Minimum Age for the NBA Players

Former player and current TV analyst Steve Kerr propose raising the NBA minimum age from 19 to 20 in a recent Grantland column. His argument is simple. The move makes business sense for the NBA by reducing financial and interpersonal/team costs associated with including very young players.    He sums up by saying:

If this were about legality or fairness, you might have a case. But it’s really about business. 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.

Of course, as he discusses, such an age increase would require an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement.  Given that veteran players tend to like raising entry barriers, except for a few whose consciences push them to voice concerns for yet-to-be players, amending the CBA seems a small step.

Given Kerr’s NBA perspective and taking the legal situation as given, it’s hard to argue with him.   Nonetheless, my inner legal philosopher consistently stumbles at the fact that statutory labor law trumps constitutional protections against age discrimination.  As a result, a conspiracy between a union and league permits a league to do what it could not by itself  — but that’s the legal standing as reconfirmed in the Maurice Clarett case (See Skip’s post).

What if the NBA adopted an MLB-style setup where high school seniors are draft-eligible, but players at 4-year colleges do not qualify until after their junior year?  This system works very well for baseball, in part, because of the well-developed minor league system and the relatively long period needed to develop into a major league player.    The NBA situation differs because the minor development league in the U.S. offers fewer opportunities.  In addition, the length of time needed for an 18-year-old, at least among the very best, to develop into an NBA-caliber player is much shorter, leading to some of the maturity and chemistry problems that Kerr discusses.

Even though it is beyond Kerr’s viewpoint, minimum age choices by the NBA spillover into effects for college basketball  (one could debate whether this rises to an “externality” in a strict econ sense or not).  The current setup leads to a “one and done,” highly mercenary system for the top players, as exemplified by the UK Wildcats this season.  A 20-year-old rule would keep more players around for their sophomore year — something many college fans would probably like.  From a player/societal perspective, the downside to either age is that it forces many developing players to choose an option that they would not otherwise.   A 20-year-old rule forces more player years for athletes who don’t want to be at a university.  That’s one of the benefits of the MLB system — it affords 18-year-olds the choice.  However, the relatively small number of development spots in basketball vis-a-vis baseball would likely limit the practical options for many young players.  On the flip side, such a system might place a greater incentive on the NBA to foster the growth of development leagues rather than relying on universities as their de facto development league.

As a side note, the NCAA’s ridiculous “dumb jock?” campaign during the basketball tournament was laughable.  While there are many knowledgeable NCAA athletes, there are plenty of athletes in basketball and football who have no interest in academics.

4 thoughts on “Minimum Age for the NBA Players”

  1. Steve Kerr almost had me when he discussed the business aspect of having the 20 year old rule.

    But then in my opinion, he ruined his entire argument with the follow statement.

    “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?”

    This is just about the most ridiculous statement I’ve heard. By that logic, why should any company to have pay to train its employees?

    And I think this is why the NBA execs want the 20 year old rule more than anything. They’ve been so accustomed to free player development in the past when it was the norm for player to stay 3-4 years in college, they don’t know what to do without it.

    If you asked any university president why a basketball player is attending their university, they would say it’s to get an education. That may be a farce, but that should be the reason. A university’s purpose should not be there to offer free basketball player development for the NBA.

  2. I believe that the age requirement has been wonderful for the league; the policy has weeded out many players who need to develop their skills to avoid the letdowns that were seen in the past (dare I say Kwame).

    However, there are high school athletes who believe that even a year at a university is far too long to wait. A trend has started over the past few years where players have attempted to forgo their year of college and play overseas where money is available (Jeremy Tyler).

    With the lack of farm system and the pressure of money from outside the US, do you believe that a higher barrier to entry (age) would cause more high school athletes to go abroad? The cash is there, and the leagues in many European countries are handled far better than the D-League. I would think this could be a concern that stretches far past the 1-and-done problem.

  3. I must admit I don’t follow the soap opera aspect of the NBA, so I am not well-informed on what maturity issues the NBA struggles with that a higher minimum age rule would address. No age requirement would solve the Ron Artest-Meta World Peace problem. Indeed, as I think about young players in the NBA over time, I can’t identify problems associated with 19 year olds versus those associated with 20 year olds. Unless, of course, the problems are simply that the signal to noise ratio for inferring ability is far smaller for a 19 year old than for a 20 year old. If that is the case, the solution is simple – as a GM of an NBA club, don’t use scarce resources, your draft picks, on highly risky gambles.

  4. Isn’t there also a risk to the NBA, in that players are more likely to consider going to a foreign league rather than pay for free for 2 years? In that case, they are encouraging leagues that might, at some point, become competition.

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