LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 07: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the exhibition game against the Morehouse Maroon Tigers at Rupp Arena on November 7, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
If the NBA is going to keep or extend its age minimum, it needs to give prospects a real option to develop outside of the college system.
The cold war over the league's one-and-done rule is starting to heat up. NCAA president Mark Emmert recently told reporters that the NBA's age minimum has been awful in that it has put prospects who have no interest in college into the higher education system. NBA commissioner David Stern quickly sniped back that schools didn't have to admit every one-and-done player that pops up, and that they could enforce classroom attendance and grades stronger. Andrew Sharp covered the NCAA's hypocrisy on the matter expertly last week.
Both sides exaggerate their position, of course: the NCAA wants the best players in the world for a longer period of time, and the NBA wants a free farm system to limit draft mistakes, provide marketing help and keep NBA rosters from turning into mysterious collections of 18-year-olds. (You can have your Quentin Richardson-Darius Miles Clippers. I ride with the Jonathan Bender-Al Harrington Pacers.)
What the current battle really serves to do is shrink the likelihood that Stern will pitch Emmert a bone and push for an age-20 minimum in upcoming talks between the league and its union. (Because of the vast financial concerns to be addressed in the completed CBA talks, important issues like draft eligibility were pushed to committee status for the upcoming offseason. A panel of players, league executives and lawyers will discuss the matter.)
But keeping things at age-19 (one-and-done) doesn't help Stern a whole lot. Great, you avoided admitting high school players like Bender, Jermaine O'Neal and Kwame Brown straight into the league. Now those players play a bit in college, then come into the NBA. Teams still know nothing about them! Kyrie Irving played a dozen games last year. Pretty much the entirety of the Cavaliers' decision to pick him came based on AAU play, high school play and a couple of workouts ... or exactly the data teams had in the preps-to-pros era.
There's still an amazing amount of dice-rolling going on in the draft. Consider two recent one-and-done big men, DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside. Both were top-10 talents who sunk to the second round due to maturity concerns. Jordan is a starter on a playoff team making more than $10 million a year. Whiteside still has some potential locked up in his flailing limbs, but looks about 0.00001 percent as polished as college freshman Anthony Davis.
The NBA would call that type of dice-rolling better than, say, Kwame Brown vs. Tyson Chandler, where the No. 1 pick hangs in the balance. And that's fair: you'd rather that the toughest decisions affect lower picks than the most important ones. But as we noted, it's not as if the rule itself creates any certainty. Michael Beasley and Kevin Love each played a year in college. Beasley went No. 2 and was traded for a second-round pick within two years. Love went No. 5 and will likely finish top-10 in MVP voting this season. Hasheem Thabeet played three years of college ball, went No. 2 a year later and still failed. You can't legislate away bad decisions.
The NCAA is right on one count: the age minimum turns college into a farce for some of these players, the ones who stop showing up to class as soon as eligibility is guaranteed, those who fabricate SAT scores to gain eligibility in the first place and hit the bricks before the compliance fuzz catches up. (Let us not forget that the NBA's reigning MVP Derrick Rose is such a player.) These players can only get away with the college farce because their season is over in March or April, and the NBA is waiting. If they had to maintain eligibility for a second season, had to hold off compliance concerns for another year -- it'd be different for some of them (like Rose).
But this is the central problem: it wouldn't be different in a good way, because no matter what the NBA does, and no matter what the NCAA does, many of these kids are still not going to be ready for college. Too many of them came up in too difficult a situation with too few resources and too little guidance to step into the world of college and fit right in. Everyone acts as if it's a choice that the players make to completely disregard the educational component of the student-athlete experience, like Rose just didn't try enough to make his SAT score. The reality is exactly the opposite: the players aren't given a choice. The age minimum has forced them into this situation. The current international and D-League options remain completely unreliable. College is really the only proven path to the NBA in the age minimum era.
David Stern has a few years left before he rides triumphantly into the sunset. His life's work has been building up the NBA, helping present the beautiful sport of basketball to the widest possible audience and, in the process, helping make untold numbers of players wealthy beyond imagination. He's done enough for the game and the players. But if he wants to fix this issue before he leaves, he has got to empower the D-League as a robust farm system and allow young players to have a legitimate choice about where to spend their developmental years. Some of them will continue to choose college -- it's worth noting that none of Kentucky's championship one-and-done players have flirted with eligibility problems -- and some, currently being more-or-less forced into a sham year at school, will opt for the professional route.
The age minimum was meant to protect teams from themselves. It's worked. Now it's time to turn the attention back to the players at risk. Stern doesn't need to worry about how it affects Emmert's fiefdom. Creating an in-house option is simply good for the NBA and its stars.
The even better solution? Abandon the age minimum, expand the D-League and let teams figure out their own paths. I'm sure Emmert would be overjoyed with that decision.