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5 ways the NBA could end the age minimum

The rule is going to be changed at some point. We just don’t know how yet.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is going to rescind its ill-considered age minimum ... eventually.

In the wake of college basketball’s scandal-plagued 2017-18 season and a commission’s report calling for the end of the one-and-done era, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has seen the light and suggested the league will end its role in causing the mess. When? Maybe 2021 or 2022.

That suggests that Silver doesn’t plan to simply undo what his predecessor, David Stern, did back in 2005 when the NBA implemented the new minimum age of 19 abruptly and without accounting for the massive upheaval in the amateur game it would create. As such, we considered different ways the NBA might unwind the age minimum, albeit from a perspective that isn’t too warm toward the draft in the first place.

Here are five options for the NBA to rescind the age minimum, end the one-and-done era of college basketball, and get the very best 18-year-olds back in the league.

Option 1: Just end it

This is the most straight-forward option. Just revert the draft eligibility rule to what it was in 2005 and prior: allow players who turn or turned 18 in that calendar year to enter the NBA Draft.

Pick a year (the sooner the better) and do it. This is in the collective bargaining agreement, so the players’ union and league must agree. No one should have any real qualms here. Just do it. The NBA can’t undo the damage to young basketball players waged over the last 13 years, but they can stop implementing it going forward.

Option 2: Funnel teenagers into the G League

The NBA’s developmental league is in much better than it was back when the age minimum was implemented. As such, it could be a vital piece of the solution as we unwind one-and-done.

One idea I’ve written about before: allow NBA teams who draft teenagers to assign those players to their G League affiliate while keeping their salaries off the cap sheet. The players would still get paid according to their rookie scale contracts, and their service clocks would start. But a team drafting a raw 18-year-old who needed time in the G League wouldn’t need to squirrel away a roster spot and cap space for him.

This would be most relevant for non-superstar prospects. You aren’t sending Young LeBron James to the Canton Charge or Dwight Howard to Lakeland. But less polished teenagers taken late in the first round or the second round? This is a good solution.

Most NBA teams have close relationships with their G League affiliates these days, so this would become an extension of development coordination.

Option 3: Adopt a baseball-style college rule

If Adam Silver is specifically opposed to the one-and-done paradigm, and is only willing to kill the age minimum solely because he can’t get the players’ union to sign off on two-and-through, adopting a rule that specifically bans one-and-done might be preferred. In baseball, players can be drafted out of high school, but if they choose to attend a four-year college instead of signing with the Major League Baseball club, they are barred from the draft for three years. Essentially, if you chose college over the minor leagues, you’re sticking with it for three years.

The NBA could adopt something similar, which would allow the superstar prospects or those wholly uninterested in college to jump to the league while anyone who chooses college commits to two or three years. This would totally eliminate one-and-done, provide a path from preps-to-pros, and help college basketball a little bit.

It could even be combined with Option 2 to adopt twin pipelines — college and G League — pushing more refined players into the NBA without disrupting the NBA or college basketball as much as the current system or a straight-up abolished age minimum would.

Option 4: Develop an academy system

Mark Cuban has floated interest in developing soccer-style youth academies for basketball in North America. It’s a longshot, and would need a decade to develop, and would require massive upheaval in the draft process. But it’s certainly worth the league and union considering.

The short version of it is that instead of AAU, high school, and current grassroots basketball taking the lead on developing young players, NBA teams would through their academies. There would be some geographic-priority component — the Blazers’ academy would have first dibs on top young prospects in Oregon, for instance — and the NBA clubs would have large say in how players in their system were trained.

To make it worthwhile for the NBA clubs, of course, they’d need to be able to sign those players when they became draft eligible.

Here’s one idea. When a player in, say, the Blazers’ academy turns 18 and becomes draft eligible, a year in which Portland has the No. 20 pick, the Blazers can offer him a standard rookie contract (two years guaranteed with two team option years) worth up to a max of what the No. 1 pick is set to make.

If the player signs the deal, the Blazers lose their pick. (In practical terms, it is skipped over: No. 21 doesn’t technically move up to No. 20. That keeps the salary scale unadjusted for teams picking later.) If the player declines the deal, they can enter college or the draft and the Blazers would keep their pick. The rub is that you can only offer a first-round academy deal if you have a first-round pick. This might depress the trade market somewhat since first-round pick are often the lubricant needed to get deals done.

The upshot is that young players are given an NBA-style basketball education from an early age, and the NBA clubs who invest in the youth system are given an advantage in signing players they develop.

Option 5: Hold a draft only for teenagers

If the league and union are going to consider radical changes as they rescind the age minimum and incorporate 18-year-olds in the league again, one change might be to transform the purpose of the NBA Draft.

Instead of it being the default method that all players 22 or younger enter the draft, the NBA could move that age to 20. Make it so that domestic and international prospects who turn 21 during a given calendar year are no longer eligible for the draft — they are free agents when they decide to come to the NBA. That would effectively keep the draft only for preps-to-pros prospects and one-and-dones. Those who spent at least two years in college would be free agents when they decide to come over to the league.

This would focus the purpose of the draft on doling out only young players who want to come to the NBA early, and would incentivize non-elite prospects to stay in college two years and have a say in where they play for the first few years of their NBA careers. Would this cause good teams to stock up on cheaper upperclassmen? Probably not, because good teams likely have fuller rosters and salary cap sheets.

(Is this a backdoor way of beginning to kill the NBA Draft? Shhh. Don’t tell the league that.)