When the NBA pushed for and won an age minimum in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, the impetus was protecting teams from making terrible mistakes. You could very well call the age minimum (also known as "one-and-done") -- which required players entering the draft to be 19 years old or one year removed from high school -- the Kwame Brown Rule. Brown, the No. 1 pick of Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards in 2001, was the first top overall pick in NBA history to not attend college. And he was a monumental bust, flaming out quickly and magnificently. (He's actually still in the league, in a limited role, and made decent money as a defensive specialist after his rookie deal ended. But he was definitely not worthy of a No. 1 pick.)
There were others, though taken outside the No. 1 pick, who disappointed. Darius Miles, No. 3 in 2000, is a strong case for the age minimum; Miles was clearly not ready for the NBA, and the L.A. Clippers were not exactly an ideal learning center for the enigmatic small forward. Jonathan Bender, No. 5 in 1999, was a disappointment even before a catastrophic knee injury killed his career. Leon Smith (No. 29 in 1999) is the classic this is why we have an age minimum case; he was a complete mess in his rookie season, with a suicide attempt punctuating the tragedy. Sebastian Telfair, No. 13 in 2004, has fluttered around the league since being drafted to substantial hype; he never lived up to lottery status, but he is still an NBA player.
The NBA wanted to avoid watching its teams make mistakes like this. A year of college (or, theoretically, international or D-League play, options hardly ever used) will let teams see the true talent level of these prospects. Would you rather have the No. 1 pick when you've seen the players compete against legit talent, or only against overmatched teenagers? Would you rather commit a high pick on a player somewhat proven, or a complete mystery? The answer seems obvious.
But the results don't actually bear it out. Under the age minimum, you'd expect fewer busts in the top 10 -- those tempting high school kids are out of the equation. But GMs have still found a way to mess a good thing up.
In the four years before the age minimum was put into place, teams saw decent success in the top 10 in the draft. A rough sorting reveals 21 top-10 picks in the four years (2002-05) as successes, nine as disappointments and 10 as busts. (We used the "disappointments" category as a group for players who weren't quite busts but underperformed their draft position substantially. Think Marvin Williams.)
In the four years after the age minimum's institution -- 2006-09; we left out 2010 because even with 2009, it's hard to make judgments at this point -- teams have picked 22 successes, seven disappointments and 11 busts. (Note: we were liberal in the post-minimum span, listing Andrea Bargnani as a success and guys like Corey Brewer and Randy Foye as disappointments, not busts.)
So this rule that was supposed to save GMs from having to make a tough decision on iffy draft prospects hasn't helped decreased the number of busts chosen with the highest picks. As it turns out, college and international players have the same exact question marks as high school kids. Hasheem Thabeet was in college for three years. But you can't teach size, and the Memphis Grizzlies couldn't resist taking him No. 2 overall in 2009. Jonny Flynn had two years of Big East experience -- he was on TV roughly 2,078 times as a collegian -- and the Minnesota Timberwolves still decided he was the sixth-best player in the 2009 draft. (He was not.)
For every Kwame Brown, there's a Michael Olowokandi. For every Jonathan Bender, an Al Harrington, a high school to pros player who turned into a solid, wealthy roleplayer. The age minimum hasn't fixed the NBA Draft to the point where disappointments and busts at the top are few; extending it to 20 years old or two years out of high school, as the NBA purportedly seeks to do in 2011 collective bargaining negotiations, won't help either.
The NBA Draft is an art, not a science, if even were it a science, teams would still fall in love with potential and length and tremendous upside potential and make mistakes. No amount of legislating away the risk will actually excuse the risk. So long as teams are asked to select amateur players, with the draft representing the best chance to change a franchise's fortunes, teams will swing for the figurative fences, and sometimes they will strike out. That's the game at hand, and tweaking the field of play isn't going to fix it.
In the meantime, it's completely unfair to subject 18-year-olds to a year or two in the most corrupt organization this side of international soccer -- the NCAA -- to work for free while suits rack up billions of dollars off of their "shining moments." Until the D-League is a viable solution -- that means wages a bit better than $20,000, and long travel that doesn't involve vans -- the age minimum is a total scam, a scam that doesn't even work.
What's the point?