Top UCLA recruit Shabazz Muhammad, the best small forward prospect since Kevin Durant, is apparently ineligible as the 2012-13 college season approaches. DraftExpress has him forecast to be the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft; there's a solid chance he would have gone in the top five had he been eligible in 2012.
So now we get headlines about Muhammad's dealings with shady street agents, we get potentially a major hurdle in Muhammad's basketball and personal development and the player (who also happens to be an 18-year-old kid) gets tagged with all kinds of nasty labels.
All because of the NBA age minimum.
And the way the NBA tells it, the age minimum is all about better decisions for NBA teams. NBA scouts like being able to see prospects spend a year or more playing against good competition at the NCAA level before making a decision on their value; those NBA scouts' bosses like being able to spend less money on scouting by getting out of the high schools. (The theory is also that NBA teams make fewer bad decisions at the expensive top of the draft; unfortunately, that theory has yet to be proven. Busts are still rampant.) There are also some fringe marketing benefits to the rule -- Anthony Davis will enter the league more notorious than he would have been with the age minimum, and there's no doubt that teams that draft players like Jimmer Fredette profit heavily from the college-to-pros arrangement.
The age minimum is an economics-based rule for the NBA. As an entity, situations like that which Muhammad finds himself in are just an unfortunate part of the deal. The same applied when Derrick Rose, then an All-Star former No. 1 overall pick and later the league's MVP, was found to have scammed the NCAA with fake SAT scores. The sullied name of an NBA star was just part of the risk of the age minimum. For the league, the benefits (in dollars) outweigh the risks.
Commissioner David Stern, who pursued and won the age minimum in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, has always insisted that the age minimum was not in any way a social program: It is a rule to help NBA teams do better jobs in the draft. The rule is what is best for the NBA as a business. That stance, though, undercuts the NBA's true power in the sport and in sports, and sells short what Stern has helped create over the past two and a half decades. With the rule, Stern is in many ways abdicating his special and rare power to create meaningful improvement in urban youth development.
The NCAA as an institution isn't evil. But at the top levels of performance, it's poorly designed, overreaching and riddled with enough open wounds that widespread infection is just a part of reality. The NCAA, try as it might, can't clean up the recruitment process for top prospects. The NCAA has been trying for years to scrub away the influence of street agents and talent runners. It's obviously not worked. Ask Shabazz. Meanwhile, there's such a ridiculous amount of money in college sports -- not just the institutional TV deals, but coaching contracts and even shoe deals for schools and coaches -- that the universities themselves have little interest in playing clean; this is hardly UCLA's first brush with the taint during the Ben Howland era, and few if any schools avoid the dark mark entirely.
Stern knows all of this -- he almost assuredly knows more dirt about the NCAA and its members than any writer who covers the mess. He's the king of all basketball, basically. His league is the international flag bearer for the sport, and he is unquestionably the most powerful man in the league. Back in 2005 and ever since, he could have worked to force the NCAA to clean up its act and protect both the sport and its future stars from being sullied by unsavory actors. (I'd like to lump the dirtiest coaches in with those vilified street agents here.)
How could Stern pressure the NCAA? Not handing them the best prospects in the world for a year would be a start. The age minimum forced every prospect to either step into the dirty pool of the NCAA, or roll the dice on a D-League or international path. (We can still count the number of players taking those other options on one hand ... six years in.) Derrick Rose could have avoided having to cheat his way into eligibility if Stern didn't pass the age minimum. Shabazz could be preparing for his first NBA training camp instead of praying he gets to play basketball this year if Stern didn't pass the age minimum. Really, Stern expanded the pool of potentially tainted prospects massively by instituting the age minimum. Many of the players who went preps-to-pros in 2005 and prior would have faced eligibility issues in college; dealing with street agents or not having the SAT scores or grades pushed them toward early entry. Stern turned all those young men away and let them figure out how to navigate the NCAA's nasty seas on their own.
Beyond continuing to provide the NBA option, Stern could have developed a real alternative, one that players might actually consider. The current D-League path to the NBA for high school prospects is a joke. The D-League itself does great work in providing a place for young and veteran players to get or stay on NBA teams' radars. But that hasn't translated into a single marquee prospect taking the route. The money isn't competitive with Europe (see: Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler) and the platform isn't remotely competitive with even mid-major colleges. That's all pretty weird, considering that the NBA, which funds the D-League, mints money and has an incredible array of platforms. The NBA's leadership, with Stern at the very top, has not tried to make the D-League a legitimate alternative to the NCAA for prospects like Muhammad. If it had, we would be reading stories about Shabazz talking to the D-League about spending the 2012-13 there. We aren't.
As an executive beholden to the league's investors -- the team owners -- Stern has to represent the NBA's business interests first and foremost. But as the veritable leader of the free basketball world he should also be held accountable for decisions that harm the sport's most valuable resources, resources that also happen to be humans, many of whom come from disadvantaged situations and who are then taken advantage of by runners, by college coaches, by anti-sleaze crusaders (a large portion of whom appear to be quite sleazy). Stern's NBA is a business, yes. But it's also the most powerful institution in basketball, and it is with that status that Stern has an obligation to protect the sport.
Forcing teenagers into the NCAA cesspool does the opposite. Stern should end the age minimum not as a business decision of the NBA, but to improve the sport of basketball and protects its best young players.