Upping The NBA Age Limit Makes Little Sense

The average career of an NBA player lasts just five years. Why, then, should the league deprive players of their earning potential?


“Cash rules everything around me” — Wu-Tang Clan

The Duke Blue Devils outlasted the Wisconsin Badgers to win the 2015 NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. And much like death or taxes, the predictable flood of derison commenced, as exemplified by this tweet from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO):

Legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has found himself increasingly defending the current college/pro climate; an ironic twist, given that he was seen as the torch-bearer for the opposite camp once upon a time. Simply put, the Duke University of the 1990s was a school you attended to graduate — no exceptions. But when the 1999 Blue Devils experienced an organized player exodus to the NBA by Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and William Avery, Coach K was forced to adapt. Now, marquee freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow are primed to enter the NBA Draft, and only breakout tourney star Grayson Allen has committed to return to Duke for his sophomore year.

Of course, no discussion of the status quo would be complete with out a heavy dose of Kentucky basketball, led by one-and-done guru, John Calipari. These days, Calipari’s name is synonymous with “one-year degree in basketball studies,” and he is equally revered and despised for the high number of players he’s sent to the NBA.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a few of them: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, “Boogie” Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight of the Phoenix Suns, and John Wall of the Washington Wizards. Before taking the Kentucky job, he coached future NBA stars Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis in a similar capacity.

Even though this year’s Wildcat team lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the NBA Draft will be littered with Lexington’s finest. In fact, seven(!) current Kentucky players have already declared, an announcement made via live conference by Calipari and exiting recruits.

Calipari and Krzyzweski understand that in today’s college basketball climate, the one-and-doners tend to be the players with the most talent. That talent is essential in building championship-caliber teams and encouraging booster support to help fund those teams. If that talent skips town after one season, so be it. The days of the four-year senior as a beacon of fundamental skills and maturity are all but over.

All of this is becoming increasingly relevant as the league seeks to up the current age limit for players entering the NBA Draft. As things stand now, a player has to turn nineteen years old during the calendar year of the draft in order to be eligible. In practice, this means that unless he graduates late from high school or plays overseas for a year, he has to play at least one year in college before making the jump to the pros.

The National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) wants to drop that limit back to eighteen years old, so that players will be eligible right out of high school. (In the alternative, it wants the status quo to be maintained.) The union’s argument, per Executive Director Michele Roberts, is that the current limit unduly restricts young players’ earning potential. In their view, the age cap is merely a ploy to depress a player’s lifetime earning potential.

But the owners see it differently: they’re already dealing with limited-proof commodities. By pushing for a higher age limit, they’re angling for more data with which to work. From the teams’ perspectives, they are betting millions on players who may not translate collegiate success into professional production. For every Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, so says the owners’ camp, there are hundreds of others who are unable to make the leap to the big stage.

Interestingly, Los Angeles Laker and former star Kentucky player Julius Randle echoed these very sentiments in his piece at this very publication, but as a former one-and-doner, himself, he seems to be advocating for a more tailored, individual approach to the issue.

Per federal law, any fifteen-year-old can get a workers’ permit, provided they work no more than twenty hours a week outside of school hours. In that vein, it seems downright silly to suggest that eighteen year-olds — adults, in legal terms — should be deemed ineligible to qualify for gainful employment in the nontraditional field of their choosing, provided they are qualified.

At 18, these young men can vote, they can go off to war, they can buy a firearm, and they can be incarcerated for committing crimes, but if they want to apply their skills to the profession for which they have trained, they have to leave the country for a year.

From a scouting perspective, one year of games against NCAA competition is too much of a small sample size to prove anything definitively, but the use of advanced analytics has, to some degree, reduced a lot of guesswork in talent evaluation. You can’t teach the intangibles, or really test for them, but we’ve quantified much of that into the stat sheet, which helps front offices mitigate (financial) risks inherent in the drafting process. To keep a player from getting what he can, when and while he can, using antiquated reasoning benefits neither player nor League.

The reality is that each and every Division I basketball program has played host to a couple of students who are there on a hot wing and a prayer. Guys who, if it weren’t for their athletic scholarships, would peak as a fry cook — or something considerably less legitimate. Perhaps, when we view the NBA’s age limit through this lens, forcing someone who is not academically suited for post-secondary education to attend a college or university for a year isn’t an optimal strategy on its face, anyway?

Enter the Developmental League. The D-League, as it stands now, is a place for players to go when they aren’t getting enough playing time with the teams to which they were drafted, aren’t producing at the NBA level, or went undrafted for whatever reason. Instead of treating it as a parking lot for below-caliber players, though, the Developmental League should aim to emulate its name, a place for players who aren’t quite NBA-ready to further hone their skills and learn professionalism in anticipation of ascending to the next level someday.

This potential solution to the age limit issue has been touted by almost every pundit who has espoused on the one-and-done trend. Tom Ziller of SB Nation does a nice breakdown. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is already on record stating that he hopes that every NBA franchise will eventually operate its own farm team.

For those players who don’t fit in at college, but aren’t yet NBA-ready, the D-League should be the answer. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is in full agreement and sees the D-League as a more sensible option than a year of forced college.

Contrary to popular belief, mandating an extra year of collegiate ball is no guarantee of future NBA success — at least not without some existing structure in place to allow for that to happen. The career trajectories of O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley, two of the top three picks in the 2008 draft, are evidence of that. Each took their one-and-done NCAA season as an excuse to shrug off any an all accountability, shunning intense coaches and structure to be “The Man” at a traditionally weak basketball program.

Beasley found himself kicked out of the Rookie Training Program for a marijuana infraction, and Mayo received improper benefits at USC, causing the school’s wins for that season to be vacated. Beasley washed out of the NBA and did a stint overseas for the Shanghai Sharks in China before finding a second chance with the Heat this season, while Mayo, who had previously served a league suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, is currently riding the pine in Milwaukee.

Granted, the salary in the D-League is far below what players would receive in the NBA, and the best eighteen year-olds could choose to play overseas for significantly more money. In the end, though, it would benefit the league and young players if teams had more direct control over player development than strictly relying upon the inequality of collegiate programs, whether it be for one year or two. Not every college coach can churn out NBA-ready talent like Kentucky or Duke does. Love or hate Calipari or Krzyzewski, there is a reason that their programs dominate draft day: they are the best at preparing their players for success at the NBA level within an extremely limited time frame.

Other programs? Not so much.

For most people, criticism of the one-and-done era probably comes down to honesty. It’s becoming more and more obvious that college is just a way station for players who want to go into the NBA. Why continue the farce? Why enable a system whereby disinterested teenagers spend a year or two refreshing mock NBA drafts on their laptops during classes they don’t want to be in? Why not let college be for those who truly want to further their education?

The admission and matriculation of those who treat college as an afterthought disrespects those who consider their education a priority.

The average career of an NBA player lasts just five years. Instead of vilifying young players who want to play at the highest level — and get paid handsomely to do so — for as long as they possibly can, perhaps the Board of Governors should focus on maximizing the potential of those players. If the NBA can work out a solution to fix what ails the current imbalanced playoff structure, surely it can walk and chew gum at the same time, and figure out how to accommodate the hopes and dreams of prospective early leapers too.


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