The 2011 NBA lockout is focused on bigger issues than the league’s age minimum, but that is still something that is on the table. Because the money issue is so divisive — we still have hundreds of millions of dollars separating the union and the owners — these other impactful negotiating points seem to fly under the radar. The negotiators may not be giving short shrift to the non-monetary issues, but it seems as though those of us writing about the lockout are.The murmurs have been that the NBA is looking to extend the age minimum not to 20 years of age, but to three years removed from high school … just like the NFL. The age limit was a bad idea at one year removed from high school; it pushes future NBA players into the tricky waters of the NCAA or international basketball. Why do owners like it? They don’t have to cover the expense of scouting high schools and the AAU circuit. Oh, they still do scout high school and AAU ball, or at least pay stringers to do so. But they don’t have to as a course of due diligence. Rare are the high school stars who don’t draw appropriate attention in college.
The second part of that rationale for the passage of the one-and-done rule from the owners’ standpoint is that top picks are financially risky: Greg Oden has made $21 million over his first four seasons, for example. Spending that on a high school kid is terrifying, especially after the Kwame Brown disaster. But, of course, focus on the high school busts ignores the very real college busts, like Michael Olowokandi, who came to the NBA just a few short years before Kwame.
The league has one more rationale for the age minimum, one that’s a bit more controversial given its repercussions: the NCAA is effectively a free promotional tool for the NBA’s young stars. A dozen college games are on cable TV every week, and two weeks of the March sports calendar are seemingly totally dedicated to the amateur game. Because of the attention college basketball gets, Derrick Rose is already well-known when he enters the NBA. Greg Oden means something to more than us dedicated obsessives who pore over YouTube clips and Rivals’ scouting reports.
But that free promotion for the NBA comes at a cost.
The cost isn’t just giving away some of its best talent for one year, and perhaps in the future three years. That is a real cost, but when you consider that perhaps only LeBron James and Dwight Howard actually sold tickets as rookie preps-to-pros stars, it’s not as big a concern with regards to the one-year rule. The three-year rule, essentially granting the NCAA and the University of Kentucky someone like John Wall for three years? That’s when the cost of conceding talent becomes an issue.
But the bigger issue is that by legislating a three-year gap between high school and the NBA, you basically force young players — the future foundation of the NBA — into the murky, poisoned waters of college basketball. Look at Rose, for example. He had issues with his SAT. It still isn’t clear if he had someone else falsify an SAT score so that he could enroll at Memphis, if the school took it upon itself to handle it, or if his advisers did the deed. But somewhere along the way, Rose became NCAA-eligible on the basis of a fake SAT. He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year before the hammer came down on Memphis. It didn’t really matter to Rose or to the NBA.
Now imagine we had a three-year rule. He’d have been entering his junior season … and he’d essentially have been ruled ineligible or otherwise suspended for a chunk of time. How does that help the NBA, to see one of its brightest young stars trapped in the mire of NCAA sanctions, to become a negative talking point on TV and talk radio before he even hits the league? That situation would, unfortunately, be repeated several times over. And what’s the alternative … Europe? Brandon Jennings made it work because he had a support system and the Bucks took a brilliant chance on him. But it’s not as if the NBA’s scouting operation saved any money, time or heartburn scouting Jennings in Rome vs. Jennings in Compton (or at Oak Hill). The D-League remains an underutilized opportunity for young players, but it’s hard to see a young star like Austin Rivers committing to the Tulsa 66ers for three years when Duke comes calling. Until the salary structure of the D-League changes wildly — don’t hold your breath — top recruits will effectively be paid better to attend a top-25 school than play in the D-League. It’s just the reality.
My objections to the age minimum are more ideological, but even in the most results-oriented perspective, it’s a sloppy rule that creates as many problems as it seeks to solve. The biggest issue for me — and where my ideology comes in — is that at no point in the discussion of benefits does what is best for the players come into play. We’re prioritizing lower scouting expenses and increased promotional benefits for pro teams owned by very wealthy men over the living situations and rights of 18-year-olds who often come from the poorest backgrounds. It’s a wholly cynical decision to make. If the union consents to an age minimum increase, it will be doing so for equally cynical reasons: to preserve veteran jobs for the next two years, a ridiculously short view of an impactful decision.
We know that players aged 18, 19 and 20 can thrive in the NBA. We have a 22-year-old one-and-done MVP and a 22-year-old one-and-done two-time defending scoring champ, for goodness sake. The winners of the three previous MVP awards (Kobe, LeBron, LeBron) had played a combined total of zero college games. Like everything with regards to the lockout, the NBA prioritizes money over everything. In this case, that greed makes a real impact on the lives of young men and their families — men who don’t make an average salary of $5 million. Isn’t that worth paying attention to?