By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 1:02 AM
From a business perspective, the NBA rule that requires players to be 19 years old and one year out of high school before entering the draft has paid off handsomely for the league. It has taken some of the risk away from general managers and scouts, giving them one more year to evaluate talent and allowing more polished and seasoned prospects to land at teams' doorsteps -- some arriving as pre-packaged stars with a full year of free marketing from the NCAA.
When the NBA players' union accepted the age minimum in 2005, it was an 11th-hour concession to get the collective bargaining agreement done, but now some within the union are beginning to express regret over hurting the long-term earning potential of players capable of entering the league out of high school.
Players' representatives from each team will meet tomorrow in Las Vegas, and the age minimum is expected to be on the agenda. The players' union also plans to meet with Commissioner David Stern next month to start preliminary discussions about the next collective bargaining agreement (the current one expires in 2011).
Stern is expected to push to increase the age minimum to 20, but at the NBA Finals this month, he said he is open to discussing the controversial rule change. "Only to the extent that everything is always on the table, but it's not a deal breaker for us," Stern said. "We're very happy" with the current system.
As well he should be. The top two overall picks in the past two drafts of the age-minimum era (Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley) and the past two rookies of year (Durant and Rose) were "one-and-done" players who left college after one season. Last season, five of the top seven picks entered the NBA after their freshman season in college, with those players making up half of the 10 spots on the NBA's all-rookie team.
Four players who probably would've entered the league out of high school under the previous system -- Memphis point guard Tyreke Evans, Lottomatica Roma point guard Brandon Jennings, UCLA point guard Jrue Holiday and Southern California swingman DeMar DeRozan -- are expected to be lottery picks in the NBA draft tomorrow. Ohio State center B.J. Mullens could make it five lottery picks with just one year of college or, in the case of Jennings, European experience.
Oden and Rose became household names after leading their respective teams to the national title game as freshmen, and Durant and Beasley became popular after posting high scoring and rebounding numbers in their brief college careers.
"I have always said that, at the time of the rule change, and subsequent to that, it is absolutely better, as far as the maturity level both physically and socially, as far as the kids we're looking at," said Bryan Colangelo, the Toronto Raptors' president and general manager.
Scouts, talent evaluators and general managers often complained about having to watch prospects in high school gymnasiums. Now the league limits teams to tracking future prospects at select all-star games and international tournaments. "I don't want to be in high school gyms if I can avoid it. We obviously had to spend a lot more time focusing on the great unknowns," Colangelo said.
But not everyone supports the rule. Evans said that he benefited from a year spent under Coach John Calipari and assistant Rod Strickland at Memphis, but is opposed to the age minimum, especially the possibility that the league could add another year to it. "I disagree with it," Evans said. "If you're ready, you're ready. They are putting these rules in and people have to go through with it, but I disagree with it."
"I don't like the 'one and done,' " Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "First of all, I don't really understand how we get away with that as a league, that we tell a guy out of high school he can't come and play in our league. The guy should have the right to make a living and to come into our league. And what I really don't like is the way our system is set up. To me, and I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but kids should be going to college if at least part of what they want to do is get an education. To me, it's sham."
But Stern points out that players have options other than college, such as Europe and the NBA Development League. "I think there is a mixed view about what it does for the NCAA, but that wasn't why we did it," Stern said. "This is not about the NCAA, this is not an enforcement of some social program, this is a business decision by the NBA, which is: We like to see our players in competition after high school."
There is no disputing that players can come directly out of high school and become superstars in the NBA. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant became the first player without college experience to win the NBA Finals most valuable player award since Moses Malone in 1983. Six of the 10 starters in the Finals did not play college basketball, with four coming out of American high schools. The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James became the third league MVP in the past six seasons to have gone from high school to the NBA, joining Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who won the MVP award with Minnesota in 2004 and helped the Boston Celtics win a championship last season.
Dwight Howard, the last high school player to go No. 1 overall, in 2004, recently led the Orlando Magic to its second Finals trip and only Finals victory in franchise history. But the last crop of preps-to-pros players, which entered the league in 2005, has yet to produce an all-star player, although Andrew Bynum was a starter for the champion Lakers. Colangelo had success drafting future all-star Amare Stoudemire out of high school, but he said most high school players take a few years to develop.
Mark Warkentien, the Denver Nuggets' vice president of basketball operations, was not with the organization when it selected Carmelo Anthony in 2003 -- two years before the rule change -- but he believes that Anthony winning a championship in one year at Syracuse not only helped Anthony, but also helped the franchise promote its new draft pick.
"After winning the championship at Syracuse, I would imagine it was easier to sell season tickets and sponsorships if you're selling 'Melo coming out of Syracuse than if he would've been coming out of Oak Hill Academy," he said. "Does [the age minimum] make us a better business? I think that's pretty easy to figure out. Is it fair? I'll leave it to others to argue the merits of that."