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NBA AM: Changing The NBA Age Limit

The NBA’s Age Limit will eventually change, but there are myths about the rule and the options players have.

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Changing The NBA Age Limit

In the wake of another scandal in college basketball, the topic of dropping the NBA’s so-called “one and done” rule—where a player must be one year removed from his graduating class in the year he was drafted—has come back to the surface. The NBA has been looking at this issue for some time, and while there are good reasons on both sides of the argument, there are also some myth and misconceptions.

Before we dig into those, it’s important to note than even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has admitted that the goal of holding straight from high school players out of the NBA hasn’t worked as expected, but no one is ready to throw open the floodgates either.

Here are some things to know:

It’s Not About Ability, It’s About Maturity

Let’s address the most obviously flawed concept regarding the age limit in the NBA. It is not at all about the ability to play. It is about everything else that comes with being a professional. The idea of having kids spend a year outside of high school is about helping them understand the life skills needed to survive in the NBA.

Former Celtics draft pick and current Milwaukee Buck Gerald Green once told his story, being one of the last straight-from-high-school draft prospects. He recalled the culture shock of transition from high school where his mother woke him up and drove him to practice, to then being in an NBA city trying to manage his life and simply make practice. He admitted that he could hang with anyone on the court, but it was the off the court responsibilities that he struggled to understand being an 18-year old with millions of dollars and real professional responsibilities.

One year in college isn’t going to change your life, but it would force you to understand how to manage yourself a little more than you might have to in high school.

The NBA has done studies that players that have the most experience coming into the NBA tend to have longer careers. While there are no questions some of the best in the modern era have had excellent Hall of Fame worthy careers, but for every LeBron James, there is a Korleone Young or Ndudi Ebi.

When you factor in that massively inexperienced players usually take longer to develop, there is a greater risk associated because of the nature of high school athletics and AAU. While College basketball has its flaws for sure; being able to see how a player handles himself in that environment is a pretty good predictor of how they’ll handle life in the NBA early on, especially in terms of accepting coaching and mentorship.

The NBA’s age system is not about ability to play; it has never been. It’s about helping teams understand who has the best chance to grow into a long-term player and that’s pretty hard to predict by itself. The more time teams have to look at players, the more they can close the gaps – or at least that was the mindset behind the rule.

There Are Other Options

It’s pretty common, especially in the wake of the current NCAA scandal over under-the-table money being paid to players, to hear someone say “these kids have the right to earn a living.” There are options other than going to college.

Brandon Jennings opted to forego college and went to Italy and made more than a $1 million in his “gap year.” He also signed a lucrative shoe deal.

Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay opted to go China. He too made more than $1 million in China and signed a lucrative shoe deal too.

Both ended up being lottery picks without a minute in college.

Players do not have to go to college. They could spend that year internationally or in the newly branded “G-League.”

Most opt to go to college because of the life experience and the exposure that comes from high-level basketball. It’s pretty intoxicating being the “Big Man on Campus.” Equally, not many U.S. high school kids dream of pulling on a CSKA Moscow or a Lottomatica Roma jersey.

Jennings and Mudiay both made real money abroad but were not exactly the superstars on their respective teams they would have been in college, so let’s not act like the players don’t have choices if they wanted to earn above-the-table money.

Is college sports a broken concept? Many would argue yes simply because of the huge monies coming into the programs, but that’s not the real point.

The idea that high-level players—the ones getting caught up in the current scandal—have options.

The NBA Rules Are Not The Same As NCAA Rules

It’s also important to understand that there are two different sets of rules. The NBA rules say you are not eligible unless you are 18 and one-year removed from your high school graduating class in the year you are drafted.

It’s the NCAA rules that create the issues.

Having talked to several NBA executives, some would be in favor of having players be draft eligible, getting drafted and returning to school. That happens in baseball and hockey. It’s the NCAA that rules a player ineligible if he stays in the draft.

Many of the dates and processes regarding payments and eligibility are college rules, not NBA rules.

The International Model

The international model has been interesting for some time because in Europe, high-level players turn professional at 13 and 14 years old and get placed on youth teams. They are usually paid very little, but they don’t have to fake their way through school, which many players do in the U.S. They focus on basketball in an academy setting and grow into high-level leagues. The teams that sign them early usually eat the cost and the risk, but ultimately sell those players rights down the line to make money off the exchange.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once joked that someone would sign five or six of the top freshman in high school, put them through a prep school program and sell them to the NBA when they are eligible, just like European teams do in paying $500,000 towards a contract buyout.

While no one has tried to do that yet; there may be something to getting the pure “one-and-done,” “I don’t care about college” players out of the system. Then, we could let college basketball be about those players that want to go to class, pursue a degree and get the guys waiting in line for the NBA into a system that better develops them for the next level.

Commissioner Silver’s commentary on the current state of “one and done” is that many players have figured out they need to enroll in 12 credits and get at least a C average through the first semester to stay eligible and quit going to class after that milestone.

Sixers forward Ben Simmons admitted to doing exactly that in his Showtime documentary that chronicled his path to the NBA.

Maybe the European club model is a better fit than the faux “one and done” system. Look at last year. Once Washington was basically eliminated from tournament play, top over pick Markelle Fultz basically shut it down to ensure he was healthy for the NBA draft.

Change Is Coming

There is little doubt that something has to change, not just because of the current NCAA scandal, but because the current system is not preparing players any better than the straight-from-high-school system. With more teams owning or at least controlling their own development teams, maybe it is time to look at straight from high school again through a different prism.

Equally, maybe baseball has the right system, where a player can come straight from high school, but if he opts not to come, he has to do three years of college.

It is important to keep in mind that all of this is not about ability to play. It’s about making sure that the players that come into the NBA can become the best possible player they can be and that they have the life skills and experience to manage the demands of professional life off the court.

It’s easy to get enamored with a player’s on-court skills, but if the player can handle being coached, can’t handle the spotlight and the pressure, then what service did the league give that player to let him come in and fail?

Beyond the player, think about the teams. The easiest way to be irrelevant in sports is to botch the draft. When you look at the teams that continue to flounder towards the bottom, many of them missed on draft picks. When you look at the teams that are on the top or stay at the top, they usually don’t miss on draft picks.

There is little doubt change in the age requirement of the NBA is coming. It seems inevitable. The challenge in the equation is finding a rule both the NBA and the players can accept, as the age limit is something in the collective bargaining agreement. Both sides have said for some time change is needed, so its simply a matter of time before change is made.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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