Does the age limit work for the NBA?

May, 31, 2011
The NBA's minimum age limit is often referred to as the "one-and-done" rule. That choice of nomenclature -- heavy in its reference to the college game -- is no coincidence. Since 2006, when the rule halted the ability of players to jump directly from high school to the NBA, the arguments about the one-and-done rule have largely centered on college basketball. Besides the benefits of rhyme, there's a reason we call it "one-and-done."

But that nomenclature and the arguments that prevail around it are both deceptive. Despite the outsized effect the rule has on the college game, NCAA president Mark Emmert has little say in the matter. This is the NBA's rule, to be collectively bargained between the NBA owners and National Basketball Players Association, and its reason for existence is simple: The NBA got tired of watching its incompetent general managers chase the next big things. It got tired of watching unproven, risky high school players cripple franchises and destroy fan interest. It got tired of Kwame Brown's bad press.

So the NBA stepped in. Five years later, here we are.

For a moment, then, let's forget about what the one-and-done rule has meant for college basketball. Instead, let's ask a more pertinent question: Has the rule worked for the NBA?

SBNation's Tom Ziller took a deep look at the draft results from years before and after the NBA mandated its age limit and found that NBA teams -- despite having an extra year to evaluate players within the competitive college context -- make almost the exact same number of top-10 draft mistakes whether the age limit is in place or not. To wit:
In the four years before the age minimum was put into place, teams saw decent success in the top 10 in the draft. A rough sorting reveals 21 top-10 picks in the four years (2002-05) as successes, nine as disappointments and 10 as busts. (We used the "disappointments" category as a group for players who weren't quite busts but underperformed their draft position substantially. Think Marvin Williams.)

In the four years after the age minimum's institution -- 2006-09; we left out 2010 because even with 2009, it's hard to make judgments at this point -- teams have picked 22 successes, seven disappointments and 11 busts. (Note: we were liberal in the post-minimum span, listing Andrea Bargnani as a success and guys like Corey Brewer and Randy Foye as disappointments, not busts.)

As it turns out, we seem to overvalue the examples of one-and-done players and overlook the variety of veteran college players that don't pan out as top-10 draft picks. Here's Tom again:
So this rule that was supposed to save GMs from having to make a tough decision on iffy draft prospects hasn't helped decreased the number of busts chosen with the highest picks. As it turns out, college and international players have the same exact question marks as high school kids. Hasheem Thabeet was in college for three years. But you can't teach size, and the Memphis Grizzlies couldn't resist taking him No. 2 overall in 2009. Jonny Flynn had two years of Big East experience -- he was on TV roughly 2,078 times as a collegian -- and the Minnesota Timberwolves still decided he was the sixth-best player in the 2009 draft. (He was not.)

In other words: Whether they come from Syracuse, Connecticut, or Findlay Prep, busts are baked in to very fabric of the NBA draft. If you can't spot a bust after three years of college hoops, then when exactly can you spot a bust?

The effects of the one-and-done rule on the college game -- or lack thereof -- may always be up for debate. The NBA's role in all this is not. In public, David Stern and the owners sold the rule as a bulwark against irresponsibility. In private, the owners liked the notion of restraining their general managers, who apparently couldn't separate Eddy Curry's dominance against overmatched 17-year-olds from his ability to do the same in the NBA. (No. 4 overall, Chicago? Really?)

Now the rule that was made to save incompetent general managers from spending top-10 draft picks -- and plenty of cash -- on busts is a bust in and of itself. NBA GMs aren't drafting any more intelligently now than they were in the years after 1995, when Kevin Garnett became a preps-to-pros sensation.

Maybe the one-and-done rule has helped players develop into elite NBA talents. It didn't seem to hurt Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA MVP and NBA scoring champion, respectively, both of whom happen to be 22 years old. But it's just as easy to say that duo would have been successful no matter what path they took to the NBA. It's also fair to say both players -- like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Andre Iguodala and a host of other NBA stars that made major leaps this season -- were just as affected by their time on Team USA in the summer of 2010. (This seems to be the common consensus in NBA circles, at least.)

Frankly, we don't know. What we do know is that a rule made for one business-oriented reason has not performed its designed business-oriented function. NBA teams still make massive draft mistakes. In the meantime, each year a handful of NBA-ready 18-year-olds are forced to wait before they can begin earning money for their immense talent. Each year college basketball reaps the rewards and deals with the fallout.

This is not a fair system, nor is it obviously beneficial to anyone involved.

Now the NBA is facing another collective bargaining period, one that may end in a lockout, and guess what: The Association's owners want to extend the minimum age limit again. They want players to spend two years in college, the D-League, or overseas before they can be eligible for the NBA draft.

This, we're told, will only improve on the one-and-done rule. Players will be scouted more accurately. College teams won't have to worry about the mercenary effect. All levels of basketball will improve as a result.

It wasn't true the first time. How can the NBA be so sure now?



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