The Black Sheep Of The Lockout: The NBA Draft & The Age Rule

Lost amongst the back and forth of the lockout, the BRI, the mid-level and the luxury tax is a “system issue” with the chance to change the landscape of professional basketball. It’s hardly mentioned and yet has more potential to affect our game than 51/49 or three-year mid-level contracts instead of five years. The age rule. One vs. two years. High school prodigies and seasoned college vets. It might not happen, but we know the owners and David Stern want it: to increase the already restricting age limit to 20 years old, or two years in college.

Arguments abound for why it’s better to have high school kids stay one year or even longer in college. Yesterday’s Smack hit most of them: they mature emotionally, learn to live on their own, get teaching from coaches that actually want to teach, learn to be the focal point for a team and improve their overall presence so when they do come into the NBA, we don’t have as many one-trick players running around.

But basketball players don’t need college to improve. Of course in the NBA, coaches are more worried about their jobs, keeping their stars happy and making it through that next three-games-in-four-nights road swing. But players have the resources to make the jump. They have personal trainers, 24/7 access to gyms, shot doctors and nothing to occupy their time (especially during the offseason) other than the newest Call of Duty. If they never develop, that’s their own fault. Don’t give them the excuse of never having attended college. When Kevin Garnett came to the NBA, he dressed up his floor game. Kobe improved his body. Amar’e grew a jump shot. Even Rashard Lewis developed into one of the league’s better all-around scorers during his final few years in Seattle. If Dwight Howard had gone to college for a year or two, would he be the next Kevin McHale? It’s doubtful. But he did improve tremendously in his first few years in the NBA.

I know the worth of college. Before I went, I was a socially weak, tunnel-visioned kid who cared about nothing other than playing ball during the day and hitting the sticks at night. I couldn’t manage money. I couldn’t speak to strangers. I couldn’t carry on a conversation off the hardwood. But some of my growth would’ve happened regardless. Maturity happens. You grow up. We’ve been programmed to believe all young, brash, future millionaire basketball players can’t handle the fame. So we coddle them, pretend we know what’s best, limit their opportunities ourselves and yet give the world to young musicians, young actors/actresses, teenage Olympians and other baby pros. But not basketball. So the game isn’t as good as perhaps the 1980s? How much of that really has to do with high schoolers? Many of the league’s best players all came from high school. I’d argue they’ve improved the product rather than hurt it.

Why is the emphasis on college basketball so large this season? Obviously the lockout has a huge hand in this. People will find basketball any way they can, and college ball is currently the best game going. But I don’t think I’m the only one more interested in teams like North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and all the rest because of the presence of potential NBA stars.

“The true NBA fans barely watch college basketball, and the true college fans barely watch the NBA,” John Calipari told recently. “The college fans will look at it and say, ‘Ahhh, you don’t play until the fourth quarter.’ And the pro fans will say, ‘They can’t even make layups. They’ve got no skills.’ That’s how it is. None of that will change.”

Okay Cal. I get that. Pros fans will be pro fans. College lunatics will stay loony. But the more future pro stars end up staying in college sports, the more we will care, and the more money certain people will make.

But this isn’t necessarily about what’s good for basketball. It’s about why is what’s good for basketball not good for other sports. In high school, there was a kid from my hometown who went to the public school. I went to the private school. We played each other on the hardwood. But his real calling was on the mound. He could fire fastballs at 95-98 miles an hour while still in high school. After his senior year, he was drafted No. 16 overall by the Florida Marlins. But Jeff Allison hasn’t made it (he’s still trying) because of a former drug addiction that nearly took his life (he overdosed on heroin back in 2004). I doubt going to college would’ve changed his ways. It took a brush with death to do that.

As we wrote in yesterday’s Smack, there was a recent story in Sports Illustrated on a 16-year-old girl named Lexi Thompson, who’s currently playing professionally on the LPGA. She quit school at 12, plays golf all day long and is following in a line of big-time golfers in her family. As for her schooling, Thompson’s being homeschooled at night, a distant second in priority to her swing. In fact, Thompson visited her best friend at UCLA, and it took her one weekend of shadowing an overwhelmed student-athlete to conclude: “college isn’t for me.”

An yet in the same story, Thompson was celebrated for her maturity, for her talent and for a dimple-shining smile that already has her traveling to Manhattan for glitzy photoshoots in tight-fitting skirts.

It’s not about what we want. If we could, most of us would tell everyone to stay two or three years in college, come out as grown men and immediately become impact players in the pros. But for me, it’s more about them. They should be allowed to choose. Football is a different story. My father is a college football coach; I’ve seen too many arrogant 18-year-olds come waltzing in on the first day of camp, and get crumbled up and flicked away. Saturday to Sunday might be an even larger jump.

But high schoolers have the chance to choose – and organizations the chance to decide whether to draft them – in pretty much every other sport. I can live with the one-year rule, just as I would if the owners continued the squeeze, and wrestled two years away from the union. That doesn’t mean I think it’s fair.

What’s your take on the age rule?

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