In an exceptionally well written piece at Grantland, Steve Kerr makes six different points as to why the NBA should raise the age limit to 20. Two of those (Point 2: Financial costs, and Point 4: marketing) can be dismissed out of hand as cost-shifting from the NCAA/NBA to the players. Though Kerr’s right that Duncan and Ray Allen won’t miss the money at the end of their careers, the fact remains that the net effect here will be a transfer of some of the money that is paid in salary to NBA players back toward the NCAA.
It’s true that having the players spend more time in college helps general managers sort them, and also helps the league market them. However, this sorting and marketing process is already immensely profitable which is why the NCAA makes a ton of money. Just because it would make the NBA more profitable to have a higher hit rate on draft picks and have more visible draftees doesn’t mean it’s fair. It’s still cost-shifting, basically forcing the players to prove and market themselves for free while the NCAA profits from it. In any case, I don’t think even Kerr (or other higher age-limit supporters) believe this is the strongest argument. Let’s examine the other points about player development and making boys into men.
Comparing good to bad: a sure way to win an argument
The crux of the rest of the argument (and I’ll address player development later) is basically that college makes NBA players better human beings and better teammates. The primary evil here is AAU, or the AAU culture. I don’t think anybody would dispute that the influences placed on a young basketball player are conflicting and difficult to deal with. High school coaches just want to win games. AAU coaches want to win games and enhance their reputation. Top players have a hard time figuring out who they can actually trust, among advisors and friends alike.
In this sort of environment where everybody is promising something but also wants something in return, it takes a sort of hardness to survive. You can see this with a guy like Derrick Rose, who comes off very aloof and detached. Or Brandon Jennings who was forced to Italy due to low test scores, survived through little playing time and brutal coaching in Italy, and returned unfazed, with swag intact.
In the current environment, where a young prospective NBAer knows everybody will be trying to stick a hand in his pocket, who is a college coach except another sleezebag trying to profit off the kid’s gifts? College coaches certainly haven’t distinguished themselves with their moral rectitude recently. And it’s pretty hard to distinguish a college coach from a self-promoting jackass when they do stuff like this or this, which pretty much shows that they are interested in the players’ future to the extent that it aligns with their own competitive and personal interests. Some mentor that is. Real life lessons. Really going to reach those hardened kids and turn them into team players setting examples like that. The players who survive the mess of AAU have a cynicism about them that will allow them to rightly see that college is just another hoop, and a college coach is just another guy after his paycheck.
The reality is, the AAU system is screwing kids over and teaching them the wrong lessons about how to run their lives. The only ones who survive that chaotic and accountability-free underworld are the ones who look out for themselves. The only way to fix this is to tear it up by the roots and implement a cohesive system for top-level talent that starts at a young age. But by the time players reach college the die is probably already cast. Another year in the cloister isn’t going to excise the pernicious influences that gain a high schooler’s ear and take advantage of him when he makes the NBA. It’s merely delaying the inevitable.
The data here–that Michael Jordan at age 21 was better than LeBron James at age 19 is fairly easy to dismiss out of hand, since 21 year olds and 19 year olds are not the same. But let’s move beyond that and look at how little we ask of the NCAA as a player development mechanism. Here is an excerpt from my favorite article ever on sports player development:
The U.S. diverges all the way to the last stages of a player’s development. In other places around the world, the late teenage years are a kind of finishing school, a period when elite players grow into their bodies, sharpen their technical ability and gain a more sophisticated understanding of game tactics. At the same time, they are engaged in a fierce competition to rise through the ranks of their clubs and reach the first team (the equivalent of being promoted from a minor-league baseball team to the big-league club).
An elite American player of that age is still likely to be playing in college, which the rest of the soccer-playing world finds bizarre. He plays a short competitive season of three or four months. If he possesses anything approaching international-level talent, he probably has no peer on his team and rarely one on an opposing squad. He may not realize it at the time, but the game, in essence, is too easy for him.
The article is about soccer, but exactly the same thing could be said about basketball. NCAA basketball players are only involved in team practices between October and March, or about half the year. A team that does not go on a long tournament run will play less than 30 games in that stretch, and a good portion will be wasted dominating opponents so poor they teach future NBAers nothing about their strengths and weaknesses. If proponents of a higher age limit for the NBA want to use player development as an argument, the NCAA needs to get serious about optimizing its program for player development. Not for alumni who like to watch Kansas destroy Cupcake State on ESPN.
It’s true that the habit of having high school kids play more games than NBA players is detrimental to their development, as is the lack of a coherent vision at that level. But the NCAA fares little better at improving players, and if player development at the youth level is a problem it should be addressed there and not by raising the age limit. Another year in college will not fix the failure of the youth system to teach basic basketball skills. It just makes players older.
I believe Kerr’s piece is heartfelt, and it is certainly well thought out. That said, raising the age limit would do very little to address the problems he cites with player maturity and development. He has identified some very real problems with youth basketball in America. But a heavier dose of another disastrous and corrupt organization in the pipeline is in no way the answer.