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NBA AM: NBA Age Limit Isn’t About Talent

The NBA Age Limit isn’t about talent, it’s mainly about maturity… Is it time for Coach Cal to leave Kentucky?

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Age Limit Isn’t About Talent:  The always excellent Kevin Pelton penned an interesting look at the virtues of the age limit in the NBA for ESPN.com. His conclusion was that raising the age limit would hurt the talent pool of the NBA, and looked at some stats to back up his assertion.

The issue with the age limit has never been about talent. As we have covered in this space more than a dozen times, finding talent has never really been the issue behind the NBA’s push for an age limit. If you talk to enough talent evaluators, they feel like they can spot NBA-caliber guys long before they land in college, so it just becomes about a development path and most of the people on the talent side of the fence don’t see “one and done” or the potential “two and through” as being about finding or refining talent.

The issue with the age limit has a lot more to do with off-the-court development. The issues that surfaced when there was no age limit often get over looked, with the biggest being how hard it is for young players to manage the life and expectations off-the-floor. The on-the-court part was always easy, but being a true professional that can be coached, works well with others and shoulder the burdens that come with the bright lights and big stage of the NBA wasn’t nearly easy.

“One and done” – the popular way to describe the current rule system – was supposed to help teams understand who was ready for the non-basketball parts because they would in most cases be forced to work within a college system, attend classes, accept coaching and manage their own life away from home. In other words, they’d have all the skills that are vital to success in the NBA.

The NBA has done a lot of research on this, and while there are dozens of examples of young guys that have had monstrous success, including straight from high school players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, there are equally as many players that have washed out because they couldn’t handle the pressures and demands of being a professional athlete. It was almost never about talent, but rather all of those other aspects that players simply did not have a chance to learn. In essence, they were set up to fail because they were not ready in many other areas of life.

The NBA’s stance is pretty basic: the longer you stay in school, the longer your NBA career usually ends up being. There are many cases of success outside that concept, but the data suggests that staying longer equals a longer career for more players than those that come in with less experience. Not because a player necessarily gets better in college as a player, but usually gets better as a mature adult ready for the professional world.

The opponents of the age limit often point to playing in the NBA as a “right to work” issue, that players should be allowed to play if they are able. However, that stance is not true in almost every other professional environment. Equally, the NBA is not the only place a player can play and earn a living playing basketball. NBA draft prospect Emanuel Mudiay earned more than $600,000 playing last season in China and pocketed an estimated $600,000 more from Under Armour. Brandon Jennings bypassed college and went to Italy and pocketed almost $1 million while he waited out the NBA age limit.

There is no doubt that changing the age limit would have an impact on the talent pool of the NBA, but that would likely be a one-year dip as the system resets to the new system, with the byproduct being that players may have longer careers.

Wonder through the past four or five drafts and count how many players are no longer in the NBA or are on non-guaranteed deals. The numbers are pretty astounding. It’s not because teams got it wrong in the talent evaluation, it’s because the other parts of the equation never lined up for those players.

Raising the age limit isn’t about talent, at least not directly. It’s about giving the incoming players the best chance at having real careers. That adds more value to the teams that draft them and more value to the league as a whole.

Time For Coach Cal To Look?:  At least two NBA teams are going to be hunting for a new head coach next week and undoubtedly Kentucky’s John Calipari’s name will come up.

Every offseason, some team in the NBA tries to tempt Coach Cal out of Lexington with a pile of money and the lure of leading a team into the NBA postseason. There were rumors last summer that he was offered full control of the Cleveland Cavaliers and a pay package that would have made him one of the highest paid coaches in the league. Coach Cal passed. There was talk of Coach Cal taking the L.A. Lakers job before they hired Byron Scott; he again passed.

After another impressive collegiate season that came up short in the National Championship department, Coach Cal will again face the question of should he jump to the NBA, and while that might sound attractive to some, according to Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com, it might not be as simple as that.

“I have one question, so you understand,” Calipari said of the NBA. “I went through some things last year, and I had a simple question for an [NBA] owner: The impact I have on these young people, the impact to help change their families lives, the impact I have in the seat I’m in at Kentucky to move people in a positive way, can I have that in the NBA? Where do I get the satisfaction from? What do we do that has an impact on the community, has an impact on people, or am I just coaching to try to help you make more money and win a championship? Tell me how, because I’m at a stage in my life, that’s not what moves me.”

Before you dismiss Coach Cal’s comments, think about a few things.

Coach Cal makes roughly $7.5 million per season to coach Kentucky. In the NBA, there are three coaches that make that level of money or more – Gregg Popovich ($6 million), Doc Rivers ($10 million) and Stan Van Gundy ($7 million). The rest of the league is is somewhere below $5 million.

It’s unlikely that any team gets Coach Cal to leave Kentucky for a pay cut, so there are simply NBA teams that won’t meet that kind of price tag for a head coach.

The other part is Calipari has built a recruiting machine at Kentucky. He literally has kids waiting by the phone every recruiting season hoping that Kentucky calls. He can field dream teams of the hottest young players in the nation because he has built an NBA-style facility and program that keeps him stocked with talent.

In the NBA, he’d have limitations. Recruiting does not play nearly the role in the NBA as it does in college and with capped salaries and more business, what’s made Coach Cal so special in college isn’t going to be nearly as meaningful in the NBA.

He’d actually have to coach, and that’s not always been Coach Cal’s strong suit.

There is no doubting that Coach Cal’s name is going to come up as NBA teams look for a splashy hire, but the truth of the matter is the NBA can’t offer Coach Cal what he has at Kentucky. He is among the highest paid in the profession. He has unmatched job security and he has the ability to field an impressive team every year. The NBA will judge Coach Cal in ways he does not have to face at Kentucky and as he says, he’s not overly interested in what the fruits of the NBA are at this point in his life.

That won’t stop an owner from tempting him, it just does not seem like Coach Cal is open to what’s likely to be offered.

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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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