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NBA’s plan to get elite 18-year-olds in G League is curiously small

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Is this the beginning of the end of the age minimum? Or just a ploy for some good press?

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Back in 2005, in his quest to get 18-year-olds out of the NBA, commissioner David Stern used a hatchet.

In the course of high-pressure labor negotiations, Stern convinced the players’ union to agree to an age minimum that would prevent players from going straight from high school to the pros. The rationale given by the league was always weak, and the decade-plus history of the age minimum has proven that the cost of the rule is much greater than any perceptible benefit. But Stern had leverage, and he pushed the rule through. It took effect immediately: it was adopted in June 2005, and went into effect for the 2006 NBA Draft. Elite rising seniors who’d intended to jump to the pros in 2006 instead had to scramble to find the right college program.

The NBA clearly didn’t fully appreciate the massive impacts the hasty adoption of the age minimum would have. The one-and-done era totally changed college basketball, and the NBA offered no infrastructure to give top prospects a real alternative path to the league. Corrupt agents, crooked recruiting, unmarked envelopes of cash, and bagmen existed before the age minimum. But the NBA’s rule forced kids into that system and injected all those malfeasant elements with extra power, culminating in the massive FBI investigation into college basketball corruption now roiling the sport.

None of that entered the calculus for Stern’s NBA in 2005, or if it did, it didn’t matter. Stern, as he was so often critiqued for doing and at the behest of the NBA’s franchise owners, bulldozed through regardless of consequences.

Thirteen years later, Stern’s successor Adam Silver is cleaning up the remnants. But where Stern used a hatchet to change the system as it existed, Silver is using tweezers.

On Thursday, the NBA G League announced it would begin offering something called select contracts to elite 18-year-olds ineligible for the NBA Draft. These contracts would pay $125,000 — about four times the normal G League salary, or one-third the maximum salary for players on two-way G League/NBA contracts — and include off-court development programs.

The NBA already allowed 18-year-olds into the G League. Virtually no one took them up on the offer. This plan just adds some preferential treatment to a subset of prospects in an attempt to poach some top players from college programs. It goes into effect in 2019-20 — players who are now rising high school seniors will be eligible.

It’s a fairly minor tweak all told that will likely only draw a small handful of players, if even that, as Ricky O’Donnell argued Thursday. In addition to that, the NBA plans to — well, it says it plans to — abolish the age minimum in a few years, possibly tied to the next labor agreement. (The league and players’ union have talked about changing the rule in each of the last two labor negotiations, but it always gets pushed to the side in the end.)

If the age minimum actually disappears in 2023, this select contract business will only be in place a couple of years. You can look at that two ways.

If you give the NBA the benefit the doubt, you could argue that the league is subsidizing a temporary alternative path to help prospects escape the college basketball scandal maelstrom until it can provide a permanent solution through a new labor deal.

The cynical view is that the NBA is slow-walking a minimalist, useless approach to get a little good press after setting the whole place on fire 13 years ago.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. After the FBI investigation hit and Condoleezza Rice’s commission called for the end of the age minimum, Silver seemed to become more strident in talking about unwinding Stern’s folly and concerned about what the NBA has wrought. And to some extent, Silver’s hands may be tied outside of collective bargaining. (I suspect the players’ union would be willing to negotiate the matter now. Silver’s bosses may be less eager.)

But Silver helped run labor negotiations in 2011 and was fully in charge of the league in 2015 and 2016. He allowed this issue — in obvious need of addressing for a decade now — to fester. If now all that he has latitude to do is half-measures, that’s partly his fault.

There’s no question that the explosion of preps-to-pros prospects between 1995 and 2005 had impacts on the NBA. In reaction to that boom, David Stern destroyed the burgeoning the elite prospect pipeline and vastly changed college basketball with a stroke of a pen. That puts Silver’s minor tweaks here in 2018 in stark relief.

If nothing else, it sure paints an inglorious picture of what the NBA has wrought and what little it’s willing to do fix it.