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Fixing the NBA age minimum is hard, but it must be done

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We agree that the current one-and-done system is untenable. Now it's time to think of the right solution.

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We're officially in NBA draft season as underclassmen declare and fans of lottery teams begin taking a shine to certain prospects. We're also a decade into the NBA age minimum. In the wake of the publication of Jonathan Abrams' book on the one-and-done era, Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller assess the current draft and development system and look for better solutions.

FLANNERY: You had some thoughts on the age minimum after reading Jonathan Abrams' new book, and having read it myself, I wanted to explore this a little bit more. We both have our issues with the one-and-done rule, but I have to say that my opinion is evolving a bit.

I have some empathy for some aspects of the NBA's position, namely keeping scouts and GMs out of high school gyms. I'm also not sure that the NBA life is a good one for 18-year-olds. I was struck by how many of the players in Abrams' telling wished they had either gone to college or agreed with the idea that coming straight out of high school was not in their best interests.

That said. if the choice is an open enrollment policy or indentured servitude to the billion-dollar cash grab that is college basketball then I'm all for opening the doors back up to 18-year-olds. I just wish it wasn't such a stark choice.

There's a lot to unpack here and I don't want us to run around in circles, so let's start here: Did anything in Abrams book cause you to alter your stance a little? I think it's fair to say we both approach this as hardliners.

ZILLER: It's funny: though Abrams appears to be opposed to the one-and-done rule, and makes a convincing case against it, I too had my views moderated by reading it. I've been an anti-minimum hardliner since 2005, but like you I'm coming around to feel that the modern NBA isn't the best place for 18 and 19-year-olds to develop their skills. So few teams practice much during the season these days, and while top line players get fewer minutes, it's really tough to get young guys the game exposure they need.

To me, it's in the NBA's interest to allow 18-year-olds who are capable of playing professional basketball to do so. I no longer think that must be done in the NBA itself. But sending the vast majority to play for free at academic institutions is not an acceptable solution, in my opinion.

I think the D-League is the answer.

FLANNERY: I'm not so sure about that one. The problem with the D-League is there are so few quality big men to go around that the game takes on a different dimension. There's also the dynamic of veteran players trying to get noticed balanced with the need to develop young players. Some teams are better at this than others and there's a small competitive advantage to be had for teams who are willing to invest time and resources.

A scout suggested to me that there's also a real benefit for players performing under pressure situations against their peers in the college atmosphere, where games are televised and the crowds are engaged. That's anecdotal, of course, but I think there's something to that. The issue, again, is money. Neither operation pays a competitive wage.

Let's say for the sake of this argument that the NCAA finally relented and put in place a system whereby athletes were paid a commensurate amount for their services. Would you be more inclined to say that college would be a better development path?

ZILLER: No, because of all of the examples in Abrams' book of the NBA stars who skipped college and had no problem performing under pressure in the pros. Taking clutch free throws in Durham wearing Tar Heel blue is different than running a crucial play in Reno for the Bakersfield Jam, true. But that's a sliver of what makes a professional basketball player.

Even college-bred pros escaped the NCAA without these experiences. Dame Lillard played college ball in Ogden, Utah. Tim Duncan spent his time in college at the fourth most celebrated program in North Carolina, never making a Final Four. Learning how to manage the nomadic, self-motivated life of a pro is in my opinion more important to development than facing frat bros in face paint.

Abrams' tales emphasized that the biggest stumbling block for prep-to-pro prospects was getting good advice and managing freedom and money. Some college programs help their guys in this respect. Some don't. Some prospects, like LeBron, wouldn't need the help if it were there.

To me, the best way to learn how to do something is to do it. Despite your well-founded critiques of the D-League, I think a professional basketball environment will largely be the better path for developing players.


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FLANNERY: We can agree to disagree on this, but I think colleges and universities are far better equipped to help young people transition into adulthood than professional basketball teams. You have argued that it's in the NBA's best interest to develop these kind of internal programs, and that's fair. I would argue that colleges and universities need to do more to prepare their high-profile athletes for the next step of their life. Develop a curriculum that serves their needs. It's not that hard, really.

I do think there's a partnership to be had between the NBA and the NCAA, and indeed one of the most compelling revelations in Abrams' book was when David Stern suggested the idea of an insurance plan, only to get shot down by schools. Regardless, we both agree that the current system is not optimal. So what should we do here?

ZILLER: I still like my own proposal from last year to expand the draft, abolish the age minimum and give teams three Development Roster spots with favorable cap treatment. The devil's in the details, of course -- you don't want major reform to the system to have adverse affects in other ways. But there are enough smart people at NBA HQ to implement such a system in a way that maximizes the benefit of building a true farm league.

To be clear, I don't think pro basketball teams are far better equipped to help young people transition into adulthood. I think it's far better equipped to help elite basketball amateurs transition into professional basketball players. Most players are still going to go to college, as was the case from 1995 through 2005. Most will get what they need in 1-4 years there. Few will regret having done so. But for the very best prospects or the academically challenged (or those simply morally opposed to plying their trade on a volunteer basis for a billion-dollar industry), there should be another option.

What do you think the league should do?

FLANNERY: It's interesting that one side focuses on the success stories like KG, Kobe and LeBron while the other fixates on the failures. No matter the system, the Ndubi Ebi's are going to wander, the Lenny Cooke's won't pan out and the Leon Smith's of the world need help that frankly, most professional enterprises will be ill-equipped to handle.

What I'm most interested in are the Amir Johnson's. His path follows your D-League model as well as anyone. It took him three years before he even remotely started to contribute and by the time he was really ready a year or two later, he was already out the door. I think the league should consider extending the development timetable.

One of the biggest barriers to fairness is the rookie wage scale. It's odd that while entry into the league is dependent on age, free agency is based on experience. I'd like to see a sliding scale put in place where all players on guaranteed rookie contracts become free agents by a certain age. Let's say that age is 24 years old. That gives a team working with a player coming out of high school six years to develop, while a three-year college player gets only half that time.

Now, what about someone like LeBron? Folks will argue that he shouldn't have to wait six years to get paid real money. True, but what about the Steph Currys that sign extensions and then blossom into superstars? Maybe there can be mechanisms to accelerate the earning potential of prodigies. Like you said, there are smart people in charge.

One thing I think most of us agree on is that the status quo -- college or nothing -- is unfair and unacceptable.

ZILLER: The age-scale is intriguing. It also might help more international players come over later in their careers, or even Americans who spend the early parts of their careers in China or Europe (like Bo McCalebb). Perhaps a combination of age and experience factors can be put in to ensure the most productive players are being paid representative to their contributions each year. NBA franchises would be on board with that -- much of what owners have fought for in recent years has been minimizing dead money. I could talk about incentive-based pay all day, but I fear that'd derail us completely. Suffice it to say I think the rookie scale and pay grades in general have room for improvement as a part of comprehensive draft reform.

I do agree that the current system is untenable. The sham of one-and-done makes me more sympathetic to college programs; I just don't think giving them more control over the development system is the answer. And I think enough evidence supports the thesis that the consequences of the age minimum outweigh the benefits.

FLANNERY: I am 100 percent agreement with you there. The colleges don't deserve to have their fiefdoms propped up by unpaid genius, and the biggest lesson from Abams' book is that the relative successes far outweigh the cautionary tales. Kwame Brown may not have developed into a star, but he had a long career and was paid very well for it. Same with Eddy Curry, Sebastian Telfair, Kendrick Perkins, Monta Ellis, Amir Johnson and on and on and on.

But we can do better and the time is right to put in serious thought and effort into coming up with a system that benefits everyone.

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