These are facts.
1. The NBA is highly unlikely to back down from its position on the draft age minimum. David Stern has consistently reinforced the purpose of the rule, and Adam Silver has nodded in agreement.
2. The backlash against the rule from the player and agent community has been strong enough to prevent expansion of the minimum to age 20 or 21. That may not always be the case. The player and agent community -- also known as the NBA players' union -- is not exactly known for dependable resilience.
3. The NBA D-League alternative has been woefully underused despite occasional trumpeting by the NBA.
4. NBA prospects almost exclusively choose to commit to a major conference school for at least one year before entering the draft. Mid-major schools and smaller programs continue to be shut out of the process for the best prospects.
5. Some percentage of these one-and-done players attends class only enough to remain eligible in the spring, with little to no pressure or support from the athletic program to actually use their scholarships to better themselves. That percentage may be low or high. UConn's 2013 tournament ban due to poor academic performance isn't encouraging.
These are opinions
1. The NCAA is a morally bankrupt organization that profits off the talent and hard work of young men, many of which come from families that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. While college programs and athletic conferences rake in ungodly sums of money, the players creating that wealth get only scholarships as payment and are actually forbidden from receiving any other benefits or pay, which is the exact opposite of how the rest of the free world works.
2. The NCAA foments illicit agreements and a gross, daunting subculture of player-running due to enforcement that is somehow totally overbearing and totally ineffectual at the same time.
3. The lack of pay means that access to great coaching, supporting talent, exposure and facilities are the only over-the-board currencies available for prospects. That reality heavily favors a handful of universities in the race to grab high school talent.
4. Given that it is the NBA's rule pushing its future stars into the cesspool of college recruiting, it is the NBA's moral obligation to provide a real, tenable alternative or repeal the rule. (I understand this is not a common opinion. I'm fine with standing on a high branch in near solitude on this one.)
5. Europe is never going to be a legitimate option for more than a handful of prospects, primarily because so few European teams are interested.
Where am I going with this? This is where I'm going.
The D-League is technically an alternative to both the NCAA and Europe for high school prospects. Eighteen-year-olds who prior to 2006 could have entered the NBA Draft can now enter the D-League draft. They get paid like real D-League players -- poorly, that is, but it's something -- and play in real D-League cities for real D-League coaches, many of which have NBA experience or will someday get hired by an NBA team.
And no one is taking this route.
Consider the plight of an 18-year-old five-star prospect. You're getting recruited heavily by John Calipari, Bill Self, Thad Matta, Ben Howland, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski. They promise starting jobs on top-10 teams. They can promise 10 national TV games, including postseason tournaments. Recruiting visit hosts show you impeccable training facilities and Lexington-style college parties. They can show you long lists of players who cashed out at the top of the NBA draft after one or two years in the program. Even if there's no illicit recruiting going on -- which, come on -- it's a helluva pitch.
Meanwhile, where's the D-League? The D-League isn't recruiting. The D-League isn't giving high school prospects tours of the Sioux Falls training facility. There are no co-eds; I'm not even sure there are cheerleaders in all D-League towns. There is no national TV. There is no long list of players who cashed out at the top of the NBA draft. In the rabid, high pressure recruiting, the D-League is simply absent. No one is picking the D-League because no one is even realizing the D-League is there.
That can change.
One of the problems the D-League has is that all that which college programs like Kentucky offer isn't easily quantified. That exposure sounds wonderful on paper -- Kentucky is on TV a lot! Does it actually mean anything?
An economic study might reveal otherwise. A lack of exposure didn't hurt Damian Lillard's draft status or earning potential. And he spent multiple years in college. Before the age minimum, prospects who'd never been on ESPN were going in the top five regularly. The college culture is excellent -- there's no denying that being B.M.O.C. has to be huge fun. But is this about fun or building a career? Coaches like Self and Matta can sell themselves. "I made Thomas Robinson a No. 5 pick. Evan Turner became a top-five pick on my watch." D-League coaches can sell themselves, too, only with actual NBA experience.
But they don't, and they won't until the D-League starts recruiting. How could it possibly work? First, each team needs its own D-League squad, or it needs to opt out of the effort. No more squads with multiple NBA teams as affiliates. Then, you give the teams a modest salary cap, abolish the D-League Draft and set them free. Let the D-League clubs recruit high school prospects. The pay isn't going to be a whole lot more. But you give the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, run by the Houston Rockets, the ability to recruit, and they'll make the economic case to someone like Isaiah Austin that the financial benefits of playing for Baylor are far smaller than believed. They can make the case for the D-League if it means the difference between landing a star and not.
Of course, the Rockets wouldn't be guaranteed Austin once he meets NBA eligibility requirements -- he'd have to enter the NBA draft. But the Rockets will have seen him closer than anyone else, and may be motivated to find a way to land him, in which case he'd come to Houston ahead of the curve, which is good for the NBA as a whole. In addition, Rio Grande Valley might sell a few more tickets, and a stacked D-League team -- an L.A. D-Fenders squad with Shabazz Muhammed and Anthony Bennett? -- might command some TV attention, even if just on the Lakers' regional sports network.
What's in it for Austin? He gets a fine coach in Nick Nurse, he gets to play with and learn from guys who have played in the NBA, he gets paid, he isn't restricted from taking endorsement deals or outside income, he gets to focus totally on basketball and, if he cares, he doesn't give the NCAA license to profit off of his mere existence with no reciprocation.
To prevent abuse and make it work, set a salary cap (including player limits), limit the number of NBA-ineligible players on a D-League roster (two or three), regionalize the D-League schedule even more than it already is to minimize bus travel and maximize practice time and organize some sort of D-League high school All-Star game to take advantage of the peer-to-peer marketing aspect of recruiting. (If you're still sore about LeBron, Wade and Bosh plotting their Heat takeover during the 2008 Olympics, imagine what Coach Cal recruits talk about at the McDonald's game.)
To make the D-League a viable alternative to the NCAA, the NBA needs to let the D-League challenge the NCAA on the NCAA's own ground. Prospects pick Kentucky over Western Kentucky because a stronger case is made for the former, because a stronger case can be made. No one is making the NBA D-League's case. Let the D-League teams do it. Put in a system to let the Springfield Armor and Reno BigHorns compete against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils on the recruiting field. They may not win. It may, like the D-League's current system for 18-year-olds, founder.
But as the Ed O'Bannon case winds its way through the justice system and the inequity of college athletics takes a larger stage, it could work. It's in the NBA's best interest to give something a try. It's possible to give NBA teams that extra year of observation without throwing teenagers into the wolves' den of major college sports. And if it does work, it sure provides the NBA a terrific foundation from which to push for an age 20 or 21 minimum.