NBA Players Need College? Prove It.

March, 21, 2008
3/21/08
4:39
PM ET

This was in the bullets the other day:

TrueHoop reader Emmett writes: "Not sure if this was brought up yet, but I just realized that all three of the serious MVP candidates (KG, Kobe, and LBJ) made the jump directly from high school. I find that interesting, considering the NBA's argument (and popular opinion) saying that college matures a player and makes him ready for the NBA." A good time to link to something I have linked to many times in the past: Michael McCann's paper showing that, as a class, players straight from high school enjoy more success, by common sense measures on and off the court, than those with one, two, three, or four years of college.

That got me a bunch of emails.

Lots of people read that paper by lawyer, professor, and writer Michael McCann and said, in essence: OF COURSE players straight from high school do better, Only the best prospects (the biggest, most talented, most athletic, etc. like Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant) can get themselves drafted out of high school. It's a self-selecting group. That doesn't mean there's something about coming straight from high school that makes you more likely to succeed.

I say: Sure, of course.

That's not the point.

The point is that we now know that our crude assumptions that the very young do not belong in the NBA was wrong:

  • We thought they might leave college too early, then fail to make the NBA, and have lost both college and professional careers in the process.
  • We thought that they might miss out on a college education.
  • We thought that they might bring harm to the NBA's public image by being woefully undereducated, and making horrible decisions.

But, when you look at the actual evidence of what happened when high-schoolers were allowed into the NBA, we learn those ideas did not prove true:

  • McCann documents tidily that letting high-schoolers into the NBA did not result in a class of victims. Tiny numbers of players, really tiny, declared for the draft straight from high school then didn't make the NBA.
  • I would make the case that many elite college players aren't getting real college academic  experiences anyway. I wish players could have a college experience like mine -- I did learn a lot -- but that's not on offer in most cases, unless the system changes pretty profoundly.
  • The group has been arrested less than any other class.

The whole point of bringing out all that is: the NBA was humming along just fine with players coming straight from high school. Yet they were banned nonetheless.

I say the burden to produce evidence shifts to those would keep high-school players banned. So tell me, all you who would ban high-schoolers: Why would you ban them? Who would that protect? What evidence can you provide that anyone at all has been hurt by the presence of high-schoolers in the NBA draft?

I'm listening, and so far I haven't anything other than theories unfounded in evidence. (One was that high-schoolers would take roster spots from veterans. But remember, not too long ago the NBA expanded rosters from 12 plus some injured dudes, to 15. That is dozens more jobs in the NBA -- more than enough to make up for the number of high-schoolers who might enter.)

So why would the NBA want to ban these players who have done so well? My best guess is that the NBA is more profitable if they do not have to pay these players while they are still developing. The rookie scale keeps players cheap for their first three or four years in the NBA. If you can start that clock at age 19 or 20, instead of 17 or 18, then you are getting a year or two of at the end of those contracts when players like Dwyane Wade are superstars, winning you titles and the like, while still on cheap contracts. That's a great bargain for owners.

In addition, college can make some players famous who would not otherwise be famous, and famous people sell tickets. For instance, I'm sure that, say, J.J. Redick brings some buzz to the stadium. If he had not gone to college, he would not be considered, at this early stage of his career, someone a lot of people would pay to see play.  

So is there any chance this age limit will go away? Not if David Stern has anything to say about it.

In a recent conversation with fans on Time magazine's website, Stern says he'd like to raise the minimim age from 19 to 20.

That's the opposite of what McCann's research would suggest. What does McCann think about that? He emails: 

Very interesting comments from the Commissioner.

Although I believe that raising the age limit would prove counter-productive given the success of players in the age cohort who would be prohibited, and although I believe that such a policy would be highly unfair to players who seek to earn income for their talents -- much like 19-year-old baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, and boxing professionals, as well as 19-year-old actors and musicians, can and do for their talents -- it's clear that Stern covets a more restrictive age limit.

What may prove more compelling is how firmly the National Basketball Players' Association fights to protect the eligibility of players who are not yet union members and whose entrance would likely take jobs away from union members. Along those lines, it's always struck me as odd that the very players adversely affected by age limits have to rely on the bargaining of union members whose jobs may be jeopardized by the eligibility of those same players.

That arguably peculiar dynamic, however, is required under federal labor and antitrust laws. That said, and to its credit, the NBPA has long opposed increases in the age limit and only acquiesced to an age limit increase in its latest CBA with the NBA upon securing considerable benefits in exchange.

Whether the NBPA will acquiesce to another increase will depend on what the NBA offers in return (perhaps a higher minimum salary structure or a better pension and disability system) and whether players like LeBron and Kobe and others who benefited considerably by the absence of an 19-year-old age limit will be outspoken critics of an increase in that same age limit.

This will be an interesting part of the next collective bargaining agreement, to be certain. 

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