On The NBA's Age Debate: Swing For The Fences

If you missed Dave's post earlier today about the NBA's age rule, go check it out before you proceed to read this. If you've already done so, well, "come with me" or "follow me to freedom" or whatever. Keep reading, I suppose.

The annual NBA draft age debate blew some steam today when Mark Cuban suggested student-ath-o-letes play at least three years of college ball before entering the draft, a seemingly identical setup to what the NFL imposes. Before that, David Stern said he'd like to see a few changes as well. I think we can all agree: regardless of what rule exists, it's never going to please everyone. As such, the debate will keep going and going and going.

For some reason, however, a rather obvious approach (to me, at least) rarely gets brought up in basketball's realm. And that's the simple idea of giving players a choice, but with limitations. Basketball is so unlike other sports that it requires its own unique rule and I get that. But why not borrow from another successful model?

I'm talking about baseball's "choose your own adventure" rule. In baseball, you can either declare for the draft straight from high school or you can play three years of non-JUCO college ball before you can declare again. It's a system that works because it plays to all sorts of circumstances.

So, my proposal. I think the NBA should institute the following:

1) Give high school players the option to declare for the draft straight out of high school.

There are some kids out there who just plain need money right away. And why let them fiddle with shady handouts from boosters (a move that could almost certainly wind up landing on a desk in the NCAA's office) when they can go collect NBA cash right away? I hate to use the "life is full of choices" cliché but holy crap, life is full of choices and I think these players need to be allowed to fail if that's the path they choose. On the other hand, a high school-to-the-pros jump works on the court for a select few, and it solves monetary problems (at least for the time being) for others.

2) If players want to go to college, force them to play at least two years.

So here's where the choice comes into play. Either you go straight from high school, or you declare your intention to play two years of college ball and actually give a damn about your university and your overall well-being. Like Dave said, the one-and-done rule doesn't just exist for educational purposes: it's about getting players ready for a life on their own. But I don't think one year of college necessarily provides that for a player, and I don't think three years is wholly necessary either.

To compare paths: In baseball, if you're not ready after high school, yeah, you probably need three years before you hit the minors. The difference between an unpolished high school baseball player and the worst professional is enormous — it's such a mental game, on top of the precision involved. And as for football, well, rarely is a player ready to bang with the big boys coming out of high school (and if he is, you should check his birth certificate). That's a sport that needs growth and development at some prior level.

As for basketball, guys have proved they can, at the very least, earn minutes on a professional team straight out of high school. Not everyone is going to reach immediate stardom, no matter what their background is. Like I said before, for some high school athletes, riding an NBA bench for a pay check to start one's career can do wonders for his family. And if they don't need the money right away or want to receive a college education, they should go for two years and get half of what non-athletes are getting. Oh, by the way: If they want to stay three or even four years in college, that's their choice. As long as they play two, that's fine by me.

3) Don't bring the D-League into this as a requirement.

My one disclaimer: I don't want the D-League involved in the pre-NBA process as a requirement, in a minor league sense. It's not ready to handle that sort of commotion yet and that's really not its purpose. The competition barrier is so wide between perennial D-Leaguers and lottery picks that at some point, it would be a giant waste of time for the supposedly "developing" players and you'd see triple-doubles before halftime. And that's coming from someone who enjoys and supports what the D-League has to offer. Can NBA GM's send players to the D-League to improve? Certainly. Should they be required to do so? Absolutely not.

Final Word

Copy baseball's model, NBA. Give kids a choice. If they want to go pro, they can go pro and take the risk by themselves. And if they want to go to college, make sure they don't just half-ass it in order to fulfill a rule, because that defeats the entire purpose. Once we bring personal interests back to the forefront (while maintaining league interests simultaneously), I think this rule could come closer to making sense to everyone.

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