Kobe Bryant never played a college basketball game.
Kevin Garnett never attended a college class.
LeBron James never even considered going the college route.
Prior to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, high school players were allowed the option of declaring for the NBA instead of playing college basketball. As a result, many of the best regarded teenagers in the sport chose the big money instead of the traditional progression represented by walking on a college campus. It is undeniable that many of those players made perfectly rational decisions. Just as easily as one can chastise the Gerald Green’s and Ndudi Ebi’s for wasting their potential by getting under the big lights too early, someone can defend them by saying they got paid when they could just have easily flamed out as NCAA indentured servants.
All of that discussion is completely and totally irrelevant.
Basketball players will generally all argue that there should be no age restriction—but even then they aren’t being totally forthcoming. It is doubtful anyone is truly suggesting that that the NBA transition to a European-style philosophy of allowing youth players to sign with teams. (For instance, Ricky Rubio signed with DKV Joventut when he was 14 years old.) What they really mean is that they want to return to the old status quo that said players could enter the draft when they had exhausted their high school eligibility. They only take issue that the NBA says they have to go to college first.
The problem is, that is not the case even now. Yes, the NBA would prefer they go to college, but it is far from a requirement. Brandon Jennings and Latavious Williams both failed to achieve the academic requirements to attend a division one school, so they played professionally in the interim between high school and draft eligibility (in Italy and in the NBDL, respectively). So, it is not that the league is forcing these players to bend to their will, it is simply that they are defining when a person is ready to be employed by them. In essence, it is no different than the armed services requiring that new recruits be of voting age, or a CPA firm requiring that new employees have the prerequisites to sit for the CPA exam.
Regardless of which side is right and which side is less right, the age restriction is more likely to increase than decrease.
Of course, both the players and team management likely agree on this issue. Those drafting would rather get the players into the locker room and learning the system, the rigors of the league, and developing with their training staff than risk losing potentially great players. If Kobe Bryant had gone to play in Italy as an 18 year old, he could have theoretically stayed there for years before coming back to the U.S., or if he had gone to Duke to play for Coach K, been injured, and received worse care than NBA salaried doctors, his impact on the league may never have happened. That first couple of years where those youngsters hardly play, on rookie contracts—particularly if the D-League can be strengthened with this CBA—are much cheaper than missing out on a guy who could be transcendent.
Regardless of which side is right and which side is less right, the age restriction is more likely to increase than decrease. From a business perspective, it is much better to have the 19 year olds go to college even if it hurts the player’s development in the short term. That is because most of the players will choose to go play in for an NCAA team, and most of the best will seek to play for teams who get the most media exposure. It is just natural–they want to be stars wherever they play. By the time they are eligible to enter the draft, much of the NBA’s marketing groundwork has been handled.
For instance, the first class of high school seniors that could not leap directly to the NBA contained Kevin Durant. Durant was well thought of as a prospect, but hardly considered to be a threat to be a top draft pick. He would have gone in the lottery, but because Montrose Christian Academy games were not on national television, only basketball junkies would have been excited about him being selected by their team. The league marketing team would have put his face on some commercials, and had EA Sports feature him in the NBA Live campaign, but the end result would just be more people wondering how that kid with acne was supposed to hang with grown men. Instead, he played a year at the University of Texas, where he often played on ESPN’s Big Monday, caught the attention of national media because of his success as a freshman, led his team to play in March Madness, and when Seattle took him second overall, many in Portland were crying that he was not taken first.
With dollars being at the heart of the ownership position, they are not going to relent on this issue, which works perfectly with the union’s apathetic stance. Sure the NBPA would like to fix what they see as an injustice from a theoretical standpoint. It’s just the people who would benefit from their efforts are not paying dues and surely are not going to be given a vote on whether to ratify the new CBA. The only reason they pretend to be passionate at all about the subject is that it is the only bargaining chips they hold. Going through the charade that it matters to them is one way they can give a concession without it really hurting.
As for what the end solution will mean to the Thunder: probably not much.
If the player position were to miraculously become part of the new CBA, then it would be beneficial to the team. With their core of young players moving into their prime and becoming a perennial playoff team, whoever OKC drafts from here on out will probably be a spare part. At most, draft picks will be used as role players. However, if unproven high schoolers are back on the table, the odds are many of them will slide in the draft. Knowing that any pick would have plenty of time to develop, Thunder management could take a risk, hope they developed, and bide some time until playing time opens up.
Since it probably will not come to that—I predict the age limit will become 20 or two years removed from their high school class graduating—the Thunder will be picking from better known quantities. That means less likelihood of a player sliding from lack of information and more likelihood that their late first rounders will be less impactful. But, as I established in the last paragraph, those players were unlikely to have a major impact, anyway.
Next: Part IV—Developing the Developmental League