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The NBA age limit isn't changing anytime soon. Here's why

Since the NBA and players’ union couldn’t reach an accord on changing the one-and-done rule, it’s probably going to stick around until at least 2023.

NBA: NBA Draft Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA and players’ union reached a new labor deal last week. They did not, however, reach an accord on adjustments to the age minimum, meaning the age-19 minimum and the one-and-done paradigm it creates will remain in place. The league says the two sides will work on the issue outside of these negotiations, perhaps reaching a compromise of the topic at another time before the new CBA will be opened up (likely in 2023).

The NBA also said this in 2011 when it reached a deal with the union to end a game-costing lockout. It does not appear, given turmoil and transition inside the union, the two sides ever even met to negotiate again on the age minimum.

But while the players’ union won’t be busy suing its own executive director and finding a new one over the next couple years, there are reasons to be deeply skeptical the current rule will change before 2023.

1. The Zero-Or-Two proposal is a non-starter

Reports suggest that while the NBA pushed to extend the age minimum to 20, forcing domestic players into two years of college, D-League or international play, the union countered with a baseball-style rule. MLB teams can draft players who are fresh out of high school, attend junior college, or have spent three years in the NCAA. The NBA version would have been similar, but used two years in college as that cut off.

This idea is great for high-end prospects who would again be able to go prep-to-pros as large numbers of players did between 1995 and 2005. It’s also a great idea for NCAA programs, who would know they are getting at least two years of service from high-end recruits.

This idea does absolutely nothing for NBA teams.

A huge reason the NBA fought for the age minimum in 2005 collective bargaining negotiations was to deflate the league’s booming high school/AAU scouting regime. Scouting is resource-intensive. Time, money, staff, attention — scouting 17- and 18-year-olds spread all over the country costs a lot, and it’s far more difficult than scouting 18- and 19-year-olds playing against other 18- and 19-year-olds. The NBA wanted to get its teams off the high school circuit. Certainly, teams still scout the higher-end prep players, but it’s not nearly as intensive as it was 15 years ago.

The union’s zero-or-two proposal would force teams right back into that world of needing to spend a disproportionate amount of resources scouting high school kids. This is the opposite of what the NBA wants. In fact, if the union is going to propose this, it might as well propose ending the age minimum altogether! (I would support that, as pointless as the proposal would be.)

Let’s give credit, though, to the union for actually having a reasonable proposal that isn’t just “no age minimum” this time around.

2. Where are the bargaining chips?

The reason you deal with all important matters in a grand collective bargaining agreement is to allow for compromise and, well, bargaining. The league gets this item on their list, the union gets that one. At the end of the day, the negotiators can take a list back to their memberships to show what they are gaining and losing in the deal. On balance, these tend to reflect the desires of membership, allowing ratification.

There’s no obvious compromise on the age minimum. The NBA wants it higher, the union wants it to not exist. So, really, one side will have to get something else to agree to lose on the age minimum.

Yet pretty much everything of import will already have been dealt with inside the CBA. The league is not going to reopen the salary cap rules it has carefully negotiated to gain a year on the age minimum outside of bargaining. The union is not going to offer a chunk of revenue to get 18-year-olds back in the league.

How do we know this? Because if either side was willing to negotiate on the big items to get their way on the age minimum, the age minimum would have been resolved in collective bargaining!

That it wasn’t makes clear we’re at a stalemate here.

3. The D-League is on track to be the solution to the problem

NBA teams don’t want to have to heavily scout and bet lottery picks on high school players. Future NBA players don’t want to have to put their pro basketball dreams on hold to participate in the charade of becoming NCAA student-athletes. College programs don’t want to waste time and energy recruiting prospects who are spending a couple months on campus before splitting. (High-level college programs that want to win have no choice but to do so, however.)

The NBA D-League has been an option since 2005, but the D-League has a reputation problem. And a money problem. And a visibility problem. No high-end prospect has ever chosen to go to the D-League instead of college or overseas.

As the new CBA makes efforts to power up the D-League through two-way contracts and higher pay, and as the league lurches toward full farm-league status, this will change. Some prospect uninterested in playing the one-and-done game will choose the D-League for his pre-draft gap year, and will sign a shoe deal a year early, and will become the domino that leads to a real shift in how the best prep players approach their professional development.

That would be a boon to the NBA, given that several NBA teams own their D-League affiliates and all depend on the success of the league to help provide midseason talent additions. (Players too young to be drafted aren’t eligible for in-season call-ups. But the presence of these young stars would financially buoy the D-League teams, who would still largely provide those types of call-up players.)

This result would be so beneficial to the NBA long-term that you almost wonder if no deal has been struck to change the age minimum precisely so the D-League can make inroads. So long as one-and-done is so unattractive to prospects, the D-League can position itself as a suitable option. If two-and-through becomes the norm, perhaps it becomes tougher to convince top prospects to play in front of sparse crowds in D-League towns.

In any case, the one-and-done regime looks like it’s here to stay in the near-term, much to the dismay of prep stars and college coaches everywhere.