There isn’t an issue in sports that activates paternalism, patronizing ideas and outright self-righteousness quite like the NBA age limit. Everyone has an opinion about what’s wrong. Everyone claims to want to protect the game and the players. Few will admit that most of the suggested solutions are flawed and fundamentally unfair to the very people they want to help.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who is the most earnest and thoughtful of his kind, has restarted the debate during the Finals, saying repeatedly that the 19-year-old age limit is failing both the league and college basketball. He wants reform. He has long preferred raising the age minimum to 20, but he admits, “I’m re-thinking our position.”
In other words, submit your best proposals in a timely manner. He’s willing to listen, at least for a little while. But he’s itching to act.
“My sense is, it’s not working for anyone,” Silver said last week. “It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletics directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy, either, in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players that are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.
“So we’re going to come together with everyone who is interested in the community, whether it be the colleges, our union, agents, lots of points of view out there, and see if we can come up with a better system.”
What’s the answer? I’ll be honest: I don’t know. I’m not sure there is a system that would satisfy all factions. And while a more symbiotic relationship between the NBA and college basketball would be beneficial, Silver is married to the best interests of the NBA, and he must reach an agreement with the players’ association to implement a new policy. That alone indicates the possibility for a cure-all is minimal.
But here’s one thought about an overall approach: Consider, for once, what’s fair for the athletes, who become adults, at least legally, at age 18. Not just what seems right in utopia. What’s fair. Don’t let hypocrisy and the need to control get in the way of finding a system that is fair to them, even if fairness must include the freedom to make dumb decisions.
I didn’t like it when former commissioner David Stern raised the age minimum to 19 in 2005. He wanted 20, but in collective bargaining, he had to settle for 19. It is now considered the one-and-done rule because, for the past 11 years, elite players have signed short leases in college and bolted after a single season. No matter the rule, the best players are going to leave for the NBA as soon as they are eligible, and it’s disingenuous when anyone acts surprised that this happens.
As a basketball junkie who enjoys every level of the sport, I have enjoyed having my curiosity satisfied by watching the likes of Kevin Durant, John Wall and Anthony Davis play college basketball. When college coaches and athletic directors claim that one-and-done has been awful for them, they’re misleading. The star power has benefitted the game. It also has created some interesting recruiting parity because traditional powers chase the top talent, ignoring long-term roster issues for short-term thrills, and it provides more opportunities for less glamorous programs to reap the benefits of building with second-, third- and fourth-tier recruits who will stay in school and acquire the maturity to compete against raw freshmen obsessed with draft prospects.
It’s no coincidence that George Mason, Butler, Gonzaga, VCU and Wichita State have all gone to the Final Four during this one-and-done era. The clashes of philosophies — the Kentucky Way versus the Wichita State Way, for instance — have made the sport more compelling.
But I didn’t like the NBA raising the age minimum because the league used paternalistic tendencies to set a policy that hinders a young star’s ability to make money. It’s money that NBA teams, despite their whining, were happy to give these kids straight out of high school.
When Kevin Garnett made the leap from high school in 1995, he started the NBA’s 11-year preps-to-pros era. It was awkward. It produced some busts, which are often used to obstruct the many success stories. But ultimately, NBA teams couldn’t resist drafting for potential. They didn’t want to miss out on the next Tracy McGrady. Their actions told kids to go pro early, and of course, more did. Then, in 2005, the NBA tried to save teams from themselves.
Now, teams don’t want the burden of developing 19-year-olds. It’s funny because there’s a decent chance that all 14 of the lottery picks in the 2017 draft could be college freshmen or international players of the same age. Without question, the entire top five will be one-and-done players, which will mark the first time that has happened since the rule change.
In this one-and-done era, there have been 11 drafts so far, which means 55 top-five picks. Twenty-nine of those selections have been college freshmen. Seven of them have gone on to be all-stars, and five more can be considered budding stars. And that doesn’t include Mike Conley Jr., one of the league’s best point guards, who signed a record $153 million contract last summer. It doesn’t include Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who all have big contracts and significant value to their teams. Of those 29 top-five, one-and-done selections, just three have been three complete busts: Tyrus Thomas, Greg Oden (because of injuries) and Anthony Bennett.
Of the 15 players who made the all-NBA team this season, five left college after their freshman season. And then there is LeBron James, a former preps-to-pros phenom. Include Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more than half of the all-NBA roster entered the league before turning 20.
One-and-done players aren’t destroying the game, and at the highest level, they aren’t flopping like crazy. The same was true for high schoolers. The problem is the NBA’s tolerance level. The teams want it both ways. They want to draft for potential because they know their competitors will do the same, and then they gripe that potential requires time. They have the freedom to choose the more difficult path, but the teams want to restrict the players’ rights to do so because it’s more convenient for them.
Well, that’s part of being a league, I suppose. You get to set standards. But don’t pretend these policies are about what’s best for the players or even the game.
As much as the NBA complains, as much as college basketball complains, they have options. Meantime, the players are left without a voice. They are left to navigate the whims and interests of self-righteous entities, skeptical about which sides really care about them, knowing that, whatever decision is made, their right to earn will buried beneath a bunch of sanctimonious blather. Because we all know what’s best for them.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.