The Case for Raising the Age Limit in the NBA

On February 1st, of this year, Adam Silver became just the NBA’s 5th Commissioner (since 1946!). In a recent interview, Silver stated his desire to raise the age limit for players entering the league.

Initially, in the NBA, a player had to be four years removed from high school to enter the NBA, a rule that was challenged by Spencer Haywood in 1971, who skipped his last two seasons of college to enter the ABA (which didn’t have age restrictions), but then left after his rookie season to sign a contract with the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. The NBA threatened to disallow the contract and punish the Sonics for breaking the rules, but Haywood sued the league and won. The caveat was that players had to prove “financial hardship” in order to leave college for the NBA early.

While players started to leave college early for the pros, jumping straight from high school was still rare until Kevin Garnett became the first top ten high school pick since Darryl Dawkins 20 years before. The next year Kobe entered the league with Jermaine O’Neal. Then Tracy McGrady and others until in 2001, when three of the top five picks where high school players (and two of those three ended up being major disappointments).

The influx of high school players, many coming into the league totally unprepared, was derided by many who felt that it hurt the game and pointed to those players who gave up their college eligibility for a shot at the pros only to fail with little recourse, as a reason to raise the age limit.

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In 2005, David Stern pushed through a raising of the eligibility age during negotiations with the locked out players so that players had to be one year removed from high school to apply for the NBA draft (for international players the rules were a little more relaxed).

Now, instead of the elite prospects skipping college altogether, many of them become “one-and-done” college players. The extra year does help NBA scouts get a little better grasp of a player’s potential, but it’s not really enough time to make them fully prepared to make an impact in the NBA.

Back before the influx of 18 and 19 year old players entering the league, most of the top rookies would have an immediate impact on their team, allowing the team to benefit immediately from the rookie draft. Nowadays, even top draft picks need to be developed, which means that even if a team ends up drafting one of the better rookies, they don’t start to benefit for a year or two or even longer.

While points per game isn’t a good measure of how good a player is, it does give an indication of the impact that player has on his team. In the least ten years, there have been just three players that averaged at least 20 points per game: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin.

In the ten years before that, there were four (and Grant Hill just missed the cut averaging 19.9 ppg).

And in the ten years before that, there were eight.

The last rookie to make an All NBA team was Tim Duncan, back in the last millennium.

1997 NBA Draft

Of the 15 players in the last 30 years that did average at least 20 ppg, only Durant and James had less than two years of college experience, and all but four players had at least three years college experience.

It’s hard not to see the pattern.

It used to be that if you drafted the best rookie, your team immediately improved. Most of the Rookies of the Year, over the last decade and a half, didn’t see their team reach the playoffs for at least two years and for many it was more than that.

The Cleveland Cavs won just two more games after drafting Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving. The Seattle Supersonics actually won fewer games after drafting Durant (although that had a lot to do with GM Sam Presti’s strategy).

James and Durant are the two best players drafted in the last fifteen years, and both of them had to wait two years before making the playoffs. Both had very good rookie seasons, averaging more than 20 ppg, but both had PERs of below 20.

In fact, of the top 20 rookie PERs of all time, only one American born player had less than two years of college experience, Anthony Davis. In fact, only three American-born rookies who had a PER of at least 20 had less than two years college experience, and there were no high school players that did.

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So, it’s probably not a big stretch to say that the more experience a player has before he reaches the NBA, the bigger impact he will tend to have immediately.

What this means to teams is that they can’t expect to improve immediately even if they do end up drafting the best player for that year. That makes rebuilding that much more difficult because it takes longer for rookies to make an impact and improve the team. If you’re a fan of a lottery team, it means more years of losing, waiting for draft picks to develop.

Basically, it means fans end up paying to watch players develop instead of trying to win games.

Over the past fifteen years, more and more players have come into the league who lack basic fundamentals and need years just to develop into a productive player. Andre Drummond is believed to be one of the best young big men in the league, but after a year and a half, his impact on the Pistons is still somewhat neutral, as he continues to learn the difference between good and bad defense and how he can help his team. One day, he will probably become a monster on the defensive end and quite possibly the Pistons best player, but that’s still a a year or two away, at the very least.

One major problem is that NBA teams are generally not the best place to develop young players. There aren’t a whole lot of practices once the regular season has started, and there is the constant travel and other distractions that come with being an NBA player. Rookies and other young players on good teams tend not to see a whole lot of playing time because they don’t know how to win, yet, and rookies and young players on bad teams play more minutes, but often learn the bad habits that come from losing.

A lot of rookies end up getting playing time not because they have earned it, but because they need that playing time to develop and because of the investment the franchise has made in that player.

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While it might seem that a player like Kyrie Irving is the perfect example of  why the NBA shouldn’t raise the age limit, I’d argue the opposite is true.

Yes, Irving is one of the most skilled players in the league, and recently won the MVP in his first All Star game, but his Cleveland team still hasn’t made the playoffs and are a long shot to make them this year, even in a horrible Eastern Conference.

While Irving is a supremely talented player, he still has no clue how to win or make his teammates better, something he, no doubt, would have learned had he stayed an extra year or two at one of the best college basketball programs in the country.

Another former Duke player comes to mind when talking about raising the age limit. Corey Maggette left Duke after just one season and did end up averaging 22 ppg twice in his career, which saw him become a potent and productive scorer.

Unfortunately, Maggette was extremely raw when he entered the league and spent his develpment years playing on bad Clipper teams, where he picked up too many bad habits and never learned how to play winning basketball. In fourteen seasons, he made the playoffs just once and never came close to living up to his potential.

Losing hurts young players far more than it does older players, most of whom have become the player they will always be. A player like Kemba Walker spent three successful seasons at the UConn developing his game, so spending his first two seasons on a truly horrible Charlotte team didn’t affect him as much as a player with less pre-NBA experience, and now Charlotte is a playoff team and he one of their most important players.

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When people argue against raising the age limit, they always point to the successes of young players, like LeBron, Kobe and even Durant. All will end up in the Hall of Fame, and two of the three have MVPs and multiple Championships. All three, however, took a few years to figure out how to win, in the NBA. And not one of them had an incredibly memorable rookie season.

Both LeBron and Durant had good stats, but nothing comparing to some of the other greats they will share the Hall of Fame with. Durant will probably be remembered as one of the greatest scorers in the history of the league (he’s got the fifth highest scoring average of all time right now), yet there have been forty rookies that had better scoring numbers than he did in his first year.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to see a Michael Jordan-like rookie season from those two? Perhaps LeBron would still be in Cleveland had he not needed years to learn how to win. Cleveland never had LeBron at his best because, despite his immense talents even when he was an 18 year old rookie, he still needed time to develop.

Now, raising the age limit will obviously have a financial impact on the players who will have to wait longer to enter the league, but that shouldn’t have an impact on the decision. The biggest priority should be to make the game better and improve the fan experience.

And raising the age limit will do that.