The path that most top amateur basketball players take between high school and the NBA is untenable. The league's age minimum, instituted in 2006, has forced nearly all top prospects into one year of NCAA competition. The so-called one-and-done rule -- one year in college, and then the NBA Draft -- is reviled by most involved in college basketball.
It's so hated by athletic programs located outside of Lexington, Kentucky that power conference commissioners are now rattling the sabres regarding freshmen eligibility. Essentially, just like the good ol' days of college ball, freshmen would not be allowed to participate in competition. If that happens, Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns would be barred from playing in the NBA the year after they graduate from high school, and they wouldn't be able to star for Duke and Kentucky either. (Jason Kirk presented it as the farce it is.)
It's unclear whether there is enough support across the nation to implement freshmen ineligibility. If all conferences don't sign on, the ones who do would be shooting themselves in the foot. Like communism, it only works if everyone buys in. What the college commissioners are really doing is attempting to force the NBA into changing its rule. One presumes the NCAA folks would prefer the NBA extend its age minimum at least another year, if not two. That would ensure most (if not all) top amateur players run through the college system, bringing a few more eyeballs at an extremely low labor cost to the NCAA programs.
The NBA would actually love nothing more than to bump the age minimum up to 20, as it attempted to do during the 2011 lockout. That item was tabled, set to be resolved after a financial deal was struck and everyone was back on the court. But upheaval at the players' union prevented progress on anything after the games resumed. A new executive director, Michele Roberts, took over only just before this season. This is what she has to say about the age minimum, from SI's Chris Mannix:
"I'm adamantly opposed to [raising the age minimum]. I've been practicing law for 30 years. One of the beauties of being in that job is that I can practice until I lose my mind or die. That is not the case with athletes. You have a limited life to make money as a basketball player. Anything that limits those opportunities is distressing to me. I view [the age minimum] as just another device that serves to limit a players' ability to make a living."
There was no major fight against the NBA's push to institute the age minimum under the Billy Hunter regime. There would be a fight now. That puts NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a tough spot: Does he spend the political capital needed to move the minimum up to age 20 and appease the NCAA hecklers, or does he leave it alone and focus on more important financial matters, like pushing for a harder salary cap?
There is a third way. This is my plan to fix the problems associated with the age minimum and the costs of player development in the NBA.
Why is there an age minimum?
The NBA adopted the minimum in the first place for a few reasons. The biggest was that teams were forced to take incredible risks in drafting 17- and 18-year-old players who had played primarily against non-NBA talent. Scouting high school kids accurately was much more difficult than scouting college players. Watching everyone go through the NCAA ringer would allow teams to make more educated decisions and not waste so many roster spots and salary dollars on extremely raw projects.
(There's also the argument that the NCAA helps develop players' names via exposure. That's a dubious position, given that the two biggest stars in the NBA remain Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, neither of whom played college ball.)
When the NBA adopted the age minimum (with the consent of the players' union), the NCAA had to swallow it. The leaders of that institution have spent most of the ensuing years trying to show everyone how destructive it's been despite the fact that it guarantees the college system the top amateur talent every year.
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Can all of the problems that led to the age minimum be solved?
No. Scouting high school players is never going to be easier than scouting college players. In this case, more information is certainly better information. The same applies to scouting international players. You're in a much stronger position to assess a 19-year-old European prospect who has played professionally in the Adriatic League since age 16 than you are for a 19-year-old from Senegal who appeared in one FIBA tournament and little else. This is one area that's really not able to be addressed.
But the other issues that contributed to the age minimum can be mitigated. Teams don't want to tie up roster spots and valuable cap space on 18-year-old players who aren't ready to battle full-grown men. That's understandable. Every roster spot matters. Every dollar under the cap matters.
So what's the solution for that?
Each team with a one-to-one D-League affiliate receives up to three Development Roster spots. These spots come in addition to the teams' 15-spot roster. The minimum salary for a player on the Development Roster is equal to half of the NBA minimum salary, which is tied to years of service. (Years of service on the Development Roster count as years of NBA service under my plan.)
The players assigned as such play for the team's D-League affiliate. Their salaries do not count against the cap so long as the players are in the D-League. Only if they are called up to the team's 15-player NBA roster do they count against the cap. Of course, if a player making less than the NBA minimum is called up, his salary must be adjusted upward at a pro-rated amount per usual.
With the age limit abolished, the NBA Draft is expanded to three rounds and the first-round salary scale remains similar to its current state. If drafted players are assigned to the Development Roster, they earn the salary assigned via the rookie scale. It doesn't count against the cap unless they are called up.
Let's take an example. Suppose this plan were in place for the 2015 draft and the Knicks won the No. 1 pick. They would have the option of taking an 18-year-old like stud forward prospect Jaylen Brown (assuming that player entered the draft), paying him the $4.7 million due to the No. 1 pick, assigning him to the D-League team in Westchester as a Development Roster player and keeping his salary off of the cap sheet for that season.
If the Knicks wanted Brown to play for the big league team, it'd keep him on its proper 15-man roster, pay his salary per normal and he'd count against the cap as usual. The Knicks could also, of course, take someone like Okafor or an upperclassman and do the same thing.
This system provides a balance between the needs of teams and players. Teams maintain roster flexibility and get playing time for their young charges without sacrificing wins at the NBA level. Players can avoid the charade of college if they choose and begin their pro careers as soon as they graduated high school. Age-18 prospects ready to contribute -- like James, Bryant or Kevin Garnett -- can do so. Age-18 prospects who aren't -- Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Amir Johnson -- can develop at a lower level that's still fairly comparable to NCAA competition.
Adding some of these players will also boost the prestige of the D-League, which brings us to our next problem: the D-League holds very little prestige.
How can the NBA keep the best non-NBA American players in the D-League and drop the stigma?
The most obvious solution is to raise D-League salaries. Players currently top out at around $30,000 a season. The draw is that it's much easier for an NBA team to call up a player from the D-League for a 10-day or full-season contract. (Some D-League guys, like JaMychal Green, play themselves into multi-year deals.) But by moving to Europe or China, players can guarantee themselves much larger contracts.
That said, most of the players in the D-League aren't NBA material. And no matter how many top picks spend a season or a few months working on their games in the D-League, the sponsorship, gate, merchandise and broadcast money will never be enough to support six-figure salaries for all. Teams are in all likelihood barely breaking even (if that) with the low salaries.
This is where the NBA can step in. And when I say "the NBA" in this instance, I mean the players and the franchisees. Would it kill the players and teams to each concede a half-percent of league income in order to build a true minor league? The league's 0.5 percent of basketball-related income would subsidize team operations and ensure that there were 30 functioning D-League teams, each assigned to an NBA club. The players' 0.5 percent would allow the next generation of NBA role players to stay in the United States and play basketball, helping to keep the sport professional in more areas of the country.
The D-League can't pay a minimum salary of $75,000 to $100,000 per season on its own. But the NBA and its players' union can provide an ongoing subsidy to make the D-League a true minor league for the benefit of all parties.
By abolishing the age minimum, teams will pick more busts. How do you solve that?
We've still yet to see a comprehensive study on the supposed reduced risk of drafting poorly since the age minimum was implemented. In fact, we still see plenty of busts in the lottery. My feeling is that before 2006 teams picked unknown prospects who sometimes became busts while post-2006 teams picked known prospects who sometimes became busts. Scouting and prospect analysis has likely improved overall, but there's still work to do.
I would make one additional tweak to the draft (in addition to adding a third round): I'd implement lottery reform. The other rule changes involved here make high first-round picks more attractive. They are already extremely attractive. Therefore, let's make them a bit tougher to intentionally acquire by shifting the weights in the lottery process. The plan considered by the league last fall would do the trick.
Why a third round for the draft?
Five key reasons:
1. We all deeply love the draft. More please.
2. With three new Development Roster slots for each team, there is more room for NBA-quality players. It makes sense to portion those players out the same way other amateurs are.
3. There is nothing sadder than a team without a draft pick's war room. By adding a round, we reduce the risk of that happening.
4. More stuff to trade!
5. The final hour of the expanded NBA Draft on ESPN will be television magic.
Any final solutions?
We need to rebrand the D-League. Let's call it -- the B-League. Mostly for the puns. "The SkyForce are having an un-B-League-able season." "The Bighorns are leaving opponents B-Leaguered." "The Toros' center is making B-Leaguers out of the Spurs." "DO YOU B-LEAGUE IN MIRACLES?"
Hell, we can drop all of my other reforms off a cliff if the NBA does this one thing for us.