First thing's first: the NBA Draft age minimum is a bad, selfish policy. It essentially forces 18-year-olds into an often gross college recruiting process and delays their entrance into the proper workforce solely to the benefit of NBA front offices, who would prefer to have more data and tape on prospects before choosing them.
Of course, those same front offices once raced to pick high school students high in the first round, eager to land generational stars and in love with potential. There is no evidence the age minimum has decreased the number of bad picks or improved the team-building process at all. Meanwhile, the best prospects in the country end up spending an often shambolic seven months pretending to be students when they plan to join the NBA at first opportunity. The policy forces a warped version of college on players without immediate need for it.
And, of course, the NBA would like to strengthen that policy. Commissioner Adam Silver has openly discussed his desire to extend the age minimum an additional year so that Americans cannot enter the draft until they have been out of high school for two years or reached age 20. The players' union has pushed back, but you wonder if that group has the stomach to fight a policy that will only affect future members, not current members. It might wait until there's a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017, but chances are an extended age minimum will happen.
Friday's ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case against the NCAA probably helps, too.
The judge in the O'Bannon case ruled that the NCAA cannot prevent colleges from offering athletes a slice of TV revenue earned on the
backs faces of those athletes. But that slice is limited to $5,000 per year, paid only after the work is done. So basically, in the new NCAA, Kansas can offer someone like Andrew Wiggins a full scholarship plus $5,000 per year to choose the Jayhawks.
That money is a total drop in the bucket compared to what the top prospects stand to make in the NBA. (Wiggins will earn $5.5 million this season.) Heck, it's even less than the small salary afforded to NBA D-League players, which is around $25,000 per season. The O'Bannon ruling doesn't make a financial case for players to choose college over the NBA.
But it weakens one of the stronger cases against the age minimum, and that may be all Silver needs to push through his vision.
The best case against the age minimum is that it essentially forces prospects to
get exploited by play for free in the NCAA. The O'Bannon ruling changes that, albeit only technically. Chances are the $5,000 figure will change, perhaps due to the agitation of an upstart college players' union. But the decision allows the NCAA to look just a bit less corrupt. It gives everyone involved the cover they need.
The question now is whether outside lawyers will get involved. Lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, a consistent NBA foe who has worked on behalf of the players' union, has sued the NCAA on antitrust grounds. As SB Nation's Kevin Trahan wrote in April, if the NBA consults the NCAA on changes to the age minimum (as Silver and NCAA head Mark Emmert have discussed doing), both groups could open themselves up to antitrust action from someone like Kessler. There's an argument to be made that if that occurs, the members of the NBA and NCAA (team owners and universities) will be conspiring to limit the earning power of all American basketball players. NBA players have an agreement with team owners on salary limits. Undrafted players don't. Now that college will be paying at least some players, any collaboration on player compensation opens the door to a challenge. As such, expect Silver to proceed cautiously.
Of course, he's built up so much early goodwill among players and pundits that he might feel comfortable pressing ahead before new union boss Michele Roberts settles in. We'll see.