The age limit feels like a topic immune to new, fresh perspectives. Writing on Grantland today, Steve Kerr -- whose post-column bio might be my favorite of all-time -- proves that notion a fallacy.
Kerr’s essay on the potential benefits of a 20-year-old age limit is clear, reasonable and well-argued, and the benefits Kerr lists (not only for the NBA itself, but for future pro prospects) are legitimate. My favorite passage is one we probably don’t talk about enough: How the modern AAU travel team subculture affects the way some young players develop, and why one year in school might not be enough to reverse the damage:
“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.”
This is a pervasive and corrosive effect. We see it at the college level (in the high number of transfers and their connection to decommitments) but we also see it in the pros, where stars like LeBron James and Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony seem, whether rightly or wrongly, less devoted to their current teams than their brands and their desires to play with friends/the best possible teammates. We can argue whether college is better than the NBA for this sort of maturation, but we do know this: Everyone’s impressionable when they’re a teenager. The highest reaches of the AAU system are leaving a bad impression.
To wit: See the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s story on transfers. It’s new perspective on a recurring issue -- more college basketball players are transferring than ever before, rinse and repeat every May, etc. -- but our own recruiting analyst Dave Telep hits on the systemic issues well, I think:
ESPN’s Dave Telep, who has covered recruiting for 16 years, said the skyrocketing transfer rate has impacted high schools as well. He sees a connection with sports trends in general such as free agency and one-and-dones. “The (college) transfer rate mimics the transfer rate in high schools and among AAU teams,” he said. “As a society we’ve enabled this generation to go to the next opportunity. They haven’t learned to fight through adversity. They just look for their next chance. All they’re doing is mimicking what they see.”
This is a really difficult thing to write about, not because it's a sensitive topic, but because "culture" is inherently a nebulous thing. There are plenty of AAU coaches on the side of angels, after all, and the things we say about players not learning "commitment" is painting a lot of undeserving people with a broad brush. Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose played AAU basketball and stayed in college for one season apiece; it would be hard to find two more purely team-oriented players in the NBA. This isn't a universal thing.
Even if it were, would one more year in college for a handful of players really change it? Kerr believes it would have a profound effect. I find it difficult to disagree. But we can also agree that college basketball is not immune to this cultural issue (as I guess we'll call it) either. Plenty of players transfer. Plenty of coaches tamper. Plenty of programs are happy to take on the mercenary, provided he can handle the ball and has range to 23 feet. Fans want immediate success, too: Coaches aren't allowed to build programs over six, seven, or eight seasons. If you haven't won by year four, hire a real estate agent.
It all plays into a perpetual state of immediacy and impatience, from players to coaches to fans, from the NBA free agency to under-14s. I don't know how to fix it. An extended stay in college might -- repeat: might -- help. Or maybe not.
What I do know is this: The NBA and its players want, or should want, the best possible development environment in the United States. The more capable, mature, insanely talented league-ready players that bubble up to the top of the sport, the better the NBA's product and the easier it is to sell U.S. fans and those around the globe. The NBA has almost no power to affect deep societal change -- not that commissioner David Stern has any interest in the undertaking, anyway. But anytime the NBA's immediate business interests (i.e. fewer draft mistakes) align with long-term benefits to the sport itself (better long-term development), at least there's a chance.
That's what Kerr is really getting at: Wherever you stand on the legal or moral implications of the one-and-done rule, the NBA is the only interested party with power, and it makes sense for the league to change the rule. The obvious benefits to college basketball would be a nice little bonus.
The affect on the rest of the nation's basketball culture would be much harder to pin down. Still, given where we are right now, some fundamental shift -- call it an emphasis on patience -- certainly couldn't hurt.