
The reason these athletes peak so young is because of the constant demand they are placing on their bodies. By the time an NBA player turns 27, they have spent several years playing at both the NBA and college level, which places a great deal of pressure on their bodies. They play through injuries and growth issues.
By the time they reach 30, they’re finding that they aren’t healing as fast as they once did, they start worrying about what they eat, and it’s taking even more time in the gym in order to keep fit. Not only are they having a difficult time maintaining their athletic prowess, but they’re also playing with younger and faster players who are harder to keep up with.
The good news is that while the age that NBA players are hitting their peak doesn’t seem to be changing, it does appear that top players are able to stay in the game far longer than they used to.