Once a year, on a warm June night, thousands of fans, coaches and general managers alike pile into a theater, eager to watch as the newest crop of collegiate players are drafted into the NBA as professional players. However, as the years have progressed, fans have seen an interesting trend with the age of players drafted in the first round.
In the 1970s and 1980s it started to become more common for younger players, those who had just graduated out of high school, to make the jump to the NBA without attending college. However, not every draft had high school players. In the 1984 NBA Draft, widely considered as one of the most successful drafts of all time, there were no players selected in the entire draft that were younger than a junior in college. Most of the players had just graduated college as seniors and even the great Michael Jordan was a junior when he came onto the NBA scene as a rookie. Everything changed in the 1990s, though, as the practice of jumping straight to the NBA out of high school grew until every draft had at least a couple high school graduates included. Most notable of these players was Kobe Bryant in 1996 and LeBron James in 2003.
In the historic 2003 draft, widely hailed as one of the best drafts in the last fifteen years, three of the players were graduates from high school and three had just completed their freshmen year of college. However, the NBA commissioner at the time, David Stern, did not like the fact that NBA coaches and general managers were spending time in high school gyms looking for “the next big player,” especially after the success of LeBron James straight out of high school. Stern also did not appreciate the fact that many high school players began to view the NBA as a one-stop shop for lasting fame and financial success that would fix all of their problems. Many high school players were beginning to forget school work and instead focus all of their energy on basketball, which became a problem if they ended up not being talented enough to make the jump from high school to the professional league. Therefore, Stern implemented a rule in time for the 2006 NBA Draft that required American players to be at least 19-years-old and at least one-year removed from high-school graduation. This rule changed the landscape not only of NBA basketball scouting and drafting, but the landscape of collegiate basketball, as well.
Now, high school players began to look for a college team to play with for a year before putting their names into consideration for the NBA draft. These types of collegiate students were nicknamed “one-and-done” players. As the success of one-and-done players grew, more and more of them began to join the NBA after only spending one year in college. The 2008 NBA Draft had the largest amount of freshmen up to that point with 12 freshmen selected throughout the entire draft. This number was blown out of the water, though, by the 2015 NBA Draft. In it, 13 freshmen were selected in the first round alone. This was the most freshmen selected in the first round, not to mention the most freshmen selected in the overall draft. Not only were the first three selections freshmen, but five out of the first 10 selected players were freshmen, too. Overall, 13 out of 30 first round picks or 43 percent, were freshmen players. But why has this change in average age of players drafted lowered in the past few years, even though Stern raised the requirement age? What does this mean for the landscape of the NBA and the landscape of college basketball as a whole?
When Adam Silver took over the role of NBA Commissioner in 2014, the state of the NBA Draft and the issues that it was causing were some of his main concerns. In a February 2014 interview, only a few weeks after being named to the position, Silver told the Boston Globe, “It is my belief that if players have an opportunity to mature as players and as people, for a longer amount of time, before they come into the league, it will lead to a better league.”
Silver expanded on his idea by remarking, “And I know from a competitive standpoint that’s something as I travel the league I increasingly hear from our coaches, especially, who feel that many of even the top players in the league could use more time to develop even as leaders, as part of college programs.”
Silver felt that by expanding the age limit to 20-years-old, it would force collegiate players to stay in college for at least two years, thus eliminating the “one-and-done” problem. He also explained that this solution would help the state of college basketball, not just the NBA, since teams would become more cohesive and form more chemistry if players had to spend more than one year playing for their college. Plus, Silver believes this change would improve the overall quality and growth of college basketball.
On the other side of the argument, some have argued that a few players desire to go to the NBA as quickly as possible to help their family’s fiscal scenario. Many players come from backgrounds of poverty and the instant money of the NBA can provide a lot of much-needed financial aid that can help players lift their families out of poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Others in opposition of the age limit have argued that basketball players have a limited “shelf life” and if they are ready for the challenge of the NBA, then they are wasting their time essentially playing for pennies on the dollar for an NCAA team. The risk of a player having a major injury during college is a danger that every player has to navigate, as well. This liability could potentially end up costing a player millions of dollars and the financial security that an NBA career provides.
For example, in 2012, Nerlens Noel was a 6 foot 11 inch center ranked as the best high school player in the nation by ESPN and Scout.com. The New York Times even identified Noel as being one of the best shot blockers of his generation. If he could have jumped to the NBA, it was widely acknowledged that he would be the first overall selection. Because of the NBA’s age rule, though, he was forced to attend college and chose the University of Kentucky. In February 2013, a mere four months before the NBA Draft, Noel tore the ACL in his left knee while playing in a game against Florida.
In June, Noel was selected sixth overall, five slots behind many scouts’ original projection. The player who took Noel’s spot at the top of the draft, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, signed a contract worth $5.32 million. Noel’s contract was worth $3.17 million. In the first year alone, the injury Noel suffered in college cost him over $2 million. This number does not even begin to mention the second year of the deal in which Noel lost another $2 million. Plus, because of his injury, Noel was forced to sit out the entire 2013-2014 season as he attempted to rehabilitate his ACL. Although Noel was still paid even though he was injured, a year off from basketball could have unforeseen future roadblocks for him as a player since he essentially loses what would have been a year of learning and garnering experience. Potentially, that could cost Noel since he might not be as successful of a player due to that lost experience. Noel also is now more injury-prone than before, all stemming back to his ACL tear in college.
In the end, the ball is in the NBA’s court as to whether they will extend the age limit or not. Many members of the National Basketball Player’s Association have publicly stated that they will vehemently oppose any increase in the accepted draft age.
In an interview with ESPN, executive director of the NBA player’s union Michele Roberts explained, “It doesn’t make sense to me that you’re suddenly eligible and ready to make money when you’re 20, but not when you’re 19, not when you’re 18.”
Roberts is not the only one with these ideas. Chris Paul, the current starting point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers and president of the NBA player’s union, has a similar mindset.
“I think you should have the option or opportunity to decide if you think you’re ready,” Paul explained in an interview with the Orange County Register. “If you feel like you’re ready, it shouldn’t be someone else’s decision.”
For its part, NCAA leaders have said that they will not be involved, even though they stand to gain a hefty amount of money if potential NBA players are forced to play college basketball for a season or two. Ultimately, the NBA players have less leverage than the league does in terms of defining the draft rule, which is how the restriction on age occurred the first time. Despite strong feelings on both side of the ball, as per usual when money of this magnitude is involved, everyone is in a holding pattern until it comes time for a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated between the players and the league. Until that time, however, all eyes will firmly remain on the NBA’s commissioner.