Dear Adam Silver: Leave the NBA’s Minimum Age Alone


“My phone is ringing off the hook,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA TODAY Sports. “Not just from the owners, but from players in the league, from the business partners of the league.”

Since taking the helm on Feb. 1, 2014, Silver has been in higher demand than Portland’s Damian Lillard at All-Star Weekend. People have reached out to congratulate him and to discuss ideas on how to improve the league.


Photo: Still image from Atlanta Hawks interview/YouTube

Dallas Mavericks veteran Shawn Marion made some recommendations last week for the new man in charge. “I think the age requirement for coming into the league should be higher,” he told the Dallas Morning News.

Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, increased the age minimum from 18 in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement. Incoming players must now have turned 19 during the calendar year of the draft. U.S. players must also be a year removed from high school. This has given rise to the “one and done” phenomenon: prospects play in college for a year and then bolt for the NBA. It’s been a nightmare for college recruitment.

“It should be at least two years,” Marion said. “Two to three years, minimum.”

Stern has been in favour of bumping the minimum age requirement to 20. “We would love to add a year, but that’s not something that the players’ association has been willing to agree to,” Stern told the Associated Press in April 2012.

Apparently, so is Silver. Scott Howard Cooper of tweeted this:

Silver seeks to eliminate teenagers from the league altogether. NBA players have already yielded to the league when they consented the entry age increase to 19 in 2005. Any more is pushing it. At 19 years old, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently the youngest player in the league. He’s been playing basketball professionally in his native Greece since he was 17. He’s one of nine rookies selected to play in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. The Bucks are not complaining that he’s too young a prospect.

The proponents of increasing the minimum age requirement are looking out for the owners and their bottom lines. Owners do not want to lose money drafting players who do not pan out as predicted. Bumping the eligibility age will give general managers even more time to evaluate players on someone else’s dime. If they see that a 20-year-old player doesn’t have what it takes to excel in the NBA, they won’t have to waste a penny on him.

In this sense, the rule change would punish over-hyped and unproven high school kids who never live up to their draft number, such as Kwame Brown. The Washington Wizards selected Brown out of high school with the top pick in 2001. He’s one of the biggest draft busts in NBA history. On the other side of the coin, the change would screw over players who actually are good enough to get drafted out of high school.


Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons

LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant all made the leap to the NBA straight from high school. To demand that any one of them wait two years until he turned 20 years old before declaring for the draft would have potentially robbed them of two years’ salary. On average, players spend under 20 seasons in the NBA, so locking them out of the league an extra two years would cut into their professional careers by approximately 10 per cent. Money aside, that also means two years less of each player gracing the court while still in his physical prime.

Surely these superstars learned more from their NBA coaches, teammates, opponents and everyone else they encountered as 18-year-olds new to the league than they possibly could have gleaned from two years in the NCAA, D-League, or overseas. The crucible of the NBA is very much sink or swim: young players either learn and adapt, or they eventually fall out of the league. Cutting out this necessary learning experience will be detrimental to the NBA’s overall quality.

There are better options than increasing the minimum entry age. In the NHL, prospective players can enter the draft at 18. Players between the ages of 18 and 21 in turn must sign “entry-level” contracts that limit their earning to $925,000 per year for their first three NHL seasons. They can negotiate (capped) bonuses based on performance.

The rookie pay scale in the NBA is a whole other beast. The league generates a list of salaries based on draft order. First-round picks must be signed within 80 to 120 per cent of the salaries. First overall pick Anthony Bennett of the Cleveland Cavaliers will earn $5,324,280 this year. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was drafted 24th by the New York Knicks. He will earn $1,196,760. If money is the motive—and it always is—the NBA should consider decreasing the rookie pay scale so picking the wrong player won’t cripple a franchise. Another motive is making sure the player proves himself on the hardwood.

“I think that college experience helps develop them, so when they come here we don’t have to try to develop them,” Marion said. He declared for the draft after playing two seasons at a junior college and one at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The 35-year old has played 14 seasons in the league.

The NBA’s Development League is there to give young players more play time and experience than they would typically get right off the bat in the NBA. Teams can assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season during his first two years. The player will continue to be paid his NBA salary.


Photo: Still image from NBA California interview/YouTube

“We now have a league in the NBA Development League that will accept players that are 18 and will do a better job of educating them than the college programs in which they are,” Stern said last October.

Last season, San Antonio’s Cory Joseph asked head coach Gregg Popovich to assign him to the Spurs’ D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros. “I could be sitting on the bench in San Antonio,” Joseph explained to, “or I could be getting better.”

The one-year out of high school rule for US players was implemented ahead of the 2006 draft. The Toronto Raptors had the first overall pick that year, and the rule forced heavily-recruited high school prospects Greg Oden and Kevin Durant to enroll in college for a year. One would be foolish to think Durant wouldn’t be the front-runner for MVP this season had he not been a one-and-done Texas Longhorn.

Michael Olowokandi spent three years in college. He went first overall in the 1998 draft. Along with Brown, Olowokandi is one of the biggest busts in NBA history. There’s a long list of busts who spent time in college.

This is by no means an argument against higher education and staying in college. All prospects have that option, as they should. There are countless good reasons a prospect may want to wait before declaring for the draft. Whether he wants to prove himself to move up in the rankings, wait for a weaker draft, or earn a degree, he can stay if he wants to.

Future Hall of Famers Steve Nash and Tim Duncan played all four years of college hoops and graduated before becoming NBA superstars. Roy Hibbert’s degree from Georgetown hasn’t slowed him down, either. After all, the Indiana Pacers centre is an All-Star and the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. But despite the success of players with NCAA experience under their belts, many other players have profited—in wealth and experience—from forgoing the collegiate route.

The NBA originally increased the minimum entry age to 19 in an effort to curb draft busts, but teams still make mistakes. Predicting the NBA’s future greats is a crapshoot whether you’re looking at college, international, or high school players. In the end, it’s still the young stars who have to pay the dearest price. NBA-ready 18-year-olds have to wait a year before they can begin earning money for their talent and hard work. Making them wait two more years is not the solution.


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