By Anthony Olivieri
Steve Kerr, a five-time NBA champion and former Phoenix Suns general manager, has forgotten more about the business of the NBA than I’ll ever know.
Writing for Grantland.com on Tuesday, he made a strong case for the NBA to implement a 20-year-old age limit for players entering its draft. Kerr provides six comprehensive, well-reasoned tenets in support of his stance and concludes that extending the age limit is better for the NBA’s bottom line.
It was well-written and insightful – but not effective in getting me to wholeheartedly agree.
Instead, I believe that the league should adopt a modified version of what has worked well in Major League Baseball. The NBA draft should be open to players coming straight out of high school but require those who enroll at four-year schools to play at least two years in college before becoming eligible again.
You see, it’s as if Kerr and I have come to a compromise. Something the NBA and college basketball should consider doing as well.
My version, which has been suggested by others in some form over the years, isn’t as harsh as what stands currently as law for MLB. Baseball players can be selected straight out of high school but must play three years in college or at least be 21-years old before being selected once they have committed to being on campus at a four-year institution.
Yes, I agree with Kerr that maturity, player development and personal growth often can be issues for players who go pro straight from prom night. But holding them back from real-world exposure in the NBA – if that’s their choice – isn’t the answer.
Kerr argued for this point, even if he didn’t know it. The current TNT NBA analyst spoke of the poor culture fostered by AAU teams and how that affects a player’s attitude as he advances to the professional ranks.
“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,” Kerr wrote.
“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.”
Kerr concluded that this has permeated players’ mindsets and allowed for them to eschew the idea of assimilation. The game must conform to them and, if it won’t, they will leave for where that is possible. Unfortunately for basketball fans, Kerr is right.
We’ve seen it in the NBA this season, when Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks looked as if he wanted to take his ball and go home while Mike D’Antoni was his coach and, without argument, flipped a switch and elevated all levels of his game when D’Antoni resigned.
LeBron James went to play with his friend in Miami for the 2010-11 like it was a big-boy version of a playground game, and Dwight Howard – while he has decided to stay in Orlando for the time being – has created such a fuss with the Magic that he submarined his coach and the team’s season before he went down with a back injury.
Who believes that this would be any different if James and Howard were forced to play in college until they were 20? Anthony, for his part, played his one year in college, provided Syracuse with its greatest season ever, became a god in Central New York and still has had his issues adapting at the next level.
We must fix what’s broken – the amateur system, including the AAU environment – not put a bandage over it. Two years in college, where stars players will be coddled even further as the big men on campus, isn’t going to reverse the curse that AAU has placed on the game.
But the flexibility of making players eligible for the draft out of high school, but forcing them to stay in college for a time once they arrive, forces accountability upon them without unfairly preventing an 18-year-old from beginning the career of his choice. After all, Kerr argues about what is best for the NBA, but what about what’s best for the kids?
Sometimes they will become better basketball players in college and earn more money in the NBA because of it. But what about players that need to provide for their parents, siblings, girlfriends and even children. Why should we be allowed to ban them from the NBA just because we want a better college basketball and NBA product?
By adopting this new rule, it’s good for college basketball, fair for the players and, let’s be honest, would not further harm an NBA business model that has bigger problems.
And if its means I’ll never hear the phrase “one-and-done” ever again, well, even better.
Anthony Olivieri is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays.