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Kill the NBA age minimum. The G League is ready to replace college

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Acknowledging that the age minimum isn’t working is a good first step for the NBA. Now it’s time to fix the problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

You don’t expect blockbusters when NBA commissioner Adam Silver does the media rounds and has annual press conferences at certain events. He’s a careful, calm speaker, and his policies tend to move in gradual, predictable ways.

That was thrown out the window this week when Silver told FS1’s Colin Cowherd and later a full press gaggle that the NBA age minimum is untenable.

“I think we all agree that we need to make a change,” Silver said during Thursday’s press conference before Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals in Oakland. “My sense is it’s not working for anyone.”

This is a monumental shift in how the NBA talks about the age minimum. Silver and his predecessor, David Stern, had never before denigrated the rule while advocating to increase the minimum age to 20. The league’s party line has long been that the age minimum served the NBA’s purpose — get team scouts out of the business of scouting and drafting high school kids, have more seasoned players coming into the league — and could better do so if extended by another year.

Here, Silver is instead claiming what many critics have long argued: The age minimum has not been a success.

One could surmise Silver has recently seen data or talked to enough critics to change his mind. (The commissioner cites comments from college athletic directors and coaches as part of the body of evidence that the rule is causing problems. More importantly, he cites NBA team officials who bemoan the lack of polish a single season of college hoops provides.)

A more cynical observer might presume that Silver has simply realized the players’ union will not budge on extending the minimum to age 20, and that the league is instead looking for an escape hatch since the age-19 rule has such a negative impact on college basketball.

How Silver got to this point is largely irrelevant. What happens now is what matters.

What happens now should be this: The NBA’s development league, now dubbed the G -League, takes on the leading role in training tomorrow’s professional basketball players.

The G League will have 26 teams in the 2017-18 season, each of them affiliated with a single NBA club. Most of the G League teams are owned by their NBA affiliates. Of the four teams without a G League partner, two — the Wizards and Pelicans — have declared they plan to have teams in place in 2018. The Nuggets have been rumored in a number of markets, most recently Omaha. The Blazers are inexplicably absent in G League expansion talk — odd given the immense wealth of franchise owner Paul Allen. But momentum is clearly on the G League’s side.

The NBA broke new ground in its new collective bargaining agreement by creating the two-way player model that allows teams two roster spots for prospects who can bounce between the G League and NBA club while getting paid a salary much higher than what the G League typically offers.

The next step is to find a way to make it worth the while of teenage stars-in-waiting to play in the G League for a year or two instead of signing on with a college program. Silver explicitly mentioned the fact that the G League already allows 18 year olds but that the NBA hasn’t pushed that option to high-end prospects.

Few players have used the G League in place of college; in fact, playing professionally overseas has been a more frequent option for the best prospects who choose not to attend college while waiting out the NBA draft eligibility.

Now that the G League is reaching its potential, the solution is staring the NBA in its face: Abolish the age minimum, but allow teams drafting 18 year olds to keep their salaries off the books by assigning them to their G League affiliate for the season. The young players would still earn salaries as assigned by the rookie scale (and their contract clocks would start), but it would only count against the NBA team’s salary cap sheet if the players in question are in the NBA.

This allows the NBA to have a stronger hand in player development without forcing teams to lock up roster spots and salary slots for young prospects who aren’t ready for the big leagues. Prospects would be able to bypass the college charade and get truly professional training (albeit in less glamorous conditions than experienced by full-on NBA or high-level college players).

Having top-notch teenage prospects in the G League might even boost attendance at the games, helping the developmental system pencil out for NBA team owners.

These changes, plus lottery reforms aimed at dropping the incentive to tank, could create some shifts in team-building philosophy. The NBA draft could be devalued just a touch — perhaps enough to remove the incentive for teams to tank for multiple years. That could lead to more parity. This could be a piece of a cure for the league’s increasingly obvious competitive balance problems.

Acknowledging the failure of the age minimum is the first step here, and it’s a revelation that the NBA commissioner has reached that point. But what happens next — how the problem is solved — is more important.

Let’s hope the NBA realizes what it has in the G League and moves away from the NCAA as its de facto player development system.