Shoals Unlimited: Age Limit May Protect the Kids

Discussions about the NBA age limit almost invariably involve the short-term, specifically the run-up to the draft and the year or two that follow. David Stern's edict from above put a stop to a lot of this. But the conversation has continued, mutated to fit the new landscape of under-aged players. Can you realistically keep a LeBron-like talent out of the league for one token season? Has Brandon Jennings' bumpy season in Rome helped or hurt his stock? Does Jeremy Tyler's decision mean the end of the world as we know it? ↵

↵However, we're also now getting to look at how the careers of high school draftees play out over the long-term. Kevin Garnett kicked off the revolution by going fifth in 1995 -- nearly 14 years ago. The generation of NBA players that had preps-to-pro as an option are veterans with extensive track records and definite tendencies. Or at least enough of them are that we can wonder what, if any, effect this decision has had on their careers. With several of these guys playing key roles in these playoffs, it's worth asking what we should expect of them -- and what getting drafted out of high school has to do with it. ↵

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↵Most obviously, players like Garnett and Kobe Bryant have been around forever. Bryant will turn 31 this summer, and yet he's been a perennial All-Star since 1998. During that time, he's also managed to collect those three rings and last year's MVP. For anyone else, this would be a Hall of Fame career. Because of KB24's early start, though, there's still another phase yet to come; in Bryant's likely exceptional case, it also happens to be a second, more mature, prime. After that, he could leave at the top of his game, or hang on for a farewell stint, maybe still in search of that elusive Shaq-less championship. When you view KG through this same lens, his transformative effect on the Celtics becomes all the more impressive. ↵

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↵And, at the risk of totally blowing your mind, what happens if LeBron's just now beginning the second act of a four-act reign of terror? ↵

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↵At the same time, though, many of the biggest names that came out of high school are thought of as injury-prone or fragile. Tracy McGrady's legacy may hang in the balance with this Portland/Houston series; Tyson Chandler, so key to the Hornets' past success, is barely himself; and Jermaine O'Neal has returned from NBA purgatory to give the Miami Heat a consistent second option -- again, that luxury of getting a second, third, and fourth act. It would be easy to draw a connection between extra-long careers and players breaking down. But McGrady, Chandler, and O'Neal all played sparingly in their first few seasons. What's more, Jonathan Bender, Darius Miles, Amare Stoudemire, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bynum, and Martell Webster, among others, have had their career ended or marred by injuries. ↵

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↵The NFL always has insisted, with good reason, that their age limit keeps players from joining the pro ranks before they are physically ready. We've all seen how skinny those teens were when they shook Stern's hand; we figured it might keep them on the bench for a year or two. What we never figured was that, with the exception of physical specimens like LeBron (but Amare was one of those wasn't he?), young players' bodies might need at least a year to transition between high school and the pros. Whether or not they're getting significant playing time, they go up against grown men in practice, and also have to deal with a far more demanding schedule (and the travel that goes with it). If the rookie wall is real, at least anecdotally, why wouldn't it be even more serious for kids just out of the 12th grade? ↵

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↵What's more, what about Greg Oden and Gerald Wallace, one-and-dones who have had problems staying on the floor? Forget about honor, values and dignity; if student-athletes are forced to stick around till age 20, it could very well have more to do with their physical well-being than how polished they can become in the coach-centric environment of NCAA ball. Although common sense would seem to indicate that more time in college means less time in the pros, it might well be the case that the opposite is true. ↵

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↵While cynics have consistently said the age limit is about marketing and name recognition, purists insist it makes for more refined players and moralists don't like teens making millions, this angle might provide the best rationale. Stern himself has suggested that physical maturity might be a factor. Looking over the past decade, there's ample evidence to support this claim. That's why, when Brandon Jennings says Europe helps because he plays against grown men, or Jeremy Tyler points to obnoxious high school triple-teams as a reason to drop out and head to Europe, we need to figure out if they aren't hurting, not helping, their respective futures. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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