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Is the NBA really willing to clean up the NCAA mess it helped create?

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The FBI is investigating corruption in college basketball that was catalyzed by the NBA’s age minimum rule.

2017 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Any NBA fan who believes the league needs to rescue elite basketball prospects from the corrupt NCAA should, at the very least, acknowledge that the NBA is a major reason the NCAA is so mired in scandal.

David Stern, former NBA commissioner and progenitor of the disastrous NBA age minimum, didn’t invent the concept of college programs paying elite high school prospects to join their teams. Using money to cheat has been a part of college sports since the very beginning of college sports. But Stern’s 2006 age minimum, which requires players to be 19 or one year removed from high school graduation before being eligible to be drafted into the NBA, supercharged basketball scandal.

The rule cranked up the underground market for elite prospects because it pushed just about every single elite prospect — including those who otherwise would have jumped straight into the NBA — into the college ranks. Knowing that players would likely remain in college for just one year, it turned those prospects into paraprofessionals, essentially: many leave school when the basketball season ends, which means they are really at school for one semester. With so few multi-year college stars, the stakes to land those high-end, one-and-done players has risen ever so much.

All of this opportunity for malfeasance has culminated in a grand FBI investigation that is bringing college basketball to its knees, with top players ruled ineligible, coaches being fired, and coveted recruits decommitting from schools.

The NBA, led by Stern’s replacement Adam Silver, is now thoroughly engaged at the top of amateur basketball, with the league even talking about finding a way to rescind the age minimum. Good. But the NBA ought to really acknowledge its role in creating this hideous mess and be sure it doesn’t create another one in the process of unraveling the current screwball system.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst delved deep into the ideas the league is considering in response to the scandal. Read the piece: it offers a clear inventory of the options and of Silver’s mindset. The league’s position, ideas, and rationale for pursuing those ideas is really rather reactionary. While the FBI investigation has brought greater attention on the structural rot in the one-and-done paradigm, the concept that the system is in fact rotten isn’t new. We’ve known for years the problems that the age minimum creates for prospects and college programs alike.

To a degree, the NBA has acknowledged those problems. In the 2011 lockout, reform of the age minimum was one of the items both sides wanted to tackle. The NBA wanted to increase the minimum beyond one year, citing the need to end the one-and-done regime the NBA itself had created. The players’ union wanted the age minimum repealed. (The players’ union co-signed on the age minimum within 2005 labor negotiations. Shame on them.) Neither side would budge in 2011, revenue sharing between teams and players was a much bigger issue, and the parties agreed to deal with it after the overall deal was reached. They didn’t. The age minimum hasn’t been touched since.

The NBA and players’ union had quiet, early labor negotiations in 2016 and still didn’t deal with the age minimum! It took the FBI getting involved and Rick Pitino getting launched into space for the league to actually bring this issue to the forefront. This is the NBA being reactionary instead of taking action when a problem is clearly identified.

What’s more is that it doesn’t appear the NBA is in a particular rush to solve this problem. Silver is waiting to move forward with his ideas until a commission created by the NCAA tasked with helping to fix the NCAA releases its report in the spring. The NBA — who is a major reason the NCAA is in such a grand mess — is waiting to hear what the NCAA thinks before doing anything to solve the problem.

This is, in a way, prudent. But you can suffer from an overabundance of prudence. An overabundance of prudence has gotten us to this point. The problem has been festering for years, and prudence let it manifest into what we have now.

Once you drill into the NBA’s ideas as presented in Windhorst’s piece, you wonder if the NBA truly understands the real problem here. Silver says that the NBA needs to “intersect” with high-end prospects earlier to provide better training and nutrition and to allow teams to get better intel on the players. This is perhaps what the league should have been talking about in 2002, in the heyday of the prep-to-pro paradigm, when prospects actually came into the NBA without the right fitness or preparation. Have you seen some of these young players lately? Many of them come into the NBA with extraordinary polish, both physically or socially. Consider Karl-Anthony Towns, who talks like a Rookie Symposium PowerPoint. Or Kyrie Irving, who played all of 11 college games before taking the league by storm with incredible (incredible!) fundamentals.

The problem now isn’t player readiness or AAU mentality or any of that. The problem is the fact that forcing NBA-ready kids to wait a year between high school and the pros has forced the NCAA to absorb players who often don’t want or need to be there. The NCAA has, in fairness, done an atrocious job absorbing those players, made ever worse by the NCAA’s refusal to allow the players to profit from their basketball skills in any way beyond a scholarship while retaining eligibility.

If the NBA intends to solve the problem, it ought to at least be willing to name it. Silver’s initial foray into the quagmire — and the league’s lack of action to this point — is not encouraging.

This problem isn’t going to be solved by a new NBA summer camp for elite prospects, or two-way G League contracts for 18-year-olds. It’s going to require big, bold reforms from the NBA, the NCAA, or both. That should almost certainly include a repeal of the NBA age minimum. And really, given the age minimum is the biggest cause behind the current mess, rescinding it should be the starting point for the NBA’s plan of action.