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The Case for the 20-Year-Old Age Limit in the NBA

It's not just personal experience — it's common sense

When Kentucky won John Calipari’s first national championship earlier this year, it spawned a fierce debate in basketball circles about the NBA’s age requirement. Some believe the league should raise it from 19 to 20 years old; others believe it should remain the same; a third faction wants to restore the old rule (which allowed prospects to join the NBA straight out of high school); and there’s even momentum for adopting baseball’s stance, which allows high schoolers to enter the draft right away OR commit to three years of college before becoming draft-eligible again.

There are valid reasons for any of the above courses, but I believe the NBA would best be served by raising its age requirement to 20 years old. Fans and critics have assorted opinions about morals, ethics, education, fairness, and law, but to me, this really comes down to a single issue: Would the NBA’s business be stronger by raising the age requirement? I say yes for the following six reasons.

1. Player maturity.

I have been involved in the league for the past 24 years, either as a player, a general manager, or (currently) as a television analyst for TNT. I love what I’m seeing right now — the league is teeming with young talent, the style of play is wide-open and fun, the rules have been successfully tweaked to encourage more movement and scoring, and most games are played at an undeniably high level. Unfortunately, there’s a collective immaturity that troubles me, especially with some of the league’s more talented players. Many enter the NBA as child prodigies: physically gifted, but lacking any concept of how hard the day-to-day work is, or even how the NBA functions as a whole.

True story: I once had an extremely young teammate ask me when our Christmas break was. He then became visibly shocked and saddened after learning that we didn’t get to go home for a week or so. Another time, a different young player asked me how the NBA’s playoff format worked. We entered the first round of the postseason and he had no idea what “best of 5” meant. These were players who were ready to be professional athletes?

That level of immaturity naturally leads to growing pains; it’s why so many young players struggle for a season or two as they adjust to the workload, schedule, travel, stress, and media scrutiny, and especially, with seemingly basic off-the-court stuff like managing money, paying bills, and dealing with pressures from their extended family. Even with a few NBA seasons under their belts, that lack of life experience and the backbone of a college education hampers many players’ ability to handle adversity and/or make difficult decisions. (See Howard, Dwight.) The league would obviously benefit by its rookies arriving with a little more seasoning, both on and off the court, armed with a little more life experience to prepare them for the oncoming challenge. A more mature workforce means a stronger league. Even one extra year of college would help.

2. Financial costs

NBA franchises spend anywhere from 50 million to 100 million on yearly salaries, plus another few million per year evaluating and developing players. For a scout or general manager (I’ve only been the latter), seeing a prospect for one measly four-month season of college ball increases the risk of being wrong about his potential. Remember, talent evaluation is a business in which, in the words of Jerry West, the greatest GM of all time, “Being right 51 percent of the time means you’re doing well.” Having an extra season to assess the potential of college players would cut down on the personnel mistakes that teams inevitably make in the draft, something that could potentially save the league tens of millions of dollars every year.1

Of course, that extra season pushes their moneymaking timetable back, which is why certain agents hate this idea so much. For NBA rookies drafted in the first round, there’s a four-year contract scale; after that, they become free agents (and eligible for much more lucrative deals). Had LeBron not been allowed in the NBA until he was 20, his first max deal wouldn’t have happened until 24 (not 22), and his second one would have happened at 28 (not 26). That’s why certain agents (some of whom influence collective bargaining more than anyone wants to admit) push to keep that age limit in the teens, even if it’s counterproductive for their clients. Do you think Tim Duncan or Ray Allen ever looks back at his career and says, “Man, I wish I’d skipped college and gotten my max contracts started earlier!” I’d bet anything that they look at it the other way — without college ball, they wouldn’t have been as good (and would have earned less money).

3. Player development

Why should NBA franchises assume the responsibility and financial burden of player development when, once upon a time, colleges happily assumed that role for them? Think about the 1980s, when the best college players usually played at least two or three years before entering the draft. Stars like Michael Jordan (three years in college), Larry Bird (four years), and Magic Johnson (two years) used their college time to hone their leadership skills, improve their games, and deal with real pressure (all three played for national championships). They learned how to deal with media scrutiny, how to handle game pressure, even how to handle success and failure under a pretty sizable spotlight. By the time they were drafted, they were ready to succeed at the highest level and compete for titles immediately. Bird and Magic won eight of the league’s next nine championships after they entered the league in 1979; Jordan won seven scoring titles and three NBA titles in his first nine seasons. All three thrived immediately as rookies.

Larry Bird, 1979-80: 38.0 MPG, 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 47% FG, 20.5 PER, 11.2 win shares, 61 Celtic wins (lost in Eastern Finals).

Magic Johnson, 1979-80: 18 ppg, 36.3 MPG, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 2.4 spg, 53% FG, 20.6 PER, 10.5 win shares, 60 Laker wins (Finals MVP).

Michael Jordan, 1984-85: 38.3 MPG, 28 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 52% FG, 25.8 PER, 14 win shares, 38 Chicago wins (lost in Round 1).

Compare those numbers to the rookie stats/records of four of today’s best players (all of whom arrived straight from high school):

Kevin Garnett, 1995-96: 28.7 MPG, 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 49% FG, 15.8 PER, 4.4 win shares, 26 wins (Minnesota missed playoffs).

Kobe Bryant, 1996-97: 15.5 MPG, 7.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.3 apg, 42% FG, 14.4 PER, 1.8 win shares, 56 wins (Lakers lost in second round, with Kobe famously firing two air balls in the last minute of the final loss).2

Dwight Howard, 2004-05: 32.6 MPG, 12 ppg, 10 rpg, 52% FG, 17.2 PER, 7.3 win shares, 36 wins (Orlando missed playoffs).

LeBron James, 2003-04: 39.5 MPG, 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 42% FG, 18.3 PER, 5.1 win shares, 35 wins (Cleveland missed playoffs).

Other than lost salaries, what would have been the downside of those last four guys playing two years in college? Garnett and Bryant needed the extra playing time (and added responsibility of carrying a college contender); meanwhile, LeBron and Howard were thrust into unfair positions as saviors of lottery teams, and after seeing how their careers have unfolded, maybe those burdens affected them more than we realized. Neither played a postseason game until his third season; meanwhile, Garnett didn’t make it out of the first round until his ninth year, and Kobe didn’t start logging big playoff minutes until his third season. You’re telling me two years of leading elite NCAA teams wouldn’t have been a better basketball/life/social/teamwork experience for those four guys?

4. Marketing

In the old days, college basketball was the NBA’s single best marketing tool. Nearly all of the league’s future stars were well known by the time they were drafted. I’ll never forget watching the lottery in 1985, when the Knicks won the right to select Patrick Ewing with the first pick. NBA fans had followed Ewing for four years as he dominated college basketball at Georgetown; by 1985, they couldn’t wait to see him on a bigger stage. They knew that whichever team landed Ewing would contend for the next decade, at least. This was a common occurrence back then: college stars like Jordan, Bird, Magic, Hakeem Olajuwon, or David Robinson entering the league to great fanfare and anticipation, poised to change the fortunes of franchises immediately.

How often does that happen today? Even if Washington fans were excited to draft John Wall two years ago, and Cleveland fans were ecstatic about picking Kyrie Irving last year, none of them were actually thinking, We’re back! Look out, playoffs!

5. A sense of team

Even if today’s players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive. AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years. I coached my son’s AAU team for three years; it’s a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure. Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.

And for elite players who play one college year before turning pro, that process remains stunted. That’s the single most important part of a player’s development and we ignore it like it doesn’t totally matter — basic foundation points like learning how to commit to a team, embracing the unity of a group, trusting your teammates, and working within a larger framework. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker puts it well, saying, “We’ve become a culture of skipping steps.” So many young NBA players might be physically gifted, but they skipped crucial development steps along the way. It would help if they were forced to make one or two more of those steps within the framework of the college game.

You know what also helps? Being part of a college program for more than a year — an experience that, if it unfolds the right way, can affect you forever. Quick story: I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago for the Final Four and saw a great scene. Late one night I was walking outside my hotel when I came across Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves, and Steve Smith, all talking animatedly, laughing and joking around. Those three Spartans — none of whom played together, whose careers spanned 22 years at Michigan State — were bonded by their days wearing the green and white. To me, that’s so important and so underrated. Green has a foundation for his future success: great mentors, a real connection to a school, and a group of teammates that will live with him forever. I believe that Green’s experience playing for Tom Izzo (and such a terrific program) will give him a legitimate advantage as an NBA rookie. As always with these things, we will see.

6. Mentoring

This won’t be the case for everyone, but let’s say a player attends school for two years and plays for a superior coach — not just someone who knows his stuff, but a genuinely good person who cares for his players during their two playing years and beyond. That isn’t a huge asset for any player? Think about the impact Dean Smith had on Jordan. The joke back in the day was that the only person on earth who could hold MJ under 20 points was Dean Smith. (And it was true: MJ averaged 17.7 points per game in three seasons at Carolina.) But what was Smith really doing while making Jordan pay his dues and share the ball? Teaching him how to be a good teammate, how to work, and most important, how to deal with success and adversity. Did MJ’s experience at UNC help make him the champion that he became in the NBA? Even if there’s no way to prove it, I believe the foundation and guidance Smith provided ended up being a big reason for Jordan evolving into the greatest player ever. In fact, Michael even admits this, saying many times that Coach Smith was one of the biggest influences in his life. Their relationship remains important to Jordan to this day.3

Doesn’t this mean … something?

Wouldn’t an extra year have the same effect on dozens of college players every decade? The backbone of the current league isn’t just the influx of talent, it’s the maturity and professionalism of veteran stars like Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce — guys who spent multiple years in college — setting the tone for everyone else. We need more of them.

The arguments against raising the age requirement hinge on civil liberties, points like, “Who are we to deny a 19-year-old kid a chance to make a living when he can vote, drive, and fight in a war?” If this were about legality or fairness, you might have a case. But it’s really about business.4 The National Basketball Association is a multi-billion-dollar industry that depends on ticket sales, sponsorships, corporate dollars, and media contracts to operate successfully. If the league believes one rule tweak — whatever it is — would improve its product and make it more efficient, then it should be allowed to make that business decision. If an 18-year-old basketball whiz wants to earn a living right away, he could play overseas or in the D-League for those two years. Regardless, it shouldn’t be the NBA’s responsibility to provide working opportunities for teenagers, just like it’s not the NFL’s responsibility to do so. The NBA should only care about running its operation the best it can. That’s it.

So why hasn’t the age limit been raised when David Stern is already on record saying he’d like to add a year? It’s an issue that, by law, must be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Player’s Association. During last year’s lockout, there were more pressing matters for both sides — really, the lockout was all about money, with each side fighting for its share of the pie. The league was fighting to shorten contract lengths, alter the percentages of raises, and bring down total salaries. Anything with a quantifiable price tag became a priority; since the financial impact of a raised age limit is so difficult to quantify, that issue was placed on the back burner. The union wasn’t giving that up without getting something in return; the league was doing a lot of taking and very little giving; and many of the agents certainly didn’t want to pursue it. That’s how the age limit slipped through the cracks.

And it’s a shame, because both sides would have been helped by that age limit bumping to 20. The league would be stronger for every reason discussed above. The union would benefit because veterans would hold their jobs for an extra season. And fans would win because the game would be better — we’d see an influx of elite young talent arriving into the league more prepared, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. If that translates into better basketball, then isn’t that what we all want? I realize I may sound like the old guy — stuck in his ways, out of touch with today’s players — but I know what college meant to me; I know what it meant to most of my peers. And I know that the NBA would be a stronger league if its players stuck around school a little longer, too.

Steve Kerr is a five-time NBA champion.

Filed Under: NBA, Sports