The National Basketball Association did a marvelous thing six years ago when it banned high school players from making a direct leap to the league. Detractors of this ruling shifted to the immediate success of prep stars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James, but make no mistake, back in the early 2000's the entire draft process was a broken mess and a bunch of 18-year-old youngsters were exploiting it.
Instead of going pro because you were mentally and physically ready to play in the NBA, kids were making the jump solely because they knew they could. The money was always going to be there, and with recruiting rankings entering the mainstream, high school prospects were starting to see exactly how they measured up against their peers (on paper, of course). As time went on, anyone with a little bit of size or an "NBA-ready body" as scouts love to say, would have been foolish to set foot on a college campus. And so they never did.
But with this onslaught of kids declaring came a drastic change in NBA front offices. A youth brigade. Rebuilding projects took on an entirely new meaning. A top ten high school prospect, even if he wasn't among the 20 or 30 most talented players in any given draft pool, was now being touted as a lottery pick. The word "potential" was trotted out and beaten to death. Teams were over-drafting high schoolers in hopes of uncovering the next Garnett or Kobe, and it started to become an epidemic.
To think that an 18-year-old has infinitely more potential than a 21-year-old at the same position is utterly absurd. And yet, that's pretty much the mindset that NBA general managers and decision-makers took when faced with the option of drafting the youngest players available or guys who were seasoned with a few years at the college level. Thankfully, before the 2005-06 season began, a logical decision was made to force draft entrants to be one year removed from their high school graduation, and at least 19 years old at the end of the calendar year. Logic, it appeared, had finally won out.
A New CBA
When the NBA Playoffs wrap up this summer, the collective bargaining agreement as we know it will cease to exist. Many experts are predicting a lockout of some sort, and the concept of a shortened regular season might be on the horizon. But according to Marc Stein of Yahoo! Sports, an adjusted age limit is not one of the stumbling blocks:
Several high-ranking NBA team executives told Yahoo! Sports they wouldn’t be surprised if the age limit in the new CBA is pushed to two years in college and 20 years old by the end of that calendar year. One NBA general manager says about two-thirds of teams are in favor of that change.
And why not? General managers are the ones who helped create this mess in the first place. While forcing kids to spend two years in college instead of one seems a bit trivial, this could have a sizable impact on both leagues for the better. For NBA veterans, it could prolong careers. For NBA scouts, it levels the playing field and makes the entire evaluation process more of a case study than a knee-jerk reaction. And for the entire realm of college basketball, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that having more talented players will undoubtedly improve the quality and excitement level of the game as a whole.
The only side that a new CBA could actually hurt here is that of the players themselves. You know, the ones who are told time and time again they are good enough to be raking in millions in the NBA right now. But being ready for the NBA is not the same as being ready to be paid like an NBA player. For elite prospects out there, the line between those two distinctions is quite blurred. As such, Stein spoke to 2011 top prospect Austin Rivers about the potential change, and the flashy guard was none too pleased:
"I don’t think it’s fair to a lot of guys who are ready to go. We’re going to have guys in our class that are going to be ready to play after one year. There are certain people that are able to make that jump and you’re trying to tell them they can’t make that jump and they have to wait another year, risk another injury or something like that? At the end of the day it should be up to the player. It’s his life. It’s his choice.
You got baseball kids coming out of high school. Basketball players at least have to go to college, which we should. High school kids should go to college and get an education. But from there you should let them decide whether they are one or not."
Salient points, to be sure. But what about the kids who aren't ready to go that still do it? Not every freshman has the most honest, sincere people offering up advice. Remember, this is a sport ruled by personal agendas. With so much money on the line, bad information can be just as plentiful as good information. And that's where the problem lies. In a way, college freshmen have become the new version of those highly-touted high school prospects we saw get over-drafted in the late 90's and early 2000's. Furthering this, there is an odd perception that upperclassmen aren't quite elite enough to build a team around in the NBA. Because hey, if they were really that good, they would've left after one season, right?
The one-and-done rule was a perfectly fine compromise for a process that desperately needed a fix. But that's not to say it hasn't taken a toll on the college game as a result. It's nice that we get to watch guys like Derrick Rose and John Wall carve up defenses for 35 games before getting paid. But there's no emotional attachment there. It's hard to get invested in a kid that you already know is bolting for big bucks as soon as he is eligible. Right about the time you finally look up to take notice, the kid is gone and his replacement already has a foot out the door too. These players don't care about the schools they attend, or the legacies they can build at the college level. And they never will. It's all just a farce, and it leaves fans of these schools feeling hollow inside. That is, until the next crop of recruits arrives on campus.
Playing college basketball isn't the ultimate goal for 99.9% of the best prospects in America. It's simply a means to an end. A glorified jumping point, if you will. Hopefully a new collective bargaining agreement can help change that.