My buddy Will Askew has written a nice article on the NBA's potential use of an entry-level age limit. Read it and let him know what you think. He makes some compelling points in his argument, the most notable of which is that the majority of high school kids who have gone straight to the NBA have turned out to be at least decent NBA players. Seven players either are or will be legitimate all-stars (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, Rashard Lewis, Amare Stoudemire, and LeBron James). To fight the age limit based on the supposition that high school players will inherently be overmatched goes against the evidence so far.
I am in favor of the development of a true minor league system for the NBA, but I am not in favor of an age limit. To those that would like to institute an age limit, I would ask: How can you legally take away an adult's chance to immediately make money based on their skills solely because they're not "old enough"? That is simply not a good enough reason. It's the same reason I would be in favor of lowering the drinking age to 18--the simple cliche is still accurate: "If you're old enough to vote, and old enough to die for your country, you should be old enough to drink in your country." In the same sense, you should also be old enough to make money playing basketball at the highest level.
That being said, there is a concern that people are paying expensive prices to watch 18-year-olds figure out how to play basketball. I think that's a legitimate concern. There's only one LeBron--the rest of the youngsters have a lot of learning to do (see Smiths, Josh and J.R., who have flashes of brilliance offensively, but little idea of how to play NBA defense). Should NBA fans subsidize that learning process through buying tickets to watch that development? I don't know--I think it has turned more than a few fans away from the game. You pay NBA ticket prices to watch basketball at its highest level consistently, not a few moments of greatness, in between large stretches of mediocrity and a time or two of outright stupidity.
That problem, of course, would be solved by the institution of a true minor league system. Players would make more or less the same rookie money they make now, paid by the parent team, but they would get to play consistent minutes on the minor league team, and their skills would improve rapidly. This would be a competitive league--veterans and rookies alike playing for their jobs, playing to impress the parent team, hoping for that call-up. Elliot Perry was on with me and Eli this morning--he said that the year he spent in the CBA (1992-93) did a world of good preparing him for the NBA, and sure enough, if you look at his numbers, there is a marked improvement in the 5 years after he played in the CBA. There is no substitute for playing the game competitively.
Players of LeBron's caliber would still go straight to the big league--there would be no reason for them to develop any further at the lower levels. Meanwhile, players like Kwame Brown or Tyson Chandler would get a year or two to get better without the pressure to perform of the big leagues, and their coaches would have the freedom to play the guys they'd rather play, instead of playing young guys just to get them game experience. Veterans would have extended careers, and young players would not enter the NBA until they were ready. It's a win-win.
There are small details to be worked out, like the question of whether a year in the minor league would equal a year in the NBA in terms of veteran status and contract status, or whether a veteran could be "sent down" like a rookie could. Those will have to be hammered out in negotiations, but there should be nothing standing in the way of the institution of a minor league system. This does not have to be hand in hand with an age limit; in fact, I would like to see it in place without the age limit, to ensure that superstars like LeBron could play immediately in the NBA.
There are thornier questions that go hand in hand with this discussion:
1. Is there a racial element involved in this matter?
2. Is the reason some people fight so vehemently to keep high school players out of the NBA because the vast majority of those players are black (and therefore perceived to be more in need of college than white players)?
Here are my answers (feel free to disagree):
1. Absolutely. There is certainly a racial element involved, given that 29 of the 30 players who were drafted after entering straight from high school were (and, I would assume, still are) black. That is not to say it is necessarily racist--it may not be--but it is racial. Generally, because more than 70% of NBA players are black, all NBA issues will affect black people more than any other race. So, yes, it is racial.
2. Sadly, I think so. There has been no other sport which has seen the self-righteous outrage on this issue like basketball. No one is wringing their hands over the fact that many NASCAR drivers (almost all of whom are white males--like Tony Stewart) didn't go to college. No one is decrying the death of "fundamentals" in tennis or golf because the players didn't get collegiate training.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that college basketball is a huge tradition in America, and people want to see the best players play for their favorite school. However, don't confuse playing college basketball with going to college--some guys take their studies seriously, some guys don't. The college experience (going to class, etc.) is totally different for athletes than regular students, however. Athletes are different--they have access to tutors regular students don't, they get advising regular students don't, and, on occasion, they've been known to get some breaks from professors that other students don't. I know that shocks you. So it's not like these guys are getting the exact same experience as Joe Everystudent.
You do realize that the NCAA makes money hand over fist on college basketball, don't you? Certainly some individual schools lose money, but the NCAA has signed an 11 year, SIX BILLION DOLLAR contract with CBS. How much of that money can the players get legally? None, you say? Oh. What about merchandising? Surely Sean May would get at least a little bit of the money from the North Carolina #42 jersey fans wear, right? He doesn't? Ah. Hard to believe so many kids would want to skip college, especially if they and their families need money, isn't it? This is more complicated than most people want to believe.
A minor league would be hugely beneficial, but an age limit would place unfair restrictions on potential NBA players.