Debate: NBA Age Limit?
One of the big issues standing between the NBA’s owners and players as they continue to battle over a new collective bargaining agreement is what the NBA’s age limit should be. HOOPSWORLD’s Joel Brigham and Mark Nugent tackle the issue from both sides.
HOOPSWORLD’s Mark Nugent:
The NBA has an age limit set at 19-years-old, and one year removed from the player’s original high school graduating class for a reason, it’s good for business. The best basketball players in the world play in the NBA and most teenage basketball players aren’t ready to matchup against men.
18 and 19 year-old kids are still developing physically as well as psychologically. Too many kids have failed in the past and allowing them to enter the NBA now would be a mistake for the league and for the players as well. If a high school player declares for the draft, but then doesn’t get drafted, he’s wasted his college eligibility and his options become limited. He has to hope he can land in the D-League or play overseas somewhere.
This happened too often before the NBA instituted the age limit and it ruined more than enough basketball careers. In the 2005 draft, the last one before the age limit was instituted, 11 high school seniors declared for the draft, nine got drafted. Kyle Luckett and Curtis Brown Jr. were out of luck and never played in college or the NBA.
Other names, such as Robert Swift, James Lang, Ndudi Ebi, Leon Smith, and Korleone Young to name a few, are players who jumped straight to the NBA from high school and fizzled out shortly after being drafted. A few years in college may have done them some good and helped them have a long NBA career instead of being out of the league in just a few seasons.
The draft is supposed to help the teams that need it the most; it’s supposed to give hope to fans that are suffering through a losing season or two. What the draft had become was a game of chance. Pick a high school player and hope he turns into a serviceable starter at some during his career.
This isn’t to say all high school players have failed at the NBA level. Some of the games biggest names jumped straight to the pros, but more often than not a high school player either failed, or the team that drafted him was grooming him for another team and he succeeded once he matured physically and emotionally. Take Jermaine O’Neal. He was drafted 17th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1996, but didn’t turn into a starter, much less an all-star, until he was traded to Indiana before the start of the 2000-01 season.
O’Neal shined almost immediately with the Pacers as he finally grew into his body and was physically strong enough to match up against other centers in the league. Portland spent four years trying to groom O’Neal, but he wasn’t ready until after he moved on from the team. The Blazers spent millions hoping that O’Neal would be their future center and then saw him come into his own for another franchise. This isn’t fair to the team or its fans and it’s bad for business.
Had O’Neal gone to college for three years, Portland would have known what they were getting and they would have been able to hold onto him as he entered his prime. As it was, the Blazers felt they had to cut ties with him before they lost even more money on a player that was sitting on their bench.
High school players in the NBA are also bad for the fans. How can the NBA and its players expect fans to show up and watch a game where a high school player is the next great hope for the franchise? It didn’t work for the Wizards with Kwame Brown, the Bulls with Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, or the Clippers with Darius Miles.
All four of those players were top four picks in their respective drafts and only one of them, Chandler, has seen real success in the NBA and he did it well after the Bulls had traded him because they believed he was underperforming. If a bad team is fortunate enough to land one of the top picks via the lottery, their reward should be a franchise cornerstone that is ready to produce at the NBA level, not a high school kid who isn’t ready for the changes that are about to take place in his life.
High school kids who join the NBA get paid millions of dollars a year before they are old enough to buy a drink at a bar. These players often believe they know more than their coaches and therefore refuse to accept any coaching at the NBA level. And why wouldn’t a high school player believe he knew everything, he just earned a lucrative deal in the NBA? But if a player has to play in college for a year or two, he won’t see any playing time unless he listens to his coach, the same can’t always be said in the NBA.
Most high school kids aren’t ready for the constant media pressure that will be put on them or the daily grind of an 82-game season. Their bodies also aren’t ready for the pounding they will take over a six-month season playing against grown men who are bigger and stronger than they are. The players get bruised and beaten and the owners are paying out huge money to a teenager for the chance that one day these 18 or 19 year-olds will be difference makers in the NBA.
If the NBA pushed the age limit to 20 or 21, there would be much less guessing in the lottery and it would be more beneficial to the players, the league, and NCAA basketball. Everybody wins.
By the time a player is 21, a team drafting him will have a pretty good idea of what his potential is. Also, because he is under team control for five years under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, that gives teams plenty of time to know if it is worth investing a maximum or near max deal on the player going forward. There will be a lot less guesswork going on which is beneficial to the NBA and its fans.
There is no downside here. High school kids aren’t taking professional jobs away from veterans that are already in the league and the risk is much less come draft time for the teams. Everyone that is currently involved in the NBA wins and the extra years in college or overseas will hopefully help players reach their full potential.
There is another side to this that doesn’t get discussed much, and that’s getting NBA scouts out of high school gyms and away from some of the underhanded dealings that can go on there. It has been rumored that high school coaches and AAU coaches were trying to sell players to the NBA.
This is something that is terrible for the NBA’s reputation and cannot be tolerated. The way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to keep or increase the current age limit.
A look around the NBA is proof there needs to be an age limit. Teenagers may have come into the league with the hype of a star, guys like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose, but none of them performed like stars until they reached the age of 20.
HOOPSWORLD’s Joel Brigham:
When the NBA instituted an age limit for the draft, nobody was particularly confused as to why the league would want such a thing. Players like Leon Smith and Korleone Young and even Darius Miles and Kwame Brown acted as proof positive that players were coming into the league too young to be given the best opportunity to succeed.
Colleges didn’t argue because they’d get more elite prospects into the NCAA game. Owners didn’t argue because young players could develop on a university’s dime instead of theirs The Players’ Association went with it because keeping younger players out meant more jobs for the older guys. All around, there were plenty of reasons to institute an age limit, but one really important reason not to seems to have been ignored:
It’s completely un-American.
One of the beautiful things about our country is that our citizens are allowed to make as much money as they’re able to as early as they’re able to. Bill Gates didn’t finish college because he had good ideas, and now he’s one of the wealthiest human beings on the planet. Celebrity chef Rachel Ray has zero culinary training and zero college credits, but she doesn’t have enough hours in the day to satisfy all the requests for her to appear in front of a television camera. Henry Ford didn’t even finish high school, and where would the automotive industry be without him?
There are plenty of really successful people that never stepped foot onto a college campus, and they’re perfectly happy and perfectly rich.
Why should it be any different for burgeoning athletes?
You could argue until you were blue in the face why the age limit is a good thing, and the case could even be made that it should be pushed to two or three years of required college experience before NBA eligibility. But at the end of the day, if a person has a skill and would rather use that skill for his own financial gain rather than donating a year or more of earning power to some college’s coffers, he should have that right. Taking it away is, as I said, completely un-American.
If I were to list all the important NBA stars that skipped college (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and oh-so-many more), the diligent debater would point out that all of those guys started off their careers slowly. It took them time to develop into the megastars that they’ve become, and college actually might have benefitted them.
What happens, though, if one of those guys experiences a career-threatening injury while playing his one forced year at a university? Why should he be forced to take that risk?
Beyond that, if we’re looking at the number of prep-to-pros busts that flamed out at so young an age, it’s equally as easy to argue that a larger percentage of college-to-pros players has failed to “make it” at the NBA level. It’s not age that determines whether you get a job as a pro baller; it’s your ability. And as we’ve seen, age and ability aren’t mutually exclusive things.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like the age limit is going to go away, and if anything does change it’ll probably be to add years onto the restrictions, not remove the restrictions that already exist.
That said, the rule in place in an unfair one. Placed in a similar situation, any of us graduating high school with a chance to either make millions or go to college for one year would skip college. Even if we didn’t, at least we’d have the choice. The very second someone tried telling us what we had to do with that decision, we’d lose our minds over the unfairness of the situation and start writing letters to congressmen and complaining about it on a message board somewhere.
Athletes deserve the same rights that we have, but the league keeps them from exercising those rights. That’s just not the way it’s supposed to be in America.
The experts have sounded off – what do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below!